Culture

Three Cheers for the Quiet Ones

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Don’t ignore the beauty and goodness of characters just because they don’t seem impressive or witty.

People often dismiss shy, quiet characters in literature. Readers prefer to identify with Jo March, Elizabeth Bennett, or Anne Shirley — those delightful, bold, and charming characters who made a deep impression on us when we first encountered them. While there’s nothing wrong with emulating or admiring these excellent characters, the tendency to overlook their shy counterparts is worrisome. Characters who have less noticeably exciting traits are forgotten at best or, at worst, dismissed as annoying, holier-than-thou prudes, or cowards.

The modern world is quick to disdain quiet kindness, loveliness of character, and beauty of virtue as old-fashioned and unnecessary when clothed in the form of characters such as Beth March, Fanny Price, or Cinderella. What could be worth emulating about them?

Shyness gets you nowhere. Timidity doesn’t get you noticed. Adventure-hungry readers ignore that the quiet characters show us how to live and grow in virtue through mundane tasks and everyday trials. Consider how Beth, Fanny, and Ella exemplify the virtues of kindness, courage, and forgiveness in ways applicable to our own lives.

Bashful and retiring, Beth March of Little Women struggles with poor health, fears boys, and is too shy to attend school. Her tidy soul is drawn to housework, her piano, and taking care of her dolls. Her old sisters live more boldly: Jo must fight Apollyon, and Meg goes to Vanity Fair. Beth’s battles are fought without fanfare, and her strengths are revealed in her kindness and thoughtfulness toward those around her.

Despite her fear of men, her consideration for the needs of others leads her to talk with and amuse a young boy during a picnic hosted by Laurie for his British friends and the March girls. The boy is on crutches and can’t join in the antics, and Beth rises above her fear to reach out to him. When Marmee goes to care for Mr. March in Washington, D.C., Beth is the only sister who visits the Hummels, a wretchedly poor immigrant family in need of help.

Some readers might consider these deeds and her pastimes bland and uninspiring, but among the four March sisters, Beth is the rock of stability and good sense. She is an anchor for flighty, passionate Jo in her storms of emotion, a teacher to Amy, and a supporter of Meg, which makes all the difference to her sisters. Her circle of influence is small, but she performs each little task with love and treats those around her with unmistakable care.

In her book On Reading Well, Karen Swallow Prior defines a courageous person this way:

The person who is virtuously courageous displays not merely a single act of courage but the habit of courage. Courage — or fortitude, as it is often called — is defined most succinctly by moral philosophers and theologians as the habit that enables a person to face difficulties well.

“One of the essential qualities of courage,” Prior adds, is “endurance.” Fanny Price, the heroine of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, displays this characteristic more than bolder members of the cast. Fanny may well be one of the most disliked heroines in Austen’s works, a disappointing reality. She doesn’t have Lizzy’s wit or Emma’s charm, and in fact is exceedingly shy and reserved. Her soul delights in well-ordered days, quiet evenings, and walks in the park.

But from this reserve, Fanny observes and learns, giving her deeper insight into those around her. With the help of her cousin Edmund, she cultivates her reading habit and an appreciation for natural beauty. It is through this understanding of the simple and lovely that Fanny orders her mind and the daily practices that give her strength of character.

Author and blogger Haley Stewart points out that, with the exception of Fanny, characters in Mansfield meet their downfall because they lack a moral education:

It’s about charm versus goodness. It’s about mere conventional propriety versus true virtue and it’s hard for an entertainment-obsessed culture that glorifies appearances and laughs at the idea of character to understand. All of the characters struggle and are tried and tested . . . but some fight the good fight and others reveal that they never had virtue to begin with.

While modern readers might consider Fanny a prude, it is her attention to the needs of others, her consideration of what is morally appropriate when everyone else around her is stumbling, and her desire to do right by those she honors that keep her on a steady path.

Consider the infamous situation that unfolds with the play, Lover’s Vows, that the characters perform in the novel. Even if they won’t admit it, all the characters know this is an inappropriate venture, yet all but Fanny cave to their selfish desires and need for entertainment. They vex her mightily in their efforts to convince her to join them, but in refusing them, she exemplifies Aristotle’s explanation of the virtue of courage:

So the courageous person is the one who endures and fears — and likewise is confident about — the right things, for the right reason, in the right way, and at the right time; for the courageous person feels and act in accordance with the merits of the case, and as reason requires.

As the story progresses, Fanny endures indolence, spitefulness, pettiness, and unwanted attentions with grace and forbearance. She is not a long-suffering saint, and she has plenty of faults and oddities — from overthinking every situation to struggling with jealousy — but she has insight into herself and a desire to better her mind through reading wholesome books and engaging in enlightening conversation.

Even when her cousins are nearly swept under by a tidal wave of scandal and illness, Fanny is there to listen, assist, and comfort, putting aside her own worries to serve them. Her endurance is finally rewarded when her cousins come to see her value and love her for it.

Both Fanny and Beth exemplify courage, forgiveness, and kindness, but neither possesses all three virtues in as much abundance as the fairy-tale character Cinderella, particularly the way she is portrayed in Ella from Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 Disney live-action remake. She is willing to put others before herself, make sacrifices, and lose all she holds dear if it will keep those she loves safe and happy.

At the movie’s beginning, Ella’s dying mother elicits a simple promise from her: Have courage, and be kind. Ella lives out that request each year, serving first her father and then her ridiculous stepsisters and wicked stepmother. Her cultivation of courage and kindness gives her a sweet temper, enables her to make friends with animals, and charms the handsome prince — and she cultivates the ability to forgive.

Contrast this with the way the character is portrayed in the Cinderella spin-off movie Ever After, in which Drew Barrymore’s character, Danielle, is modeled off of Cinderella. In both movies, the Cinderella character is an orphan, and both are horribly abused, manipulated, and enslaved. Each movie features a scene at the end with the respective wicked stepmothers.

We cheer for Danielle as she looks down on her stepmother and declares, “I want you to know, that I will forget you after this moment, and never think of you again. But you, I am quite certain, will think of me every day for the rest of your life.” She then asks the king to “show her the same courtesy that she has bestowed upon me.” The nasty stepmother and her daughter are sent off to the laundry room to do heavy labor.

But what about Ella? The prince has found her, and as she is about to leave her home to become queen, when she stops and turns to face her stepmother. Quietly, without ceremony, pride, or condescension, Ella says, “I forgive you.” She does not say she’ll forget, because to do so would be unwise and unhealthy. Nor does she insist that the prince exile her enemy or lock her away. She does what everyone is called to do, and she does it with grace.

Too often, we might find ourselves scorning these quiet characters because we have a desire to “do something,” and these women at first glance don’t appear to do much of anything. But we shouldn’t ignore beauty and goodness just because it doesn’t seem to accomplish impressive deeds or involve saying witty things.

These characters lived simply and performed no mighty deeds or heroic actions. In many ways, we are far more like them, as we live our daily lives studying, caring for children, completing chores, and grocery shopping. That is the reason we often benefit more from their example than those of adventurous heroines. Purity, innocence, and goodness are qualities so lacking in today’s culture. By observing these courageous, kind, and forgiving women, we see that they have a strength of their own. Like the passion of Jo, the gayety of Lizzy, and the charm of Anne, these traits are indeed worth emulating.

Sarah Schutte is the podcast manager for National Review and an associate editor for National Review magazine. Originally from Dayton, Ohio, she is a children's literature aficionado and Mendelssohn 4 enthusiast.