The Portrayal of Virtue

With some reluctance, I recently re-read Dickens’ Little Dorrit. I was reluctant because I remembered that the main character was one of Dickens’ Victorian angels, so utterly, meltingly good as to make you sick.

Dickens was always good at portraying female horrors, and often good at drawing interesting female characters, but he had a powerful attraction to submissive, self-sacrificing women who come out unbelievable and icky. Little Dorrit, as I remembered it, is exhibit A.

My aversion to Little Dorrit was overcome by watching (through Netflix) the BBC production. I found myself quite touched by Little Dorrit herself, played by Claire Foy. When I re-read the book, I found the BBC portrayal stayed with me. Little Dorrit was believable, an utterly good, completely submissive, wonderfully inspiring character. She didn’t make me sick at all.

I’ve been pondering my reaction ever since. Virtue is hard to portray in fiction. An utterly kind, totally self-sacrificing person doesn’t come off. You find them in bad fiction, not good. Heroes need to have character flaws or weaknesses. Perhaps the most loveable character in fiction is Levin in Anna Karenina, but he’s loveable because he’s confused and troubled, and has a good heart in spite of it all. He’s simple but morally complicated. So are all great characters in fiction, I think.

In a movie, though, an actor has more leeway for sheer goodness. A genuinely kind person on film doesn’t necessarily need to be shadowed. We can believe in them.

Why? I’m not sure. The nature of reading gives us time to reflect and probe characters. Projecting our own mixed characters we look to find the same mixture in whatever we read. If we don’t find it, we have time to doubt.

But with movies the onrushing flow of story leaves no time for reflection. And perhaps the visual reality of the characters reminds us of genuinely good people we have known. The illusion of reality in film is so great that we can leap over reflection and fall in love unreservedly.

If so, then film should be able to draw us into naïve admiration in a way that fiction can’t. I don’t think modern filmmakers have invested much in that project. Occasionally, though—Chariots of Fire comes to mind. And Rocky, in a very different way. It’s a Wonderful Life. I’m sure you can come up with other examples. We’re almost ashamed of ourselves for believing in them, but we do. I don’t think we would, in print. We have learned to be skeptics when we read.

It’s now been five years since my parents died, and my love and admiration for them has grown, if anything. They were genuinely good people. I would like to be as good as they were. They were also complicated people. If I tried to write down a memoir of their lives (maybe I will, someday), I would have to chronicle their ambiguities and shadows. I don’t forget those, nor do they interfere with my ability to honor their memories.

However, when I think of them it’s more often in picture form. I see their faces in my mind’s eye, and I remember scenes I lived with them. There are no shadows in those pictures; they glow. It’s a different kind of memory, more like film. Perhaps it is more like the final truth.

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4 Responses to “The Portrayal of Virtue”

  1. Bill Reichert Says:

    Well, I too remember your parents, Tim, and my memories are uniformly positive! So maybe your memories become more like those of your friends who saw your parents’ best side. I’m fortunate that my father is still alive seven years after my mother’s passing. It has given me an opportunity to appreciate him in a way I couldn’t when my mother was with us.

    By the way, Marie and I just watched Little Dorrit as well, and we completely agree with your assessment. Claire Foy was marvelous, as was the male lead, Arthur Clennam (played by Matthew Macfadyen).

  2. Holly Newman Says:

    Also loved Little Dorrit. I think maybe we want and need to believe in this kind of goodness, even though we are so keenly aware of its absence in ourselves.

  3. The Portrayal of Virtue (via Timstafford’s Blog) | Leadingchurch.com Says:

    […] With some reluctance, I recently re-read Dickens’ Little Dorrit. I was reluctant because I remembered that the main character was one of Dickens’ Victorian angels, so utterly, meltingly good as to make you sick. Dickens was always good at portraying female horrors, and often good at drawing interesting female characters, but he had a powerful attraction to submissive, self-sacrificing women who come out unbelievable and icky. Little Dorrit, as I … Read More […]

  4. Carsten Says:

    From movies I think of Julie and Julia – watched it the other day – a seldom portrayal of a genuine good couple (Julia Childs and her husband).

    Also (maybe):

    Forrest Gump (although “a child”)
    Wilberforce in Amazing Grace
    Walter in The Visitor
    Nelson Mandela in Goodbye Bafana

    – well, In “It’s a Wonderful Life” James Stewart is complaining and unsatisfied most of the movie (although he always end up sacrificing his own ambitions and dreams) – character flaw there as well.

    I think that if genuine good persons a placed in adverse situations and just act if nothing is bothering them, they are unbelievable and not interesting.

    Wilberforce is good – but struggling and doubting – as are Liddle in Chariots of Fire.

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