Great Debates: Controversial Characters

Great Debates: Controversial Characters

First impressions are difficult to get over: When you meet someone, very often it’s that first meeting that decides whether you like them or not. No surprise that this is incredibly true with books; on the first read, you’ve probably established a strong opinion about certain characters. With some, it’s very cut-and-dried: Voldemort is evil, Tiny Tim is good. But sometimes, it’s not so clear. Is Snape good or bad? Is Patrick Bateman a serial killer, or just schizophrenic?

Once a reader makes that decision, he or she will defend it to the death—which inspires engaging arguments. In the second installment of our Great Debates series, we take sides in some of literature’s greatest character debates.

  1. Book

    1. The Catcher in the Rye

    Holden Caulfield

    For many years, Holden Caulfield was held up as an undisputed voice of a generation. Seeing the contradictions in the world and the widespread “phony” behavior of people, he wanted no part of it. In short, Holden was a beacon of the counter-culture. Living the “Turn on, tune in, drop out” philosophy of Timothy Leary 15 years early, Holden was ahead of his time. Today, many still regard him as a symbol for teenage rebellion and disillusionment.

    But not everyone is so patient and complimentary of Holden. To many, he’s whiny and spoiled. He has everything: money, parents who care about him, and access to the best education. Yet, all he does is throw his life away by dropping out of school and then roaming the city on a self-indulgent spree. Holden, they say, is outdated.

    Source: Tumblr/fuckyeahhipsterprincesses

    Bookish Votes: While we do have a soft spot for Holden, he is definitely a whiny brat. He was the voice of a generation at one time, but he is not the voice of this one.

  2. Book

    2. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Book 6)

    Severus Snape

    Stop reading right now because this entire dedication is filled to the brim with spoilers… Did you stop? Okay, those of you still with us please turn to page 394 so we can begin delving into one of the most complex characters in the Harry Potter series.

    After J.K. Rowling published Half-Blood Prince, team lines were drawn. You either were certain that Snape was a cold and villainous man who played Albus Dumbledore like a fiddle before cruelly murdering him… or you believed that if Dumbledore trusted Snape, then you would as well, and he’d pull through. Some would think that in the wake of Deathly Hollows, where a dying Snape reveals his true nature to Harry, fans would have reconciled. But the truth is that fans are more adamant than ever.

    Many fans believe that Snape is not the hero other readers hold him up to be. He took out his childhood anger on an 11-year-old who didn’t know why his teacher hated him so much; he broke his friendship with Lily by calling her a mudblood; he was an unfairly biased teacher who didn’t encourage his brightest student, Hermione; and, at the end of the day, if Lily hadn’t been killed, he would still be a Death Eater.

    In spite all of this, other fans still scream: FOR LOVE! All of it, he did for love! After vowing to serve Lord Voldemort, Snape turned his back on everything he had grown up knowing to go, tail-between-legs, to Dumbledore to beg for a second chance. He treated Harry poorly—but who would have an easy time facing a kid who looks like the guy who tormented you for the better part of your life and then stole your girl? Snape also never uses that anger as a reason not to save Harry. Sure, “10 points from Gryffindor,” but Harry was always safe around Snape. Finally, when Voldemort was resurrected, the easy thing to do would have been to go crawling back, but he didn’t. He stuck with the plan, and he’s the bravest man Harry’s ever known because of it.

    Source: Tumblr/SharpLily

    Bookish Votes: Are we on Team Snape? Always.

  3. Book

    3. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Movie Tie-in Edition

    Susan Pevensie

    By the time the final Chronicles of Narnia book, The Last Battle, rolls around, oldest daughter Susan is no longer joining her siblings in jumping through the magical wardrobe. Even more damning, Peter says that she’s “no longer a friend of Narnia” because of her fondness for (in another friend’s words) “nylons and lipstick and invitations.” (The Prince Caspianmovie similarly sees Susan deciding not to return to Narnia because she’s grown too old for those games.)

    If that’s not enough of a dis, The Last Battle ends with all of the Pevensie children and their parents dying in a railroad crash—all except for Susan. C.S. Lewis never makes it clear if she ever makes it to Aslan’s country, a.k.a. heaven, but the message is clear: Growing up is a no-no. Lucy stays naïve and engaged in the world of Narnia, and she’s the celebrated hero.

