Why always Dorothea?

John Mullan

  • The One v. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel by Alex Woloch
    Princeton, 391 pp, £13.95, February 2005, ISBN 0 691 11314 9

When we discuss novels, there is nothing easier or harder to talk about than characterisation. Nothing easier, in that unprofessional readers’ expressions of interest or aversion so often fix on a novel’s characters as vivid or pallid, believable or not. Nothing harder, in that academic critics (and their obedient students) have long since learned to steer away from the illusions of human reality conjured by fiction. Characterisation is the ordinary measure of a writer’s achievement, but you have to look hard to find academic criticism on the subject.

Some have seen the literary novelist and the university critic in cahoots in this regard. A.S. Byatt complained recently about the absence of memorable characters from contemporary fiction, as if such portraiture had come to be regarded as old-fashioned. The postmodern novelist is too canny to believe in the illusions of human plenitude once peddled by big novels. It is language, not human nature, that is to be explored. Often, after all, the novelist has had a university education involving just the literary analysis that avoids all impressions of the reality of characters.

Now here is a book from a publisher associated with theoretical steeliness, by an academic who has previously written on ‘The Place of Psychoanalysis in Contemporary Culture’, which presents itself as a ‘theory of characterisation’. Garnished on its jacket with those pre-publication recommendations from fellow academics that have become de rigueur for American university presses, it is presented as a work that finally cracks the mystery. It ‘will no doubt be recognised as our most far-reaching account of fictional characterisation’. Here is a book, as its author says, about ‘how living persons get rendered into literary form’.

Alex Woloch himself notes that literary theory has always been unhappy with the idea of ‘character’. He quotes, with I think unintended comic effect, the wonderfully solemn perplexity of Mieke Bal in Narratology (1985), faced by this troubling illusion of a human presence in texts: ‘That no one has yet succeeded in constructing a complete and coherent theory of character is probably precisely because of this human aspect. The character is not a human being, but it resembles one.’ Perhaps you do not have to go to graduate school to know so much. ‘For a long time now, characterisation has been the bête noire of narratology,’ Woloch tells us. No theorist has quite saved us from that insistent illusion of human resemblance.

Readers still insist on believing in the illusion, and even in the seminar room you can slip into the habit. Perhaps it emerges most clearly when there is an aversion to a ‘classic’ novel. When undergraduates express their dislike of two of the greatest exemplars of human virtue in the English novel – Richardson’s Pamela and Austen’s Fanny Price – they often testify to the exasperating reality of these characters. Too wise to chat like amateurs about why they like Elizabeth Bennet, they measure the effects of successful characterisation in negative qualities: the selfishness of Rosamund Vincy, the priggishness of Stephen Dedalus.

Woloch looks at the question of how living persons get ‘rendered into literary form’ from an interesting angle. How do novels use, and make us accept, differences between major and minor characters? How do narratives make their protagonists complex and credible while also creating supporting characters who lack ‘interiority’? At the heart of the book is an argument about how the apparent singularity of some of fiction’s most credible protagonists is achieved by their being played off against a cast of minor characters (‘The One v. the Many’). The success of the 19th-century novel in creating a truly individual hero or heroine is possible because the genre accommodates ‘the surge of many people’.

It does so by flattening and simplifying, by distortion and caricature. A character cannot exist, Woloch says, except within a ‘character-system’. This seems to be a way of saying that, to give us a sense of one character’s inner life, a novelist needs to arrange other characters around her. And as we move outwards from our central character we will find that minor characters become ever simpler or flatter. Even Middlemarch, that ultimate test of human sympathy as an imaginative resource, has to stop somewhere. It may keep stretching our understanding to one person after another, but at its edges are the cardboard cut-outs of provincial types that it needs for its plausibly crowded scene of Midland life.

Woloch is fascinated by the moment in Middlemarch when Eliot, almost chidingly, turns on us, in the midst of one of her expository sentences, to regret the limitations of our readerly sympathies. Dorothea, now Mrs Casaubon, returns from her honeymoon to the home of her desiccated husband:

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