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June 12, 2012 5:08 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for examples of and quotes about cowards and wretches in film, literature, philosophy, and painting.

I'm trying to compile examples of cowards and wretches in art (film, literature, painting, etc.) and philosophy. How do I characterize the wretch? I think, primarily, by inaction: the wretch is someone who either refuses to budge or gets others to act on his behalf. I've got a lot of modern examples (although I could always use more): Gregor Samsa, the underground man in Notes from Underground, Raskolnikov, the elder Karamazov, Henry Miller's "I", the narrator of Nausea, the narrator of The Stranger, Beckett's various characters; Yossarian; Celine's narrator in Journey to the End of the Night. I also have some early modern wretches - almost any Shakespeare villain, especially Iago; Goethe's Faust, especially at the beginning of the play; Milton's Satan. In film, the work of Roman Polanski comes readily to mind, as do some of Godard's characters.

What I'd like are earlier examples (Roman, Greek, Hebrew), non-Western examples (The Story of the Stone might give some good examples), and also examples that aren't from the perspective of the wretches, e.g., heroic descriptions from Homer of cowards. Also, if anybody has any good literary history/literary theory recommendations, those would be much appreciated. I'm happy to clarify anything that doesn't make sense.
posted by outlandishmarxist to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: The object of Elvis Presley's Hound Dog is a wretch.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 5:09 PM on June 12, 2012

Response by poster: Also, anything from psychoanalysis and psychology about wretchedness, abjection, or cowardice would be much appreciated
posted by outlandishmarxist at 5:15 PM on June 12, 2012

I would say that the men who were bedeviling Odysseus's wife were pretty wretched. (And when he finally returned home, they got what was coming to them, which was very satisfying.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:16 PM on June 12, 2012

Best answer: I don't have any classical examples, but for some more modern instances inaction reminds me of New Forms of Ugly: The Immobilized Man in Modern Literature, a book version of the master's thesis by the great (and under-recognized) American crime writer Charles Willeford. Probably best found by interlibrary loan.
posted by wdenton at 6:28 PM on June 12, 2012

Best answer: Film-wise:

- The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (obviously)

- The general scoundrel nature of the title character in Barry Lyndon

- The accusations of cowardice in Paths of Glory

- The subplot with Jeremy Davies' character in Saving Private Ryan

- And maybe not really what you're looking for, but in the Paddy Chayefsky-written The Americanization of Emily:

"That night, I sat in the jungles of Guadalcanal, waiting to be killed, sopping wet. Then I had my blinding revelation: I discovered I was a coward. That’s my new religion. I’m a coward. I’m a big believer in it. Cowardice will save the world."
posted by UncleBoomee at 6:42 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Lord Jim is all about coming to terms with an early act of cowardice that changes how the main character views himself.
posted by bergeycm at 7:02 PM on June 12, 2012

The character of Larry Slade in Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh.
posted by perhapses at 7:14 PM on June 12, 2012

The narrator in Thomas Bernhard's Concrete.
posted by perhapses at 7:16 PM on June 12, 2012

Johnny (David Thewlis) in the film Naked.
posted by perhapses at 7:20 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

posted by rhizome at 7:50 PM on June 12, 2012

Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics features several key passages which employ cowardice as exemplary of moral vice.
posted by joe lisboa at 8:15 PM on June 12, 2012

The play Wit by Margaret Edson touches on (by way of John Donne and The Runaway Bunny) fear of death and discovery and the desire to freeze/hide rather than face pain/shame.
posted by nicebookrack at 10:02 PM on June 12, 2012

Cowards die many times before their deaths.
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.

Julius Caesar
posted by RapcityinBlue at 10:59 PM on June 12, 2012

Films starring Terry Thomas who played the archtype cad and rotter.
Tom Rakewell from Hogarth's A Rakes Progress
posted by adamvasco at 12:06 AM on June 13, 2012

Film and book, what about Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind? Paralyzed by his inability to act on his desire for Scarlett, sunk in grief for a lost way of life, unable to really support himself or his family, never once shares a scene with his child. Fits your criteria of "not from the perspective of the wretch," since the story follows Scarlett's point of view, and she doesn't really grok that he's a wretch until the very end.
posted by House of Leaves of Grass at 5:45 AM on June 13, 2012

Eric Linklater's 1946 somewhat picaresque novel Private Angelo is about cowardice and courage in the Second World War.
posted by hydatius at 6:32 AM on June 13, 2012

Fredo from the 'Godfather' is a bit of a weasle...
posted by stumpyolegmcnoleg at 3:24 PM on June 20, 2012

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