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The One vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel
     

The One vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel

by Alex Woloch
 

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Does a novel focus on one life or many? Alex Woloch uses this simple question to develop a powerful new theory of the realist novel, based on how narratives distribute limited attention among a crowded field of characters. His argument has important implications for both literary studies and narrative theory.

Characterization has long been a troubled and

Overview

Does a novel focus on one life or many? Alex Woloch uses this simple question to develop a powerful new theory of the realist novel, based on how narratives distribute limited attention among a crowded field of characters. His argument has important implications for both literary studies and narrative theory.

Characterization has long been a troubled and neglected problem within literary theory. Through close readings of such novels as Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations, and Le Père Goriot, Woloch demonstrates that the representation of any character takes place within a shifting field of narrative attention and obscurity. Each individual—whether the central figure or a radically subordinated one—emerges as a character only through his or her distinct and contingent space within the narrative as a whole. The "character-space," as Woloch defines it, marks the dramatic interaction between an implied person and his or her delimited position within a narrative structure. The organization of, and clashes between, many character-spaces within a single narrative totality is essential to the novel's very achievement and concerns, striking at issues central to narrative poetics, the aesthetics of realism, and the dynamics of literary representation.

Woloch's discussion of character-space allows for a different history of the novel and a new definition of characterization itself. By making the implied person indispensable to our understanding of literary form, this book offers a forward-looking avenue for contemporary narrative theory.

Editorial Reviews

Modernism/Modernity
Reading Alex Woloch's The One vs. the Many, I found myself frequently reminded of de Man's drive to 'inscribe the polemics inside the question rather than having them determine it,' a critical gesture Woloch pulls off with a great deal of flair and elegance. . . . The implications of The One vs. the Many for the study of modernism will be profound. . . . [T]here is, after Woloch, fresh work to do.
— Eric Hayot
New Left Review - Rachel Malik
Character is an unfashionable subject within the current doxa of literary studies, and one of the many strengths of Alex Woloch's study is his unabashed facing of the problem head-on. . . . This book insists on questions that have been skirted or marginalized, but cannot be made to go away.
Modernism/Modernity - Eric Hayot
Reading Alex Woloch's The One vs. the Many, I found myself frequently reminded of de Man's drive to 'inscribe the polemics inside the question rather than having them determine it,' a critical gesture Woloch pulls off with a great deal of flair and elegance. . . . The implications of The One vs. the Many for the study of modernism will be profound. . . . [T]here is, after Woloch, fresh work to do.
Modern Language Quarterly - Jesse Matz
[The One vs. the Many explains] how the conflict between a character's full personhood and its narrative function is the key cultural reason for characterization and, more specifically, a main source of the realist novel's social significance. In doing so, the book ends a century's critical infighting with a visionary appreciation of the meaning of fictional people.
From the Publisher
Winner of the 2004 Sonya Rudikoff Book Award, Northeast Victorian Studies Association

"Character is an unfashionable subject within the current doxa of literary studies, and one of the many strengths of Alex Woloch's study is his unabashed facing of the problem head-on. . . . This book insists on questions that have been skirted or marginalized, but cannot be made to go away."—Rachel Malik, New Left Review

"Reading Alex Woloch's The One vs. the Many, I found myself frequently reminded of de Man's drive to 'inscribe the polemics inside the question rather than having them determine it,' a critical gesture Woloch pulls off with a great deal of flair and elegance. . . . The implications of The One vs. the Many for the study of modernism will be profound. . . . [T]here is, after Woloch, fresh work to do."—Eric Hayot, Modernism/Modernity

"[The One vs. the Many explains] how the conflict between a character's full personhood and its narrative function is the key cultural reason for characterization and, more specifically, a main source of the realist novel's social significance. In doing so, the book ends a century's critical infighting with a visionary appreciation of the meaning of fictional people."—Jesse Matz, Modern Language Quarterly

New Left Review
Character is an unfashionable subject within the current doxa of literary studies, and one of the many strengths of Alex Woloch's study is his unabashed facing of the problem head-on. . . . This book insists on questions that have been skirted or marginalized, but cannot be made to go away.
— Rachel Malik
J. Modern Language Quarterly
[The One vs. the Many explains] how the conflict between a character's full personhood and its narrative function is the key cultural reason for characterization and, more specifically, a main source of the realist novel's social significance. In doing so, the book ends a century's critical infighting with a visionary appreciation of the meaning of fictional people.
— Jesse Matz

