An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory - Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle 2016


Characters are the life of literature: they are the objects of our curiosity and fascination, affection and dislike, admiration and condemnation. Indeed, so intense is our relationship with literary characters that they often cease to be simply ’objects’. Through the power of identification, through sympathy and antipathy, they can become part of how we conceive ourselves, a part of who we are. More than two thousand years ago, writing about drama in the Poetics, Aristotle argued that character is ’secondary’ to what he calls the ’first essential’ or ’soul’ of tragedy — the plot — and that characters are included ’on account of the action’ (Aristotle 2000, 65—6). Considerably more recently in an essay on the modern novel, ’The Art of Fiction’ (1884), the novelist Henry James asked, ’What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?’ (James 1986, 174). While Aristotle makes character ’secondary’ to plot, James suggests that the two are equal and mutually defining. Indeed, the novels and plays we respond to most strongly almost invariably have forceful characters as well as an intriguing plot. Our memory of a particular novel or play often depends as much on our sense of a particular character as on the ingenuities of the story-line. Characters in books have even become part of our everyday language. Oedipus, for example, has given his name to a condition fundamental to psychoanalytic theory, whereby little boys want to kill their fathers and sleep with their mothers. Mrs Malaprop in Sheridan’s play The Rivals (1775) has given us the word ’malapropism’, for when someone uses, for example, the word ’illiterate’ to mean ’obliterate’ (see I.2.178). A ’romeo’ denotes a certain kind of amorous young man resembling the hero of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (c. 1595). When we refer to someone as a ’scrooge’, we mean a miser, but when we do so we are alluding, knowingly or not, to the protagonist of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843), for whom Christmas is a fatuous waste of time and money. Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita (1958) has permanently associated that name with what the OED defines, somewhat problematically, as ’a sexually precocious schoolgirl’, with all that that phrase might imply about child abuse. There is even a day named after a fictional character: ’Bloomsday’ (16 June) is named after the protagonist of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), Leopold Bloom.

But what is a person or a character in a literary work? What does it mean to talk about a character as ’vivid’ or ’life-like’? How do writers construct characters and produce the illusion of living beings? What is the relationship between a person in a literary text and a person outside it? As we shall try to demonstrate, these are questions that books themselves — in particular plays, novels and short stories — consistently explore. In this chapter, we shall focus, in particular, on the nineteenth-century realist tradition. It is this tradition, we suggest, that has culminated in the kinds of assumptions that we often hold about people and characters today. Such preconceptions apply less clearly to works from earlier centuries, and it is also against their nineteenth-century counterparts that modernist and postmodernist texts tend to work.

Charles Dickens’s novels are indisputably from the nineteenth century. Whether or not they can be described as ’realist’, however, is a matter of dispute. But this very uncertainty makes the novels particularly intriguing for a discussion of character since they tend both to exploit and to explode ’realist’ conventions of characterization. Great Expectations (1860—1) opens with the orphan-hero, Pip, examining the writing on his parents’ gravestones in order to attempt to determine the ’character’ of his mother and father:

As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like, were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father’s, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From the character and turn of the inscription, ’Also Georgiana Wife of the Above’, I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly. (35)

The comedy of this passage is partly produced by the double sense of ’character’ — as the shape of an inscribed letter on a tombstone and as the personality of a human being. The text implies that our knowledge of people is determined by writing, by the character of written words. Although he is ’unreasonable’, in taking the shape of letters to denote character, Pip is not simply mistaken in recognizing that our sense of our self and of other people is developed through language. For as this passage clearly indicates, we construct ourselves through and in words, in the image-making, story-generating power of language. In this respect, it is significant that the opening to Great Expectations explores one of the major themes of nineteenth-century literature: the question ’Who am I?’ Part of our interest in characters in fiction and drama has to do with trying to elaborate answers to this question — not only for themselves, but also for us.

