christie At the moment I’m reading The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie, but I stopped, because I was so embarrassed at a main character’s actions. Do you know this phenomenon? You read a novel about a character you generally like and admire, and at some point the character acts in a way that makes you feel deeply embarrassed on his or her behalf. When this happens, I am usually pulled out of my reading, and often the book languishes for days, even weeks or months on my bedside table before I pick it up again, if ever. So feeling embarrassed about otherwise likable characters can be a serious hindrance to my enjoying a book.

In the case of The Secret Adversary, it’s like this: The hero and heroine are unofficially employed by a government agency to find a vanished girl with vital information. In the course of the investigation, the hero follows a suspect and disappears; whereas the heroine accepts a job of housemaid with a lady who’s also a suspect. In this position, she receives a mysterious warning from an attractive, distinguished lawyer and politician who is one of her lady’s visitors. When her partner doesn’t return, she decides to visit the lawyer and reveal her mission to him, in the hope that he may assist her. I have read The Secret Adversary before, and I have always cringed during this scene, but never so much as this time. While Tuppence, the heroine, is desperate to find Tommy, her partner, the man she turns to, however eminent he may be, is a friend of a suspect, who is a rather nasty personage at the same time, and in my eyes, this disqualifies him from being someone to unburden to. (Mind you, the scene may well work for other readers.) So I am embarrassed for Tuppence, who is otherwise clever and resourceful and to be admired by a reader.

It’s this same reason why I found it so hard to finish The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig. Don’t get me wrong: There was loads to love about the book. I adored the setting (both settings, actually), the plot, the characters. The style was amusing, and the pace fast. I also mostly liked the heroine: Amy is courageous, resourceful, and loyal. Unfortunately, she is also obsessed with helping the famous British agent the Purple Gentian, and several times I had to put the book aside because Amy’s almost brutal single-mindedness in pursuing her goal made her act to far outside all considerations of both manners and reason that it just made me squirm. And that from a character I otherwise liked! Amy’s impetuousness was necessary for the plot, I realize this, but I still found it painful to read.

When too many characters behave in a way that makes me blush for them, I stop reading entirely. This is the reason I stopped watching Desperate Housewives, and have never taken to a daily soap. To keep the multiple plotlines going, all characters have to behave as self-destructively as they can, on a regular basis, or leave the show. I know. But I can’t stand watching it.

Are you sometimes embarrassed about the way otherwise likable characters behave, and has this spoilt the reading (or watching) experience for you a bit? Have you put books aside for good for this reason? Or what are your reactions to this situation?

- Rike Horstmann

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26 Responses to Embarrassment

  1. MMcA says:

    Usually it’s the public declaration that makes me squirm: I have to assume that other people find it romantic, but it always makes me cringe.
    I was watching ‘Love Actually’ again recently, and realised that the scene where Colin Firth proposes to the waitress in her workplace is one of the really few public declarations that I can stand: I don’t know why that is.

    I do remember, the first time I read Rebecca, having to put down the book as she was coming downstairs dressed for the party. I didn’t know what was about to happen, but I was so sure it was going to be something really cringeworthy that it took a couple of days to gather the courage to pick the book up again, and allow the heroine to walk downstairs.

    And, slightly O/T – I can’t do soap operas because of the lack of resolution. When I watched them when I was younger, I’d invest in some storyline, happily follow it to a conclusion – and then the writers would unravel the whole thing. I need stories that have endings.

  2. MarissaB says:

    Bridget Jones Diary. I don’t even have to watch it again to cringe. Just thinking about it . . . .Ugh.

  3. Abi says:

    I embarrass really, really easily on behalf of complete strangers (fictional or real!).

    If I’m watching a film on TV and an embarrassing part comes up (could be anything really that touches a button with me – from physical to emotional) I literally run from screaming from the room with my ears covered. The screams are to ensure I don’t hear the embarrassment continue even as I physically distance myself and the covered ears are insurance policies.

