Some of the most influential and interesting people in the world are fictional. Sherlock Holmes, Huck Finn, Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, Holden Caulfield, and Superman, to name a few, may never have walked the earth (or flown, in Superman's case), but they certainly stride through our lives. We can feel their influence personally: as childhood friends, catalysts to our dreams, or even fantasy lovers.
Peruvian author and presidential candidate Mario Vargas Llosa confessed to a lifelong passion for Flaubert's Emma Bovary. (For me, it was a toss-up between Sherlock Holmes and Jean Valjean.) Words such as "quixotic," "oedipal," and "herculean" show how fictional characters permeate our language, and what's more, fictional people can sometimes change the world. Witness the impact of Solzhenitsyn's Ivan Denisovich, in exposing the conditions of the Soviet Gulag, or Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom, in arousing anti-slavery feeling in America. Characters have a life and history of their own, which we can trace through the books, films, art, and music about them. The most influential characters are still making news!
This list, drawn from my book, The Fictional 100, ranks the top 10 most influential fictional persons in world literature and legend, from all time periods and all around the world. Some are familiar, and some may be surprising. The books I'm recommending let these characters speak in their own voices, through the stories that gave them birth or that have proven to be highlights in their fictional careers.
by William Shakespeare, edited by Stephen Orgel, A. R. Braunmuller
Shakespeare's magnificent Dane-in-the-doldrums takes first place, not least for the unsurpassed fame of his musing "To be, or not to be." He talks more than any other Shakespearean creation (as recognized by the Guinness Book of Records), and is, by many measures, the literary character most talked about. The enigma of Hamlet has made him a favorite subject of writers, psychologists, and critics. He has presented the ultimate challenge to actors for four centuries. In his world, Hamlet lives in tortured isolation, bearing his grief and debating his revenge, but in our world, he's nearly always displayed before a crowd. His words can always be heard somewhere in the world, and his reach is so wide, one is as likely to see him on stage in Tokyo as in New York (or in Split, Croatia, where Hamlet premiered in April 2010).
by Robert Fagles, Homer, edited by Bernard Knox
Whereas Hamlet is the most relentlessly individual of fictional men, Odysseus has proved to be the most versatile. Quick-witted and crafty — remember the Trojan Horse? — and ruthless as well, this playboy of the Mediterranean world was irresistible to human women and goddesses alike, as he made his long voyage home to his beloved wife Penelope. And who else could shoot an arrow through 12 axes? His 3,000-year cultural odyssey took him all the way to 20th-century Dublin, guided by the pen of James Joyce, and continues in the work of writers such as Nikos Kazantzakis and Derek Walcott. Here, Robert Fagles' nimble, modern-sounding verse captures not only the words but the passion and ruggedness of Homer's original in this brisk, award-winning translation.
by Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, edited by John Rutherford
The most beloved hero of prose fiction, Don Quixote has won the fame he sought and influenced novels and novelists ever since he set off on his broken-down horse, Rocinante, to perform knightly deeds. Miguel de Unamuno and, recently, Alberto Manguel have even mused that Quixote was possibly more real than his creator, Cervantes! The loquacious Don and his sidekick Sancho Panza have spawned many renowned duos, from Holmes and Watson to Batman and Robin. Lance drawn, tilting at windmills, Quixote's gentle madness sprang from his own obsession with the fictions he read. He drew many others into his fantasy world — and still does.
edited by Robert Alter
Biblical mother of us all, Eve is the first to claim humanity's gift of free choice, for good or ill. Her inclusion does not mean there could not have been such a woman, only that she belongs to the legendary prehistory of our species. Indeed, a "mitochondrial Eve" — the most recent common female ancestor of everyone alive today — has been the subject of genetic anthropology research. The story of Eve that we know, in the Garden of Eden, is told in a few short chapters near the beginning of Genesis. But what tremendous repercussions it has had in Western humanity's view of itself! Our notions of sin, free will, sexuality, sex roles, and marriage have been shaped by changing interpretations of Eve's story and her varied career in art, literature (e.g., Milton's Paradise Lost), and a vast stock of extra-biblical legend. Whenever I pick up one of Robert Alter's translations (such as The Five Books of Moses or The Book of Psalms), I feel as though I'm being given a chance to experience the bible with fresh eyes. Likewise, this translation and commentary devoted to Genesis gives us the chance to encounter Eve as if for the first time.
by Murasaki Shikibu, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker
Hero of the world's first novel, and the deepest fictional influence on Japan for 1,000 years, the multi-talented Genji showed his greatest aptitude in the field of romance. In the closed society of Heian Japan, where women were literally screened from view, the persuasive prince entered many a lady's chamber by moonlight and headed two households filled with devoted wives. Edward Seidensticker's beautiful translation transports you to the Heian court and into the emotional lives of these exquisite characters, especially the "shining Genji." As you soak up the visual imagery, heart-rending plot, and subtle poetry of this work, you will be sorry that, even after so many pages, it ends so soon.
