Spoilers for Heartless by Marissa Meyer
As I was reading Marissa Meyer’s Heartless this past week, I struggled with relating to Cath as the protagonist. She leads men on, she has no backbone, she seems to revel in silly and frivolous things while just knowing she’s really different from other girls. I know other readers have faced the same struggles, wondering if Cath just isn’t strong enough to be likable (whatever we tend to mean by that word, as readers). After some reflection, however, I’ve changed my mind. I acknowledge Cath might not be the most kickass of female heroines, but she isn’t meant to be, and I don’t think I need her to be in order to enjoy reading about her or to understand her.
Cath Takes a Reasonable Amount of Action For Her Bakery
It does seem for a large portion of the book as if Cath does little besides putter and dither. She wants to do x, y, and z, but never actually gets around to doing it; she’s all talk and no action. However, if I remind myself that Cath is a teenager, I think she takes a reasonable amount of actions to attempt to accomplish her goals.
Cath wants to open a bakery—but she has no money to do so, and her parents disapprove of the plan. So what does she do? She:
- enlists someone with good business sense to calculate what they realistically need to open the bakery
- approaches a landlord about the possibility of reserving a soon-to-be-free storefront
- asks her parents directly if she can open a bakery and use her dowry money to do so
- attempts to win the necessary money in a baking contest when her parents say no
- approaches another business owner about a possible investment or loan.
So, actually, Cath does a lot to accomplish her dream. It’s just that none of it works out.
Arguably she could have found other means—ask 40 more people for loans, entered more contests, tried to make money by selling her jewelry to pawn shops, whatever. However, I grant her the leeway that this is a book, and no one wants to read a book about Cath writing 50 letters looking for investors. Additionally…there’s still the issue that Cath is a teen. I’m not sure I would have done much more than this as a teen. Once your parents say no multiple times and you fail at a couple more endeavors, it seems as if your options are closed.
I wrote a while ago about why Cinderella didn’t just leave her step-family, and I think (minus the abuse, of course), that Cath’s situation has some similarities. She has no money, and she has been unable to find more money. If she disobeys her parents in this and runs off to open a bakery, she’s likely to end up destitute on the streets or just working a part-time job, barely getting by, in someone else’s business. When the apparent options are staying with your very wealthy family or running off to unknown poverty, sticking with your parents and hoping things get resolved…somehow, eventually…looks rather attractive.
Cath Also Has a Dilemma with the King
Cath gets a little less sympathy from me for being so wishy-washy with her courtship with the king, but her actions still have reason behind them. Rejecting a king is difficult, no question. The only reason Cath looks so ridiculous for not rejecting hers is because the King of Hearts is portrayed as wishy-washy himself, practically infantile. It’s clear that he’s not going to throw Cath into a dungeon or something if she dares to refuse his proposal. However, I understand that it can hard to say no to a monarch and to your pushy parents, and I’m sure a lot of people in her situation would have taken up her initial plan of trying to get him to reject her. However, I admit that Cath could have been more active in her passive-aggressiveness (if that makes sense). She could have tried to actively be unattractive and not-wife, not-queen material so the king would break up with her, instead of hoping expressing lukewarm interest would do the trick.
Cath Ends Up a Villain
However, it seems reasonable to me that Cath is not entirely likable because she ends up as the Queen of Hearts, a notorious Wonderland villain. I appreciate Meyer’s take on her, presenting her as initially a relatively normal teenager with hopes and dreams who became twisted by a tragic turn of events. Meyers has explored “how one becomes a villain” before in Fairest, with some similarities. I think, in both Levana and Cath’s cases, the point is that, no, they are not inherently evil, but they always had some negative personality traits that contribute to what they finally become.
The idea that one single event can turn one from “good” to “evil” seems absurd, so laying some groundwork indicating that the character was never perfect seems like good writing to me. I would be baffled as a reader if someone really strong, kind, and reasonable suddenly turned into the vicious Queen of Hearts. In Cath’s case, I think her inability to make firm decisions is an enormous contributing factor in her transformation. Though she blames Hatta for Jest’s death, I believe she also (secretly) blames her own indecisiveness. If she had only said no to the king, or if she had only gone through the Looking Glass, or she had only done a million little things, Jest would be alive. That may be what turns her into a tyrant. She does not want to hesitate or wait for things to resolve themselves anymore—she wants to take action. And so she becomes someone who makes demands and wants them carried out at once. Off with their heads! Now!
Cath is just kind and likable enough that I can enjoy reading about her and see Meyers’s vision that villains are made, not born. I like the idea that people are not inherently evil, that their life experiences are what can turn them bad. For me, the question in Heartless isn’t “Why is the protagonist so wimpy?” but “How does Meyers make this villain (initially) sympathetic?” Cath has a point when she tells her parents that things might have been very, very different if they had only asked her what she wanted to do with her life before, rather than ordering her about. She is only a teenager, and she has limited options without the support of her parents. But she still plays a role in her own transformation, allowing her personality flaws to take over when she experiences grief, instead of clinging to her strengths.
What did you think of Cath?