It’s easy to celebrate smart people—detectives who figure out mysteries just by observing clues, evil geniuses who devise horrific ways of ending the world and the sullen brainiacs who defeat them, anyone who figures out how to game the system and come out on top. But let’s put aside the hero-worship, because we all know that in literature at least, it’s the morons we enjoy the most. They deliver chaos and stupidity right when a plot needs them, and lend otherwise incredible actions credible by dint of their obtuse idiocy. Forget the smart heroes, and take a moment to celebrate some of the greatest, dumbest characters in literary history.
Chauncey Gardiner, Being There, by Jerzy Kosinski
Chance the Gardener is without question an empty vessel—a moron who has known nothing but the garden he tends for the wealthy “Old Man,” and what he sees on television. When the Old Man dies, a series of chance meetings and coincidences convinces a group of wealthy, connected people, including the president of the United States himself, that Chance (whose name has been misheard as Chauncey Gardiner) is a genius of few words and immense vision. Mocking the modern world of soundbites and instant celebrity, this prescient novel is still hilarious today. There is a chewy center of despair in Chance, who remains completely unchanged and unaffected by everything he experiences, ending the story back in a garden, where he finally feels at home.
Benjy Compson, The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner
Benjy is easily one of the most complex, challenging characters in literature. His lyrical, time-jumping, emotionally inarticulate narration at the start of Faulkner’s novel has caused more than one reader to admit defeat and back away from the book slowly, as one would from a hungry bear that has crashed your campsite. Benjy is never a figure of fun—he is a tragic, almost a force of nature, a person who cannot speak or communicate with those around him, a character who clings to the few stable aspects of his life like a drowning man to a log. Seeing the world from Benjy’s point of view is incredibly challenging, but in the end, his tragic life is the one we get to know best, lending The Sound and the Fury an elegant sadness.
Ignatius J. Reilly, A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole
The smartest, best-read moron in literary history, Ignatius J. Reilly is a comical figure of contrasts. He’s a man who disdains the modern world, yet enjoys many of its comforts. He’s completely incompetent in almost everything he tries (even selling hot dogs turns into an Epic Fail), yet looks down on almost everyone he encounters. He believes himself to be open-minded and worldly, despite never having left his home city of New Orleans—in fact, his one attempt to travel a modest distance remains a story of deep psychological horror he repeats often. Reilly’s attempts to wriggle free of society’s requirements only lead him to work far harder and live deeper in squalor than he otherwise would. He is a lesson to anyone who has railed against the fact that we all have to “fit in” somehow to society.
Lennie Small, Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
One of the most tragic figures in literature, Lennie Small is a huge, powerful man who loves animals, his friend George, and their shared dream of living a simple life on their own farm. The Lennie/George dynamic is so well-known today, it’s a cliché that’s often used humorously, but Lennie himself is tragic; incredibly strong, but lacking the brains needed to use his strength constructively, Lennie kills the things he loves by accident. His charming innocence endears him to the reader, and we wish for a happy ending—but the version of “happy” that Lennie receives heaps tragedy upon tragedy.
Don Quixote, Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes
One of the few literary characters whose name coined an adjective, Don Quixote is a marvelous creation, a man driven mad by reading too many romantic stories of medieval chivalry who sets out to be a knight, to set things right, and to find his “lady love.” Although more insane than actually stupid, Don Quixote’s misadventures always harm the people he attempts to help, and always leave in their wake more chaos than anything else. He’s a remarkably dumb, albeit charming, character who has come to define the crazy, stupid passion that inspires people to make poor decisions, waste resources, and ultimately fail in their stated endeavors. Of all the morons on this list, the world would truly be a dimmer place without this one.