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:

One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea – but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage? I protest against all our interest, all our effort at understanding being given to the young skins that look blooming in spite of trouble; for these too will get faded, and will know the older and more eating griefs which we are helping to neglect … Mr Casaubon had an intense consciousness within him, and was spiritually a-hungered like the rest of us.

It is a sign of the many shifts of sympathy that are to come. The picture of Dorothea’s foolish marriage is convincing because of our painfully belated understanding of Causabon’s feelings. We have become so used to finding him ridiculous or repellent that the sudden access to his pride and fear seems to epitomise Eliot’s ambition for her fiction.

This passage, Woloch claims, ‘argues for the approach I want to take to the realist novel’. Eliot, he thinks, calls attention to the ‘narrative asymmetry’ on which novels usually rely. Rather than expecting us to accept a convention by which attention to a leading character requires the flattening of others, Eliot wants us to question our sympathies even as they are recruited. This might sound like a humanist ideal, achieved with rare technical brilliance in Eliot’s greatest novel. But, more than this, Woloch says, ‘Eliot’s comment … astutely identifies a literary structure, a central narrative procedure through which a literary text organises itself.’ She is writing not about people but about realism: she ‘theorises or brings to the surface a dynamic literary process that has informed the realist novel all along’. Middlemarch is a novel about narrative methods.

But then so is every novel that detains Woloch. Pride and Prejudice, the subject of his book’s longest chapter, is about ‘what it takes to be a novelistic protagonist’. It, too, is a narrative about ‘narrative asymmetry’ (Elizabeth Bennet only has an interior reality because her sisters do not). Yet Austen’s approach to characterisation is in one way the opposite of Eliot’s. An Austen heroine often seems to be the only interesting person in her world (apart from those snakes in the grass: Wickham, the Crawfords, Mr Elliot and so on). There is no duty to imagine that a supporting player has ‘an intense consciousness’; Austen is prepared to flatten out a minor character absolutely. After the wonderfully satirical opening of Persuasion, the description of Sir Walter Elliot reading and rereading the baronetage, we get: ‘Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character.’ This is common in Austen, the simple truth about a character being definitively stated. Being so easy to understand is usually a comic fate. But it would not be so amusing if it were merely the novelist’s clever reductiveness. Minor characters who are restricted to certain traits often display, in Austen’s fiction, irrepressible resourcefulness. Mr Woodhouse in Emma may be narrowed to a few habits and preoccupations, but he comes alive through his appropriation of topics and events. His ‘gentle selfishness’ is incorrigible; his hypochondria is a business of real, lugubrious improvisation. He can turn almost any conversation to the topic of health, and particularly ill health. He is indefatigable in his concern with the fatiguing effects of life. There is no denying him or his negative vitality.

By Eliot’s standards, there must be more to him. This enemy to matrimony was once married, and even managed to father a couple of children. Did he never have a life beyond his insistent anxieties? Was he always so fussed? But Eliot’s standards do not apply. Far from objecting to his unbelievable simplicity we recognise in him how a person’s small obsessions may take him over. Thinking about the novel in relation to life (sternly disallowed, of course, by Woloch), we may even sometimes think we have known the likes of Mr Woodhouse. Austen’s method with her comic minor characters often involves a suspension of sympathy that is also true to the ways in which we try to understand others. In a different kind of novel we might find out why Mr Collins is as he is, but in Pride and Prejudice it is enough accurately to trace his unique combination of servility and self-importance.

Caricature can be sharp perception of a true pattern of behaviour. In Pride and Prejudice, as Woloch notes, ‘Elizabeth can produce caricatures – it is one of the central qualities of her quickness.’ Yet Woloch shares enough of Eliot’s approach to realism to feel awkward about this. Wishing to credit Austen with his own sense of the narrative purposes served by ‘flat’ characters, Woloch is determined that Austen’s caricatures are ‘ironic’. She does not expect us to take the contrast between round and flat characters as a reflection of life. Beneath it is ‘a controlling vision of human equality’. How we are to be assured of this is not quite clear.