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780691113135
Publisher:
Princeton University Press
Publication date:
11/10/2003
Pages:
416
Product dimensions:
7.02(w) x 8.92(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

THE ONE VS. THE MANY

MINOR CHARACTERS AND THE SPACE OF THE PROTAGONIST IN THE NOVEL
By Alex Woloch

PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS

Copyright © 2003 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4008-2575-2


Chapter One

Narrative Asymmetry in Pride and Prejudice

Minor Characters in a Narrative Structure

Critics have always noted the presence of flat characters in Jane Austen's oeuvre-and Pride and Prejudice particularly-but they have rarely insisted on analyzing this flatness. On the contrary, the distinction between flat and round characters helps facilitate critical analysis-by opening up a rich series of thematic antitheses-but is rarely subject to interrogation itself. Mary Crawford and Fanny Price; Emma Woodhouse and Jane Fairfax; or, in Pride and Prejudice itself, Collins against Wickham, Bingley against Darcy, Charlotte against Elizabeth, Mary and Lydia against each other: these oppositions are the grist that has kept the thematic mill running so strongly in Austen criticism for so many years. Critics, of course, use all sorts of characters in this way, but few characters-or character-groups-have proven themselves as useful as Austen's. To be a character in Austen is to get continually contrasted, juxtaposed, related to others, and, as such, to help build the thematic architecture that critics then discern. And if the weight of narrative signification seems to rest on all of these characters' backs, it is minor characters, in particular, who bear the heaviest portion: unequal partners in a dialectic that could not take place if attention were limited to the protagonist herself.

How does criticism respond to this multiplicity of persons who are so integral to the novels' thematic ambitions but who hold their place so strangely, and precariously, in the narrative world? Most often readers have understood Austen's flat characters as a reasonable imitation of actual life. If there are round and flat characters in Austen, this is an accurate representation of the real social universe-which has a few sympathetic people (always including the reader or critic him- or herself) and many simple and superficial people. For instance, Tony Tanner writes that "Elizabeth has a dimension of complexity, a questing awareness, a mental range and depth which almost make her an isolated figure trapped in a constricting web of a small number of simple people" (126). In this reading, minor characters such as Mary Bennet, Lydia Bennet, Mr. Collins, Mr. Wickham, etc., are essentially verisimilar, and the novel is stocked with flat characters because there are so many "simple people" in real life.

Other critics take an opposite tack, noting the way that Austen's minor characters are clearly distorted and, therefore, cannot be interpreted as the transparent reflections of credible persons. For instance, D. W. Harding discusses a set of techniques that Austen uses again and again to effectuate caricature:

As a general rule attention is then concentrated on a few features or a small segment of the personality to the neglect of much that would make the figure a full human being, and the understanding is that the reader will accept this convention and not inquire too closely into the areas of behavior and personality that the author chooses to avoid.... [I]t works only because of an implicit agreement to ignore the greater part of any real personality in which the exaggerated features are embedded. (89)

Harding's comments invert the simple mimetic reading, but in both cases analysis of minor characters is cut off prematurely. Tanner's argument says, "Real people are actually like this"; Harding's says, "Well, they are not supposed to seem real" or "Obviously, no real people are actually like this." Both avoid analyzing narrative asymmetry itself: the dynamic narrative subordination of potentially full human beings.

To justify his model, Harding points to a "convention" that underlies the way we read, but does not provide any evidence for this shared "understanding," "rule," or "implicit agreement." What if we find that Austen's novels constantly, if subtly, call attention to the "areas of behavior and personality" that are distorted or effaced through characterization? How would a reading proceed that does "inquire ... closely" into the "neglect[ed]" (and yet simultaneously "exaggerated") personality of minor flattened characters, not to bring into light what the "author chooses to avoid" but as these rejected potentialities and elided points of view also constitute part of the novel's achieved structure? In this chapter, I want to denaturalize asymmetry, using Pride and Prejudice to establish more general interpretive premises: both that many nineteenth-century novels sense the potential to shift the focus away from the established center, toward minor characters, and that novels often obliquely or emphatically represent this process, even while constructing strong distinctions between a central protagonist and a manifold field of minor characters. The more dynamic examples of asymmetric characterization do not simply represent these minor characters but represent characters becoming minor within a complex narrative system.

