Finding tarot in literature: Character development in the cards

by Ellen Carr, Guest Editor

Guest Editor Ellen Carr, left, with Sophia Ungert, one of her Editor’s Choice authors for spring 2020. (Not pictured is her second choice, Mae Williams.)

We are running, training for my first marathon, when my best friend Jenn tells me about her idea for a novel. When she describes her main character around mile eleven, I gasp: “She’s The Fool!” Jenn looks hurt until I remind her that I’m taking a tarot class. In tarot, The Fool is a searcher, a wanderer—someone I admire for her openness to the unknown, her questing soul. Jenn respects tarot, so she understands this characterization for what it is: my attempt to help her flesh out her protagonist.

I used to respect tarot, loving the way readers led me through an array of cards, carefully selected by the energy directing my hands to their customized messages. These readings made meaning of the cluttered events of my life. I loved the way my readers would spark with recognition when a card animated something I said, or asked about. “Of course you got The World! She comes up all the time for people like you.” I wanted to be on a first-name basis with major arcana like The World—a gorgeous, unashamedly naked woman suspended mid-air brandishing two wands, an archetype of empowerment (and female empowerment at that—with the kind of boobs I’ve always wanted). So I signed up for a tarot class.

Now that I speak pidgin tarot, I don’t just respect it. I genuflect before it. This might be the opposite of what you thought I’d say—isn’t the magic gone when you see behind the screen? With enough knowledge to be dangerous, I understand the “magic” of tarot for what it is—not soothsaying, or crappy little fortune cookie lines (she who works hard gets last laugh), but a deeply analytical process reminiscent of the literary criticism I read and learned to perform in college. My own small sparks of recognition—when a suit dominates my spread, or when I pull one card (a lazy reading, like a quickie) that is exactly the right card for the question I posed—hold as much meaning as third party readings. Maybe more. With the arrogance of a novice, I believe that I read myself best.

My tarot teacher, Sage (perfect name, right?) helps us understand the cards by pushing us to look for their archetypes in real life. I work in finance, so I’m usually trying to figure out the best card for people like JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon (the King of Pentacles, maybe, or The Emperor, who looks a little like Dimon if he grew a long white beard) and legendary investor Warren Buffett (definitely The Hermit). When Sage tells us about her least favorite card, which one of her friends dubbed “the douche-bag card,” the V of Swords, I can’t help but think of a very recognizable public figure—the nasty smile, the shock of orange hair, swords strewn around him in Pyrrhic victory.

My mom, who is not prone to statements like this, tells me tarot contradicts the Bible, in an urgent tone that suggests we won’t meet in the afterlife because of my embrace of it. But tarot has its roots in lots of religions, including Christianity. Tarot is the opposite of non-denominational. It’s all-denominational, sampling liberally from beliefs around the globe. It also draws in astrology, and personality tests. I see the nine Enneagram types etched in the major arcana—isn’t The Chariot a prototypical three? The Hermit must be an INTP (like me). Once you get to know the cards, they leap off the page at you.

When I took on the Guest Editor role for this issue, tarot cards started flashing before my eyes as I read the excellent submissions. So much of character development takes place in archetypes; good character development signals the archetype—in essence, the tarot card—to the reader, and then goes from the general to the specific, and personal. Although it was difficult to choose among the pieces in this issue, after a couple of readings, I selected two that distill archetypes embodied by some of the deck’s most powerful cards (in my opinion, anyway!) into character studies that marry the cards’ universal themes with personal encounters.

Tarot archetypes animate Sophia Ungert’s essay, “Lessons in English.” Ungert’s piece unfolds like a tarot reading, where she pulls The Fool card on her first draw, signaling that she is open to—if, perhaps, naive (foolish) about—the experiences Paris will provide.

Ungert uses English-speaking sessions as her license to draw cards at random, assembling them into a spread of her Parisian hopes and dreams, with The Wheel of Fortune (which means, well, exactly what you think it means) as her next card. For her first client, Ungert pulls the King of Swords— Monsieur Revel—an older, intellectual man with an expensive address, surrounded by books. She encounters some of the suit’s darker elements in her conversations with him: he harshly (if accurately) critiques her English, and stiffs her after two lessons. Then Ungert introduces us to Yves, and I swoon alongside her, happy that she has pulled The Lovers card. I tell her, reader to author, that she will definitely enjoy a carnal night, or several, with Yves.