Woloch thinks that the sense of a protagonist’s complexity requires the effacement of the inner being of others. Paradoxically, he says, this is why the minor character is sometimes the personage we most vividly remember. The existence of the minor character ‘in the shadow-space between narrative position and human personality’ can make the reader aware of ‘the partial occlusion of his fullness’, so that we sometimes get ‘the strange resonance of minor characters’. We come away from a book, play or film remembering most vividly ‘a marginal player, a side story, a fate only faintly illuminated or etched’. This is most likely to happen when a novel is able to make its decisions about marginalisation into a creative resource. Thersites in the Iliad is ‘the first truly minor character in Western literature’. It is not just that he is subordinate, but also that his identity is inseparable from his subordinate position. Mocking and anti-heroic, he elbows his way into the frame, ugly and disruptive. Woloch quotes Henry James’s regretful description, in the preface to The Wings of the Dove, of Kate Croy’s father ‘looking in’ on the events of the novel: ‘He sees his place so taken, his company so little missed, that, cocking again that fine form of hat which has yielded him for so long his one effective cover, he turns away with a whistle of indifference.’ The minor character embodies the novelist’s recognition of what is lost by ‘squaring the sharp edges’ of a novel.

Woloch at least wants to credit his chosen authors with critical intelligence. He shrewdly notes that academic critics have been in the habit of taking a character’s ‘minorness’ as evidence of an author’s resentment or fear or self-repression. Talking about characters being confined to the margins of a narrative turns into talk of ‘marginalisation’. A prime example is Gilbert and Gubar’s hugely influential The Madwoman in the Attic, ‘which, beginning with the title, often insightfully emphasises the importance of minor characters in the 19th-century novel.’ That ‘insightfully’ is surely just professional courtesy (or pious conformism). Why should it be ‘insightful’ to focus on Lady Catherine de Bourgh in order to ‘discover’ that Austen represents ‘a series of extremely powerful women each of whom acts out the rebellious anger so successfully repressed by the heroine and the author’, the latter of whom ‘quietly and forcefully undercuts her own moral’?

Woloch likes to dabble in ideological theorising himself. He wants to link ‘minorness’ to class, claiming that, at least in the 19th century, ‘minor characters are the proletariat of the novel.’ First, he takes the treatment of servants as minor characters. In Pride and Prejudice they mark ‘the limit point of the text’s distortion of minor characters’. The servant ‘vanishes into the duty he or she performs’. Maybe so in this novel (though not always in Austen: Mr Woodhouse’s bleatings about his coachman prompt the reader to imagine for a moment what it would be like to be an employee of this gently selfish hypochondriac). But not so in ‘the Novel’ as a genre. Moll Flanders, Pamela, Joseph Andrews: three of the protagonists of pioneering novels of the 18th century are servants (though they end up as something better). It is entirely traditional in the English novel to make space for servants, resourceful or absurd as needs be. Austen is rather unusual in making her servants almost invisible, ‘reduced to a purely functional position within the novel’s plot structure’. Woloch wants us to think that Austen asks us to notice this: she does not dismiss servants ‘but rather represents the process of their disappearance’. So she is politically onside again.

The historical selectiveness of this study allows Woloch to think that ‘flat’ characters have somehow been flattened by capitalism, like Engels’s workers trapped for ever by the narrow specialisation of a role in factory production. ‘In fact, the division of labour, so central to 19th-century social and economic theory, is also the social process most profoundly implicated in the character-systems of 19th-century fiction.’ This becomes his key to characterisation in Dickens. Yet the long passages of Marx and Engels and Mayhew that he quotes seem only to contrast in their grimness with the eccentricities and idiolects of Dickens’s caricatured bit-parts. If Woloch wanted to look for the genesis of Dickens’s minor characters in the Victorian means of production, he should surely have looked instead to the serial production of the fiction itself. Presenting his novels in monthly or weekly parts, Dickens found it useful to have characters who instantly presented themselves, and later instantly reminded you who they were.

