Denotation of the Word “Character”
According to Webster’s dictionary, character is defined as: a person in a play or novel; distinctive trait; behavior typical of a person or group; moral strength; reputation; status; individual being”. It is this last denotation of the word “Character” that this chapter deals with: the concept of “individuality” or “individual being” and how that in turn builds a person i.e. the Self.
This chapter focuses on the strong characteristics possessed by Blanche Haggard and Princess Sasha from Absent in the Spring and Grannie and Peter Maitland from Unfinished Portrait to study the aspect of the Self which builds. A person’s individuality can come out through various positive aspects but this chapter analytically studies the characters under four major aspects of self-actualization, the striving towards health, the quest for identity and autonomy, the yearning for excellence by finding success in their own terms rather than being defined by the society.
There’s so much more to creating a real character than choosing physical attributes and personality traits.
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The most memorable characters stay in the reader’s mind because they have touched the emotions of the reader and become real people. While molding such a character, the author never stops at the stereotypical basics- but goes a step ahead. That is exactly what Christie has done to her characters chosen for this study. These characters do not fall under the general standard which the reader can so often predict or expect.
The first character, Blanche Haggard stands as an analogy to strengthen the claim that the Self is built as by way of finding success in one’s own terms rather than being defined by the society. Blanche Haggard, Joan’s old school friend whom she hasn’t seen for over 15 years, is a well-bred, high-spirited woman, who has changed a lot over the years. Joan looks at Blanche as someone who has had a pathetic life.
However, Joan’s perspective of Blanche is biased. This also highlights the fact that not all narrations are “likeable” or honest. In the case of Blanche Haggard, her true character is revealed from a little bit of truth from Joan’s perspective but mostly through her own dialogues. Joan’s way of looking at Blanche is always with the adjective “Poor” as a prefix to her name, which is a false notion that she has painted of Blanche. In her personal prayers that night after her encounter with Blanche, Joan prays,
“God-thank thee-poor Blanche-thank thee that I am not like that- great mercies- all my blessings- especially not like Poor Blanche- Poor Blanche-really dreadful-all her own fault- of course dreadful- quite a shock- thank God- I am different- Poor Blanche”
Blanche, however, is an optimist. She has had three husbands, and married to the fourth at present. She is seen to be someone who takes life as it comes, learns to let go and accepts what’s negatively thrown at her and use it as a stepping stone to build her Self. To further prove this, one can observe that throughout her dialogue with Joan, Blanche’s confidence is something that constantly comes to the forefront.
According to Joan, Blanche presented a deplorable appearance but Blanche does not seem to mind. To her, external appearances don’t matter for she has defined success in her own terms. To her, an attractive appearance is the least of her worries for she has a man who loves her for who she is and if he doesn’t (in the case of her previous marriages) she moves on and doesn’t dwell in the shambles of a broken relationship. Her looks needn’t affect her anymore, for to her, success is living a happy life.
She says from experience,
“Oh well, that’s the way of the world. You quit when you ought to stick, and you take on a thing that you’d better leave alone; one minute life’s so lovely you can hardly believe it’s true – and immediately after that you’re going through a hell of misery and suffering! When things are going well you think they’ll last forever- and they never do- and when you’re down under you think you’ll never come up and breathe again. That’s what life is, isn’t it?”
It is quite evident that Blanche says this out of familiarity. She starts by saying that this is the way of world for she has been through the many ups and downs in life. She had quit once, but fought back up to her feet, started to let of go of things that hurt her if she kept holding on to them (her broken marriages for instance). She describes how people picture life to be perfect and blissful only to be faced by hardship and suffering that makes them hit rock bottom.
This shows that Blanche is someone who isn’t afraid of reality. She faces the actuality of her life and doesn’t flee from the truth. She has had her share of bitter experiences from the past when she narrates and describes the many other men in her life. There’s Harry, a bad lot yet good looking; Tom, who didn’t amount to much; Johnnie, who was good while it lasted (which means she keeps changing her men when she knows it’s time to move on- happy go lucky) and Gerald, who wasn’t good either, but that’s what made her fond of him.
A woman seeks for a man who is her equal; someone who can challenge her and be a rebel at times. Blanche’s inclination towards such men is proof that she herself is one. She does not regret any of her life choices for she has already done so and now knows what to look out for. She is only attracted to men, who are different like herself. They aren’t up to any good, but that’s what makes her fond of them.