To talk about a novel such as Great Expectations as ’realist’ is in part to suggest that its characters are ’lifelike’, that they are like ’real’ people. But what does this mean? The first requirement for such a character is to have a plausible name and to say and do things that seem convincingly like the kinds of things people say and do in so-called ’real life’. The second requirement is a certain complexity. Without this complexity, a character appears merely ’one-dimensional’, cardboard or (in E.M. Forster’s terms) ’flat’ (Forster 1976, 73). To be lifelike, a fictional character should have a number of different traits — traits or qualities which may be conflicting or contradictory: he or she should be, to some extent, unpredictable, his or her words and actions should appear to originate in multiple impulses. Third, however, these tensions, contradictions, multiplicities should cohere in a single identity. Thus ’lifelikeness’ appears to involve both multiplicity and unity at the same time. In the classic nineteenth-century realist novel Middlemarch (1871—2), for example, there is a character called Lydgate of whom George Eliot observes: ’He had two selves within him’, but these selves must ’learn to accommodate each other’ in a ’persistent self’ (182). It is this tension, between complexity and unity, that makes a character like Lydgate both interesting and credible. The importance of such unity in realist texts is made clear by works like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and, less melodramatically, Joseph Conrad’s ’The Secret Sharer’ (1910): these narratives can be called ’limit texts’ in that they use the framework of lifelike or realistic characters to explore what happens when the self is demonically split or doubled. In doing so, such texts challenge the basis of realism itself.

Realist characterization presupposes a ’mimetic’ model of literary texts whereby what is primary or original is a real person, and a character in a book is simply a copy of such a person. Such a model does not allow for a reversal of this relationship: it does not allow for the possibility that, for example, a person in ’real life’ might be convincing to the extent that he or she resembles a person in a book. On the face of it, such a reversal may sound rather strange or counter-intuitive: we would normally want to give priority to a ’person’ and say that characters in books are more or less like ’real’ people. In fact, however, as the example of Great Expectations suggests, it is easy to demonstrate that things also work the other way round. Indeed, literary history contains various dramatic instances where ’life’ copies fiction. After the publication of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther in Germany in 1774, for example, there was a fashion among young men in Europe for suicide, an act modelled on the suicide of the eponymous hero of that novel. Similarly, J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951) was held responsible for the antisocial behaviour of young men in the United States in the 1950s and early 1960s who identified with the disaffected hero Holden Caulfield. The young, in fact, are often considered (by the old) to be in danger of mimetic dissipation, to endanger themselves, their families and society because they identify with and then copy the actions and attitudes of disreputable people in books or, more recently, in films, on TV, in videos or computer games.

This paradox of character whereby people in books are like ’real’ people who are, in turn, like people in books, is suggested by the words ’person’ and ’character’ themselves. We have been using these words more or less interchangeably, although with an implicit and conventional emphasis on the ’reality’ of a person and the ’fictionality’ of a character. But the words are worth examining in more detail. According to Chambers Dictionary, ’person’ signifies both ’a living soul or self-conscious being’ and ’a character represented, as on the stage’. Indeed, ’person’ goes back to the Latin word persona, the mask worn by an actor in a play on the classical stage. The English language uses the word ’persona’ to signify a kind of mask or disguise, a pretend or assumed character. The word ’person’, then, is bound up with questions of fictionality, disguise, representation and mask. To know a person, or to know who a person is, involves understanding a mask. In this respect, the notion of person is inseparable from the literary. This is not to say that ’real’ people are actually fictional. Rather it is to suggest that there is a complex, destabilizing and perhaps finally undecidable interweaving of the ’real’ and the ’fictional’: our lives, our real lives, are governed and directed by the stories we read, write and tell ourselves.

There is a similar enigma about the word ’character’: just as the word ’person’ has a double and paradoxical signification, so ’character’ means both a letter or sign, a mark of writing, and the ’essential’ qualities of a ’person’. Again, the etymology of the word is suggestive: from the Greek word kharattein, to engrave, the word becomes a mark or sign, a person’s title and hence a distinguishing mark — that which distinguishes one person from another — and from this a ’fictional’ person or a person on stage. Pip’s characterological reading of his parents’ tombstones, then, is perhaps not so far off the mark. And in Hamlet, when Polonius tells his son Laertes that he should remember his ’precepts’ or advice, he plays on this double sense, using ’character’ as a verb: ’And these few precepts in thy memory / Look thou character’ (I.iii.58—9). In this way, Shakespeare’s play suggests how intimately ’character’ is bound up with inscription, with signs, with writing.

