Literary voices of reason are the best. We get to cheer them along (or pause in disbelief) as they unleash torrents of truth on the unassuming characters around them. It’s true that voices of reason are often tactless (or outright mean) when delivering their brutal honesty, but that’s the thing about a character who tells it like it is: they just don’t care. To them, bruising egos and crushing dreams just comes with the territory, because not calling it like they see it is something that a voice of reason just doesn’t know how to do. Here are five fictional characters who have never pulled a punch:
John Givings (Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates)
The son of Frank and April Wheeler’s real estate agent, Helen Givings, John Givings is the embodiment of everything the Wheelers long to be. He laughs in the face of conformity, he says what he thinks, he’s spontaneous and emotional. (And, well, he also happens to have just gotten out of a mental hospital.) It’s these characteristics that attract the Wheelers to John and move them to divulge their plans to move to France. Later, when April finds out she’s pregnant and Frank gets a promotion, their plans change. What comes next has to be one of the most intense dinner table confrontations of all time. When John hears the news that the couple won’t be moving, he belligerently lays into them, criticizing their fear of change and their conformity to the “norms” of suburban life. He gives voice to every insecurity that the couple has been unable to articulate about themselves, and the effect of his tirade is absolutely devastating, setting into motion a series of events from which the Wheelers never recover. Maybe John’s delivery was a bit extreme (OK, a lot extreme), but for people who’ve been keeping such a lid on such a huge pot of rage, even a gentle nudge toward the truth may have had the same result.
Jiminy Cricket (Pinocchio, by Carlo Collodi)
As Pinocchio’s sidekick, Jiminy Cricket might be the quintessential voice of reason. Cricket (named by Disney in their animated version of Collodi’s classic tale) is appointed by the Blue Fairy to serve as the human-loving puppet’s conscience. His task is to teach Pinocchio about being human, so that he might prove worthy of becoming a real boy. And, like so many voices of reason, Cricket’s advice falls on deaf ears. What’s more, in the original version of this story, Pinocchio kills poor Jiminy! In his defense, what’s more human than wanting your conscience to shut up sometimes?
Randle McMurphy (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey)
Undoubtedly, Randle McMurphy didn’t know what he was getting himself into when he feigned signs of mental instability in order to secure a transfer from the Pendleton Work Farm to a psychiatric hospital. But McMurphy is a quick study , and sees the damage that “ball-cutter” Nurse Ratched’s cruelty and manipulation causes to the patients in her care. After several of McMurphy’s varied attempts at subversion (leading the other patients in protests, inciting physical altercations with the medical staff), he realizes he’s become the group’s de facto leader. When he finally accepts this responsibility, he begins treating his fellow patients with respect and humility, as though they are, well, human beings—and the patients begin to see themselves this way, too. That turns out to be the kind of insubordination that Nurse Ratched fears the most, and for it, McMurphy pays a mighty price.
Shug Avery (The Color Purple, by Alice Walker)
It’s hard to define the relationship between Shug Avery and Celie, the book’s narrator. They’re friends, lovers, confidantes, family, and kindred spirits. For two who are so close, they couldn’t be more different. Compared to the perpetually abused and neglected Celie, Shug is as independent and confident as a woman can be. She is fearless, saying and doing whatever she wants and refusing to kowtow to the restrictions that race, sexuality, or gender placed upon other women of her time. It’s these differences, in part, that draw the two together, as well as allow Shug to grasp the gravity of Celie’s situation with her abusive husband. Shug not only talks Celie out of killing him, she also challenges the way Celie views God. The possibility that God could be anything other than a belligerent white man is a radical idea for Celie, but one that gives her the strength she has so desperately needed to finally claim her life as her own.
Christopher John Francis Boone (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon)
Christopher John Francis Boone has a unique perspective on the world. Though it’s never said straight out that he has autism, he reveals enough about himself that it’s understood. Autism inhibits his ability to consider the world from someone else’s perspective; it renders him wholly absent of empathy. He is unable to detect or assign meaning to the undertones of people’s speech (anger, sarcasm, etc.), or to take language as anything other than words. (“Metaphors are lies!”) It is from this perspective that Christopher tells his story, chronicling his investigation into the murder of a neighbor’s dog. He isn’t a voice of reason to the characters in his book, but to us—his audience. During the murder investigation (and the bigger familial mystery that unfolds), Christopher drops some philosophical knowledge on us: why heaven exists (“people believe in heaven because they don’t like the idea of dying, because they want to carry on living and they don’t like the idea that other people will move into their house and put their things in the rubbish”), that everyone longs to make their mark on the world (“I want my name to mean me”), and that people lie all the time (“dogs are faithful and do not tell lies because they cannot talk”). Christopher’s unique, no-nonsense way of communicating does what all of the best voices of reason do: makes you see the world a little bit differently.
Who’s your favorite truth-speaking character in fiction?