From Our Staff | November 06, 2008

As election season draws to a close with the now customary fits and starts of provisional ballot counting, run-offs, etc., we thought we’d take a look at some of our favorite politicians from literature. Prince or puppet-master, tyrant or revolutionary, the figure of the politician is a canvas upon which we can project our fondest hopes and most cynical fears about the state of society. Below we offer a few of our favorites.

1. Lear

[amazonify]074348276X[/amazonify]My sophomore year in college I was cast as Cordelia in King Lear.  A sophomore in every respect, I was disappointed that the director thought me more ingénue than villain.  Goneril and Regan have better lines and one dies on stage.  They spin their “oily art” while Cordelia, daddy’s favorite, sweetly declines to flatter her father with blandishments of love.  For her refusal to outdo her sisters’ hyperbolic flattery, she is disowned and banished from the kingdom.  She doesn’t make another appearance on stage until the closing act, which meant hanging out in the greenroom for two hours while Lear blusters on to his fool about his bad decision to abdicate his throne. 

Other than my lines, I didn’t even read the play, and if I had, I doubt that I would have appreciated Shakespeare’s wisdom about death and loneliness. 

What I did understand was the danger of relinquishing power, both political and personal.  Each night as Lear divided his kingdom among his two “favored” daughters, I wanted to shout, “Don’t do it.”  In fact, instead of refusing her father a verbal demonstration of her love, Cordelia should have warned him off early retirement. 

The next semester I was in Eugene Ionesco’s Exit the King (someone in the theater department was preoccupied with kingship).  Rather than willingly give up his control, King Berenger’s kingdom and his power has slowly dimmed.  The king must die by the end of the play, but he doesn’t want to.  Both plays lament mortality as they portray the “lion in winter.”  In the end, neither Lear nor Berenger goes gently and their rage against the “dying of the light” is full of pathos and poetry.  Twenty years after playing in them, I understand these plays and rank them among my favorites. –Kris Somerville

2. Big Brother

[amazonify]0452284236[/amazonify]I’ll go with an obvious one: Big Brother – really a valid “literary politician/ political figure” or “literary monster” despite his arguable existence in the first place.  I remember my first and only reading of 1984 with mixed emotion.  In my 9th grade english class, the reading of 1984 was the one month out of the year students would wipe the drool off their desks and actually care about reading.  For some reason Orwell was the one guy everybody dug.  Of course, for the few of us who stayed awake, that meant we had to do more to get an A than go through the motions – meaning the teacher would ask and let linger in the air until the silence became awkward for everyone (while the teacher lost their focus wondering why the ever signed up to “Teach for America” in the first place), followed by the chime-in, last-minute save.

Anyway, Big Brother.  I was too naive to feel haunted by Big Brother.  Maybe it was because I read it well after the Cold War…with no real understanding of the Cold War.  I guess by then we had pretty much been full of the idea that Orwell was wrong and Huxley was right, to paraphrase Neil Postman.  How many people would buy a television if they knew it stared back at them?  If they were on sale, probably more than you’d think.  I did like the idea of fighting the system.  I was very into handing out socialist pamphlets during high school, but I really did it for the George Washington University socialist group parties.  Hoards of pseudo-Marxists would get drunk in one bedroom apartments and throw books at each other.  Most of the parties were called something like “the communal struggle (of getting sober).” 

1984. All I can think is, with that much oppression, the sex must have been great. –Seth Graves

3. Thomas Gradgrind

[amazonify]0451530993[/amazonify]If I had to describe why, when I think of memorarble literary politicians, I immediately go to Thomas Gradgrind of Hard Times, it would probably be that he starts the novel as the manifestation of everything a person in the literary arts should despise and fear.  He believes in nothing other than fact, standardization, and viewing the world from a mathmatical/scientific standpoint, and goes so far as to raise his own children under this same belief.  As a result, his own daughter is emotionally dead inside and his son becomes a criminal with no remorse for simply being one of his father’s statistics.  The reason I love his character though, despite all the terrible things his doctrines bring about, is that at the end of the novel he comes to see the error of his own ways and realizes that there may be more to the world than cold hard fact, and everytime I read this ending I can’t help but wonder if it has a good message for a country like ours where schools seem more and more focused on standardization and memorizing facts. –Nick Quijas

4. Brother Jack

[amazonify]0679732764[/amazonify]Struggling to survive in 1930’s Harlem, the narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is discovered by and offered employment with an organization known as “the Brotherhood,” a thinly veiled signifier for the Communist Party.

Sporting a mane of bright red hair, Brother Jack, the charismatic leader of the Brotherhood, initially appears in the novel as a compassionate and intelligent individual. He explains to the narrator that his organization defends the rights of the socially oppressed, those “dispossessed of their heritage,” to build “a better world for all people.” The narrator is swept up by Brother Jack’s ideological optimism.

But as the novel progresses, the narrator realizes that Brother Jack exhibits his own brand of racial prejudice that objectifies the narrator as a mere tool – an invisible man – as invisible to Jack as the rest of white American society.

In an epiphanic moment of high drama and symbolic potency, the narrator discovers that Jack has a glass eye: “Suddenly something seemed to erupt from his face….  A glass eye.  A buttermilk white eye distorted by the light rays….  I stared into his face, feeling a sense of outrage.  His left eye had collapsed, a line of raw redness showing where the lid refused to close, and his gaze had lost its command.”

Ellison’s portrait of this political figure reveals a man blinded by his single-minded commitment to an abstract ideology, one that blinds him to the actual plight of African Americans in Harlem.

Deprived of his charm and intellectual jargon, Brother Jack reveals his base and arrogant motives when he tells the narrator, “We do not shape our policies to the mistaken and infantile notions of the man in the street. Our job is not to ask them what they think but to tell them!”

Initially inspirational, but ultimately close-minded and blind, Brother Jack is a Ralph Ellison’s absurdist version of every politician who has lifted our hopes only to let them fall and shatter into pieces. –Eric Thomas

5. Lysistrata

[amazonify]0452007178[/amazonify]The ancient Athenian comic dramatist Aristophanes has left us with a whole rogues gallery of satirically drawn politicial characters, from Pisthetairos of The Birds, who helps found a utopia (“Cloudcuckooland”) only to become its tyrant, to Dikaiopolis of The Acharnians, who brokers his own private peace with Sparta. But the eponymous heroine of Lysistrata is perhaps the most striking, an enterprising ancient lobbyist for peace. Fed up with the tribulations of the Peloponnesian War, Lysistrata leads the women of the Greek city-states in a massive boycott of sex: no nooky for the men of Greece until they end to fighting (a plan that she find just as difficult to hold the women to).  –Patrick Lane

Who are your favorite politicians from literature? Let us know in the comments below!

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