    In novels, I close the book right away as soon as I get an inkling something is going to happen and either laugh or cringe in anticipation. If it’s really bad, I either skim the part or never read it at all.

    I wish I had more backbone but there you have it.

  4. Claire says:

    The worst is when people are making acceptance speeches on award shows and they are rambling and completely out of their element. SO awkward watching some of these people. On the Golden Globes the other night I had to leave the room when Drew Barrymore was up on stage. Sometimes I have to change the channel. My husband cringes more than I do!

  5. Melissa says:

    Mrs. Jameson in Return to Cranford when she told her friends they were not good enough to call o n her sister-in-law after the ladies had spent days all a flutter in preparation for her visit. I actually gasp and yelled at the t.v., ‘oh, no she did not!’.

  6. I thought I was the only one like this! I’ve always had a low ‘cringe’ threshold. When I was a kid, my sisters kissing their boyfriends was enough to make me cover my face with a pillow, and I still do this in embarrassing parts of shows, like when someone humiliates themselves on ‘The Bachelor’.

  7. RobinB says:

    I’ve never put a book aside if a favorite character does something tbat is considered “cringe-worthy”! However, it does affect my decision as to whether I want to read any more books by the author of the “cringe” book!

    As for cringing while watching television, that’s what the remote control is for–muting and/or changing the channel!

  8. Victoria S says:

    Rike, that embarrassment factor is exactly why I cannot watch most reality shows. I so am mortified by what some people will say or do to be on tv that I gave up on ALL reality shows. I think the main problem I have, is that while I am embarassed for them….they are not embarrassed at all!! I can remember watching one show and thinking to myself..”her parents must be dead, that’s the only reason she’s acting like that in public”.

  9. Jennifer says:

    Yes! Embarrassment will make me literally hide my face, but at least I’ll usually pick up the book again 30 seconds later. Dread, on the other hand, will make me put down a book for good. I never could finish Wilkie Collins’s “Woman in White” because it was obvious the poor girl was making decisions she would regret. (Evil! Evil! Don’t trust him!)

  10. Wendy says:

    I find it hard to read books where the heroine is embarassed, as well. Kristen Higgins comes to mind. In “Too Good to be True”, the heroine really does things I find embarrassing. She takes the pretend boyfriend to such heights, I think “come clean already!”. I really enjoyed the book, but it is hard to read at the same time.

  11. misty says:

    Wendy, I’ve read two of Kristen Higgin’s books, and I so agree with you. I feel like her heroines are constantly being embarrassed and I hate that. She is a really good writer, IMO, but I can’t enjoy the type of stories she tells. I do not like cringing in embarrassment.

  12. Beth W says:

    You don’t know how relieved I am to find I am not alone. Whether it’s books or TV, I have a low threshold for embarrassment too. I find myself reaching for the clicker or putting down the book when stuff like that happens. I can’t stand it.

  13. katie bug says:

    I just listened to “Drums of Autumn” and the scene where Jamie brings Brianna to her knees seemed out of charactor for him. Don’t get me wrong I adore Jamie Fraser. I want to be spanked by him! That scene just seemed a little odd.

  14. jebe says:

    Great article, Rike! I have suffered from “cringe-worthitis” for years. I can’t even count the number of books I’ve never finished b/c of this syndrome! Pretty much any kind of zany chick-lit book has gone by the wayside b/c I’m so squeamish about characters’ actions.

    As much as I love SEP, I have to say that she’s written several books that I struggled through b/c I couldn’t stand some of the cringe-worthy scenes or actions. I know I barely got through Dream A Little Dream b/c I felt the heroine put herself in such humiliating situations just by returning to that town. And Ain’t She Sweet? has that whole party scene which I just skim over if I’m rereading it!

    MarissaB, yes! I can only sit through a little of the original Bridget Jones and the second movie, forget about it! That movie was just one shudder after another for me!

  15. Abi says:

    I’m joining the chorus re: Kristan Higgins.

    Em. Bah. Ruh. Sin (yeah, that’s how I pronounce it)

    But I love her though! If this latest one has a female lead who doesn’t go about making me blush on her behalf, that would be icing on the cake.