In a famous passage in Middlemarch, George Eliot criticizes precisely the reading model or "implicit agreement" to which Harding subscribes:

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. In spite of the blinking eyes and white moles objectionable to Celia, and the want of muscular curve which was morally painful to Sir James, Mr. Casaubon had an intense consciousness within him, and was spiritually a-hungered like the rest of us. (253)

This passage argues for the approach I want to take to the realist novel, insisting that the balance between different kinds of characterization-and the asymmetrical space that different characters occupy within the novel-is relevant to the significance of the novel as a whole. The distributed pattern of characterization, Eliot suggests, is a dynamic narrative process that can be actively interrogated, rather than simply taken for granted. In other words, the question "why always Dorothea?" or Elizabeth Bennet, or Julien Sorel, is worth asking in the first place. This question, however, does not derive simply from a method of reading (Harding's convention or agreement) that we bring to bear on a text with its own, different concerns. Rather, I want to argue that the problem of distribution is motivated by, and emerges out of, the text's own mimetic and structural logic. In this sense, Eliot does not impose a moral problematic onto realist narration but rather theorizes or brings to the surface a dynamic literary process that has informed the realist novel all along. Eliot's comment is an overt ethical intervention, certainly, but it also astutely identifies a literary structure, a central narrative procedure through which a literary text organizes itself.

The question that Eliot asks is already profoundly elaborated-in its essential narrative and social dimensions-in Austen's early-nineteenth-century novels. The dynamic, asymmetrical balance between different characters-and between different modes of characterization-is not simply a thematic concern of Austen's novels, nor a moral or political question that we impose on the finished text, but rather a narrative process that is intertwined with, and unfurls out of, the novels' basic internal structure. This is most clear in Pride and Prejudice, because the tension between a protagonist who is interesting in-and-of-herself and minor characters who function only in relation to a central protagonist is dramatized through two competing registers of narrative attention: the five Bennet sisters in general, as a family unit faced with the same problem and attracting the same narrative interest, and Elizabeth Bennet in particular, the protagonist of the novel, who transcends the social context in which she has been placed to become the center of the narrative in-and-of-herself.

Pride and Prejudice has a peculiar double status within Austen's body of work. Many critics regard it as a less mature and perhaps less intricate novel than Emma, Mansfield Park, or Persuasion, but it is also the best-known and most canonically popular Austen text. It almost seems that Pride and Prejudice is too good a novel, partly because our awareness of its ingenious construction dilutes our engagement with the fictional universe that is depicted, producing a strange mixture of suspense and certainty. This exemplary narrative seems to hover on a border between novel and fairy tale: it is a fairy tale, perhaps, about the structure of "novelness" itself. Pride and Prejudice offers a paradigmatic marriage plot, a model of the omniscient narrator, the most exemplary of happy endings. Similarly, the development of Elizabeth's singularity in juxtaposition with her sisters' diminishing importance makes all of the characters memorable but is also a foundational example (and exploration) of a narrative structure. The fictional elaboration of the five sisters dramatizes the very tension of asymmetry, as much as the represented experiences of the story itself. This doesn't precisely make Elizabeth Bennet less interesting than subsequent protagonists Emma Woodhouse, Fanny Price, or Anne Elliot-each of whom has a very complicated position (and distinct kind of centrality) as the major figure within Emma, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion, respectively. On the contrary, it is the very strength of Austen's presentation of Elizabeth, the reader's sense that this is exactly what it takes to be a novelistic protagonist, that makes us aware of the text's constructedness and calls attention to Elizabeth's status as a protagonist, "the perfection of whose quality" (in Lionel Trilling's striking phrase) "needs no proof." Like Stendhal's Le Rouge et le noir, Pride and Prejudice is a paradigm of the bildungsroman, not simply developing a young protagonist, but also developing the protagonist as an aesthetic construct. The "perfect qualities" of Elizabeth, as developing character, not only motivate but are ingeniously and inescapably ramified through her achieved centrality, as protagonist. And Austen's presentation of the protagonist qua protagonist is grounded in the novel's asymmetry.

To locate this asymmetry, we can ask a basic question: if Pride and Prejudice focuses on Elizabeth Bennet because she is the most interesting and complicated character, as most critics would argue, how do we account for the lingering presence of the other four Bennet sisters? It should not be immediately clear why these characters-depicted as much less interesting, less thoughtful, less cultured, and, ultimately, simply as less-have to be in the novel at all. Is it enough to say that the reason they are in the novel is, as Tony Tanner writes, to show "the relief with which an intricate person seeks out some solitude away from the miseries which can be caused by the constant company of more limited minds" (127)? Against the five Bennet sisters, we might compare the very limited role of Julien Sorel's two brothers in Le Rouge et le noir. When they are first described, Stendhal sets up precisely the same symbolic construction that Austen is at pains to establish in Pride and Prejudice:

