Denna, Manic Pixie Dreamgirl of Imre

This is probably going to turn into a rant, but before it does, let me first and foremost say that I recommend Patrick Rothfuss’s novels, In the Name of the Wind and Wise Man’s Fear. The main character, Kvothe, is brilliantly drawn. It’s been a while since I’ve been so attached to a protagonist that I literally cheer on his accomplishments while reading. I still haven’t finished Wise Man’s Fear yet (life has gotten in the way, as has writing), but I expect to soon, and I am still enjoying the series a good deal.

I do, however, have one incredibly annoying problem with the book: Denna, the love interest.

Denna is not attractive to me. Denna is worse than unattractive, I find Denna actively repulsive. I would flee from this woman like she had cholera. I honestly cannot stand her; she drives me bonkers. And yet Kvothe, whom I adore, is madly in love with her. I find myself screaming at the text “Kvothe you moron! THE GIRL IS BAD NEWS! MOVE ON!” It’s like witnessing a good friend of yours going out with a complete zero and you knowing you have no real control over it (it’s their life, etc.), but it also seems to occupy your every thought during every conversation you have with them. It’s an eyelash in your eye, an eggshell in your omelette.

For those of you who haven’t read the book, Denna is, essentially, the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl trope from modern film. If you don’t know who I mean, think Natalie Portman from Garden State, Audrey Hepburn from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown, of even Catherine from the classic French flick, Jules et Jim. The MPDG was defined by film critic Nathan Rabin when he said:

“[The MPDG is] that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”

The MPDG is flighty, free-spirited, and playful. She is in need of a man to give her stability in life, but refuses to submit to a man’s authority. The man, conversely, needs the MPDG to teach him to love and laugh and grow. They feed off one another, they banter and they play, and ultimately complete each other in a kind of perfect love.

Undatable.

Undatable.

This sounds nice on paper, I suppose, but only if you assume the MPDG is some kind of puzzle piece and not an actual human being. MPDGs would be, in reality, emotionally damaged people. They cannot trust and are afraid to love due to deep-seeded psychological issues that only they (and perhaps a licensed therapist) can repair. They are not relationship material, no matter how quirky or fun they appear. This is not to say, of course, that quirky and fun women are automatically bad news in real life (far from it!), but when that quirkiness is really just a shield for self-destructively low self-esteem and emotional unavailability, well, it’s not good.

Denna fulfills this trope well – she is mistrustful, flighty, and the rest of it. Rothfuss (through Kvothe’s narration) portrays this as wonderful and enchanting and intoxicating, which drives me bonkers. No, Kvothe, it is not charming when Denna gives you a little wink while on the arm of another man. It is hurtful to you, to her, and dishonest to everyone (especially the guy whose arm she is on). It’s emotionally destructive behavior. Denna keeps secrets and dislikes inquiry into her past (WARNING FLAG, Kvothe!), she refuses to pursue Kvothe or be pursued by him for fear of being hurt. She can’t take criticism. She is unreliable.

As if this wasn’t aggravating enough, Rothfuss parades a variety of far more attractive women (at least to me) under Kvothe’s nose. There is Fela, the intelligent, well-spoken, honest, courageous, generous classmate at the University. There is Devi, the confident, talented, street-smart, and curious loan-shark. Hell, there’s even Felurian, a faerie princess and the most beautiful woman in the world. Granted, she isn’t human and would eventually devour Kvothe with her affections, but at least the woman would supply some degree of emotional satisfaction to the poor man before his heart gave out.

Now, it may well be that Rothfuss is perfectly aware of what bad news this Denna girl is. He is making the series out to be somehow tragic, anyway – maybe Denna is part of it. All I know is that it’s been two books now of Kvothe mooning over a girl who, were he a real guy and my friend, I would do my best to dissuade his interest. Denna is bad news, man. For Tehlu’s sake, ASK OUT FELA!

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About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on May 8, 2013, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. Aw, it’s the Auston version of a “how dare you deny my ‘ship!” rant! Hee!

    She does sound kinda infuriating, though.

  2. Rabin is wrong. The MPDG does indeed exist in real life, and yes, they are emotionally damaged people. I actually find Denna a well-written character because she reflects that unhappy reality. The Denna/Kvothe courtship makes sense because everything about her plays on Kvothe’s ambitions and weaknesses. She’s the chance to do over the past, the opportunity to protect someone he cares about (when he couldn’t do so earlier), the egotistical (yet earnest) drive to be the exception to the rule of her life, etc. etc. You’re right – if I were one of Kvothe’s friends, it would drive me batty (and has in my own real-life experiences), yet everything about them makes perfect, horrible sense.

