My brave girl’s quest is a fool’s errand, but I’m proud of her spirit.
– Abram Abernathy, The Revisionary
Fool. The word can be a loaded insult or a joking comment. It can have the intent to correct or ring with resigned sadness.
In The Revisionary, Portia’s father describes her plan to rescue Darius as a “fool’s errand,” and in doing so, implies the futility of her cause. Although she may be short-sighted, he still admires her determination.
Fools in fiction (and real life) are complicated people. They may or may not fit the ordinary definition of a person who lacks sense or good judgment.
The simple fool
The easiest to spot is the simple fool. Perhaps the character lived a spoiled or sheltered childhood and now must cope with a sudden crisis. The first who comes to mind is Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. Accustomed to always getting her way, she doesn’t know how to react when Ashley Wilkes, the man she thinks she loves, rejects her. As a result, she makes a series of reckless choices.
“Fools” like Scarlett have the potential to grow, learn from their mistakes, or recognize they have missed the big picture (marks of a dynamic or developing character). This type of growth is what Portia’s father hopes will help his daughter come to terms with the ugly reality of their situation.
The other alternative for the naive character is to prove stubbornly foolish and let the consequences of their choices destroy them (tragic character).
The satirical fool
In classic literature, the fool served as a stock “jester” character, but Shakespeare often used the fool’s role ironically as a spokesperson of truth. For example, the clown Feste in Twelfth Night is anything but a dim-wit. Although his occupation confines him to speaking in jest, he uses his “foolery” to reveal flashes of shrewdness and truth.
For example, he enters a verbal sparring match with the Lady Olivia, who is mourning the presumed death of her brother.
Clo. Good madonna, why mournest thou?
Oliv. Good fool, for my brother’s death.
Clo. I think his soul is in hell, madonna.
Oliv. I know his soul is in heaven, fool.
Clo. The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother’s soul
being in heaven. — Take away the fool, gentlemen.
Clearly, Feste is anything but a fool. In fact, he may be wiser, at least initially, than the main characters themselves.
However, there is a third kind of fool. We can also learn from this person, but we must beware his dangerous qualities.
The self-destructive fool
“My professor … He doesn’t want me asking questions,” I whisper. “But I have so many.” – Portia, The Revisionary
Professor Mortimer teaches Portia’s Simulation class and cruelly punishes those who suggest they can learn from the past civilization. By forcing students to think a certain way, he limits them from actually discovering the truth.
The Bible has much to say about this type of fool.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction. – Proverbs 1:7 (ESV)
The book of Proverbs paints a clear picture of self-destructive fools and warns others to avoid their pitfalls:
- They hate knowledge (Proverbs 1:22)
- They are complacent (Proverbs 1:32)
- They say slanderous things (Proverbs 10:18)
- They will destroy themselves (Proverbs 10:21)
- They see themselves as “right” and justify themselves (Proverbs 12:15)
- They have a quick temper (Proverbs 14:17)
Lessons from fools
If we can recognize these types of “fools” in fiction, we can also be more aware when we encounter them in our actual lives. Beyond that, we can recognize any foolish tendencies in ourselves.
That’s the beauty of fiction. Although it’s primary purpose is to evoke an emotional response in the the reader (typically to entertain), it also serves a second purpose: to reveal truth through story.
Think of the most memorable fiction characters, fool or otherwise, that you’ve encountered. What makes them memorable? What lessons do their stories teach?
Fools in Fiction: Can you spot them? – @kjhogrefe (Click to Tweet)
What fictional fools can teach us about real life – @kjhogrefe (Click to Tweet)