  16. Las says:

    I have the same problem. It’s the reason I can’t watch “The Office.”

  17. Cindy says:

    Oh, yeah! Michael on The Office! I still watch, but sometimes I have to remind myself: “It’s only a tv show… it’s only a tv show….” or I’d be too sick with shame for him to keep on going!

  18. Sami says:

    Ditto on “The Office”. The original English version is even more cringeworthy. Currently I’m reading a Sophie Kinsella book that, while I’m enjoying, has so many of those cringeworthy scenes–it’s that zany chic lit thing I think. I keep thinking “why are you doing that woman? Just tell everyone the truth!” I have a big problem with characters who perpetuate a lie for an entire book.

    The most embarrassing moment for a character in a movie I can remember is Drew Barrymore in ‘Never Been Kissed.’ She thinks she’s going to the prom with a hot guy but he only asked her on a dare and he drives past and throws eggs all over her head. God, that poor girl! I close my eyes during that scene.

  19. RfP says:

    That’s a large part of my distaste for Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series. The main characters are such grasping, selfish morons that I’m ashamed for them.

    There’s a lot of shopping-chick-lit like that too. In fact, after reading too many of those I came to feel that there’s a whole portion of the fiction market built on portraying central female characters as objects of mortification and ridicule. It’s as if the only way some authors know to make a female character funny or likable is to make her as transparently selfish as a child. And incompetent and un-self-aware to boot!

    • Abi says:

      RfP: That’s a large part of my distaste for Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series.The main characters are such grasping, selfish morons that I’m ashamed for them.

      RfP, which books in the series are you referring to? All or some in particular? I love the earlier titles in the series (so bias alert in effect) but I’m not blind to their faults.

      I haven’t heard this particular fault levelled before however so I’m interested to find out who you found to be selfish and why.



  20. FD says:

    The word for this is fremdschämen. German has some awesome words that you´d need a whole phrase for in English.

  21. Karen says:

    I often get embarrassed for people on television, especially on talk or reality shows. I feel really uncomfortable when people reveal private moments in public (a declaration of love or a marriage proposal for example). The impromptu vocal performance also has me hanging my head in shame for the person. I *cannot* watch.

    Luckily I Tivo everything I watch so that I can fast forward through the uncomfortable parts!

  22. carrie says:

    Gotta agree about Kristan Higgin’s books. I’ve read them all, and for me, Catch of the Day was the worst for embarrassing scenes. Not funny! She’s a good writer, but she’s heavy handed in that area. Even with the embarrassment factor I liked Fools Rush In and Too Good To Be True (although I, too, wanted the heroine to just come clean about the boyfriend thing).

    I don’t like shows like The Office, nor do I watch reality TV. I hate watching acceptance speeches, so I rarely watch awards shows. After 5+ season I’m about to ditch Grey’s Anatomy because all the characters are becoming TSTL.

  23. MMcA says:

    @FD “The word for this is fremdschämen”

    - that’s a fabulous word. How would it translate? That is, is it the feeling we have as we’re reading or watching these things?

    ‘I felt so fremdschämen when he turned up at the funeral in his rabbit costume’ (Kids TV show – Press Gang – reference)

    Would that be more or less right?

  24. Kim says:

    I am greatly embarrassed by award speeches…golden globes, oscars…i turn the channel every time the winner comes up to speak….

  25. Jacqueline says:

    Wow. This may be laughable, but I never realized that I even had an issue with feeling extremely embarrassed for people- fictional or otherwise.

    I have always known that I get very uncomfortable, awkward and/or embarssed when characters make a fool out of themselves and I always pray for these scenes to quickly pass by!

    And still…

    It never dawned on me that there were others who did in fact not feel that embarrassment the way I did. Rather than think I was the only one who had this mind set, I legitimately didn’t realize others don’t have this mind set. (Forgive the redundancy.)

    I really enjoyed this entry- very informative to say the least! :)

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