Virginia Woolf complained that, when he feared a reader’s attention might wander, Dickens would throw another character on the fire. Woloch more sympathetically observes that his description of minor characters often ‘ebulliently dilates’. He believes that Dickens’s ‘comic and grotesque minor characters’ often win the reader over, but are rarely given much attention by academic critics, who want serious anatomies of Victorian society (Bleak House, Little Dorrit). Yet, from his early to his late fiction, ‘Dickens’s central figures are overshadowed by the minor characters who surround them.’ The protagonist’s ‘interiority’ is overwhelmed. What Orwell called the ‘wonderful gargoyles’ are truer to the world than the consciousnesses of the leading characters.

So the ordinary reader is noticing something important that the critic usually neglects. The energy of the minor characters, with their ‘repetitive and eccentric’ quirks, tells us of a world shaped in ways that Dickens’s protagonists keep failing to grasp. In Woloch’s version, this is no humanist lesson (step out of your door and you will meet someone extraordinary). Rather, the likes of Mr Barkis are characters trapped in – indeed physically contorted by – their specialised roles and narrow idiolects. Somewhere down the line we will see that their flatness is the effect of Victorian capitalism. Mr Pumblechook in Great Expectations becomes a representative of the aggressive, provincial petit bourgeois of Dickens’s day. Nothing is said of how funny as well as baleful he is, this ‘large hard-breathing middle-aged slow man, with a mouth like a fish, dull staring eyes, and sandy hair standing upright on his head, so that he looked as if he had just been all but choked, and had that moment come to’. Woloch quotes the description without those last two clauses, so that he can ignore what is essential: that we suddenly, hilariously see this person. He is too busy labouring to tell us how ‘Pumblechook’s flatness is rooted in his particular, stultifying role in the village economy’ (Pip tells us that he is ‘a well-to-do corn chandler’).

If he were not distracted by his Marxist hypotheses, Woloch’s analysis of Great Expectations would tell us more. He accurately conveys the sense that this novel is about the proliferation of minor characters: ‘The young Pip is surrounded.’ They keep coming at him, and his bewilderment is at the oddness and number of these minor characters. Their appearance and reappearance is the novel’s subject-matter as well as the storyteller’s device. For in Great Expectations, more than in any other Dickens novel, these minor characters are invariably strangely implicated in the plot. If you can ignore the reflections on his ‘alienated functionality’ as a worker under capitalism, the few pages on the role of Orlick in the novel powerfully remind us of this.

Woloch has consciously chosen to examine novels that make the ‘minorness’ of many of their characters a matter of their narratives. ‘The One v. the Many’ is, he believes, the theme of both Austen’s and Dickens’s novels, and of Le Père Goriot. Balzac describes Paris as ‘a vast field incessantly agitated by a tempest of interests under which a harvest of men are blown around’. Characters in his Comédie humaine are, Woloch says, competing for our attention because Balzac takes competition as the elemental condition of the society he depicts. Thus Le Père Goriot has two protagonists, Rastignac and Goriot, because it enacts ‘the grating and misalignment of individual private interests’. You can see the attraction of his theory, especially if stripped of its ideological earnestness. But what about novels that do not do this? Or do all interesting novels with minor characters use them with such theoretical self-consciousness?

‘This study is centred on narratives that transformatively reiterate the formal problematics of character-space and character system within the story itself.’ As will be evident by now, the book has its own lingo. Its interpretative method rests, Woloch says, on ‘character-space’ and ‘character-system’: ‘two new narratological categories which I will formulate and continually return to’. It may be an often intelligent study of a rich topic, but it’s written in prose you have to hack through. (It is also wearying in its use of self-important italics and huge endnotes, into which Woloch loads analyses that he has not managed to fit into his exposition.) It is utterly inaccessible to any non-academic reader, and I would imagine that even the keenest and most sophisticated undergraduate would blanch. Here is a not untypical observation about Great Expectations: ‘The syntax of figuration itself is animated by and derives out of the character-system, which is constituted by the unfolding of multiple and colliding character-spaces, each of which gains a specific figurative charge.’ In context, this is possibly translatable, but what kind of reader is going to make the effort? There are very many sentences like this in what, especially with those demanding endnotes, is a long book. Is there any good reason such a study should be so hard to follow?