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Between the covers, on a down-day

December 3, 2013

“What literary character would you like to be for one day?”

My teenage son posed this question last week, and we began to consider the possibilities. There’s an inherent problem with any fairy-tale question like this, namely the unpleasant surprise that is always built into a magic wish that’s being granted, which results in that wish turning out differently than you expected. So if you say “I’d like to be Huck Finn for a day,” you’ll not find yourself as Huck during one of his golden days of floating down the Mississippi on the raft with Jim. Instead, you would land inside Huck’s skin at the beginning of the book, when the widow has crammed him into an uncomfortable suit of clothes and keeps nagging him, “Don’t smoke! Don’t yawn and stretch!” Or even worse, you might find yourself as Huck during the time in which he wears fluttering rags and sleeps inside an empty barrel in a warehouse down by the waterfront. And it might be a cold and rainy day, too. This is the “down-day” problem.

What about Scarlett O’Hara? Wouldn’t it be fun to be her? But you might not be able to enjoy Scarlet’s appearance at the ball, because it would be 96 degrees Fahrenheit on the most humid Georgia day imaginable, and she might be in bed having her period, and sulking. —Well, what about Rhett Butler? Didn’t he have fun? Sure, if you like aimlessly hanging around a bordello and gambling while drinking whiskey. Which might not be all bad, but a day like that certainly won’t win any Pulitzer Prizes, not to mention being unhealthy and unsustainable.

How about Jay Gatsby? But he probably had loads of down-days. You’d probably find yourself inside his skin on a day when there is no crazy party, when all there is to do in that huge and silent Long Island home is moon around on the dock until the sun sets and the green light appears across the water. Real thrill of a day, there.

There are many great American novels that you can read and admire without wanting to be a character inside them for one day. Think of “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Would you really want to be one of the three children, struggling against fear and racism while they investigate the haunted house down the block? We certainly would not want to be the father, Atticus Finch, even though he is a good and noble lawyer; nor would we want to be Calpurnia, the maid. Great book, but not much fun as a jumping-in point.

Wouldn’t it be fun to find yourself inside a bodice-ripper romance book, panting with passion? How about one of the historical romances like “The Other Boleyn Girl,” all of which seem to feature interchangeable cover art of bulging Elizabethan cleavage with pearl necklaces dripping into their shadowy depths? Unfortunately, nobody will volunteer to be Henry VIII, and fewer of us would want to star as Anne Boleyn in the middle of such Machiavellian¬†scheming and intrigue. We all know how her story turns out. Practically every day was a down-day for poor Anne.

Might it be fun to be Harry Potter for a day? Maybe, but he also had an awful lot of down days. (Think of the awful night he goes with Dumbledore to try to retrieve the horcrux from the ghoulish cavern by the sea….brrr, the very thought gives me the shivers.) Harry had altogether too many experiences with trauma and pain and loss. A good day for Harry would be a day on which Malfoy successfully aims the Jelly-Legs Jinx at him from behind a pillar.

How about “The Lord of the Rings”: would you want to be Bilbo? But you’d end up inside of one of those endless afternoons while he snoozes in the sun during his retirement in Rivendell. But we wouldn’t want to be Frodo, because (like Harry Potter) he suffers too much in order to save his friends and his world. —What about an elf, like Legolas? I get the feeling that elves, being practically immortal, have countless days on which they just slowly drift by while thinking grave thoughts and looking impressive.

My son and I finally agreed on the literary characters we would choose to be for one day. We chose Toad of Toad Hall, from “The Wind in the Willows,” because he had few days on which he was not enjoying some new and all-encompassing interest. Basically, Toad was always capable of finding fun for himself and his friends, and was almost never without a hobby. We also chose Jherek Carnelian (from Michael Moorcock’s fantasy trilogy “Dancers At The End of Time”), who when he grew bored had only to touch one of his power rings to transform the landscape around him into scintillating emerald and fuschia and could modify his own body as well into any color or shape he felt like.

What literary character would YOU choose to be for a day? And could your character escape the down-day curse of the genie who would grant your wish? Share your choices below in the comments.

From → books

  1. Since nobody else has answered your quite intriguing question, here’s my two cents, and I didn’t have to think it over for more than a minute: I should very much like to be Shakespeare’s Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing) — just because I’m so sure she never ever has a down day! The weather may be a bit hot, at Messina, and the gowns of the period not in the least suited to make one feel cooler; but Beatrice will be able to cope, and with a lot more than that…

    P.S. I owe you another answer on the “Gaudy Night” post, and should have written it long ago, if the matter wasn’t so complicated. And I’d like to ask you another question, concerning the ending of that novel, to which I seem unable to find the solution (at least, Google is of no help whatsoever). Meanwhile, let me hope you had a pleasant Christmas!

    • Thanks for writing! Beatrice is an excellent choice. One other interesting response to the question arrived via my Facebook page from a friend and reader who wrote, “I’d like to be Elizabeth Bennet, even on a bad day, just to know what it feels like to be so completely self-possessed, good, quick-witted, and articulate. And if I got a good day, so much the better.” I fully agree with the assessment of Elizabeth, but to me the the constant presence of her awful mother would prove to be a deal-breaker. Thanks for reading and posting, and wishing you the season’s best!

  2. Caroll, I have not thought about this since I was a boy, but in those days, Roland from the “Song of Roland” would have been my clear choice. To face an army of a million infidels with my handful of boon companions and to lay down my life for Charlemagne – well, to a 12 year-old, this was the height of imaginative chivalry.

    • Great answer! When I was 12 I might have chosen D’Artagnan for similar reasons. Thanks for commenting, Dennis!

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