When Ungert and I meet Delphine, I’m torn. Her overwhelming beauty shrieks “Cups”—the suit associated with femininity and emotion. Yet her house-keeping (house-playing?) grounds her in the Pentacles suit, associated with the practical, the earthly, the home. And her relationship with Ungert is Pentacles-pragmatic: she wants to get through school. When Delphine throws a tantrum, I recognize her as an upside-down Page of Pentacles, embodying the negative qualities of the suit—stubbornness, impatience, willfulness. Delphine needs help not just with her English, but with this grown-up life she’s trying on like the Queen of Pentacles’ flowing, scarlet robe.

Forgotten by her friends, Ungert has already crawled into bed when she gets a call from Yves. I am crestfallen alongside her when, instead of inviting her to a party, he asks her to babysit. Of all the cliches...une jeune fille aupair americaine is even worse than that of the sleazy, philandering Frenchman. I reshuffle at Ungert’s request and pull the X of Swords, a card of finality showing a prone figure pinned to the ground by, well, ten swords. The message of the card isn’t violent—it’s a comforting finality, backlit by dawn to signal a new day.

Sage tells us that every card has a positive and a negative meaning. Most cards mostly map to good outcomes and interpretations, although every card has a dark side. Case in point: I’m happy to see the Death card pop up in a spread. In tarot, Death means the end of something—a relationship, a job, a chapter of your life—that is supposed to die, along with a new beginning. It’s an energizing, exciting card.

Yet a few cards always make me shudder when I pull them, none more so than The Devil. He holds up his right hand in a cruel gesture which symbolizes “I know all truths.” A carpet of what looks like pubic hair stretches from his bare belly down to his knees, which taper to talons. His two subjects, a naked man and woman, are chained together at his feet, singed by the fire from his torch and what is surely the worst body odor in the Afterlife. I see no good in The Devil card, which often represents addiction—to drugs, or carnality, or power. It’s a card of ego and reckless excess, a card that might prompt your reader to ask, “What enslaves you?”

Mae Williams’ poem, “Glorious,” plays The Devil card a few lines in. What starts out as a fun play date U-turns into an after-school special about heroin addiction when the narrator casually mentions “Sara’s beautiful mom with her belted arm and syringe of heroin.” Beauty and horror coexist even in the same phrase—even the gorgeous marks on the addict’s arms, which tantalize the narrator, and me, as they appear and disappear. I hold my breath through the poem, praying to The Devil not to hurt the little girls, and not to let Sara’s beautiful mother die.

Williams shows us that addiction leaves more than desolation in its wake. It’s not just what the obituaries show us, those desperate sad cries of “she died before her time, even though we tried to save her.” All of addiction’s victims are beautiful people, and anyone who pulls The Devil card—through heredity, or circumstance, or just bad luck—deserves to be seen as such. Isn’t Sara’s mother just “stitching back together some delicate corner in the distressed fabric of her” when she kneels at the feet of The Devil to belt her arm, and later to pawn the narrator’s video games? Isn’t there some reading of addiction, and The Devil, that allows for beauty? Williams’ narrator is no fool—but she is The Fool, as only a child can truly be: open to interpretations of The Devil, and addiction, that our adult minds have shut out.

I am not even a tarot novice. I speak a two-year-old’s version of it. But even at my early, Foolish stage, its ancient teachings pull me into texts in new and different ways. As my readings, in both senses, of Ungert’s and Williams’ pieces come to an end, I light purifying sage, and ask forgiveness of Sage for any misreading I’ve done.

Ellen Carr is a money manager, business school professor, and writer. Her work has appeared in the Financial Times, Institutional Investor and The Smart Set. Her co-authored book “In Flats Forward: The Future of Women in Investment Management” (Columbia University Press) is forthcoming in Spring 2021. Ellen lives in Asheville with her son and two pesky but loveable cats.