You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Human Factor

Are characters like people?

The idea of character, once taken to be central to the reading of novels, has come into critical disrepute. Literary theorists are eager to dismember the idea of character, one of them, Rawdon Wilson, writing, for example, that “the distinction between characters and people is an absolute one.” Such theorists often assume a stern posture, so that if you are caught discussing a fictional character in the way you might talk about a human being, you will probably be convicted of being “a naive reader.” This scorn is extended, these days, to the innocent pleasures of responding in the usual moral and psychological terms to characters like Don Quixote and Pip, Julien Sorel and Odette, Hans Castorp, and Leopold Bloom.

We are warned against supposing that characters in novels are real persons, though who, except the deranged, ever supposed they were, I cannot say. We are warned against supposing characters are even like actual persons. The theorist who wrote that the difference between characters and people is “absolute” (but what can that mean?) also argues that characters are “at most patterns of recurrence” (but recurrence of what, if not traits similar to those we discern in human beings?). Another critic, something of a joker, writes that “Emma Woodhouse is not a woman nor need be described as if it were.” A large gain in critical perception is evidently registered by calling Emma an “it.” And the writer-philosopher William Gass, shrugging off the lures of qualification, writes that “the so-called life one finds in novels, the worst and best of them, is nothing like actual life at all,” Nothing at all: not Anna Karenina’s passion, not Lucien de Rubempre’s ambition, not Captain Ahab’s obsession, not Gatsby’s delusion? If these are indeed not at all “like actual life,” where can we find the necessary descriptives when trying to evoke the clashing figures and interests of a novel?

We must repress the spontaneous impulse to describe the moral conduct and psychological motives of characters in the only language we have available, and instead we are to see them as elements or functions in the workings of narrative. Whether that makes them more accessible, to say nothing of more interesting, seems hardly to matter. And we are to repress our knowledge, or to judge it inconsequent, that the great novelists strove with all their powers to make characters who would indeed seem like actual persons. Taking that into account might he to share the ignorance of genius.

Some arguments of the new theorists have an ideological charge. The sophisticated (if barely readable) French theorist Helene Cixous writes that a novel with mimetic characters turns into “a machine of repression,” of bourgeois repression, of course, since it presents a historical given as if it were everlasting and thereby thwarts the hope of transcendence. Cixous’s prose sputters fitfully, but insofar as I can make her out, she would seem to be saying something fairly close to what Roland Barthes has said. He believed that the very use of the preterite tense (like the notion of character?)

is part of a security of those numerous formal pacts made between the writer and society for the Justification of the former and the serenity of the latter. [This is part of| a certain mythology of the universal typifying the bourgeois society of which the Novel is a characteristic product. … It is thanks to an expedient of the same kind that the triumphant bourgeoisie of the last century was able to look upon its values as universal …

There is something bizarre in the notion that fictional characterization is an agency of repression, or that the use of the preterite (or any other) tense is a justification of the status quo; this is to confuse narrative conventions with social categories. Where, in any case, have our strongest visions of possibility, as also our most telling social criticisms, come from, if not the great novelists? It is they who have given imaginative substanceto what the young Marx called “the human essence,” and far better and more fully than any social theorists, Marx and Nietzsche included.

Tolstoy once wrote that “the incompatibility of a man’s position with his moral activity is the surest indication of his searching for truth,” a remark that could stand as an epigraph for the work of Dickens and Stendahl, George Eliot and Dostoyevsky, Flaubert and Hardy, Lawrence and Proust. The ideological formulas of the social theorists have all too often been ripped apart by historical change, but the critical visions of the great novelists abide. If we can, in this somewhat dimmed moment, see beyond what Barthes calls “a certain mythology of the universal typifying the bourgeois society,” that is largely because of the writings of novelists and poets who lived in that society.

In what sense do characters “exist”? True, neither Anna Karenina nor Lily Bart is a real person as you and I are, though anyone who said these characters sometimes “seem more real than you and I” would quickly win nods of understanding. Why, then, should intelligent people choose to push against open doors? Perhaps because they have spent too many years teaching undergraduates that a distaste for Jane Austen’s Emma as a possible mate (or roommate) isn’t exactly a fatal criticism of the novel in which she appears.