All this comes as a shock to Joan. She feels that it was “an unsavory catalogue of men”. But Joan’s way of defining success is narrow when compared to Blanche who is very much broad-minded and independent. In one such instance, she asks a rhetoric question, to make a statement rather than to get an answer: “And when you’re down under you think you’ll never come up and breathe again.
That’s what life is, isn’t it?” Blanche doesn’t stay stagnant in the pitfalls of life but she comes back up more matured than ever to tackle any situation at hand. She had assumed that one could never come up and breathe, but it isn’t the case for her and her life stands testimony to that. In one instance, Joan describes Blanche saying, “looks years older……could be more than 48”.
However, this does not indicate her physical appearance of being old but it metaphorically indicates her level of maturity through the years. The fact that she doesn’t look her actual age but looks much older than she really is comes here as a sign of mellowness, rather than being old. She has experienced much in life that she doesn’t look her age, at present.
Even when Joan feels sorry for her (as society does) she immediately says that she shouldn’t waste her sympathy on her. She is not one to settle in her “misfortunes” as Joan would put it, but moves on and takes life as it comes again stressing the fact that she defines success in her own terms rather than how society sees it. “Don’t waste your sympathies on me. I’ve had lots of fun” she says.
Her self-assurance does not only make her carry herself differently but it also sticks to those around. For instance when, Blanche brings up the topic of Rodney “having a roving eye” or Joan’s daughter, Barbara, not having a happy time at home and hence decided to be married off and gone, Joan is immediately influenced by this for she gives a second thought to the same. This clearly indicates Blanche’s sureness in her opinions not only stays with her but also impacts those around her too.
In one instance Joan thinks to herself, “What was it that Blanche had said?” Even if Joan sees Blanche differently, she still is impacted by what Blanche had to say. Blanche also doesn’t worry about the way in which she is judged by others. Her self is built on the strong foundation of the truth she believes in about herself. She is appreciative in nature for she applauds Joan for how well she has brought up her family.
This does not however mean that she doesn’t have a satisfying life, but shows that she’s learnt to see the good in others; their other side. She’s seen it all and thus has a positive take on life. She is of the idea that “Come what may, I shall face it and come out successful”.
Thus, Blanche Haggard, is a character whose ability to define success on her own terms, brings out her individuality which in turn builds her Self.
Peter Maitland from Unfinished Portrait also falls under this category. Peter, who is Celia’s best friend’s brother, has a liking towards Celia and they eventually fall in love but do not get married. However, from what the reader deciphers, Peter is of an extraordinary character. He doesn’t rush or hurry and takes everything in a sportive attitude.
His motto is “Well, why spend your life rushing? Take it easy- enjoy yourself.” Peter’s ability to calm himself down in a fast phased world is highly indicative of his character. In Celia’s own words, Peter was “dear, easy going and sweet-tempered”. Like Blanche, he takes life as it comes and doesn’t expect much in return either.
Being a soldier in the army, Peter knows that life’s full of unexpected circumstances; he knows what would be Celia’s fate if she did marry him but he lets her be open-minded when it comes to moving on and finding someone else. Despite being the patriarch, he doesn’t restrict Celia but let’s her be independent in her choices.
In his letter to Celia, he says, “I’d like you to live like a queen.” To him, letting people bloom in their own spaces and watching them grow is considered to be his true contentment. When Celia falls for Dermot (her husband), Peter takes it sportively. He congratulates Celia on her choice and wishes her well.
To Peter, he defines success by not only being the reason for someone’s happiness, but his happiness is also seeing those he loves be happy even if he is not the reason either. His Self is built to such an extent that he is able to face the loss of something that he holds dear. Thus both Blanche and Peter are striking examples of the Self which builds as a result of the positive traits which they possess.
The second aspect to be studied to further strengthen the claim that the Self builds is the positive trait of Self-Actualization. The Oxford Dictionary defines Self-Actualization as, “the realization or fulfilment of one’s talents and potentialities, especially considered as a drive or need present in everyone”.
And that brings this study to the next character: Princess Sasha. Sasha’s positive trait, is what makes her the apt example to fortify the claim that the Self builds. Studies show that if sociology is taken into play, then the character will influence not only the message but also the view the analysis must take of the message, particularly of messages which connote such meanings as ‘power’ and ‘quality’.
