In Encounter Milan Kundera made the observation that “scarcely 1 percent of the world’s population are childless, but at least 50 percent of the great literary characters exit the book without having reproduced.”
I found this to be quite thought-provoking. I disagree, however, with his conclusions as to why this is. He hypothesizes that the novel makes the protagonist “irreplaceable… the center of everything.”
If Don Quixote had children, he argues, his life would be prolonged. His narrative would go on in the form of his children and the story wouldn’t be finished.
This makes no sense to me as the full life of a character from birth to death is not usually the span of a novel. Novels usually focus on a particular period in a character’s life starting not at birth but just before a particular drama unfolds. Some novels end with the death of the main character, but this is far from a requirement. The story is finished when the drama as the author conceived it is over. (“And they lived happily ever after” is as common in story telling as “And then they all died.”)
Stories do not include children for the same reason they do not include a lot of elements of life— the drama of a novel is stripped down to those characters and situations that are essential to portray the particular struggle being illustrated. Children exist in our stories largely as plot devices rather than characters because adults are, for the most part, not that interested in exploring the depths of the immature mind.
The biggest problem I see with a Papa Don Quixote is that we are meant to view Don Quixote as a hero because he refuses to be constrained by ugly reality and chooses instead to live in beautiful fantasy. He makes his own dream world rather than living with the constrains and responsibilities of his social environment. There is a part of us that is always at war with the constrains of society, and that part loves Quixote. But it is much easier to admire Don Quixote’s beautiful madness if it is not at the expense of an abandoned family; a wife and children who might depend on him to be present in the real world back home.
It would be even more outlandish for us if he were a woman. Imagine Donna Quixote: A wealthy Spanish woman who chooses a world of fantasy over reality. She would have a hard time. If she was childless our culture would have us assume one of two things about her. Either she was traumatized by her barrenness (her madness might be attributed to it) or she was selfish enough to put her own needs above child rearing. She could be either a damaged victim or unsympathetic. Those are really the only two choices we have in our culture, especially historically, for childless women. Neither makes for a great hero. If Donna Quixote had children, on the other hand, how forgiving would we be if she went off to have adventures as a knight and left the kids behind? Much less so, I imagine, than we would be for the warriors of classic literature.
Which leads to another observation about the great literary characters. I am making this statistic up out of thin air, but my guess would be that while a full 50% of the world’s population is female, 98% of the great literary characters are male.
Historically, children were a woman’s responsibility and they were interesting to men only as heirs. This being the case, they would rarely figure in the drama of a man’s life. He might find his princess and she might have his children, but that would have little impact on his adventures at sea.
Kundera’s analysis of the purpose of children in literature, in fact, takes the view that the only meaning of a child is as an heir. The child is not a responsibility or a person with whom you have a relationship. If more of the great books focused on the lives of women then children might be more present. In stories about women, children often exist as a pressing responsibility.
I was thinking about this question again the other day when I was reading one of those books on the search for the historical Jesus. The book speculated on whether or not Jesus was a married man. It would be unusual for a 30-year-old Jewish man of his day not to be married, and the author concluded that it was likely that he would have been. The popularity and appeal of this view of Jesus is attested to by the great success of Dan Brown’s best seller The DaVinci Code.
Of course, when you speculate about the marital status of Jesus, the next question is whether or not he had children. The author of the book on the historical Jesus touched on this question. Just as Dan Brown does in The DaVinci Code and as Kundera does in his musings on Don Quixote’s childlessness, he frames the question of Jesus’s children as one of his bloodline. Does Jesus have descendants walking around somewhere?
This sidesteps a rather important question: If Jesus had children what kind of father was he?
We know that Jesus did not have many positive things to say about family bonds. He told his disciples to leave their families and follow him, and he turned away his own mother and brothers (Matthew 12:47-49) and said that his disciples were his real brothers. Would this detachment from his mother and siblings extend to the next generation as well?
It is easy to see how the idea of a Christ with children becomes problematic. If he favored his own children over others, it undercuts his message of universal love– a love that shines out on everyone and everything with equal unconcern. Jesus loves the beggar, the prostitute and the tax collector with the same depth and quality as he loves his mother, no more no less. Yet as human beings, the idea of a father who does not favor his own children and give them special attention over other people is abhorrent to us.
It is much easier to avoid the issue all together by leaving his family, if indeed he had one, out of the story.