The Casual Vacancy’s Grim Story Still Inspires Empathy

J.K Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy is not an easy novel to read. It’s depressing, melodramatic, and populated with a variety of flawed characters, from the self-absorbed to the self-righteously malicious. Although Rowling is arguably one of the most beloved and popular authors of the 21st century, her first non-Potter novel drew mixed reviews from critics, with some praising it for being ambitious, and others decrying it for being too grim. After reading this book for the 4th time, the grimness loses its shock value, and the more incisive elements of the book start to stand out, the most important being the novel’s razor sharp glimpse into class struggles in a modern Western country. The Casual Vacancy can be preachy and a tad on-the-nose, but it also highlights the inability of the upper class to empathize with those below them, or even to appreciate their humanity. While The Casual Vacancy can seem like it’s tackling mundane issues, Rowling’s story shows us that the same small-fry squabbles that divide English parishes can be found on global political stages, including in many of the United States’ current domestic policy crises.

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Synopsis: The small parish of Pagford appears idyllic, but beneath the surface of the cobbled streets and brightly painted shops, the town is bitterly divided. Pagford’s First Citizen Howard Mollison and his wife Shirley are determined to rid Pagford of The Fields, a low-income housing development which also houses the Bellchapel Addiction Clinic. Opposing them are Barry Fairbrother, who was born in the Fields and rose to prosperity, and his various pro-Fields supporters. But when Barry dies from an aneurysm, he leaves a “casual vacancy” on the city council, which Howard Mollison quickly moves to fill by nominating his own son to the seat. Two others move to oppose him, including Simon Price, a shady working man and abusive husband, and Colin Wall, one of Barry’s closest friends. Not everyone is happy with the election, and when the Ghost of Barry Fairbrother starts posting the would-be councillors’s dirty secrets on the town website, the sleepy little town of Pagford goes to war.

My take: Restraining herself from injecting too much class commentary into the Harry Potter series, Rowling lets loose in Vacancy, painting clear heroes and villains in her novel, while also leaving some room for the in-between. Not everyone in the upper class of Pagford is a villain, nor is every lower-class character an angel, but she  does spend the brunt of her novel trying to show the humanity in pariahs. She even has one character bluntly state her thesis to see “the light of God in every man’s soul.”

Vacancy’s greatest heroes are characters like Krystal Weedon, the sharp-tongued, impoverished Field’s girl with a heroin-addict mother and no future. Although many of the novel’s characters despise Krystal just by virtue of her birth and only see the worst in her actions, Rowling deliberately tries to push the reader past these stereotypes, to make them see that even though Krystal can be a bully, a petty thief, and a neglectful sister, she is still worthy of the reader’s empathy.

Rowling revels in the type of characters who is brash, confident, and against the grain. We see this mold in the Harry Potter novels, although in a more watered-down form, in Hermione, Tonks, and Molly Weasley. They are not afraid to be blunt, or to do what they think is right, even in the face of institutional opposition. Since Potter took place in a world of magic, these characters usually accomplished their goals with only a few setbacks. In Vacancy, we see this character exemplified in Krystal, in Kay Bawden, Krystal’s tireless social worker, in Parminder, Barry’s ally and loud anti-Howard Mollison advocate, and in Tessa Wall, Colin Wall’s moral compass. Bound by the grim reality in which they’re set, these characters face far more obstacles in accomplishing their goals, and few of them get exactly what they want. But their boldness makes them Rowling’s favorite type of hero. None of these characters are men, and while the men in Vacancy do comprise some of the heroes, they don’t come close to exhibiting the crusading prowess shown by the female characters.

Rowling is not revolutionary for writing these type of female characters, but she should be commended for prodding the reader to try to look beyond characters with whom we’re traditionally taught to empathize, and to instead seek out those we’re taught to instinctively dislike. A safer novel might have centered the plot around Samantha Mollison, the wife of Howard’s son Miles, who is discontent with the duplicity of Pagford society. But Samantha, rich, white, and educated, has had a thousand stories dedicated to her type of heroism. Giving her the role of protagonist would not help us empathize with the likes of Krystal or characters like Parminder’s daughter Sukhvinder, who endures merciless bullying at the hands of Tessa’s son Fats. By sidelining characters like Samantha, and Ruth Price, and Mary Fairbrother, all upper class women to whom, readers would instinctively cling, Rowling challenges us to work harder.

Rowling’s novel is by no means perfect, and she certainly does fall back on typecasting her villains. Howard and Shirley Mollison’ nasty pettiness bear striking resemblance to the actions of Harry Potter’s Uncle Vernon and Dolores Umbridge. Nevertheless, her villains are undeniably human, and their desire to rid their lovely Pagford of the low-income inhabitants of  The Fields and the addiction clinic would fall right in line with many Americans’ wishes to close the border to immigrants, impose harsher jail sentences on criminals, and reduce services for those suffering from addiction and mental illness. These domestic issues seem to be far more partisan and complex than the localized dispute in The Casual Vacancy, but they all come down to a lack of empathy. Just as Howard and Shirley write off the multi-faceted inhabitants of The Fields  as jobless ingrates, so do we Americans write off immigrants, criminals, and those needing government services as wastes of space, societal failures, or simply just “illegals.” Rowling’s novel doesn’t try to sugar coat the bleak realities of poverty and drug use, nor does she try to excuse them, but she does try to illustrate the fact that behind a heroin addict like Krystal’s mother, there is a person, a victim of circumstance and addiction, someone who should be, if not sympathized with, at least empathized with, instead of being tossed away as a failure.

In the last line of the novel, the citizens of Pagford literally and figuratively turn their backs on this type of empathy. It’s this last line that makes The Casual Vacancy such a crucial read. Even though the novel is dramatic and emotionally-draining, it inspires hope. If a reader can empathize with Krystal Weedon, then maybe, there is still hope that we can empathize with the real-world people from whom we’ve been trained to avert our eyes. Maybe we can stop seeing the people who challenge our norms as enemies, and just see them as human.

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