Photo Credit: Character likeability brilliantly depicted in this double-exposure photograph of Victorian-era stage actor, Richard Mansfield, posing as Dr. Jekyll (likeable) and Mr. Hyde (unlikeable). Photo by Henry Van der Weyde, 1895 cabinet card, published 1887 by the British Library: Kjetilr/Wikimedia Commons/PD old 80
“Although we have recognized them [Porter’s characters] all very early as valid human beings, we are not much illuminated past what we initially recognize. The book is a portrait gallery, not the morality play or allegory it promises to be.” (Kauffmann, par. 15)
If you hang out with authors on social media, you’ve probably seen the subject of likeable characters pop up. It’s a pretty hot button topic. Many authors want to stay true to reality in their writing while others write in a genre where readers expect a more conventional storyline with a protagonist=good/antagonist=bad set-up. All writers create some characters that are likeable but others that are not. On the other hand, I’ve seen many readers admit they find it difficult to finish a book with hardly any likeable characters, the unlikeable ones being only those that are meant to be unlikeable (like the criminal in a crime novel).
As a reader of literary fiction, I find unlikeable characters in my reading quite often since one of the hallmarks of literary fiction is to write complex characters who are always both good and bad (since this is the definition of human nature). When these characters’ unlikeability relates to the their psychological reality, these characters can be quite intriguing to me. But sometimes a literary novel becomes weighed down by horrific characters, unlikeable to the extreme and, like many readers, I reject these books, no matter how many awards they may have one or how much praise they received from prestigious literary critics (two things that seem to make or break a literary writer in the traditional publishing world).
This is exactly what happened to me with Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools. I had heard great things about Porter’s subtle style and psychological insights plus I’ve seen the film version of the story which I love so of course I was looking forward to reading the book. When the book came out in 1962, it was much anticipated by the literary community since it took Porter more than twenty years to write it. But many critics felt Porter overshot the mark with her story. A review of the book in the New Republic points out “[Porter] is too concerned with large issues to devise small novelties” (Kauffmann, par. 4). The book follows a large cast of characters on a ship voyage from Vera Cruz to Germany in the early 1930’s, so this is a legitimate criticism. Even Porter herself later admitted the novel was too ensnarled and the narrative too sprawling.
My issues with the book are less about its long and twisted storyline and more about the unlikeability of its characters. I found that nearly the entire cast fit under this category and none of them are villains in the conventional sense. That is, they aren’t meant to be unlikeable. The characters come from different countries (Germany, America, Mexico, Spain, and Switzerland to name a few) and share the same ocean voyage, all there for their different reasons. While their individual histories hold some interest, their interaction with one another is a different story. A constant hostility and viciousness defines their attitudes toward one another and much of their behavior comes from stereotyped assumptions about each character based on race, age, form, etc. For example, one character, Karl Glocken, is a dwarf and a hunchback and even though he is an amiable person, nearly everyone on board the ship treat him badly because he doesn’t look like they do. I can’t help but agree with Kauffmann that “two-thirds of [the] principal characters are … uniformly repulsive” (par. 18). In fact, I would argue that it’s more like ninety-eight percent of them. There are two characters I found slightly sympathetic: Elsa (the daughter of an overbearing Swiss couple) and Mrs. Treadwell (a wealthy American divorcee whose fading beauty has led her to wanderlust without a purpose in life). Both characters, unlike the others, are harmless so their vindictiveness is more tempered than the rest.
It’s difficult to read a book where basically everybody hates everybody else and everybody judges everybody else by first impressions and everybody seems out to get everybody else. This umbrella meanness may be part of Porter’s political agenda for the book. Kauffman gives some background for the time frame (August, 1931) in which the book takes place:
“The United States was writhing in the Depression. Latin America was erupting through a 400-year-old crust of Castilian cruelty. To name the two European countries relevant to this book, in Germany the Nazi Party had leaped from 800 thousands votes (1928) to 6.4 million votes (1930); in Spain the Bourbons had been deposed, and the country had been made an arena for fratricidal left factions whose quarrels eventually invited the Falange. In short, Western man was beginning to run the fever that resulted in the collapse of a society founded on Judaeo-Christian ideals.” (par. 5)
This seems to fit the “the world is ending and everyone sucks” tone the book seems to take. While I can’t deny this is profound, especially as it foreshadows World War II, it doesn’t make for very enjoyable fiction.