Approaching his mill, old Sorel yelled for Julien; nobody responded. He saw only his older sons, these hulking giants who, armed with heavy axes, were squaring off some trunks of pinewood which they were going to bring to the saw. Completely occupied with following exactly the black mark traced on the piece of wood, each blow of their axe separated enormous chunks of wood.... He looked vainly for Julien at the place where he should have been, on the side of the saw. He saw him five or six feet higher up, straddling one of the roof booms. Instead of attentively surveying all the workings of the machine, Julien was reading. Nothing was more distasteful to old Sorel: he could have pardoned Julien for his thin waist, little suited for physical work and so different from that of his older brothers, but that mania for reading was odious to him, since he didn't know how to read himself. (232)

This comic juxtaposition certainly dramatizes Julien's estrangement from his family and, more to the point, heightens our sense of his singularity by contrasting him with his two brothers. Thus the opening description of the protagonist emerges out of his juxtaposition with minor characters, as the details of Julien's own introduction are woven into, and become inseparable from, the overall configuration of the three brothers. The protagonist needs a contrast here in order to be fully individualized. Julien's singularity is symbolically thematized in the opposition between reading and mechanical repetition (thought and physical labor, consciousness and corporeality); literalized with his precarious perch "five or six feet higher up"; and then embodied in "his thin waist ... so different from that of his older brothers." But having established this difference, and having shown the constraints that it imposes on Julien ("My brothers have always beaten me, don't believe them if they speak badly of me to you" [244]), the narrator, as much as Julien, is at pains to forget about these two "hulking giants" and get on with the center of interest-precisely, Julien himself.

In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth's sisters play a much more important role in the narrative, and it is more difficult to argue that they are there simply to represent the difficulty that they cause Elizabeth by being there. At the very least, Elizabeth's sisters-like Julien's two brothers-form the other pole of a semantic and symbolic field that is part of the novel's larger structure. Their role in the narrative cannot be assigned merely mimetic value-as the convincing representation of the "limited minds" that surround the protagonist-because they are also used by the narrative as points of signification within a dialectically charged symbolic field that revolves, as in Le Rouge et le noir, around the difference between thought and movement, depth and surface. But if their function in this larger semantic structure is simply to create a contrast with the more valorized symbolic register, it is still not clear why they are given such a central role. Julien's two brothers are just a passing motif within the symbolic elaboration of Julien's centrality; we could easily imagine Stendhal's novel (and Julien's character) without this little scene. Elizabeth's sisters are a continual presence in the novel: they are a constitutive part of the symbolic structure itself, despite, or, as I want to argue, because of their minorness. The combination of the sisters' continual subordination by the narrative and their resilient utility within it forces us to examine the logic behind a discursive system that repeatedly calls attention to persons, and modes of action, that it is interested only in dismissing, in order to elaborate a symbolic register that it is interested only in rejecting or destroying. In short, the sisters' importance on a thematic or structural level implies a logic that goes beyond-and in fact almost inverts-Tanner's model. In the story itself the sisters are, certainly, what Elizabeth needs to get away from in order to be her own singular self-but on the level of narrative discourse they are precisely what she needs to have around.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from THE ONE VS. THE MANY by Alex Woloch Copyright © 2003 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This

Miller
Of all the books on character in fiction, so strongly does this one impress you as being the one, that you find yourself embarrassed by a desire to write, under your own name, something 'just like it.' But because, even if you could appropriate its author's unique energy of idea and expression, your pride keeps you from becoming his clone, you renounce imitation for a less sincere form of flattery. You admire, judge, contest the book; borrow its argument, take it elsewhere, pretend you knew it all along. In short, against this transfiguration of minor fictional characters into major critical work, you consent to be one of 'the many.'
D. A. Miller, University of California, Berkeley
Regenia Gagnier
This masterful study of characterization provides a learned, creative take on the creative process itself and a beautifully articulated argument about the tensions between psychological depth and social inclusiveness. At a time when character has been eclipsed by language, Woloch reintroduces character, relationship, society. This is what many young and old critics are yearning for.
Regenia Gagnier, University of Exeter
Garrett Stewart
The One Vs. The Many is a work of epic clarity and conviction. Woloch has articulated with steady command what will no doubt be recognized as our most far-reaching account of fictional characterization. His new terrain is carved out with no undue fanfare or polemic, just a fresh investigative spirit. The result is not only revisionary but revitalizing: a theory likely to enter into the very idiom of critical discourse.
Garrett Stewart, University of Iowa

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