Olive Kitteridge (2014) | HBO poster
Olive Kitteridge (2014) | HBO poster

The Likability of Unlikability in Elizabeth Strout’s ‘Olive Kitteridge’

Elizabeth Strout counters Olive Kitteridge’s unpleasantness with two of the most important, traits of a standout character: the Ghost and the Lie.

Olive Kitteridge
Elizabeth Strout
Random House
March 2008
Olive Kitteridge
Lisa Cholodenko
November 2014

The Transformative Power of
the “Ghost” and the “Lie”

Were Olive simply a roving figure of sass and snark, of biting comments and belittlement, she’d be a caricature. She wouldn’t be real, her unlikability not a boon but a detraction. Strout counters Olive’s odious unpleasantness with two of the most important, necessary traits of a standout character: the Ghost, and the Lie that stems from it.

A traumatic event from Olive’s childhood is often mentioned (usually flippantly by Olive) but never witnessed in-scene: her father’s suicide. This is Olive’s “Ghost”. In “How to Define Your Character’s Ghost”, author Kristen Kieffer says no one can escape their past unscathed, and “a character’s Ghost is an emotional injury that, though suffered long ago, continues to haunt them into the present day. It’s an internal scar that has never fully healed, an experience they bear as an ongoing burden.”

The reader need not witness the Ghost; the event can simply be backstory, as is the case in Olive Kitteridge. Nevertheless, it shapes the character—influencing, interfering, and impacting the way they walk through the world. Strout has personal experience with the subject matter. In her interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Strout mentioned her own family’s history of suicide, so she is well aware of the effect such trauma would have on a person’s psyche, as well as how it would reverberate on down the family line.

For Olive, the Ghost of her father’s suicide is omnipresent and manifests as depression (of which she is well aware). But she will never go to therapy. In the story “Security”, she calls Chris and his second wife Ann “dumb” for seeking healing from the “cult” of therapists that Olive detests (Strout, 223). Therefore, unresolved, she passes her own genetic predisposition—inherited from her father and compounded by his death—onto the next generation. “Olive does not know why her father killed himself… but she and her son bear the scars of this wounding” (Montweiler, 79). Olive’s scars and childhood trauma make her an empathetic character, a person with a past.

That said, a Ghost alone is not enough to round out a character. There must be its effect, and so the natural evolution of a Ghost is a character’s Lie. In “Creating Stunning Character Arcs”, author K.M. Weiland defines the Lie as an internal incompleteness, that the character is “harboring some deeply held misconception about either [themselves], the world, or, probably, both.” Olive’s Lie is the idea that the only way to resolve serious trauma is by toughening up and moving on.

She believes herself to be strong and resilient—which, admittedly, she is. She deals with her father’s suicide by donning her suit of craggy armor, dismissive and condescending about her own and others’ emotional frailty. She sucks it up and marches onward, and expects everyone else to do so as well. In the story “A Different Road”, minimizing the impact of her father’s death, Olive espouses that “she’d been through some things, but never mind. She straightened her back. Other people had been through things, too” (Strout, 112). Unfortunately, Olive’s Lie means she also believes that the softness, kindness, and emotional vulnerability (embodied by Henry) are flaws to be ridiculed.

Olive’s Ghost and Lie clearly alienate her from others; they are what make her so unpleasant, so sharp-toothed, so angry. “A character’s Ghost feeds into the Lie that they believe; the false belief that stands between them and the peace, happiness, or satisfaction they crave” (Kieffer). Olive’s Lie is a lie because no, toughening up and moving on doesn’t resolve childhood trauma. Denying the emotional impact of death only buries it deep, where it lies in wait until it can erupt later in explosive, damaging ways. Olive suffers these stormy, unpredictable moods.

In “Starving,” Olive meets an anorexic young woman and, upon taking one look at her thinness, tells her “You’re starving,” then breaks into tears, equating the woman’s physical hunger with her own emotional starvation: “I don’t know who you are, but young lady, you’re breaking my heart” (Strout, 95-96). In “Security”, after learning of her potential lover Jim O’Casey’s death, Olive admits “she was a crazy woman, privately. Absolutely nuts. She was so mad at Jim O’Casey… she went into the woods and hit a tree hard enough to make her hand bleed. She cried down by the creek until she gagged. And she fixed supper for Henry” (214).

