When Badguys Don't Lose


One of my favorite books is The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery (of Anne of Green Gables fame). It's the story of a young woman, Valancy, who finds out she is going to die and realizes that she has never truly lived. She has spent her life under the sodden weight of her respectable and judgmental family, people who have never expected much of her and have not been disappointed. Valancy's family does not really love her, though she loves them. But she is also afraid of them. Of their disappointment and their judgment. I love that this dynamic is not played for pathos, that it simply is.

I also love that while Valancy leaves her family and blooms into the most vibrant version of herself, her family doesn't learn any lessons. They don't change. They are the same stodgy judgmental people at the end as they are at the beginning. Valancy's story isn't about showing anyone else that she is greater than they thought, it is about showing herself. And the people who are wise see it, but the people who are foolish, like her family, do not.

The most important lesson of the story is that it's important to prove your worth to yourself. That the opinions of others don't matter as much as your own self-esteem.

A secondary lesson is that you can still love people who don't know how to value you. Valancy deserves to be loved, so she goes out and finds people who appreciate her. It doesn't stop her from loving her family, but it puts her in an emotionally healthier situation, and that is an amazing lesson.

Another of my favorite books is The Trouble with Kings by Sherwood Smith. There are many things to love about this story, and many aspects in common with The Blue Castle, but here is the best: Princess Flian, when she is at home, is often overshadowed by another young lady. Flian is considered "dull." Yet, throughout the story, we see Flian exercising a strength of character and courage that the other girl couldn't hope to match. She grows and changes and becomes this amazing young woman. Yet the other girl never sees it. She is never put in her place, and she never understands how much better Flian is than her. The foolish girl still believes at the end of the story that she is smarter, prettier, and more desirable than Flian. She still looks down on Flian.

But the important people know better. Flian knows better. And it echos the themes in The Blue Castle that show us that the most important thing is to value ourselves. Flian learns how strong she is; her family knows it; her new friends know it. That is enough for her. She is happy and confident, and no one else's pettiness can weaken her self-worth.

If someone else had written those stories, Valancy's family might have apologized for not realizing sooner how much they love her. In Flian's case, someone would prove to her bully how much more they like Flian, leaving a sour taste in the bully's mouth. And the lesson there is that, by resolving those situations in the protagonist's favor, it is the last ingredient, the missing piece to their personal happiness. It tells us that perfect happiness cannot be possible without total triumph.

I much prefer the lesson that it is possible to be happy in spite of it all -- that although bullies don't change and people don't love you just because they should, we can still value ourselves. We don't need someone else's permission to do so.

Self-esteem is so much more powerful than the people who disappoint you, and that is a lesson we all deserve to learn.