Protagonist or Antagonist?

Hello Edward, you have previously asked me about the one aspect that could tie everything up, and here I am to give you my answer. I believe the film adaptation should focus on the secondary characters. Of course, the protagonist is important, but it is through the secondary characters that Lionel’s depth is unveiled. There is also a change of attitude from how the secondary characters view Lionel at first in contrast to how they treat him as the story goes.

What are secondary characters? Who are they in Motherless Brooklyn?
There are different characters in a storyline. We could categorize them in three groups; protagonists, antagonists, secondary characters. Your story revolves around your protagonists; your main characters.The antagonists are the ones who prevent the protagonists from achieving their goal. The secondary characters are the ones who fill in the void and connect everything together. There could be different opinions on Motherless Brooklyn’s plot. Instead of thinking that this is a story about a man looking for a murderer. Lionel, the protagonist mentioned, on the morning, after his dear mentor, Frank, died: “ It seemed possible I was a detective on the case.” (Lethem 132) I believe Lionel’s abstract goal would have been to define his identity and to do that, his concrete goal would then have been to find the killer, because as he realized the world still kept working without Frank, he thought becoming a detective could bring him closer to Frank, and perhaps, become the next Frank Minna. Although Frank was dead, he wanted to be approved by him through finding his killer. Lionel was his own antagonist. In a sense, his intellectual was up against his Tourette’s .There is no doubt he knew this himself as he evoked: “Here’s the strangeness of having a Tourette’s brain, then: no control in my personal experiment of self.” (131). He tried to understand the self, but his Tourette’s seemed to confuse him; making him unable to define himself. This is why I would like to think of everyone as a secondary character, excluding Lionel, because he antagonized himself. Though, there are secondary characters that make more impact than others and these major secondary characters, Frank, Kimmery and Julia, are all connected through the protagonist, Lionel. Secondary characters are very important because they are here to enhance the story line. They are able to fill in the void and add more elements to the storyline. Just alike Frank’s quote that resonates throughout the book: “Wheels Within Wheels” (182). It is a conspiracy, everything, the wheels (the characters), connects itself one way or another (through Lionel).

How should we focus on the secondary characters though?
We should be able to display how they make Lionel grow as a character, or at least how Lionel behaves around them. He shows different sides of him with different characters. Dialogue exchanges are important. The atmosphere he shares with each character is different, and should be well portrayed.

First, we are revealed of Frank Minna, he is the only one who has treat Lionel with sincerity. We can witness Frank’s sincerity as he found Lionel a book on Tourette’s syndrome: “With the help of Minna’s book I contextualized my symptoms as Tourette’s, then discovered how little context that was.” (82) Frank had gone out of his way to get Lionel this book. From a freak, Lionel defined understood more of his own self through Frank. He had understood that there were other freaks out there, just like him as he read the book, and he was able te deem it as a disorder, nothing more. Nonetheless, Frank’s death was the triggering event of the plot. It would have seemed that Frank did not wish to drag anyone into investigating his death, since he did not directly tell anyone about the culprit. Or maybe he did, leaving many puzzle pieces to Lionel, as Frank trusted him to be the only one that might go as far as revealing the conspiracy. “It’s your fault if she misses her Rama-lama-ding-dong.” (10) I had not realized what the term meant here at first, but as I finished the book and went back to the first chapter, I realized Frank already let out a clue about Gerard being the Rama-lama-ding, the mastermind, while Frank was in the car, conversing with Gerard. The two of them share a precious parent-child-like bond, it would be difficult to illustrate its’ complexity. Yet, being able to portray this complex relation, would reflect the book’s worth.

Then, upon meeting Kimmery, we sensed change in Lionel. He seemed to have been able to hold off his tics. He slowly fell in love with Kimmery, because he thought she was the same as him: “ But now I understood that she was rootless, alienated in this space.” (213) Lionel thought they were the two alienated souls trapped in this big city of Brooklyn. We had learned from his stay at her apartment about his affectionate tics towards cats. Maybe he had treated her as a cat too, trying to learn about her, understanding her through creepy, stalking ways. Whilst she seemed to return those feelings and they shared a night together. There again, he had contrasted Kimmery’s “It’s okay” to be her tics. Though, after that night, Kimmery revealed her true feelings through their many phone calls : “You’re kind of overwhelming [..]” (259) She used him as a rebound, as an object to get over her personal problems. Lionel showed desperation towards her through his endless phone calls, but at the same time those phone calls came off as tics, but she does not understood his tics. Lionel thought all this time that she would be the one that understands him, but that is not true, since she only wanted comfort. Lionel goes through a cynical and passive heartbreak as he was headed to Yoshii: “I’m tightly wound. I’m a loose cannon. […] they should be one word, tightloose.” (262)  It did a great damage to Lionel because he thought she would have been the one meant for him, but again, he was cast out by someone he cherished, and he was left alone.

As all Minna Men desired to become Frank, they saw in Julia, the perfect woman; Frank Minna’s woman. Julia had made a brief entrance, but she hurried out, thus letting us wonder why she has left. Then, as the two they meet again, instead, Julia has raised her guard against him. Although Lionel, and us the readers have finally realized that she was also an important wheel that connected everything together, she hated to be the wheel. “What she encountered was first intoxicating and frightening, then disenchanting.” (291) Lionel had then realized one matter, that helped him define more of himself; Julia was the most hardboiled character among all of them, as he had previously thought of himself as the most cynical character. He understood how hard it was for her adapt to a social life she never envisioned. It is also through Julia that Lionel releases his obsession over everything he had previously been on about. He shouted “Barnabaileyscrewjuliaminna” (303), he let go of the vengeance he sought, and realized that, he did not have to become Frank Minna, merely being Lionel Essrog sufficed.

By far, that is everything I could have thought of, this needs some polishing, but the idea of Lionel being his own antagonist should remain. These secondary characters each have their own colors, and they either bring out the best or worst from Lionel. The protagonist and his relationship to the secondary characters is what ties this whole story up.

Lissom Huang

Works Cited:

Lethem, Jonathan. Motherless Brooklyn. Vintage Books, 1999.


One thought on “Protagonist or Antagonist?

  1. This is a good essay. You do a nice job of explaining how these secondary characters help illuminate Lionel’s character. I especially like how you tie in the idea of “wheels within wheels,” with Lionel serving as the hub between this network of secondary characters. I also agree with your assessment of Lionel being his own antagonist. You say a lot of interesting things in this essay, which demonstrates a strong reading of the novel. Nicely done.


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