A fictional character emerges out of an arrangement of language that sets off in the reader’s mind an imagined situation or “world”: all-encompassing as in Tolstoy, miniature as in Austen, strange as in Kafka. Characters, as the neo-Aristotelian critic R. S. Crane puts it, are “concrete semblances of real men and women,” with the term “concrete semblance’’ evoking the required tension between what is mimetic about the character and what is constructed. How a novel is shaped, the arrangement and weighting of its parts, the authority through which its matter is established—such formal elements help to determine the nature of its characters. They do not come to us directly as people in a living room might. They are mediated, they must “fit” into the narrative— though in some novels they also spill across the limits of form, as if to suggest a surplus of vitality.

The novel is also a mimesis, an imitation drawing upon the writer’s observations, intuitions, and imaginings—a mixture of his own experience and his relations to other writers dead and alive. To see the novel in this way has always troubled critics who would like to liberate it from gross contingencies. One may genuinely sympathize with this desire, but it is in the nature of the very language such critics like to exalt, alas, that it should make for referential impurity. Words point, words evoke images and ideas, words betray. Words cannot be self-sufficient, like the stroke of a brush or sounds of an instrument. Words impel us (I quote W.J. Harvey) to see a character as

the sort of man who in such-and-such a situation would do so and so. … [The novelist] can frame the situation to justify the would do such-and-such in our reaction. … He may also leave room enough for us to speculate and to frame other situations than those actually existing in the novel....Such speculative activity may, in fact, compose a large part of the character’s reality for us.

The moral and psychological traits that constitute a character are drawn from the writer’s experience of the world. Where else? From past writers, some critics would say. That is true, but somewhere a writer must have engaged in direct observation on his own. Even the blind Homer must have “seen” something in the life about him. Literature cannot live off itself forever. Others will say, the writer draws upon his imagination. That is also true, yet one must ask: Upon what does the imagination do its work, where does it gather the materials it transfigures, if not from a perception of life? Imagination is not something apart and hermetic, not a way of leaving reality behind, it is a way of engaging reality. The imaginative work is what the writer does with, and to, reality; otherwise, why should the novel make such powerful claims upon us?

The novel thrives upon our interest in ourselves, our ways, our world. Lose or abandon that interest and it becomes a game we may indeed play and gain pleasure from, but hardly “the bright book of life” that D. H. Lawrence called it. “If the fascination of human types is an end in itself (and the novel generically reflects such an assumption),” writes Robert Alter, “the deepened experiential knowing of the imagined individual is a process that justifies itself.” True, in a writer like Kafka that “imagined individual” becomes radically diminished, and in a writer like Beckett a dwindling of the “fascination of human types” becomes a central premise. But there is a thread of continuity with the past even in their break from the traditional novel, for the definition of the break would be impossible without the presence of the tradition.

Mirror and lamp: such is the doubled nature of the novel. Simply to serve as elements of narrative, characters have also to resemble, in one way or another, actual persons—which also means that they must differ from them. (If one could even imagine a character utterly devoid of human traits, he or she, perhaps in this case “it,” could not possibly be of any use to fictional narrative.) Every moderately sophisticated reader senses all this, just as every moderately sophisticated playgoer, even while shaken by Lear’s fate, knows Lear to be a fiction, a semblance made for performance. Nor are the concepts of mimesis and fictional construct to be seen as fixed and irreconcilable opposites; they arc categories of perception with which to specify aspects of a work that, finally, we hope to apprehend as a whole.

The great fictional characters, from Robinson Crusoe to Flem Snopes, from Tess to Molly Bloom, cannot quite be “fitted” into, or regarded solely as functions of, narrative. Why should we want to? What, but the delusions of system and total grasp, do we gain thereby? Such characters are too interesting, too splendidly mysterious for mere functional placement. (Who’d even look at Emma Woodhouse if she were just an “it”?) Severe critics say that characters “exist only on the page.” But why do critics want to be so severe? They are wrong too; all that exists on the page are black marks. As symbols for language, these marks stimulate impressions in our minds that lead us to suppose—though we “know better”— that characters exist in their own right, apart from the page. They refuse to be banished. They will not be driven back between covers.

