Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Absolution of Fragility

I found some of the themes in A Visit From the Goon Squad to be a bit... problematic. Most notably, both the tone and message of "You (Plural)" seemed quite disturbing.

This particular story was guilty of using one of my least favorite tropes: The Absolution of Fragility trope. I define this trope as "Making the audience sympathetic towards a morally corrupt character, who may have been seen as a villain in the past, by portraying them as fragile, weak, old, misfortunate, or depressed, and thereby absolving them of any past crimes."

When it comes to literary analysis, I think it's important to approach things with a certain level of detachment. In this instance, I failed to do so. I hated Lou. I hated every single mention of him and everything he represented. It would take far too long to explain why, so I won't. Hopefully, anyone reading the book will have an understanding that he is a person who does horrible things and sees nothing wrong with those horrible things, and that's what's important.

Which is why I was so appalled when several different people, after reading "You (Plural)" (a story portraying Lou as old, fragile, lonely, depressed, even a little regretful), said that they had started to actually like him, or had realized that maybe he wasn't so awful, given this "intriguing new perspective" of his character.

Let's just get this out there: we ALL grow old. We ALL become fragile and weak and pathetic. Many of us grow to have regrets and crippling nostalgia. Generous people, cruel people, philanthropists and serial murders alike - we all eventually descend into a sad state that makes us seem innocent and worthy of sympathy. This doesn't actually mean that we are deserving of sympathy, or that we are actually innocent. It definitely doesn't mean that all of the horrible things we've done just suddenly disappear.

In order to truly dig deep into the disgusting murky depths of this trope, we really have to examine the concepts of good and bad themselves. Are things inherently good, or inherently bad? I think absolutely not. However, things can be separated into the more relative categories of "selfish" and "selfless." Actions are usually one of the two, and can occasionally be a mixture of both. People, I've found, are rarely exclusively one or the other - Lou was definitely one of the rare cases that fell squarely on the "selfish" end of the spectrum. Some people are only out for themselves.

The reason this trope is problematic is, strangely enough, found within one of the later stories of the book: "Selling the General" (my personal favorite). In this story, we yet again see the absolution trope in a completely different light: a genocidal despot being humanized through images that literally make people forget about his crimes.

When we encounter the AOF trope, it's important to realize how real and unhealthy it is. It's easy, perhaps, to become sympathetic towards a character who just abused his children and had sex with a teenager when he's now a sad, helpless old man, because those characters aren't real. They don't exist any farther than we take them. But what about when this happens in real life - which it does? What are we doing to all the people this person has hurt when we absolve them of every wrongdoing because we give them sympathy we don't deserve? We must not allow ourselves to invalidate the damage done to the victim's by giving the perpetrator of the crimes a false innocence. We must not let the images color the reality.


  1. I really like this post! I agree, I hated Lou as well, and for a second found myself falling in the "trap" of false innocence that you talked about when I was reading about his sickness.

  2. I'm really happy you made this post. It is so so easy for us to fall into this trap of sympathetic immoral character. We see this a lot in television and movies, and I've seen many things on the internet that claim these villainous/wrongdoers/generally bad people are to be forgiven because of some (pardon my language) bullshit reason or another. This isn't a good mindset to have. You don't just forgive a murderer because he says sorry. Just because he feels remorse later doesn't mean that he can just take it back. I think that you're also right, it's easy to do this with a fictional character, as they aren't real, but the key is to be able to set them apart from reality, and know that the world just shouldn't work like that. People need to have consequences for their actions.

  3. Whoa. Great post. Aside from thinking the title of the post is extremely cool, I completely agree with your opinion of Lou and others like him, fictional or not. I may not have completely hated Lou quite as much (there was definitely enough reason to hate him; I never feel very strongly about fictional characters) but I agree that his past wrongs cannot suddenly be forgiven or forgotten for the sole reason of increased age and fragility. I can understand the people who believe he deserves sympathy and forgiveness - to an extent - but passage of time alone is not enough to reform a person's character.

  4. But Jocelyn has that vision of dumping him into the pool. Isn't her conflicted response to the fragile Lou questioning the trope -- and not just perpetuating it?