I am rather fond of the crowd that Dante meets at the very start of his journey into Hell with Virgil. They are all rushing around moaning and shrieking on the edge of the River Acheron, hoping that Charon the ferryman will carry them across. He refuses. When Dante asks who they are Virgil tells him that they are the ‘Futile’, the people who have done nothing in particular with their lives. They are not well-known for anything. They have achieved nothing spectacular either good or bad. They are not allowed into Heaven in case their dullness dims the radiant light of Paradise, and Hell won’t have them either because such an insipid bunch would downgrade the very notion of sinfulness. So they are not allowed passage across the river. They are seen hurrying to assemble under one flag and then fleeing in the opposite direction to assemble under another. They sound like most of us. Anyway, I number myself among them.
That early canto in Dante’s Inferno set me thinking. I began to wonder what place the futile, the piddling and the paltry occupied in literature. Where were they? Did they ever come into their own? Could they rise to the heights of tragedy? Were they ever major protagonists in a story, being neither dastardly nor heroic, but just mooching along. The dastardly, in their dazzling darkness of evil, are well represented: Captain Ahab (more of Melville later), Shakespeare’s Iago, Stavrogin in The Devils, child-killer Medea and indeed Satan himself in Paradise Lost. And it is only too easy to find swashbuckling heroes and feisty heroines from Odysseus and Beowulf to Shaw’s St Joan, Atticus Finch, Elizabeth Bennet, Anna Karenina, James Bond or Toni Morrison’s Sethe. The list is endless.
But what about those who did not swash any buckles, those who just pottered along? Are they represented? Well, yes they are. Gradually, it dawned on me that the person I was seeking was that little-recognized creature who nonethe
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