Is Survival Enough for a Dystopian Hero?

We call main characters protagonists. We like to call them heroes. Then there are those pesky anti-heroes, when the main character we root for is really a bad guy. But what if main characters aren’t particularly heroic? Is it enough that they just survive? How proactive can a character be if he or she just seems to let the world drive them?

I just got finished reading Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last, two years after its 2015 publication, and I think I get it. Years behind, I’m reading it for one of my many book clubs, and I’m guessing what some people will say.

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There is a world out there that will insist that the characters are unrealistic in their actions, that they fail to be truly proactive, that no one would be so easily duped into giving up a few rights for a steady income, healthcare, reliable housing, relative safety.

Tasha Robinson’s NPR review recognizes the piece as satire, but then she  critiques the “vacancy” and naïveté of the two main characters. Robinson complains that the couple’s “lack of initiative or capability makes this book deeply frustrating.” I would say the world they grapple with is what is truly “frustrating.”

Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last would be a very different novel if we had ass-kicking heroes fighting for survival instead of our unfortunate sheep-like innocents. These poor saps begin as hapless victims of the American Dream only to have the world collapse around them. They are brought low before they are lured into a new system, and who can blame them for engaging in a little wishful thinking?

Some of us are quick to criticize the acts of desperation performed by others, forgetting, or perhaps never knowing, what true desperation feels like, how misfortune and helplessness can work to drive that desperation.

I’m beginning to understand what privilege means. I skirt the edge of it; over-educated and white, I have tons of advantages some of the students and adults I’ve met over the years might not have. I have also known people for whom privilege is such a natural state, they demonstrate a true lack of understanding, never mind empathy, for characters with challenges that are beyond their control.

My life has not been lived in a bubble. And I’m married to a man who chose to give up a few rights for a steady income, healthcare, reliable housing, relative safety. I am a military spouse.

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I suppose some people would scoff at those who would choose the military lifestyle even as many more would over-celebrate the patriotism. Sure, pride in country is often a vital ingredient in choosing a career in the U.S. Military, but signing up with Uncle Sam is a hopeful act; people join for a better life, a career, adventure, a purpose in this world. It used to also be a promise of higher education (although I haven’t heard even a whisper of that lately). Some even look to military service as a patriotic path to citizenship. The bargain is struck, and as part of the bargain, sometimes they go somewhere and wear a boiler suit, sleep on a rack, live a highly-regulated lifestyle. In exchange, it seems, they get a better life.

It’s not an easy or glamorous life. Yet I have known people for whom this was the good life. People who, as enlisted families, made little enough money that they qualified for WIC. Yet they looked upon the military as a good life. I had neighbors who helped support family at home, sent money to parents, younger siblings. They lifted themselves out of poverty by literal boot straps.

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Are military families heroic? Or are they just survivors?

Why begrudge Charmaine the pleasure of new towels in a world where her alternative was sleeping in a tiny, smelly, used car where her husband, Stan, keeps his key in the ignition in case they have to drive away from danger? Another review, by Patti Hartigan, at least recognizes the characters in Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last are stuck.

So often I hear fellow readers complain about the lack of action on the part of protagonists. Why doesn’t she just walk away? I would never let anyone treat me like that! Why doesn’t he just jump over the wall and escape? I’d find that bad guy and give him what for. We really are programmed to look for ass-kicking heroes, and we’re disappointed when books don’t deliver.

But sometimes, it is heroic to just survive, to just make it through. Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last even has moments when the two main characters chew over other possibilities, only to fall back on inaction as the best option. Perhaps too passive to be called protagonists, the unfortunate Charmaine and Stan are, nevertheless, survivors.

Can dystopian characters be successful even if they merely survive?

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