We have argued that the realist novel tends to rely on a particular conception of what a person is — that a person is a complex but unified whole. We might develop this further by suggesting that the realist model of character involves a fundamental dualism of inside (mind, soul or self) and outside (body, face and other external features). (See Chapter 21 for more on this ’Cartesian’ idea.) The ’inside’ that we associate with being human has many different forms. In the nineteenth century this was often described in terms of ’spiritual life’ or ’soul’. More recently, it has just as often (and perhaps more helpfully) been understood in terms of the unconscious. The following extracts from the first paragraph of George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch will allow us to explore this in more detail:

Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress. Her hand and wrist were so finely formed that she could wear sleeves not less bare of style than those in which the Blessed Virgin appeared to Italian painters; and her profile as well as her stature and bearing seemed to gain the more dignity from her plain garments, which by the side of provincial fashion gave her the impressiveness of a fine quotation from the Bible, — or from one of our elder poets, — in a paragraph from today’s newspaper. She was usually spoken of as being remarkably clever, but with the addition that her sister Celia had more common-sense. Nevertheless, Celia wore scarcely more trimmings; and it was only to close observers that her dress differed from her sister’s, and had a shade of coquetry in its arrangements; for Miss Brooke’s plain dressing was due to mixed conditions, in most of which her sister shared. The pride of being ladies had something to do with it: the Brooke connections, though not exactly aristocratic, were unquestionably ’good’ [...] Young women of such birth, living in a quiet country-house, and attending a village church hardly larger than a parlour, naturally regarded frippery as the ambition of a huckster’s daughter. Then there was well-bred economy, which in those days made show in dress the first item to be deducted from, when any margin was required for expenses more distinctive of rank. Such reasons would have been enough to account for plain dress, quite apart from religious feeling; but in Miss Brooke’s case, religion alone would have determined it [...] and to her the destinies of mankind, seen by the light of Christianity, made the solicitudes of feminine fashion appear an occupation for Bedlam. She could not reconcile the anxieties of a spiritual life involving eternal consequences, with a keen interest in guimp and artificial protrusions of drapery. (29—30)

This extraordinary opening paragraph, with its ironic insistence on the importance of clothes despite Dorothea Brooke’s spiritual aspirations, clearly acknowledges that physical appearance (outside) works as a sign of character (inside). What is indicated here is an opposition that is fundamental in realist texts: that there is an inside and an outside to a person, that these are separate, but that one may be understood to have a crucial influence on the other. The opening to Middlemarch concentrates almost obsessively on Dorothea’s clothes because it is her clothes that allow us insight into her character. As this suggests, another convention of characterological realism is that character is hidden or obscure, that in order to know another person — let alone ourselves — we must decipher the outer appearance. Eliot constantly manipulates and plays with the mechanisms of such realism, above all with that form of telepathy or mind-reading whereby a narrator can describe a character from the outside but can also know (and keep secrets about) that character’s inner thoughts and feelings, conscious or unconscious. At the same time, by evoking Dorothea’s appearance in terms of how ’the Blessed Virgin appeared to Italian painters’ and by comparing her ’plain garments’ to ’the impressiveness of a fine quotation’, Eliot subtly foregrounds a sense of the painterly and the textual. We are drawn and caught up in intriguing uncertainties about where representation (a picture or text) begins or ends.

From Dorothea’s clothes, then, Eliot weaves a fine and intricate web of character — in terms of the familial, social and political, and in terms of the moral and religious. Indeed, one of the most striking sentences of the excerpt focuses ironically on this concern with clothes: ’She could not reconcile the anxieties of a spiritual life involving eternal consequences, with a keen interest in guimp and artificial protrusions of drapery.’ The passage as a whole makes it clear, however, that Dorothea’s puritan plainness is simply the reverse side of a ’keen interest in guimp’. Her preference for ’plain dressing’ is itself a complex and considered statement of fashion. It is at this point, in particular, that Eliot’s ironic presentation of Dorothea involves a subtle questioning of the conventional opposition between a ’spiritual life’, on the one hand, and the ’artificial protrusions of drapery’, on the other. The passage suggests that this opposition is itself artificial, that whatever people ’really’ are cannot be separated from how they appear. It suggests that people are constituted by an interplay of inner and outer, but that it is not a question of one being the truth and the other mere surface. So while realist conventions of character may rely on the opposition between inner and outer, mind or spirit and body, and so on, Eliot’s description of Dorothea also shows how this opposition can be questioned from within the realist tradition itself.

This brings us to one of the central questions raised by novels: How can we know a person? As we have seen, realist novels such as George Eliot’s attempt to answer this question by presenting people as knowable by a number of ’outward’ signs of ’inner’ worth. Appearances, however, can be deceptive. Indeed, many novels and plays are concerned with the problem of deception or disguise, with discriminating between an appearance that is a true sign of inner value and one that is not. The realist tradition often relies on the possibility of such deception, while also presupposing the possibility of finally discovering the worth or value of a person by reading the outward signs. The exposure, despite appearances, of Bulstrode’s hypocrisy, for example, and the final validation of Lydgate’s good character are central to the plot of Middlemarch. But the fact that a ’person’ is itself, in some sense, a ’mask’, means that even if we think we ’know’ the soul or self of a person, his or her true identity, there is always a possibility, even if that person is ourself, that such an identity is itself a form of mask. This irreducible uncertainty may partly account for realism’s obsessive concern with the question: ’Who am I?’

