I read the novel, Stardust, recently, and thought it would be a good novel to practice analyzing and critiquing characters. This will be a long one, so I am breaking it up into multiple posts. I will be going through the text from the beginning and offering an in-depth look at the chief characters the way I view them.
I do not claim to know Neil Gaiman’s own intentions in writing these characters, and my analysis may or may not match up with the way the author intended them to come across. While some of the characters were interesting, others I had some issues with. Neil Gaiman is of course a highly successful and well-respected author, so nothing I say is likely to change the opinion of any die-hard fans. I’ve viewed and read a few different reviews of this book and they have mostly been positive. I…beg to differ (I actually thought the movie was better). I may be in the minority, and I am okay with that.
I may occasionally bring up plot and writing style, but I intend to mostly focus on the characters.
SPOILERS ABOUND. If you’ve already read the book– or seen the movie– you won’t be bothered; but if you think you might want to read the book first, ask yourself if spoilers matter to you.
In this post, I will be focusing on the four most prominent characters of the first two chapters: Dunstan Thorn, Lady Una, Tristran Thorn, and Victoria Forester.
The description we get of Dunstan Thorn is that he is “not a romantic,” he is “slow of speech,” and that he dreams of “leaving the village of Wall and all its unpredictable charm.” He is presented as a practical young man, with no desire for magic or adventure. He is in a courtship with Daisy Thorn, a young woman of the village, who shares his practical outlook, and in the text it is clearly implied that they love each other.
Yet, when time comes for the magical market across the wall leading into Faerie, Dunstan’s life takes a sharp turn. A “tall man” who has traveled to the village to attend the fair requests lodging for the next two nights and offers Dunstan a great sum of money. Considering the earlier assertion that Dunstan is a practical man, I would expect the money to be quite welcome, but he is not satisfied. He says to the tall man, “If you’re here for the market, then it’s miracles and wonders you’ll be trading.” So the tall man amends his offer to include the promise that “Tomorrow, you shall attain your Heart’s Desire.”
This is where I take issue, because is it not clear that Dunstan’s desire is to live a safe, predictable life? Here it’s implied that the tall man understands Dunstan better than Dunstan understands himself, and I don’t quite buy it. What is his “heart’s desire” if not what we’ve already been led to believe? Up till this point, I would have said his desire is to marry Daisy and settle down in quiet comfort and security. And the text continues to make this assertion, as Dunstan enters the Faerie Market the next day. (In considering this further, I have another theory that maybe Dunstan desires a son, and because later it is revealed that he and his wife only have one other child– a daughter– maybe he needed another way to have his son. But whether or not this was Gaiman’s intention I do not know.)
The day of the fair, he thinks about his money, and “He had, for the moment, quite forgotten there had been anything else promised the night before.” In other words, he’s already back to his practical thinking. He doesn’t seem to care all that much about achieving his heart’s desire after all. How can it really be his heart’s desire if he doesn’t care? During the course of the Fair, it is clearly stated several times that Dunstan thinks only of Daisy– of buying something at the market for Daisy. Until he hears a “gentle chiming in the air” and he follows it.
Dunstan meets Lady Una at a stall of delicate glass flowers. We do not learn her name or status until the end of the book, so she is referred to by various other descriptors such as the “stall holder,” the “young lady,” or simply “she.” As Dunstan strikes up a conversation with the beautiful woman at the glass flower stall, the tall man happens to walk by and says to Dunstan, “There. My debt to you is settled.”
Dunstan and Una converse about the flowers, about her captivity and enslavement to a “witch-woman”, and at last Dunstan picks out a flower. At this point, he has to actively remind himself for whom he is buying the flower: It is “for Daisy,” of course. He begins to depart then, feeling “exceedingly uncomfortable.” The lady Una demands payment, not in money, but in a kiss. Whereupon Dunstan “plant[s] a chaste kiss on her soft cheek.” And then immediately after this, “He smell[s] the scent of her then, intoxicating, magical.” After that, the faerie girl says to him, “I’ll see you back here tonight, Dunstan Thorn, when the moon goes down.” At this point, Dunstan seems to have lost all autonomy. “He did not need to ask how she knew his surname; she had taken it from him along with certain other things, such as his heart, when he had kissed her.”
Dunstan then returns to Daisy and her family, and Daisy’s father observes that Dunstan has been “bespelled.” This assertion that Dunstan has been bewitched occurs a few more times within the text, and I am inclined to believe it.
However, when Dunstan returns to Una in the middle of the night, Una asks him, “Do you think you are under a spell, pretty Dunstan?”
“I do not know,” Dunstan replies.
Una laughs. “You are under no spell, pretty boy, pretty boy.” Note: just because she says it doesn’t mean it’s true. After a while she asks Dunstan, “What do you want from life?”
“I don’t know. You, I think.” NO YOU DON’T, YOU DOLT! YOU WANT DAISY!
Una says, “I want my freedom.”
Then, we get a quite explicit sex scene (in which I get the impression that this is not the “first time” for either of them), during which we get the description, “At the end, he would have pulled out, but she held him inside her…” I interpret this to mean that Dunstan tries to pull out before he releases his semen (a common method of birth control, especially during the period of this story), so that he won’t get Una pregnant; but it’s pretty clear later that getting pregnant was likely Una’s intention the entire time. This, and all of the above, indicate to me that Dunstan has indeed been “bespelled,” used by the “faerie girl” for the express purpose of getting her pregnant. Never at any moment has she expressed any love for him.