Sasha, who is clearly in a position of power has the upper hand in convincing the reader as well as Joan, that what she says is equal to the power she possesses. The way she carries herself, talks to others and treats her fellow passengers shows the Self which has built as a result of the positive trait of Self-Actualization. Just her opening lines indicate what sort of a person she is.
“I apologize for this early morning intrusion. It is an iniquitously uncivilized hour for a train to leave, and I disturb your repose…..we shall not get on too badly on each other’s nerves. It is but two days to Stamboul, and I am not difficult to live with. And if I smoke too much, you will tell me. But now I leave you to sleep…..again I say how sorry I am you have been disturbed……I see you are sympathetic- good- we shall get on together famously”
In Sasha, one can see the realization of true potential and her talents have been well-groomed when further down in the novel, it is revealed that she can speak in more than eight languages. She is well-accomplished clearly denoting that she has imbibed an affirmative living. Despite being a princess, she has also practiced the art of humility. She doesn’t think too high of herself in spite of her many accomplishments.
She apologizes for intruding. She lets Joan know that if there is anything that makes Joan uncomfortable (Sasha’s smoking for instance) she shouldn’t keep it to herself but let Sasha know. This also indicates that Sasha is open to criticism and is sensitive to those around her. Someone who is Royal by birth, needn’t stoop so low, let alone adopt for a public mode of transport. Sasha does not let pride take over her and that is seen as one of her positive traits and this reflects in the way she treats others.
Her character results in the building up of another. This kind of thought about human behavior, which emphasizes the uniqueness of the individual, the importance of values and meaning, and the potential for self-direction and personal growth are what sums up the character of Sasha thus making her yet another example of the Self which builds.
Grannie, the third most prominent entity from Unfinished Portrait is a striking example of the Self which builds. Determination, independence despite her age, the aspect of striving towards health and the strong will to live are the positive traits observed in this character.
Introduced to the reader as an eighty year old woman, Grannie is astonishingly brisk and sharp that the activities she does and her age don’t correlate. One of the very first reasons to validate this is the fact that Grannie being eighty still has authority over her household. She walks with her “large bunch of keys clanking” and this immediately paints a picture of a woman who is in control over things. She is in possession of the keys which also stresses her power. In Celia’s description about Grannie she says,
“Grannie was a very handsome lady…in figure she was majestically stout with a pronounced bosom and stately hips. She wore dresses of velvet.”
Grannie’s appearance also adds to her character. Despite her age, she is still strong built and this gives her an added air of confidence. Something about her description sounds royal, with words like “majestic” and “dresses of velvet”.
The Self in her has built through the ages and this is obviously proved when Celia looks up to her grandmother more than she does to her own mother. The absence of the male entity in Grannie’s life (i.e her husband) also adds to the independence which she portrays. Like Blanche, she has had three husbands previously, all of them dead now. This indicates that she has not only seen her share of men but also had to go through mourning not once or twice but thrice.
Yet, it was just a phase and she has sailed through life and keeps pushing despite her physical deterioration (her failing sight). Celia’s grandmother plays a major role in both the life of Celia and her mother. Her constant presence even when she is physically absent is seen whenever Celia thinks of what Grannie had to say if faced by a situation clearly highlighting that Celia’s upbringing into a woman is influenced by Grannie in a positive way.
Grannie’s will to live also gives a glimpse of her mental make-up. Studies show that most sicknesses occur in the psyche even before it takes root in the human body. Here, Grannie is seen as an exception since even her ailing health as a result of age is hardly a barrier. She is as active as ever, that even her death occurs while she is busy knitting mittens for Celia’s baby. People who have been through hardships at a very early age show signs of strength as the years progress.
Grannie, having lost her parents at the age of fourteen with twelve younger siblings to look after is seen to be someone who has taken up the role of a parent when she herself was a child. This reflects in the stories she tells to Celia where the characters always end up dead. Christie could’ve also added this instance to slightly stress the fact that while there are people meeting their end, here is Grannie, who has been defying age and lives to be a ninety. Thus, the aspect of the Self being built as a result of positive traits such as determination, independence, the aspect of striving towards health and the strong will to live is reflected through the character of Grannie.
Many people realize their selves much later in life. But the sooner one becomes aware of this essence within, the sooner the change happens. This chapter is thus brought to a conclusion, as one critically looked at the characters with positive traits by grouping them under the categories of Self-Actualization, defining success in their own terms and the striving towards health.