    Source: Fanpop

    Bookish Votes: You know who needs to grow up? Narnia readers who join the Susan-shaming brigade.

    Neil Gaiman gave Susan the best epilogue with his short story “ The Problem of Susan.” It courted controversy both by guessing at Susan’s life after her family’s death—she becomes a literature professor—and for a graphic sequence that will make you reevaluate Aslan and the White Witch. But that’s what it means to become an adult: You leave behind childish things and gain new understanding. Grotesque as it may seem, it’s the best ending Susan gets.

  4. Book

    4. American Psycho

    Patrick Bateman

    There is little doubt that Patrick Bateman is crazy, but the real debate concerns what kind of crazy he is. Is Patrick Bateman a serial killer? Or were all those murders just an insane delusion?

    Throughout American Psycho, Bateman commits increasingly violent acts of murder—but at the very end, even after confessing to those crimes, he walks free. Those who believe he is an actual serial killer know that’s because, in the ever-changing world of Wall Street, people come and go. There is constant mistaken identity, people pretending to know people they don’t, and people pretending to be someone they are not. Of course he got away with killing those people. No one can keep track of him!

    However, those who believe Bateman is schizophrenic point to the countless examples that depict him as an unreliable and delusional narrator. He thinks he finds a bone in an ice cream bar and believes he sees a Cheerio being interviewed on TV. They say that even in the world of Wall Street, people had families who would notice if their “loved” one was missing.

    Source: Tumblr/becausefilm

    Bookish Votes: It’s very likely that a man who believes he is being stalked by a park bench is also imagining that he murdered a bunch of people. But that’s the beauty of open endings: You can never know for sure.

  5. Book

    5. The Great Gatsby

    Daisy Buchanan

    Daisy Buchanan, of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a beautiful, elusive, wealthy flapper. Her voice is “full of money”; in social situations, she is frequently the center of attention. She is impeccably dressed and always ladylike. It’s easy to see why Jay Gatsby is completely infatuated with her.

    Daisy is undeniably glamorous, but this Jazz Age manic pixie dream girl is also married. She’s obsessed with material possessions, and is overly impressed by Gatsby’s wealth. As the novel goes on, she comes across as emotionally tone-deaf and self-absorbed. She leads Gatsby on (likely because she enjoys the attention from a man who is not her husband), but ultimately breaks his heart when she is unwilling to take concrete steps to be with him. Daisy craves attention, and seems incapable of considering the needs of others.

    Source: Tumblr/heyitsharper

    Bookish Votes: Daisy Buchanan is superficial and cowardly. She delights at receiving Gatsby’s attention, but exhibits very little remorse when she lets him take the blame for killing Myrtle and subsequently reconciles with her husband.

  6. Book

    6. The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes


    Shield your eyes from spoilers if you haven’t finished Sherlock series 3. The question isn’t whether Professor James Moriarty—in whatever iteration you know him—is evil, because that’s made clear from his first canonical appearance in “The Final Problem.” It’s whether he’s necessary. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1893 story, Moriarty seems to appear out of nowhere, having enjoyed the “intellectual treat” of grappling with Holmes over the years, but also ruthlessly bent on killing the Great Detective so that he can deduce no more.

    Diehard readers had likely made up their minds at the Reichenbach Falls, but it would take the BBC’s Sherlock to get all fans onboard with the idea of Moriarty. Even as viewers eagerly watched series 1 for every clue as to Moriarty’s identity, the cunning consulting criminal slithered in under all of our noses. As his calm exterior fell away to reveal the true depths of his murderous obsession with Sherlock, we craved more—and on top of that, Moriarty inspired his own fandom.

    Source: Blogspot/Harmony Dreven

    Bookish Votes: Making us cheer for the villain’s every appearance, obsessively write fanfiction and make GIFs about him, and maybe even side with his motivations? Jim Moriarty’s a national treasure. And, with regard to the Sherlock series 3 finale: Yes, darling, we missed you.

Elizabeth Rowe
Elizabeth is Bookish's Senior Editor and a graduate of Columbia University's MFA program in Nonfiction Writing. She is based in San Francisco and can frequently be found at Philz with her nose in a book. Her current obsession is the My Struggle series by Karl Ove Knausgaard, and she thoroughly embarrassed herself when she met him shortly after the release of volume four (and she has the photos to prove it).


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