Were it not for her Ghost and Lie, perhaps Olive wouldn’t have been the berating wife and damaging mother she is; perhaps she wouldn’t have ruined her daughter-in-law’s sweater and stolen her shoe. However, without the Ghost and the Lie, Olive Kitteridge is not memorable, real, relatable, or well-rounded. “[Olive] has a remarkable capacity for… empathy without sentimentality. She knows she’s been rotten; she has regrets. She understands people’s failings and, ultimately, their frail hopes” (Thomas).            

Strout ensures early on in Olive Kitteridge that the reader appreciates the value of Olive’s scars. Her Ghost and Lie aren’t solely flaws: they are also strengths. In the book’s remarkable second story, “Incoming Tide”, Olive’s Ghost and the razor-sharp bite of her Lie are what waylay the plans of Kevin, a promising young man who, depressed about his mother’s suicide, has returned to Crosby to kill himself. With their shared history of parental suicide, Olive recognizes Kevin’s burden and, “by engaging in desultory, even annoying conversation, she refuses to let him… act on [his intentions]. Olive’s apparently meaningless banter prevents Kevin from taking his own life, and in fact leads him to save another’s” (Montweiler, 78).

Olive, ever disruptive, in this instance, disrupts Kevin’s suicidal trajectory. Olive’s Ghost allows her to recognize Kevin’s haunted past, and her Lie gives her the blunt tools needed to barrel into a delicate situation. She prevents Kevin’s tragedy, enabling him to prevent another tragedy when he saves a drowning woman, Patty, minutes later. If not for the existence of Olive’s Ghost and Lie, not one but two lives would’ve been lost. In moments like these, “a reader would want to hug Olive, if she weren’t likely to swat one away like a low-flying bat” (Zipp).

In creating her crotchety, haunted Olive, Strout drew upon her own past; she grew up in a small town in Maine. “The rocky crags [of Crosby, Maine] like the character of Olive herself are hardened, rugged, difficult, and so the very landscape mirrors the titular heroine” (Montweiler, 77). Strout herself confirms that Olive is as much Maine as Maine is she. “I don’t know that we can separate the two that much,” she says; “I sort of think of her as a barnacle clinging to the rocks of Maine” (Simon).

It’s an apt metaphor. Like a barnacle, Olive is hard and resilient. She is a tough shell encasing a fleshy pink creature within—its belly soft and vulnerable and shielded from the ocean’s threats by its own calcified plates. Olive Kitteridge’s iconic character—however hardened and wounded, however ugly and relatable, however disagreeable and empathetic—is who she is. But what would Olive make of that characterization? In an interview with The Guardian’s Emma Brockes, Strout said, “She wouldn’t care.”

Works Cited

Brockes, Emma. “Oh man, she’s back’: Elizabeth Strout on the return of Olive Kitteridge”. The Guardian. 19 Octtober 2019. Accessed 6 March 2021.

Gross, Terry. “‘My Ears Are Open’: Novelist Elizabeth Strout Finds Inspiration In Everyday Life”. NPR Fresh Air. 13 January 2016. Accessed 6 March 2021.

Hoby, Hermione. “Elizabeth Strout interview: from years of rejection to the Pulitzer Prize and bestseller lists.” The Guardian. 19 February 2016. Accessed 6 March 2021.

Kieffer, Kristen. “How to Define Your Character’s Ghost”. Well-Storied. 13 March 2020. Accessed 9 March 2021.

Montweiler, Katherine. “An American Haunting: The Specter of Memory in Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge”. Short Story, vol. 20, no. 2. 2012. pp. 73-82.

Poniewozik, James. “Olive Kitteridge and Why ‘Likability’ Is for Saps”. Time. 3 November 2014. Accessed 7 May 2021.

Simon, Scott. “We’ve Got More to Say About You’: Olive Kitteridge is Back, and Complex as Ever”. NPR. 12 October 2019. Accessed 6 March 2021.

Strout, Elizabeth. Olive Kitteridge. Random House. 2008.

Thomas, Louisa. “The Locals”. The New York Times. 20 April 2008. Accessed 6 March 2021.

Weiland, K.M. “Creating Stunning Character Arcs, Pt. 2: The Lie Your Character Believes.” Helping Writers Become Authors. 16 February 2014. Accessed 9 March 2021.

York, Janet Zong. “Anthologizing ‘Little Calibans‘: Surplus in Junot Díaz’s Linked Stories”. The Journal of Transnational American Studies, 9(1). 2018. Accessed 7 May 2021.

Zipp, Yvonne. “A prickly protagonist with a tender heart”. The Christian Science Monitor. 16 May 2008. Accessed 6 March 2021.