Friday, 1 January 2016

The greatest literary characters and how they work

“The choice of the point of view from which the story is told is arguably the most important single decision that the novelist has to make, for it fundamentally affects the way readers will respond, emotionally and morally, to the fictional characters and their actions” (David Lodge, The Art of Fiction, 26).
If you asked me who are the four greatest characters in literature, I would say Plato’s Socrates, the Jesus of the Gospels, Boswell’s Johnson, and Don Quixote. The first three all conform to a particular literary type. Let us call it the Revered Friend type. The characteristics of the Revered Friend are as follows:
  • he has some particular genius that sets him apart from the common stock;
  • he has a circle of admiring friends who enjoy his genius;
  • he is depicted in third-person narrative by one of these admiring friends;
  • his character is conveyed mostly through dialogue, i.e., through his own speech and his interactions with other speakers.
The distancing effect of third-person narration is absolutely critical to this character type. The reader is drawn into the character’s inner circle and quickly achieves a friendly rapport with the character. That is the effect of a third-person friendly narrator. But because the narrator also reveres the character, the reader is never allowed to get too close. In most of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates’ own opinions remain elusive; we hear him questioning others, but we never quite find out what he thinks about it all. In the Gospels, we are drawn into Jesus’ inner circle but we are also kept at a reverential distance. We are reminded that his identity is enigmatic, that his teaching is hard to understand, that he is liable to be misunderstood by the world and betrayed or abandoned by his inner circle.

Again, the reader of the life of Dr Johnson shares Boswell’s friendly point of view, yet the reader also shares Boswell’s awe. We are not allowed to get too close. The third-person narration helps to keep us at the correct distance from the character. In one famous scene, Boswell reminds us that there are parts of Johnson’s character that must remain forever hidden from our view. Johnson’s friends at the dining club have often observed his habit of squeezing oranges into his drink and then stuffing the orange peels into his jacket pockets. In Johnson’s room one day, Boswell sees a pile of orange peels from the night before, all scraped clean and arranged on the table. He plucks up the courage to ask Johnson about it:
Johnson: “I have a great love for them.”
Boswell: “And pray, Sir, what do you do with them? You scrape them, it seems, very neatly, and what next?”
Johnson: “I let them dry, Sir.”
Boswell: “And what next?”
Johnson: “Nay, Sir, you shall know their fate no further.”
Boswell: “Then the world must be left in the dark.”
In a scene like this the reader is drawn into an extraordinary friendly intimacy with the great man: we are in his room; we are observing the subtlest eccentricities of his character; we are hearing him talk about the things he loves (in this case, orange peels). But at the same time we are kept at a reverential distance. The narrator leads us to the brink of revelation, only to conceal the very thing we long to know (in this case, the meaning of the orange peels).

It is the same technique, a hundred times over, in Plato and the Gospels. We are constantly oscillating between the beautiful and the sublime (to use Edmund Burke’s categories), between intimate friendship and astonished awe.

This technique is possible only in third-person narration. Would Socrates have been the greatest philosopher in the world if he had written books? If, instead of the memoirs of the evangelists, we had received a first-person Memoir of the Messiah, would anybody ever have become a Christian? You might love and admire an autobiographer, but you will never end by putting down the book and confessing him Lord. Only a third-person narrative can induce a response of that magnitude. Only a third-person narrator can depict both the beauty and the sublimity of a great personality, so that the reader becomes simultaneously friend and worshipper.

I have mentioned that I think Don Quixote is the only other character who can be set alongside Socrates and Jesus and Dr Johnson. Though Don Quixote does not conform so neatly to the type of the Revered Friend, Cervantes uses some of the same techniques in a comical and ironic way. The narrator is portrayed as a historian and a researcher, rather than as a personal friend of his subject: on the first page he admits that he doesn’t even know Don Quixote’s real name. Yet through the process of telling the story of this delusional knight, the narrator increasingly comes to adopt the perspective of an admiring friend. He loves Don Quixote and regards him as a kind of moral genius, even while regularly reminding the reader that the character is quite mad.

Sancho Panza, the faithful friend and squire of Don Quixote, provides another point of view on the main character. He supplies much of the book’s comedy by the way he adopts the role of an admiring friend in spite of his amply justified scepticism about Don Quixote’s claims.
“What’s the gentleman’s name?” asked the maid.
“Don Quixote de la Mancha,” replied Sancho Panza. “He’s a knight errant. One of the best and bravest the world has seen for a very long time.”
“What’s a knight errant?” asked the maid.
“Are you so green that you don’t know that?” replied Sancho. “Then I’ll tell you, my girl, that a knight errant – to cut a long story short – is beaten up one day and made Emperor the next. Today he’s the most unfortunate and poverty-stricken creature in the world; tomorrow he’ll have two or three kingdoms to give to his squire.”
Modern fiction has also blessed us with some very memorable examples of the Revered Friend. Why does Sherlock Holmes have such a lasting power over our imagination? It is because we see him from Watson’s point of view. We are part of Holmes’ inner circle, and we observe his genius from an astonished distance.

The greatest fictional comedies of the past century, P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories, use exactly the same technique. Jeeves is an omniscient butler who finds brilliant and unlikely ways to extricate his employer, Bertie Wooster, from various social crises.
“Good Lord, Jeeves! Is there anything you don't know?”
“I couldn't say, sir.” 
The effect of Jeeves’ character depends entirely on the point of view of the narrative. We see Jeeves through Bertie Wooster’s eyes. We seldom know exactly what he is thinking. Even when it comes to matters closest to Jeeves’ heart – the colour of a tie, the selection of a pair of trousers – we are left to infer his opinions from what he does not say. Jeeves is the central actor in every plot, yet we rarely see him doing anything directly. He is a shimmering, mysterious presence, a kind of puppeteer who orchestrates events behind the scenes. His effect on the reader would be impossible if the stories were narrated from Jeeves’ point of view, or if the narrator did not take pains to hold Jeeves at the proper distance so that we never get too close to him.

