Being the boss's secretary gave Isabelle Goodrow a status different from the other women in the room, but she was different anyway. For example, she was impeccably dressed; even in this heat she wore pantyhose . . . simply sat at her desk with her knees together, her shoulders back, and typed away at a steady pace.In these few words from Elizabeth Strout's novel, Amy and Isabelle, we begin to see Isabelle's character, prim and perfectionistic.
As with all good writers, however, Strout doesn't rely on telling us about her character; she shows us with simple actions, as above and in the novel when Isabelle first arrives home from work:
The geraniums on the windowsill over the sink had bright red heads of bloom the size of softballs, but two more leaves had turned yellow. Isabelle, dropping her keys on the table, noticed this immediately and went to pluck them off.Isabelle's response to her geraniums is similar to Susan Fromberg Shaeffer's pondering of daffodils in "Confession in April:"
Dear Lord, I have sinned against thee.In "Deepening Character Descriptions in Fiction and Memoir," I suggested you can develop more multi-dimensional characters by learning about Enneagram personality styles. In this post, let's focus on personality style One ("Reformers"), whose gift is the ability to see and work toward perfection. Their attention goes to what needs fixing, as when Isabelle notices and immediately plucks two yellow leaves. This perfectionism is driven by a form of anger that rejects whatever fails to meet their ideal of what should be ("daffodils have come in my yard instead of tulips").
For I do not love all flowers equally.
For daffodils have come up in my yard instead of tulips.
For I hate their stupid yellow faces . . .
For in truth, my will is not done.
Judith Searle (The Literary Enneagram) describes the emotional constraint of this character type, a constraint we’ve already seen in Isabelle, sitting at her desk typing at a steady pace in the extreme heat. Searle further explains how these people “tend to be unforgiving of mistakes — both their own and others'.” They believe others’ errors “arise from their moral defects” and “try to impose their will through moral superiority.”
So far, Strout’s Isabelle seems to fit the Reformer personality style—self-disciplined, well-organized, and unpretentious. If so, we should hear judgments in her language and internal dialogue about what’s right and wrong, as well as a tinge of anger. These qualities become quite evident by page 14 of the novel, while she’s sitting at dinner with her 16-year-old daughter, Amy:
“Use your napkin, please.” She couldn’t help it: the sight of Amy licking ketchup from her fingers made her almost insane. Just like that, anger reared its ready head and filled Isabelle’s voice with coldness . . . and now Isabelle hated herself as well . . . Amy sat with her hand in her lap, her neck thrust forward like one of those foolish toy dogs you could sometimes see in the back of a car, whose head wagged back and forth at stop signs. “Oh, sit up straight,” Isabelle wanted to say, but instead she said wearily, “You may be excused. I’ll do the dishes tonight.”As you explore the Enneagram Reformer, you’ll see a range from the more self-aware, forgiving characters who even have a sense of humor (Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs) to the most self-righteous and cruel (Beth in Ordinary People, Stevens in The Remains of the Day). I encourage you to read Amy and Isabelle to decide for yourself how Isabelle’s character develops over time.
Be alert, also, for what Searle refers to as a “trap door” quality, a running-amok side that can provide temporary escape from trying to meet high standards (“they rigorously control expression of their feelings, but once the door is opened, their pent-up desires come flooding out”). Isabelle, too, has “a past.”
In addition to finding these characters in fiction, memoirs can teach you what they’re like from the inside. In “Every Good Boy Does Fine,” pianist Jeremy Denk describes the self-critic we all have that’s ever-present for Reformers:
Very recently, during a recital in Philadelphia, I lifted my arm confidently to play a passage. A flurry of wrong notes rang out. I had a moment of panic, a quick intake of breath, and was beginning a litany of self-blame when I heard a voice in my head with a quaint Hungarian accent: “The problem with you is that you’re a perfectionist.”There are also lists of famous people (see Ralph Nader, An Unreasonable Man) and movie plots (see Tom Wilkinson, The Full Monty) featuring this personality. Observing them in action will inform you in a way words can’t quite describe.
This post is intended to pique your curiosity with the basics of the Enneagram One personality style, which I promise you will now see everywhere.