AIBC: Going Postal: Character, Part Two

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So I’m still figuring out the best way to do a book club here. I started with very open posts, but I’d like to also try starting points that are more focused. So let’s look at the characters of Moist, Adora Belle, and Reacher.

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OUR PROTAGONIST: MOIST VON LIPWIG

Moist is our protagonist, a con man and a thief, who’s trapped into bringing the Post Office back from the dead by the tyrant Vetinari. As others have mentioned, it’s hard to make a bad guy the protagonist (Nate Ford notwithstanding), but looking at Moist from the beginning, I found him fascinating because he’s smart, he has a great sense of humor, and he never ever quits. I love this explanation of Moist’s choice of targets:

“If you did fool an honest man, he complained to the Watch, and these days they were harder to buy off. Fooling dishonest men was a lot safer and, somehow, more sporting. And, of course, there were so many more of them. You hardly had to aim.” (pg 53, digital edition).

His introduction is scraping away at the mortar in the bricks in his cell with a dented and bent spoon, only to pull out the brick and find another shiny new spoon and another brick wall. He’s annoyed, but he doesn’t let that change his dealings with his jailers: Moist is always charming. Then he has a nice back and forth with the hangman, offering up his last words with grace: “I commend my soul to any god that can find it.” And he’s hanged. Then he wakes up in the tyrant’s office and is offered a choice: he can take over the defunct post office or leave by the door behind him. Moist goes to the door, opens it and sees that “there was nothing beyond, and that included a floor. In the manner of one who is going to try all possibilities, he took the remnant of the spoon out of his pocket and let it drop. It was quite a long time before he heard the jingle.”

And that’s Moist, a man who lives by his wit and his wits, which fortunately are very sharp. He goes through the usual Hero’s Refusal of Call and then ends up at Post Office, a ruin of a place where the undelivered letters whisper to him and his staff is a very old man with peculiar medical beliefs and a very young man who collects pins and has his Little Moments. Having established Moist as an unregenerate scammer, Pratchett drops him into a nightmare he can’t escape from and then turns the screws, which is the best thing you can do for a protagonist.

In this case, it’s the letters, whispering to him, that shift his view of reality, seeping into his brain with the insistence that they must be delivered. As Moist plays the game of pretending to be the postmaster, the game plays him and he becomes the postmaster, drawing to him people who believe in him, creating in him a need to be believed in. Pratchett does a masterful job of making Moist’s talents and motivations one gear in his story that turns the gear of the whispering letters that in turn moves Moist to begin to reclaim the post office, that turns the gear of the post office people who rally to him, that turns Moist again to great heights . . . Moist ends up where he ends up because he’s Moist, but he’s not the same Moist that he was in the beginning. That is, who he is as a character determines what he does, and what he does changes his character so that he becomes someone new at the end, when he realizes this:

“I’m not Reacher Gilt. That’s sort of important. Some people might say there’s not a lot of difference, but I can see it from where I stand it’s there.” [pg 858]

That’s why in the end when he makes his great suicidal gesture, it was inevitable from the start:

“Moist couldn’t have stopped himself now for hard money. This was where his soul lived: dancing on an avalanche, making the world up as he went along, reaching into people’s ears and changing their minds. [pg. 933]

He’s still the Moist he was in the beginning (well, in the beginning he was Alfred Spangler), it’s that now he’s scamming the bad guy. Sometimes bad guys DO make the best good guys.

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OUR LOVE INTEREST: ADORA BELLE DEARHEART

A love interest in a story is almost always there to help characterize the protagonist (unless it’s a romance, of course). In this case, she’s Adora Belle, the least romantic heroine of all time: “There was a definite feel about Adora Belle Dearheart that a lid was only barely holding down an entire womanful of anger.” [pg. 176]. Adora Belle is the perfect match for Moist because she can see right through him, the Discworld equivalent of “You get me.” I really hate that one–I have worth because I understand you? Gee, thanks–but in this case, because Moist has built his entire personality on people NOT knowing him, it’s very effective. Add to that the fact that Adora Belle never needs rescued: there’s that lovely scene in the Broken Drum where she calmly puts down the masher before Moist can do it and get his face shoved in, thereby rescuing herself and Moist. She also has an important role to play in the plot since Gilt destroyed her family when he took over the Trunk, but mostly, she’s there for Moist to fall in love with:

“You hardly know me, and yet you invited me out on a date,” said Miss Dearheart. “Why?”

Because you called me a phony, Moist thought. You saw through me straight away. Because you didn’t nail my head to the door with your crossbow. Because you have no small talk. Because I’d like to get to know you better, even though it would be like smooching an ashtray. Because I wonder if you could put into the rest of your life the passion you put into smoking a cigarette. In defiance of Miss Maccalariat, I’d like to commit hanky-panky with you, Miss Adora Belle Dearheart . . . well, certainly some hanky, and possibly panky when we get to know each other better. I’d like to know as much about your soul as you know about mine . . .

