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The character of great art

Photo by Craig Bailey

Kimberly Juanita Brown, assistant professor of English, discusses five characters who make their novels great works of art.

Sula Peace. In “Sula,” by Toni Morrison. In one of my favorite passages, Sula — both a protagonist and an antagonist — drifts back home after having been away for more than a decade. Visiting her childhood friend Nel, Sula casually laments her inability to find a suitor. “They still here. You the one went off,” Nel tells her, to which Sula dreamily responds, “Didn’t I though?”  Steam truck or dove feather, Sula is a self-constructed manifestation of her own desires.

Baby Kochamma. In “The God of Small Things,” by Arundhati Roy. Baby Kochamma is one of the novel’s principal villains, a woman bereft of love. She is selfish and manipulative, angry and afraid, caste conscious and locked in time. Roy gives us a look at how loss affects a family through this character, who plays puppeteer with everyone around her, and yet is both tangential to the family and forgotten in the narrative.

Jason Compson. In “The Sound and the Fury,” by William Faulkner. Faulkner once said that Jason is the only member of the Compson family who is not insane. This is, of course, not entirely true. Jason’s mental disorder has a very rigid and orderly cadence to it. Everything Jason says about others is true of himself, and, like Satan in “Paradise Lost,” he gets all the best lines.

Juletane. In “Juletane,” by Myriam Warner-Vieyra. Now out of print, “Juletane” is a sumptuous novella spanning three countries through one short life. Moving from Paris to Africa, Juletane quickly discovers that she is not her husband’s only wife, and everything she thought he represented is a lie. Helene, a social worker, reads Juletane’s notebook after her death, and realizes — as we do — that she is unforgettable.

Silla Boyce. In “Brown Girl, Brownstones,” by Paule Marshall. Ambitious, artful and extremely hard-working, Silla cares about only one thing: buying a house. Although daughter Selina resists Silla’s holding fast to rigid Barbadian values, ultimately Selina is forced to reconcile with Silla’s ways — recognizing them as her own ways as well.