The result of this is that Porter’s psychological and subtle insights into character are discarded in favor of stereotypes for this book. In other words, her focus on the forest loses sight of the trees. For Kauffmann, part of the problem is that Porter casts her net too wide in trying to cover so much ground and portray so many people from so many different nationalities:
“This fact–that we are given a cross-section of European and American characters and characteristics rather than a progressively meaningful drama–takes us to the largest criticism that must be made of the work.” (par. 16; emphasis mine)
Porter leaves none of the nationalities free of these characteristics that paint negative stereotypes of them: the greedy, separatist Jew, the arrogant and disciplined German, the frivolous and shallow American, the dirty and vengeful Spanish. Unfortunately, this gives the characters somewhat of an arrested development. In fact, “[t]he characters are well perceived and described, but we know all that Miss Porter has to say about most of them after the third or fourth of their episodes” (Kauffmann, par. 15). This fits the definition of stereotypes, as they are defined by a few words so there is no need to delve further.
Taken together (unlikeability and stereotyping), these two qualities make it difficult for even the best-intended writer to create characters readers can sympathize with. A good example of this is the character of Loewenthal. As the only Jewish character on a ship full of Fascist sympathizers, he is ideal for reaching the sensibilities of a post-Nazism audience. But Porter puts him in a box as “whining, aggressive, fearful, the product of the centuries’ [Jewish] ghettos” (Kauffmann, par. 19). He is a German-Jew and in the context of the German-dominated and pro-Nazism dominated ship, he is separated from them by religion but not by attitude. As Kauffman points out,
“Miss Porter… wanted to use Loewenthal’s cringing behavior with his cabin-mate and others as a foretaste of… German Jews [who] rarely resisted their oppressors. But as her group of Germans is too unrelievedly dark, so her single Jew gives too mean and sullen a picture.” (par. 19)
Loewenthal and other characters succeed in repelling the reader rather than winning sympathy and this affects the entire story so that “[t]he book is … less tragic than satiric; but satire about a huge complex of civilizations ceases to be satire and becomes misanthropy” (Kauffmann, par. 20).
While the book was a disappointment to me, the film, made in 1965, is one of my favorites. It mostly gained a reputation for being Vivien Leigh’s last film (and she is excellent in it) as well as having an all-star cast that includes French actress Simone Signoret, Jose Ferrer, Lee Marvin, and George Segal. But the screenplay not only cuts through a lot of the repetition Kauffmann complains of but also recognizes that character likeability is essential. So many of the characters who come off as volatile in the book are more rounded and complex. Crowther’s review in the New York Times puts it succulently:
“[T]here is such wealth of reflection upon the human condition in Ship of Fools and so subtle an orchestration of the elements of love and hate, achieved through an expert compression of the novel by Mr. Kramer and his script writer, Abby Mann…” (par. 4; emphasis original)
This is certainly true of Loewenthal (played by Heinz Ruhmann) who, rather than being hostile, suspicious, and showing a similar prejudice against “Gentiles” that the non-Jews show toward him as a Jew, is resilient and wise. In one brilliant conversation with the Nazi-sympathizing Siegfried Rieber (Jose Ferrer), Rieber blames the Jews for the political mess in Germany. Loewenthal seemingly doesn’t deny this by pointing out the blame lies on both Jews and bicycle riders. Rieber chuckles and asks “Why the bicycle riders?” and Loewenthal shrugs and asks, “Why the Jews?” This brief exchange highlights the complex and sometimes absurd political motivations that went behind the Nazi party’s claims of superiority and hate. While I admire Porter’s ambitious work (especially considering that historically, women writers were expected to tackle domestic matters and not grand worldwide themes), I do think it’s a shame she sacrificed character complexity and psychology to try and achieve this more political point of view. As many great works attest, the best way to tackle big themes is to focus on the characters whose lives are affected by them.
Crowther, Bosley. “Ship of Fools.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 2017. 29 July 1965. Web. 25 October 2017
Kauffmann, Stanley. “Katherine Anne Porter’s Crowning Work.” New Republic. New Republic, 2017. 1 April 1962. Web. 25 October 2017.