by Sophocles, edited by Richmond Lattimore, David Grene
Oedipus the King is Sophocles' classic drama of incest, mistaken identity, and self-punishment, here in David Grene's lucid and moving translation. Antigone tells about his ill-fated children, and Oedipus at Colonus finds Oedipus in old age — homeless, blind, and embittered. In 427 B.C., Sophocles' masterpiece lost first prize in the annual Athenian drama contest to a play by Aeschylus' nephew, Philocles (who?)! No one has forgotten Oedipus, however, especially not Sigmund Freud, who saw in him, not just one man's tragedy, but Everyman's psyche. Freud's take on Oedipus's unwitting incest and patricide has left us forever uneasy about the sexual dynamics of the family.
by Moliere, translated by Richard Wilbur
After Odysseus, Don Juan is the most well-traveled character — from bedroom to bedroom, and from author to author: most notably, Tirso de Molina, Molière, Mozart, Byron, Zorrilla, and Shaw. Tirso created the Burlador (Trickster) of Seville in 1630 and since then he is recognized as myth, psychological complex, and archetype. Molière's innovations, in his comedy Don Juan, greatly influenced Mozart's rendering in his opera, Don Giovanni. I recommend Richard Wilbur's translation as the best introduction in English to this character. Wilbur, a former U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer prize winner, is the foremost translator of Molière's comedies, both in verse and, here, in prose.
by David Hawkes, O Kao, Hsueh-Ch'in Ts'ao, John Minford, Cao Xueqin, Hsueh-Chin Tsao
Hero of China's greatest novel, Dream of the Red Chamber (1792), also known as The Story of the Stone, Chia Pao-yü (Jia Bao-yu) is pampered by his wealthy Chia family, whose machinations place him at the apex of a tragic love triangle. This opening volume introduces the boy Chia Pao-yü, recalls his birth in heaven as a Precious Jade, and recounts the beginnings of his doomed love for his delicate cousin, Black Jade. His character focuses the novel's complex symbolism, encapsulated in its alternative titles, making him both the earthly Dreamer, who suffers from the poignant illusions of life, and a misplaced Stone of Heaven, or Precious Jade (Pao-yü), who must finally reclaim his spiritual destiny. David Hawkes' beautiful and readable translation allows us to become deeply involved with these characters and experience their compelling story, which is both romantic and spiritually significant.
by John Lecarre, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, edited by Leslie S. Klinger
The most real of modern characters, the Baker Street detective receives thousands of letters a year from fans worldwide seeking his services. Conan Doyle couldn't kill him — when he sent Sherlock Holmes tumbling to the bottom of the Reichenbach Falls, readers demanded that he be resurrected to pursue further adventures. Conan Doyle reluctantly obliged and, remarkably, Holmes continues to solve cases to this day, as reported by an unceasing stream of new authors. Holmes's unstoppable mind — and ego to match — make him unmistakable on stage or in film, no matter who plays him, whether it be William Gillette, Basil Rathbone, the incomparable Jeremy Brett, or, most recently, Robert Downey, Jr. The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes presents the "canon" of Conan Doyle's writings about Holmes, enriched by a wealth of essays and notes covering the range of scholarly issues that have grown up around the master sleuth's life and character. Leslie Klinger won an Edgar award (Mystery Writers of America, Best Critical/Biographical Work) for his achievement in this two-volume set of the 56 short stories. If this leaves you wanting even more Holmes, Klinger has also edited The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Novels.
by Simon Brodbeck, Juan Mascaro, Anonymous
Arjuna is the hero at the heart of the Mahabharata, the national epic of India, This unsurpassed archer conquered in the realms of love, war, and the spirit. While supremely skilled, courageous, and admired even by his opponents, he's much more than a warrior. He made the field of battle a school for discovering life's meaning, thinking more deeply about moral questions than any other epic hero. He was ultimately victorious in the war of royal succession that forms the epic's action, yet on the brink of war he hesitated to battle his kinsmen. He addressed his moral dilemma to his charioteer, none other than Lord Krishna, an incarnation of the supreme god Vishnu. As Krishna's chief disciple, Arjuna was privileged to receive firsthand the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, the most beloved Hindu scripture, as his answer. The Bhagavad Gita, or Song of the Lord, explores the meaning of action from all sides and considers the possible paths to salvation. In the end, Krishna exhorted Arjuna to perform his duty in the spirit of selfless devotion to God. Franklin Edgerton's verse translation is clear, moving, and highly praised for its authenticity.
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About Lucy Pollard-Gott
Lucy Pollard-Gott, PhD, is an author, psychologist, and critic whose research has centered on the psychology of the arts. She has published articles about the structure of fairy tales, what happens with repeated listening to music, the social psychology of our interactions with fictional characters, and her discovery of fractals in the poetry of Wallace Stevens. These days she can be found tinkering with her website, The Fictional 100, or tweeting with wonderful folks online about their favorite fictional people (@Fictional100).
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