Character arc in literature refers to the idea of a character going through a transformation. Does he grow or change, fall or fail? In most stories there is an obstacle, whether physical or emotional, that a character must overcome, and typically this forces the character to undergo a change. Rarely does a character start and end a story in the same emotional or mental state.
And yet as a species, humans tend to be resistant to change. In real life, many of us balk at disruptions to our status quo. Therefore, it’s interesting when an author creates a character who chooses not to change as a result of his new circumstances.
The protagonist in Anne Tyler’s novel Noah’s Compass, Liam Pennywell, is one such character. Throughout the novel, Liam hovers on the brink of change: he contemplates marriage, he ponders how to be a more involved dad and grandfather. He appears to be preparing himself to take that leap of faith into life that most people inevitably take. And yet the novel ends with Liam essentially in the same place as when the novel starts: still single, still living in the same rundown apartment complex he moved into at the beginning of the novel, still a rather peripheral figure in the lives of his family. In fact, the thing that initially spurred him to action—being randomly attacked in his apartment complex and waking in the hospital with no idea of how he ended up there—has already faded from his memory, as evidenced by the last line of the novel: “He [Liam] could almost convince himself that he’d never been wounded at all.” (Tyler 277)
To understand the importance of that line, we have to return to the beginning of the novel. Noah’s Compass begins with Liam moving into a rundown apartment complex in a less than desirable part of town after losing his job teaching fifth grade history, a job he never really liked but somehow managed to hang onto for more than twenty years. After being randomly attacked in his new place, Liam wakes in the hospital. His daughters and second ex-wife visit him, and the reader senses tension in the interactions between Liam and his daughters, most notably his eldest daughter, Xanthe. What’s interesting is that Liam is aware of the tension but has no idea why Xanthe might be upset with him nor does he feel the need to delve into the relationship. In fact, Liam thinks on page 19,
“…it was his policy not to argue. (An infuriating policy, his daughters always claimed.) Arguing got you nowhere.”
The reader quickly realizes that by not arguing, Liam hasn’t been engaging in his own life. The reader begins to wonder why Liam always seems to take the easy way out in his relationship with others. Is it because his first wife Millie killed herself and left him with Xanthe, who was only a toddler at the time? Is it because he had to leave his prestigious job at the university and return home to Baltimore to be near his mom and sister so they could help him raise Xanthe after his first wife’s suicide? Is it because he had to trade in his dreams of a PhD in philosophy for a job teaching history at a boys’ school?
It could be all of these or none of these. What matters most is that Liam has allowed himself to remain in neutral. Liam is a twice-divorced father of three, and he spends most of his time alone; he sees nothing wrong with leading such a lonely existence.
But Liam’s world is shaken up when he is attacked in his apartment. The randomness of the attack wakes something in Liam and it seems he is finally ready to delve into his life and figure out how at sixty-one he is living alone in a shabby apartment, jobless, and essentially cut off from his family. Liam becomes obsessed with remembering the attack and ends up meeting a woman named Eunice, a “rememberer” for a well-respected man in the community with dementia. At first Liam wants Eunice to help him recover his memories from the night he was attacked. However, they strike up a romantic relationship, and all is going well until Liam finds out Eunice is married. Eunice tells Liam that if he asks her, she’ll leave her husband because she married him out of duty and doesn’t love him.
Liam struggles with this decision mightily—his father left his mother for a younger woman and Liam’s sister never forgave him. Liam believes himself to be someone who deeply believes in marriage. He says to Eunice about his second wife,
“I don’t even believe in divorce; I’ve always felt marriages are meant to be permanent.” (Tyler 132)
It seems that Liam will not be able to move past the issue of Eunice’s marriage, even though it’s clear that she makes him happy and vice versa. Plus, he’s beginning to have some sort of a relationship with his youngest daughter Kitty who has moved in with him for the summer on account of the constant fighting between her and Barbara, Liam’s second wife and Kitty’s mother. Surely Liam will change and grow, surely the attack has changed him and forced him to re-evaluate his life.
The climax of the novel occurs when Eunice confronts Liam about making a decision:
“Well, why aren’t you sweeping me off my feet, then, and carrying me away? Why aren’t you saying…‘You’re the woman I love, and life is too short to go through it without you?” (Tyler 230)
How Liam responds to this seems to indicate how he will live the rest of his life. Will he take a chance and allow love into his life, even though it’s a rather messy and complicated love? Will he realize that going through life without ever arguing with people is much more dangerous that always being confrontational with others?
Liam doesn’t hesitate in his response.
“You’re the woman I love, and life is too short to go through it without you.” (Tyler 230)
They are interrupted by the arrival of Eunice’s husband who remains clueless about his wife and Liam’s romantic involvement. A few hours later Eunice leaves her husband and shows up on Liam’s doorstep with a duffel bag full of her things.
But in the hours he’s been away from Eunice, Liam has returned to his old self. The brief flare of passion ignited inside him has been extinguished.
“No,” he said. “We can’t do it. Go away.
He could see her [Eunice] start to believe him. The animation drained gradually from her face until all her features sagged. (Tyler 235)
The novel ends with Liam once again alone—no Eunice, no new apartment, no new job. Yes, he has a better relationship with his youngest daughter but this is mostly because feisty Kitty has forced herself into his life. And the main reason Kitty wanted to live with Liam is because he’s a much less strict, aka involved parent, than her mother.
So how can the fact that a character who doesn’t change, who continues to plod along on the same path—how can that possibly be a satisfying story? The character has not changed and grown. Yet Tyler’s novel works because the reader has such a good sense of who Liam is. We have been primed to believe he is incredibly resistant to change. Here is a man who worked in a job he disliked for decades. Here is a man who refuses to give himself over to another person because of what happened in his first marriage. So Liam’s decision to not change is realistic. There is a sense of closure in Liam’s inaction. The reader might want Liam to be the kind of man who finally decides to risk it all for love and family and happiness, and while that would have made for a neat and tidy ending, surely the reader would have been left with the sense that it just didn’t feel right. The reader knows Liam Pennywell by the end of the novel, and one thing we know is that he is not a man who changes easily. For better or worse, there are people like Liam Pennywell in the world. Most of us have probably met people like him. Tyler’s novel is a good reminder that a character doesn’t need to have an “a-ha!” moment about himself or undergo a radical change for a novel to be satisfying.
Tyler, Anne. Noah’s Compass. New York: Alfred A. Knopf-Random House, 2009.