Consider now the contrary view advanced by William Gass. In a lucid essay (“The Concept of Character in Fiction” in Fiction and the Figures of Life)he offers as an example of a character, neither quite major nor minor, Mr. Cashmore in Henry James’s The Awkward Age. Mr. Cashmore, writes Gass, is “not a person.” That having been cleared up, Gass continues: “Nothing whatever that is appropriate to persons can be correctly said of him.” What, then, is Mr. Cashmore? “A verbal center,” Also: “1) a noise, 2) a proper name, 3) a complex system of ideas, 4) a controlling conception, 5) an instrument of verbal organization, 6) a pretended mode of referring, and 7) a source of verbal energy.”

Well! Nos. 1, 2 and 7 (noise, name, and energy) can be attributed to actual persons, so these don’t differentiate them sufficiently from fictional characters. Nos. 3 and 4 (complex system of ideas, controlling conception) help to specify the place of characters in novels, though it may be asked how one can speak, with regard to a fictional character, of either “a complex system of ideas” or “a controlling conception” except through some reference to imagined persons. For Mr. Cashmore is not per se greed or sexual squalor, he embodies these ideas and traits through images of individuality— which means that something “appropriate to persons” can indeed be said of him, with whatever complexities seem “appropriate.”

We come back then to No. 6, “a pretended mode of referring.” This seems perilously close to mimesis. Gass might reply that his key word is “pretended”—the novelist “pretends” to be representing real life while actually constructing an autonomous fiction. But if he wants that construct to be persuasive and consequential, he had better employ some materials incorporating his sense of actuality; otherwise he may not he able to endow his “pretending” with much force and point.

To prove how little Mr. Cashmore is conceived as mimesis, Gass has a lot of fun in showing that we actually know very little about him. Does Mr. Cashmore, he asks, even have a nose? Very likely; if he didn’t, James would have been the first to notice. The real fun. however, resides in the name of Mr. Cashmore. Gass could hardly have chosen another character whose name points so insistently to “whatever is appropriate to persons.” Who but a human being, real or simulated, wants more cash? Is there another name in all literature, except perhaps Bunyan’s Badman, that brings us more urgently to the precincts of common life? Cashmore and Badman, Investment Counselors. With his jolly vulgarity and slightly sinister air, Mr. Cashmore does his job admirably as a function of the narrative, but he is also supremely there as an imagined figure. That he be there is, indeed, a precondition for fulfilling his function in the narrative.

Why should there  be, in the academy, this humorless and pleasure-denying attack upon the mimetic view of character? At a time when the margin for authentic individuality keeps shrinking, we might suppose that literary people would see the value of such terms as self, individual, personality, character. And if these prove to be somewhat frail defenses for a humane or humanist view of things, that ought to make them still more precious. To speak these days of a humanist view is perhaps to risk embarrassment, since the phrase, like all the other valuable ones in our vocabulary, has been devalued through misuse and appropriation. But that hardly warrants dismissal, least of all the scorn one hears for it as a sign of nostalgic liberalism.

I can see one further argument to be made for Gass’s views, and it is a serious argument, glancingly anticipated in Meyer Schapiro’s famous essay. “On the Humanity of Abstract Painting.” Schapiro writes that “humanity in art is … not confined to the image of man. Man shows himself in his relation to the surroundings, in his artifacts, and in the expressive character of all the signs and marks he produces.” Correspondingly, it might be said that the formal arrangements, the verbal patterns and sounds in a work of literature, yield pleasure apart from any supposed relation between characters and persons. That is certainly true, but with two important points of complication. First, in referring to “the expressive character” of signs and marks, Schapiro does not dismiss “the image of man” as a source of value and pleasure, he merely insists that this image is not the only evidence of “humanity in art.” Second, there are crucial differences among the arts. When it comes to sensuous enticements, the written word can seldom compete with the sounds of a piano or the colors of a picture. Words have the inescapable property—call it, if you prefer, a fatality—of evoking imaginatively human figures and situations that seem to “exist” apart from the marks on the page. And thereby we gain an enduring companion of consciousness.