January 25, 2012

Literary Introverts and Extroverts

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I've been reading Quiet by Susan Cain, a very thought provoking book on personality. I'm fascinated with it so far because I consider myself (and have all the hallmarks of) an introvert. I've come to the conclusion that it's just how I am. Cain claims that the world today, in particular Americans, have come to see extroversion as a virtue and introversion as a fault.

Early in the book, she says that during the first part of the 20th Century there was a shift from a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality. The Culture of Character was one in which the ideal person was "serious, disciplined and honorable," whereas in the Culture of Personality boldness is the ideal, and that's why people are obsessed with celebrities today.

funny pictures history - early kardashians

I've read my fair share of pre-20th Century lit and couldn't help but think of the introverts and extroverts of those books and whether they were heroes or villains. Here's a look at the ones that popped in my head:

Fanny Price, Mansfield Park (introvert): Fanny was the very first person I thought of. She is the epitome of the Culture of Character. She's all character and not much else. When she stands next to Mary Crawford, she practically disappears. In the end, Fanny gets her man because she's such a good person while the vivacious Mary is run out of town. Some modern readers admire Mary more than Fanny.

Jane Eyre (introvert): Another quiet soul but at least she has some gumption. She shines in one-on-one situations like verbal sparring with Mr Rochester. Her competition for Rochester's affection is Blanche Ingram, a social butterfly. Jane saves the day and wins her guy. Blanche gets a one way ticket to Scramsville. 

Becky Sharp, Vanity Fair (extrovert): Vanity Fair is a novel without a hero (at least that's what Thackeray said) but the most memorable character is Becky Sharp. She's quick and bold, but also without morals. She doesn't do so well at the end but the quieter characters find love and happiness.

Emma Woodhouse, Emma (extrovert): "I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like," so said Jane Austen. Yet, people do like Emma. She is bright and outgoing, also spoiled and gossipy. It takes a quieter person, Mr Knightley, to show her the error of her ways.

The Bennet Family, Pride and Prejudice (extroverts): This is a tough one because Mr Darcy's extreme introversion is seen as pride, not a good thing. However, the Bennet family, with the exception of Jane, are extroverts whose behaviour often ends in embarrassment for Lizzie and Jane. Even Lizzie, who has a smart mouth, isn't appreciated. Jane is their little star. It doesn't hurt that she's pretty either. Jane and Lizzie get married to the partner of their choosing, Lydia has an uncertain future, and Mrs Bennet still has to find husbands for the remaining two girls.

Pip, Great Expectations (introvert): Pip gets bullied by the stronger characters and jerked around by Estella. Pip does end up content by the end while the bolder characters end up...er, dead.

During the 20th Century, things start to change, the chatty heroine Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables is an extrovert who develops character with the help of two introverts. She might gain control of that temper but she stays her outgoing self. She'll never be serious or quiet. However, she doesn't end up dead or shunned at the end of her story. She gets a happily ever after and is universally admired.

So, were these authors reflecting the societal ideals of the time or were they acting out an introvert's fantasy? (Not sure if they were all introverts but Charlotte Bronte certainly was.) Are introverts heroes in modern literature or was that their moment in the sun?



21 comments :

  1. I read this book and loved it. I like your idea of applying the information to book characters. I think the introversion/extroversion of the characters does reflect the societal ideals of the time. Very interesting topic to discuss.

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    1. I'm liking the book so far. Thanks for weighing in !

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  2. I just learned about this book this morning. I'm a total introvert, and I'm tired of people treating me like this is something to be "fixed". Looks like the book for me.

    Anne is most certainly an extrovert! :D
    I do love her, though.

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    1. I love Anne girl too! But she had Marilla and Matthew to raise her and they were pretty special too.

      The author doesn't think we need to be fixed, in fact, she thinks we're great. :)

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  3. Lovely! I totally agree that we are a culture of "personality," though that's a real shame in many instances. I myself am an introvert, but I "put on" the mask of the extrovert for my job, and I'm happy to get my social fix largely online.

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    1. Oh she has some interesting things to say about introverts online!

      Apparently many introverts put on that mask.

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  4. I'd agree with Julie, I reckon it reflected the ideals of the time. It fits in with all the manners and etiquette that was followed, although some authors may of course just have wanted to include an introvert character. And you can see the ideals in the way characters respond to people who aren't like them.

    I know I've definitely read modern books with introvert heroes.

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    1. I'm going to have to think about the modern introvert character. They seem to be outnumbered by vampire kicking extroverts.

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  5. What an interesting question! It is a delightful way to pick books apart, just based on character's personalities. What I think would be quite interesting would be to analyse how this new cult of "quirky" characters that are emerging in YA and, even, adult fiction are both introverts and extroverts (in my opinion, that is).

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    1. Yes, the 'quirky' character. I guess it would depend on if they were quiet quirky or outgoing quirky. I wonder if there are more quirky introverts or extroverts.

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  6. This is a fun post! I think our "culture of personality" has come to value the wrong things.

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    1. I think so too. Now so many young people want to be famous without doing anything of value.

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    2. I totally agree with you both. Shana Galen recently asked her readers what they like in a hero and a lot of the response surprised me ("bad boys" and such). I like reading about characters with honor, primarily because we just don't see that kind of thing, anymore. Or, at least . . . it's rare for someone to care about doing the honorable thing instead of the thing that will get them the most money or attention. The book sounds fascinating, btw.

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  7. Here, here for introverts!! I took a Myers-Briggs assessment at work last year, and my level of introvertedness was off the charts. The moderator was shocked, as she said most people have more moderate levels. I think there is power to being able to gain energy by being alone and thinking before speaking.

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    1. LOL! That would be me too. The author mentions that test in the book. Thinking before speaking is definitely a virtue.

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  8. I love this post, Chris! I am definitely an introvert in that I spend a lot of time in my own head, and I think it has hurt me a lot, especially career-wise. People assume you're dumb or not interested if you don't speak up, especially some people (not bitter or anything...).

    As for modern literature and extroverts/introverts, to me it seems like there have been a LOT of introverted main characters in books in the last few years. Bella Swan, just as one example. So if our culture values extroversion, I'm not sure contemporary literature necessarily reflects that.

    That marketing badge for a Quiet Riot is ingenious, btw. :)

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. I feel that way too- that people think I'm stupid- but I do have a few thoughts in my noggin. (Had to edit but edit button wouldn't work!)

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  9. My husband is introvert of all introverts. I always thought I was too but no, he definitely wins out on that one. I'm curious about the book Quiet (I just saw you rate it on goodreads) and I love considering protagonists from novels from that perspective. Very interesting to consider.

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    1. I'm contemplating my review and should have it up either this week or next.

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  10. I am thinking of doing my 3rd year dissertation on introverts in literature (specifically with reference to Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novels) as a direct result of reading Quiet and recognising many of the traits in myself. I googled "introverts in literature" to see if there were any novels that linked in well for my research and your blog was the first that popped up also as a result of Susan Cain's fantastic book! What a coincidence, so thank you for your help :)

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