I have first to apologize to all the original Star Trek fans out there who will no doubt be searching so diligently for a lengthy comment about the James (Tiberius) Kirk character, when all I have to offer is a mere comparison. But there’s something about him which has been the key character asset to stick in my mind for years now, my favorite tidbit about him, and in more recent years, I’ve located a female equivalent in the character of Magda Danvers (alias Marsha Danziger) in Gail Godwin’s excellent novel The Good Husband. Finding this similarity is reason enough for self-congratulation for a good feminist (such as I try to be), because it proves once again that creative and notable character traits are the preserve of humans in general, not of one sex or the other. But enough of the tease: what is it that I want to discuss, you ask? It’s that tricky quality of psyche and personality which caused James T. Kirk to come up with a solution to an apparently insoluble problem on a Star Trek examination, part of his back history, in fact: instead of agonizing and wasting time on the boundaries of the exam itself and ultimately coming in as an “also-ran” or a “good-enough,” Kirk simply reprogrammed the test. This has often been commented on as having been envisioned as a particularly American trait, but this too is unfair: it’s no more American solely than it is male solely, but in fact is part and parcel of the way humans in general function when under greatest pressure (and let’s not forget to give some extra-fictional credit to the fact that the actor who so notably portrayed Kirk is William Shatner, himself originally not a U.S. but a Canadian citizen).
So, how is this like what the character of Magda Danvers does in the book The Good Husband? She too in her back history as it is given in the book has in a sense “reprogrammed” the test: when doing her thesis for her degree and receiving some guff about it from her committee members, she simply goes ahead and publishes it as a book before submitting it to the committee for the exam, which to those of you unfamiliar with the procedure is doing things backwards; by this means she more or less forces the hand of her committee. It is only fitting that her book should be about visionaries and should be called The Book of Hell, for her pattern of life is a truly visionary one which inspires a number of other people, both those closest to her and those in the extended circle around her, those at the periphery of the ripple effect in the body of water where a pebble has been thrown in.
The particular insight of Magda’s which applies in her personal life and which inspires others when she is dead is “Mates are not always matches, and matches are not always mates.” Her mate is Francis Lake, a much younger man whom she met when he was in a midwestern seminary, and whom she married. As everyone around them is aware, she pursues her career and Francis attends to the caring homebody side of the relationship, not ceasing his attentiveness when Magda becomes ill with her final illness. She has been teaching since her degree was granted, and teaches those around her to receive her death with grace and dignity as she does, referring to her final illness as “my final teacher” and death as her “final examination.” She continues to challenge those around her with life-changing speculations and questions, and considerations which will keep them busy long after she is gone (but she has ensured that she will never be forgotten).
The second couple in the book, and the couple most nearly affected by the drama at the center of Magda’s life, is that of Alice Henry and her Southern novelist husband Hugo, the couple whose marriage is in difficulties. But there is some question as to whether what attracts Alice most is Magda’s intellectual challenge to those around her, or the nearly irresistible atmosphere of the “perfect marriage,” something which Alice cannot tell herself by any means that she has with Hugo. So what will happen when Magda, on her death bed, “wills” Francis to the newly single Alice? What happens when Alice remembers the bequest but Francis seems not to? And who has the last word in the world of the novel as it is written? At the risk of telling too little, I am avoiding telling too much: characters who live beyond the lifespan granted them by their authors, those characters who inspire us for years to come, are those who show themselves capable of doing what’s now called “thinking out of the box,” and coming up with questions and solutions that call out the best from their fictional friends, adversaries, and colleagues. About such characters, we too as readers are the beneficiaries, as we may “play” any role in our minds of any character in the book; we may be the friend or adversary, but we may also learn, by example, how to be more like the main character ourselves, perhaps toning down some of the character’s more outrageous traits while achieving the same sort of creative thought pattern. So, here’s to James Tiberius Kirk and Magda Danvers (who reinvented herself in choosing a different professional name): long may such characters come along in various kinds of fictional endeavor and handily help us out of our self- and other-imposed traps–to the tricky but honest in human nature! As Albert Einstein said of God (upon whom many believers feel we should base our actions) “Herr Gott is subtle, but not malicious.” Such characters as Kirk and Magda Danvers embody this quality of being “subtle, but not malicious,” and show us something of the limits we can aspire to test.