The stories of Raymond Carver (1938—88), like many so-called postmodern texts, relentlessly play with such conventions of characterological construction and perception. In ’Cathedral’ (1983), for example, the somewhat obtuse, belligerent, intolerant, discriminatory narrator finds it both comic and unnerving to think about how a blind man, a friend of his wife who has come to visit, looks — even while (or because) he cannot look. The narrator is struck by the fact that the blind man does not wear dark glasses. This disturbs him, since although at first sight the blind man’s eyes ’looked like anyone else’s eyes’, on closer inspection (and the narrator takes the opportunity for a lengthy session of unreciprocable inspection) they seem ’creepy’: ’As I stared at his face, I saw the left pupil turn in toward his nose while the other made an effort to keep in one place. But it was only an effort, for that eye was on the roam without his knowing it or wanting it to be’ (297). The story culminates in a dope-smoking session in which the blind man teaches the narrator the advantages of drawing with closed eyes, of the necessary visual imagination of the blind. On one level, the story performs a conventional reversal of the blind and the seeing, figuring the blind man as the seer. But on another level, Carver explores conventions of characterological construction by querying the equation of the look of someone with their identity (the eyes, conventionally the most telling indicator of character are, for our view of the blind man, just ’creepy’ signifiers of mechanical dysfunction, disconnected from intention, emotion, will), and by prompting an awareness that in this story it is the one who is not seen — either by us as readers or by the blind man — who most fully exposes himself, exposes his ’character’, in all its belligerence, intolerance and obtuseness.

As we have seen, it is difficult in an absolute sense to separate real from fictional characters. To read about a character is to imagine and create a character in reading: it is to create a person. And as we have tried to show, reading characters involves learning to acknowledge that a person can never finally be singular — that there is always multiplicity, ambiguity, otherness and unconsciousness. Our final point concerns what it means to ’identify’ with characters in fiction. It seems difficult, if not impossible, to enjoy a novel or play without, at some level, identifying with the characters in it. In fact, the most obvious definition of the ’hero’ or ’heroine’ of a novel or play would be the person with whom we ’identify’, with whom we sympathize or empathize, or whose position or role we imaginatively inhabit. The anti-hero, by contrast, is the character with whom we might identify, but only in wilful resistance to prevailing codes of morality and behaviour. ’Identification’ in any case is never as simple as we might think. To identify with a person in a novel or play is to identify oneself, to produce an identity for oneself. It is to give oneself a world of fictional people, to start to let one’s identity merge with that of a fiction. It is, finally, also to create a character for oneself, to create oneself as a character.

Further reading

A good place to start in thinking more about literary character is Uri Margolin’s lucid cognitive-psychological essay ’Character’ (2007). For an alternative and reasonably accessible account, see Harold Bloom, ’The Analysis of Character’ (1990). A classic if somewhat reductive account of character may be found in Chapters 3 and 4 of Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (1976), first published in 1927. For a good discussion of character in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century novel, see Martin Price, Forms of Life (1983). A very different and more challenging approach is Thomas Docherty’s Reading (Absent) Character (1983), which focuses in particular on the nouveau roman and postmodern writing generally, in order to move beyond a ’mimetic’ theory of character to one in which characterization is seen as ’a process of reading and writing’. Jonathan Culpeper offers a clearly presented stylistic analysis of character in Language and Characterisation in Plays and Other Texts (2001), and in Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel (2006), Lisa Zunshine builds on recent work in cognitive psychology to examine the problem of other minds in prose fiction. For an excellent, if difficult, argument for the deconstruction of character which challenges the humanist perspective of a unified self and argues for ’an esthetic and ethic of the fragmented self’, see Leo Bersani’s important book A Future for Astyanax: Character and Desire in Literature (1978); see also Hélène Cixous’s ’The Character of “Character” ’ (1974). J. Hillis Miller’s chapter on ’Character’ in Ariadne’s Thread (1992) brilliantly weaves literary with critical, theoretical and philosophical reflections on character. On the question of identification in psychoanalysis and literature, see Diana Fuss, Identification Papers (1995).