He said: “Because I hardly know you.”

“If it comes to that, I hardly know you, either,” said Miss Dearheart.

“I’m rather banking on that,” said Moist.

The people we associate with characterize us. (For proof of that, see the current hell Republican politicians are in trying to disavow Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric while still supporting the nominee.) The fact that Moist falls madly in love with Adora Belle tells us more about Moist than it does about her; the fact that she later falls for Moist tells us a lot about what’s lurking under that angry exterior.

But mostly, I just love Adora Belle, a woman who is not blackmailed into yes when her sometimes date proposes in front of a cheering crowd, a woman who works to save golems because they need somebody to fight for them, a woman whose mother weeps in the kitchen because she finally has a gentleman caller (using the word “gentleman” loosely), a woman who chainsmokes and wears severe clothing and makes both of those things madly sexy, at least to Our Hero, without even trying. Adora Belle, like Agent Carter, knows her worth, and Moist is going to have to earn her.

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OUR ANTAGONIST: REACHER GILT
Reacher is a doppleganger antagonist: He and Moist are the same person at the beginning of the book, albeit Reacher is working on a much larger scale, as commenters have pointed out earlier this week. Moist’s evaluation of him not only describes him, it characterizes Moist:

“Moist had worked hard at his profession and considered himself pretty good at it, but if he had been wearing his hat, he would have taking it off right now. He was in the presence of a master. He could feel it in the hand, see it in that one commanding eye. Were things otherwise, he would have humbly begged to be taken on as an apprentice, scrub the man’s floors, cook his food, just to sit a the feet of greatness and learn how to do the three-card trick using whole banks. If Moist was any judge, any judge at all, the man in front of him was the biggest fraud he’d ever met. And he advertised it. That was . . . style. The pirate curls, the eyepatch, even the damn parrot. Twelve and a half percent, for heaven’s sake, didn’t anybody spot that? He told them what he was and they laughed and loved him for it. It was breathtaking. If Moist von Lipwig had been a career killer, it would have been like meeting a man who’d devised a way to destroy civilizations.”

But the swashbuckling Gilt has, unfortunately for him, crossed Moist after the letters and Adora Belle have done their work. Like any good doppelganger protagonist, Moist changes and grows and gets smarter. Like any bad doppelganger antagonist, Gilt sees no reason to change because he knows everything. By the end, Moist knows something, too: “I’m not Reacher Gilt.” The comparison is made clear at the end when Reacher refuses Vetinari’s offer and walks through the door to his death, confident that there’ll be a floor there because he’s Reacher Gilt.

The supporting characters in here deserve equal attention, but just looking at the big three, you can see how beautifully Pratchett shaped this book around his protagonist, and how his protagonist shaped this book.

6 thoughts on “AIBC: Going Postal: Character, Part Two

  1. I went into this story truly blind, knowing nothing about Pratchett or his world or characters … and fell hard for Moist from the start. I loved that he was so wonderfully decent to the people around him, despite his circumstances, and also so cheerfully ready to resume his previous antics, despite being hanged (!) and given a chance to reform. It set up a great story promise that said this man was about to have his world rocked, and made me want to turn the page to see how it was going to happen.

    I also love that Moist’s transformation is so wonderfully gradual in that iterative way you describe — plot requiring him to act, and those acts changing not his core personality (he’s still a con man) but changing his values (from helping himself to helping others). Pratchett reveals it as a step-by-step logical progression that makes it all feel organic and inevitable given what we know about how Moist thinks.

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    1. Oh, you have so much to look forward to then. Wait’ll you meet Vimes. And Carrot. And the witches. And Death. And my personal favorite, Death’s granddaughter, Susan Sto Helit. So wonderful.

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    2. Pratchett is truly wonderful. My first book was Reaper Man. (Death gets fired, and so you get the chaos expected when an important public service is no longer available.)

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  2. What you say about Moist mirroring Gilt, without being quite so evil, reminds me of the bit in…Moving Pictures, I think it was…where Gaspode the talking dog was filled with qualms because he’d never been a Bad Dog before. Oh, other people might be misled by his history of roasts snatched off dinner tables and so on, but Gaspode was clear in his own mind that he’d never crossed the line from just being a Naughty Boy.

    As lots of people have said by now, Moist happily went along scamming people, but he thought it worked out somehow. He didn’t think it caused any *permanent* harm. He was shocked to learn he’d been responsible for deaths.

    Reacher, on the other hand, kills people without blinking. I think that’s what the second prologue is there to set up: John Darling didn’t just fall, he was assassinated. To establish by contrast that Moist isn’t really a bad guy.

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  3. This reminds me that one huge moral in Pratchett is “The Story Will Take You Over.” It’s not so much about the truth as what we all believe the truth to be. So, Moist thinks he’s pretending to be the Postmaster, and then it just happens that he becomes the Postmaster. That’s so Pratchett. Belief may be based on nothing very real, but it is so powerful, and takes over, nonetheless.

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