I think we can all identify at least one person we’ve encountered who is an Eleanor Oliphant.
To begin, an Eleanor Oliphant can be described as a person in which, from the outside world, is observed to be strange, socially awkward, forward, and quite unfashionable. No one really knows anything about them; they are that co-worker who shows up to work to actually work (and not engage in the workplace gossip or social hours), the co-worker that wears the same hairstyle, the same penny loafers, brings the same lunch for the last nine years. It is the co-worker that everyone loves to gossip about, to make fun of, to tease (because its fun and doesn’t harm them, right?)
If we look at what is trending in pop culture–characters in books, movies, songs–we see this Eleanor Oliphant trope over and over again–we are intrigued by our Ove’s, the Christopher John Francis Boone’s, even our Harry Potter’s–characters, which, to the outside world, appear odd, socially inept, eccentric, unusual–laughable. We love to read about these types of characters–the social outcasts, the ones with broken households, who come from tragic backstories, who are simply doing all that they can to survive in the world.
We are drawn towards these Eleanor Oliphant characters because we feel sorry for them. Because we are allowed entrance into their worlds, we know how the outside world reacts to them; for Eleanor, her co-workers laugh at her, for Ove, people stay away from him, for Christopher John Francis Boone, people think he is dangerous, and for Harry Potter, they wonder why he wears unkempt clothes (until, of course, he becomes a magic wizard and can wear cool cloaks), but we also know how those outside reactions impact the characters; we know that the jokes made in Eleanor’s office causes her to leave the company Christmas party very early, we know that the distance from Ove and his neighbor’s causes him to be an even grumpier curmudgeon, that people reacting to Christopher John Francis Boone in defensive ways causes him to react even stronger, and that, had people inquired about Harry earlier in his life, they may be very rich right now…
As we read more into our stories, we build stronger relationships with our characters, we understand more about their motives, and we learn more about their backgrounds–what exactly causes these strange and abnormal behaviors–we begin to defend their actions. When Eleanor refuses to allow Raymond to buy her drink at their first ‘meet up’ (even though, as the reader, we know he is totally into her and trying to make it into a date), we don’t judge her and say, ‘how awkward!’ but rather, excuse her curt response to him, because we know that her last boyfriend was not a boyfriend at all, she obviously doesn’t understand ‘dating customs’, and we think, ‘that’s so innocent that she would do that!”. When Ove is rude to the shop assistant as he tries to buy an iPad (even though as the young, hip, in tune, technologically savvy reader), we don’t judge him and think, “This old guy is so dumb!”, but rather, we understand Ove’s loss of his wife, his desire to keep things ‘as they used to be’ in order to preserve her memory, and we then laugh to ourselves about how comical the situation must be. When Christopher John Francis Boone and finds himself hiding in the luggage compartment of the train, we don’t look at him with a disapproving look, nudge our travel companion and say, “look at THAT guy”, but rather, we think to ourselves, “his autism–he doesn’t know any better–he must be so scared! I hope someone is friendly to him!”
We love these types of characters. We love the characters in which society outcasts, because these characters seem unfit for the conformist world. We love the characters in which have undergone some kind of trauma–characters whose mother’s made big headlines for criminal actions, characters whose loving wife passes away, characters who carry diagnosis’s–we love that, as we see these characters trumping through their everyday worlds, we learn a little more and more about their backstories, and about these tragic events in which cause these seemingly strange social behaviors (because, when we can explain these seemingly strange social behaviors, they turn out to be not that strange after all).
And, we love to be at the forefront of the character’s mental breakdown. We love to witness the action in which the character realizes that rock star is NOT going to every marry her, and she falls into the arms of Raymond instead. We love to hear the news about Parvaneh’s accident and see Ove rush off to the hospital. We love it when Christopher John Francis Boone finally finds his way to his mother’s house, rejects his father, and obtains a new puppy. We champion for our character’s breakdown, because the breakdown means change–it means our character has finally found happiness, social acceptance, identity, strength, courage, meaning and place in the world–and we know that, in the end, whatever past transgressions, trauma, co-worker taunts our character underwent, we close the final pages of our books, we can assure that our character will be OK without our help and support.
What is interesting to me is that these are the types of characters we flock to–the types of books that are always on the best seller’s lists, the types of movies who always win awards–we love this tragic story of a social misfit–and if literature is often a reflection of our lives, how do WE treat the Eleanor’s, the Ove’s, the Christopher John Francis Boone’s, the Harry Potter’s in our own worlds?
…when we see a strange behavior that we deem unfit for social circumstances, are we quick to reject? do we automatically think of a joke we can make? do we nudge our neighbor and say, “did you see THAT?”…
…or, like these characters in our books that we are so attracted to, are we sympathetic? do we feel protective? do we seek for understanding? be accepting? consider their perspective?
(and, in case you were curious, I think the book, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is OK–not the best book I’ve ever read, but certainly not also the worst–maybe worth picking up if you need to complete your ‘buy two, get one free’ trilogy at the book store. It will probably make a decent movie–the book is action based–the writing tells what characters are doing, what character are saying, what characters are thinking).