    • Actually, by Rabin’s definition they don’t exist in real life, because they ONLY exist as a one-dimensional object meant to teach the male protagonist an important life lesson. That’s their ONLY function in the narrative. She has no personal life/desires/stakes, her existence is there PURELY as male fantasy wish-fulfillment. Whereas in real life women are actually three-dimensional people with their own hopes and dreams. They may act like manic pixie dream girls… but they are in fact real people with real emotions and real wants. Which by definition doesn’t make them true MPDGs.

      • I agree with what Fisher says in general. You’re right, Paul, that MPDGs ‘exist’ in real life, but they aren’t glorious or fun or enticing. It’s a good point about Kvothe’s age (so easy to forget given how smart he is and that he is narrating as a much older man), but that doesn’t change Denna into a character with multiple dimensions. This isn’t to say that she’s perfectly flat, but she does only have that one note and her only real purpose is in how she affects Kvothe. That may change, but currently that’s all she’s got going on.

        And none of this, of course, changes the fact that she is *INFURIATING*.

  3. I agree with Paul. Denna is the perfect foil for Kvothe. And let us not forget that at the time of the action Kvothe is all of 15-18 years old during all this. It makes the infatuation with this girl all the more understandable when you think of him as an idiot teenager, despite his great intellect.

    • Ohh, yeah, that makes all of this make MUCH more sense. I haven’t read the books and assumed that Kvothe was an adult, but if he’s a teenager through all this, of course he’s going to completely miss the much more stable women for the one who’s more “quirky”.

    • Very true about the age thing. Easy to forget with Kvothe. Doesn’t make her any less infuriating, though.

  4. I don’t think Rothfuss “portrays this as wonderful and enchanting and intoxicating” per se. I think that’s how Kvothe perceived it at the time, which is why it comes out that way.

    • I think it is unclear either way at this point. Given that this is a first person narration, it’s difficult to ascertain Rothfuss’s intentions as distinct from Kvothe’s. It seems clear Kvothe is still enamored with her, even as he waits for his unspecified death, which would seem to indicate that Kvothe never wised up about Denna. This may, in fact, be the point Rothfuss is trying to make–this is Kvothe’s tragic flaw. It’s a little too early to tell, though. Suffiice to say, I find Denna and the hold she has over Kvothe infuriating. Whether this winds up having a positive or negative effect on my opinion of the series overall is still up in the air.

  5. Kvothe isnt exactly a catch either. Even Fela said she wouldnt get involved with him because shed expect him to leave her. She also called him detached. Kvothe is narrating the story so its easy to develop a positive biased towards him, but in actuality he possesses many of the same negative traits as Denna, and is certainly just as screwed up in the head as her.

  6. I think we are supposed to be wary of Denna. In the beginning of the first book the chronicler says something about Kvothe looking like the kind of man who could kill a demon and then kill an angel to keep some ‘thing.’ I don’t remember the line exactly. It is very likely he’s referring to some creature from The Fae instead of Denna, and Denna could be the ‘thing’ Kvothe’s trying to keep, but it’s also possible Denna metaphorically or literally embodies some sort of fallen angel figure Kvothe has to kill. I’ll admit it seems like a less likely scenario though.

  7. Also she gets referred to in past tense during the interludes so I assume she’s dead or mistaken for dead. Or killed by Kvothe.

    • Yeah, I agree. Since writing this article, I’ve come to think that Denna is, in fact, supposed to be dangerous to Kvothe, only Kvothe will not see it (and has not seen it) yet. I very much think Rothfuss is aware of how bad a relationship they have going on.

  8. I was annoyed by Kvothe’s obsession with Denna as well. She comes off as just a foil for his story, but I’m swayed by the point that Kvothe is a teenage narrator so there may be more to her that we aren’t hearing. I feel less bothered by her portrayal now.
    The other thing that significantly bothers me is that almost every last women in the books is commented on in terms of her looks and attractiveness. No woman exists in her own right outside of the male gaze. Men aren’t constantly described in terms of their looks. I just read this section from the second book. ““First came Fenton, my friendly rival from Advanced Sympathy. Then Fela arrived with Brean, a pretty girl of about twenty with sandy hair cut in the fashion of a boy’s.
    We chatted and introduced ourselves. Jarret was a shy Modegan I’d seen in the Medica. I recognized the young woman with bright blue eyes and honey-colored hair as Inyssa, but it took me a while to remember where I’d met her. She was one of Simmon’s countless short-lived relationships. Last was Uresh, nearly thirty and a full El’the. His complexion and accent marked him as coming all the way from the Lanett.”
    As a woman, it’s utterly exhausting to constantly have the idea that your looks matter to your worth reinforced everywhere. It’s a pernicious message that benefits no woman.

    • There is a whole chapter early in AWMF, where Kvothe talks about loving his lute though all its flaws (after seeing Denna), which is basically Kvothe answering these exact criticisms and questions about Denna.

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