My English 215 students are beginning serious work on their first essays now. Most of them will write on the Iliad or the Odyssey, though a few will pursue Aeschylus’s Oresteia. As I talk with them about their ideas, I am reminded of something that I’m reminded of every year at this time: that students are primarily interested in writing about characters — which is good; that they very much want to decide whether a given character is “positive” or “negative” — which is simplistic; and that they are absolutely fascinated by the issue of motivation — which is the subject of this blog post.
I would say that well over half my students, when they think about fictional characters, focus mainly on what they think motivates those characters: Why do they do what they do? Sometimes I try to suggest that Homer may not even have had a conception of motive — there’s no evidence in the poems, as far as I can see, that he thinks that way — and that in any case motivation can't be nearly as important in the archaic Greek context as it is in a culture shaped by Christianity’s interest in the inner person. Odysseus, when disguised as a beggar, tries to decide whether to kill that obnoxious braggart Iros with a single blow or give him a “light tap” that just breaks his jaw, but that’s a simply practical internal debate: he never wonders who he really is, after the fashion of the seventh chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans.
And then there’s the problem of treating fictional characters as though they were real people, people who have traits that the authors never wrote about or, perhaps, even imagined. . . .
But I digress. I think students (people in general) are concerned about motives because they believe that if they know someone’s motives, they know whether that person is a “positive” or “negative” character. But as Rebecca West once said, “There’s no such thing as an unmixed motive.” We all act out of complex and often contradictory motives, and all of us are mysteries to ourselves. Why should we think we can scope out the motives of other people when we’re largely in the dark about our own?
(This topic is one of recurrent interest to me: I wrote about it in relation to political figures here.)