When we learn later that this woman is the daughter of the Lord of Stormhold, raised beside her seven bloodthirsty and power hungry brothers, it is even easier for me to believe that she is acting here out of selfish reasons, perhaps even to “one-up” her brothers by producing an unknown “surprise” heir to usurp them. Granted, we learn by the end of the book, that if Tristran had not been born, the terms for the end of Una’s captivity might never have been met (though that is debatable); but it seems highly unlikely that Una would have realized this, so I struggle to accept it as the reason why she did what she did.
Dunstan marries, and eventually loses the “faraway look” in his eyes. Until nine months have passed, and a basket is left at the border of Wall, containing a baby and a name written on a scrap of parchment: “Tristran Thorn.”
The first problematic thing about Tristran I see (aside from his difficult-to-say-out-loud name) is that he has a sister who is only six months younger than him, and yet he never seems to realize that there’s something odd about that, and no one else in the entire village seems to notice it, either. I find it hard to believe that Tristran– nor any of the other children– would not know enough to understand that it is practically impossible for two children to be born six months apart to the same mother; and equally unlikely, that at least one of the children in Tristran’s circle wouldn’t have said something about it. If this was Gaiman’s way of saying either that Tristran is an idiot, or that the whole village knows the truth about him and have all agreed (including the children) to keep mum, then okay fine (kinda has a “Truman Show” vibe then). But if that wasn’t Gaiman’s intention, this “plot hole” would have been easy to fix by having Tristran’s sister be– oh, I don’t know– a year younger instead of six months. Dunstan and Daisy didn’t have to get pregnant right after their marriage.
Tristan is described as “painfully shy.” He is madly infatuated with a girl by the name of Victoria Forester. He daydreams– much like his father– of “riding the train all the way to London or to Liverpool, of taking a steamship across the grey Atlantic to America.” But then, “there were times when the wind blew from beyond the wall…And at those times, Tristan Thorn’s day-dreams were strange, guilty fantasies, muddled and odd….And when these moods came upon him, he would slip out of the house, and lie upon the grass, and stare up at the stars.”
Victoria Forester is described as the “most beautiful girl for a hundred miles around.” It appears to be her greatest ambition to “work in the Seventh Magpie as a potmaid.” Her mother vehemently objects to this, which is ironic considering that she herself worked as a potmaid in the same establishment before marrying. But she says to Victoria, “That is a most improper occupation for a young lady.” And Victoria’s father agrees (what does that say about what he thinks of his own wife?).
We get a scene in the apple orchard with Victoria and her girlfriends, where they chitter about men and marriage. One of the girls points out to Victoria that “Mister Monday himself is counted amongst your admirers.” To which Victoria says ”with disdain,” that “Mister Monday is five and forty years of age if he is a day.” Keep in mind that Victoria herself is only sixteen or seventeen. But, at the end of the book (spoiler!) Victoria marries Mister Monday for reasons never clearly stated, but it is implied that before she even sends Tristran off on his “quest” to capture the fallen star, that she has already made up her mind to marry Mr. Monday, and other clues from the text lead me to assume that she does it for the wealth and security that the man can provide.
Does this make Victoria shallow? Or smart? Or is she giving in to the pressure from her own parents to make herself into a “proper lady?”
In any case, when Tristran walks with Victoria and asks her if she would marry him, Victoria replies: “Marry you? And why ever should I marry you, Tristran Thorn? What could you give me?” Upon which Tristran rattles off all the things he would travel far and wide, and risk his life, to bring her. Victoria still refuses to marry him or even kiss him. So Tristran continues with his romantic recital, and still Victoria is unmoved. In Victoria’s defense, Tristran wanders into “obsessive stalker” territory here, when he just will not give it up.
They watch a falling star, and Tristran pledges to bring Victoria the fallen star to win her hand. “Go on, then,” says Victoria. “And if you do, I will.” When Tristran asks for clarification, Victoria replies “If you bring me that star, the one that just fell…then I’ll kiss you. Who knows what else I might do.” Again, while it might be wrong of Victoria to toy with Tristran in this way, she did try the plain approach first.
“And if I brought you the fallen star? What would you give me? A kiss? Your hand in marriage?” Really, Tristran, she doesn’t want you, just let it go.
But Victoria has clearly given up on trying to reason with the boy. So to get him to leave, she says, “Anything you desire.”
Victoria’s laughter follows Tristran as he heads for home and prepares to depart on his quest for the fallen star. He tells his parents of his intention to go across the wall; his father escorts him to the entrance and says to the guards, “I suppose you both know about where he came from.” Here we learn that rumors about Tristran have indeed circulated around the town– and yet somehow Tristran has never encountered any of them. He passes through the gap in the wall, still wondering what his father meant by his words, and why the guards let him through so easily.
That is the end of my analysis of the first two chapters. I had expected to have more negative things to say about Victoria based on my impressions of her from my first reading; but then during my re-read and looking more closely at these characters, I actually have a lot of empathy and understanding for the girl. Tristran is a naïve fool. Dunstan is a good man who was hoodwinked by Una– who I initially felt sorry for when I first read the book, but now I’m not so sure. She’s much more morally “gray” than I originally thought.
If you enjoyed this character analysis, I invite you to follow the link for the second installment: Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, Character Analysis, Part Two