There is, or so my daughter tells me, a rash of films on YouTube and TikTok of people trying on their ‘pre-pandemic’ wardrobes. Do those before-quarantine designer jeans and favourite tops still fit? And do their owners care?
There is a vague metaphor somewhere in there. Many of us are now reflecting, to see what elements of our pre-covid lives and material circumstances still ‘fit’. We may not all have the option or appetite for radical change, but there are life changes in different ways – be it lifestyle choices, work and work-life balance habits, leisure activities, or other.
Personally, I am not a huge fan of self-help books. I am not against them, it’s simply that, speaking for myself, I haven’t found the ones I’ve read particularly… helpful. They can be hyperbolic and tend to be repetitive – for example, taking one central idea and extending it across entire chapters. If I am honest, I have yet to get to the end of one – or not without skipping whole sections. However if this sounds unfair, please do let me know. Maybe I just haven’t found the right self-help guide or guru yet.
In the meantime, as has so often been observed, much can be learnt about life from reading fiction.
As a starting point, I turn to a study at Walden University: Qualities of Successful People. As an aside, this appears to be as much about personal fulfilment as, say, financially successful, or climbing the workplace ladder. The qualities identified are:
Passion – caring about what you’re undertaking; finding it meaningful
Optimism – including a belief in oneself
Persistence – trying again and again, particularly after setback
Creativity – including original thinking and problem-solving
Self-Discipline – not getting distracted from your path or procrastinating.
A Desire to Improve – improve oneself
A Commitment to Learning – within your own and other fields of knowledge.
Below are some examples of characters in well-known works of fiction that I feel display these characteristics. They do not always ‘succeed’, in the very end, but they may inspire and have something to teach us. And if not, then we still have the novel to enjoy.
Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The quality of passion refers here to any strong emotion, particularly when fundamental and guiding. Amongst many qualities we could attribute to him, Finch chooses zealously to uphold justice and fairness. Whilst controlled in outward manner, he imparts moral values in his children, and does not falter.
Jane Bennett in Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen.
Not a main character in this case, Jane Bennett is the bright and hopeful contrast to Elizabeth’s more sceptical view of the world. However, she is more than a foil. Her optimism gives her a patient belief that all, in the end, will be well. Whilst sometimes rather passive (as in her lengthy wait for the affections of Bingley – though she doesn’t doubt herself as undeserving), Jane is without the prejudgment and sometimes bias of her sister, helping attract people to her.
Honourable mention: Cassandra Mortmain in Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle (despite Cassandra’s name!)
Philip ‘Pip’ Pirrip in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Given his background, Pip goes to considerable lengths to achieve his goals. Whilst his progress towards his ‘great expectations’ in life is sometimes faltering, through innocence and suffering, he does not give up easily when faced with adversity. He still has much to learn by the end of the novel, but attains status in society and, we may deduce, at least some hope of winning the affections of Estella.
Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackery
There are endless creative characters in literature, but I am interested in those with the creativity to invent – or to reinvent – themselves. Through analysis of a situation, planning, and her eyes on the prize, Becky schemes and claws her way up into society, inventing and re-inventing herself – governess, wife, Lady, socialite… She is ahead of her time in creating her own brand. Yes, it later crumbles around her, but it was inevitable there would be a ‘punitive plot’ ahead – in the context of the day, that a woman’s ‘bad deeds’ would need to be punished.
Jane Eyre in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Whilst it’s true there are moments of rebelliousness, but Jane is self-discipline and self-controlled above all. We see it early on in her studies. Later she is diligent (and, like Pip, persistent) in managing her life and those around her to find her place. As with Becky Sharp, we could call it cunning, but what, forced into dependency, was a women of the 19th century to do?
Committed to Learning
Elena ‘Lenù’ Greco in My Brilliant Friend and The Neapolitan Quartet by Elena Ferrante
Through ambition and the cultivation of her own intelligence, Elena is able to leave behind the poverty of her childhood through university and eventually establishing herself into the literati. Whilst she is drawn back to her childhood setting some years later, her achievements afford her options in life and set her apart.
Honourable mentions: Matilda Wormwood in Roald Dahl’s Matilda and Jo March in Louise May Alcott’s Little Women.
Are there particular fictional characters whose qualities you admire, or feel you have learnt from?
Main image – by Shiromani Kant on Unsplash