Some very fine novelists have aspired to portray personalities of genius but have failed because of an imperfect mastery of the Revered Friend technique. One of the few criticisms that I could make of the Harry Potter novels is that they fail to convince the reader of the story's main premise, namely that Harry is a magical genius. All the characters, and especially the villains, keep assuring us of Harry’s genius; every plot hinges on this fact; but the reader is too close to Harry, and too closely shares his point of view, to feel that he is an exceptional person. To keep the story moving along, we are quite willing to believe in Harry’s genius – but we never come to feel it the way we feel that Sherlock Holmes is a genius of observation and inductive reasoning. It might have been quite different, and Harry Potter might have been a great character, if only the narrator had shared Ron’s or Hermione’s point of view instead of Harry’s. Indeed it is no coincidence that one comes away from the novels with the impression that Ron and Hermione and Dumbledore are the richest personalities. They are more interesting characters simply because we see them from Harry’s point of view. They are more lifelike because we see them from the proper distance.

I may be wrong, but I can’t help wondering whether Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels might also have been better if the author had made better use of the Revered Friend technique. Each of the two women, Elena (the narrator) and Lila, regards the other as a “brilliant friend.” But again I found myself having to believe this since the novels never quite manage to show it. The problem, as I see it, is that the narrator is too self-absorbed to depict Lila objectively. Lila is meant to be a deep and intriguing personality, but for the most part she comes across as a function of Elena’s ego. Elena’s life is defined by her obsession with her friend. She gazes relentlessly at Lila, but somehow her gaze is so intensely self-interested that we never get enough objectivity, enough distance, to see Lila properly and so to appreciate what it is that Elena finds so impressive about her.

Perhaps that is no criticism at all, given that Elena’s obsession with Lila is what the novels are all about. But, in fiction, obsession can be depicted in ways that render the object of obsession large and magnificent. Just think of Moby-Dick, and of how the reader comes to share in Ishmael’s enormous fascination with whales and whaling. Ishmael is one of the largest egos in literature, yet we learn far more about whales than we do about him – precisely because his ego is defined by its obsession with whales.

As much as I enjoyed the Neapolitan Novels, my complaint is that the narrator is too much like Ahab and not enough like Ishmael. Ahab's is a narrow and suffocating egotism that leaves no room for anything else, while Ishmael's is an expansive egotism that makes room for everything else, though always on its own terms and within its own peculiar frame of reference.

Or to return to an earlier example, I would have liked the Neapolitan Novels better if Lila had kept orange peels in her pockets and Elena had never quite understood why. But, as it stands, the Elena of the Neapolitan Novels would never even have wondered about the orange peels. She would merely have turned it into a contest by accumulating her own (even bigger) collection of orange peels. Our interest in Lila is deflected; we are left staring into the pockets of Elena.

4 Comments:

brian said...

This is an interesting essay, Ben. One is presented with several dilemmas as a writer. When I was much younger, I wanted to write an adventure story that would have characters with the depth of literary fiction. I had not sufficiently understood that the structure of the adventure story precludes substantial introspective characterization. Similarly, your observations engender further questioning. Is the intimacy available through first person narrative simply irreconcilable with a certain kind of admiration in the reader and amongst narrative characters? One surmises it would be difficult to be a first person character aware of evoking wonder and admiration without coming across in an awkward or unfavorable light. As well, the second or third person narrative naturally lends the distance required for enigma and the radiance of the other to register without the danger of self-inflation or priggishness.

My philosophical caveat is that beneath the substantial core of the subject, there is a metaphysical receptivity. As the mystics know, God is more interior than the developed identity of the ego. So, there ought to be space for drama and distance, even within the singular I. It would be difficult to place that in a narrative, of course.

I still think, btw, one can get around some of these structural issues, but it involves going beyond standard genres and the normal templates. Since readers are trained to expect and easily interpret standard and well-established forms, it means pushing both oneself as a writer and the comfort of the reader.

Julian Jenkins said...

Thanks Ben for exploring your Revered Friend thesis. It brought to mind another literary classic with an interesting variation on the same thing - and indeed a double instance of the pattern. For reasons that will emerge I am inclined to rename your type as the Remarkable Protagonist type, with the Revered Friend technique as a leading sub-type. This enables me to propose a second sub-type, which employs much the same approach but with an important difference in the stance of the third person narrator to the remarkable central figure.

The literary classic I have in mind is Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and the central relationship between Marlow and the remarkable, if ultimately reprehensible, Kurtz. Marlow is not Kurtz's friend, indeed, he only encounters him directly right at the end of the novella, in a context of degradation and antagonism. And yet throughout Marlow affirms Kurtz's remarkable qualities and reputation, describing him as a "universal genius", and professes loyalty to him, in spite of his descent into megalomania. The loyalty in this case is not rooted in the warmth of close friendship, but a different sort of intimacy – the fellow feeling of sensitive souls who have travelled parallel paths into the heights of physical and moral extremity; and in Marlow's empathy for Kurtz's existential plight arising from his step off the edge into the abyss. Marlow knows full well that "there but for the grace of God go I". If there is any sort of reverence, it is more like the sombre awe, and its associated emotions of fear and pity, that Aristotle identified as the natural human response to noble figures descending into tragedy.

The other elements that you ascribe to the Revered Friend technique largely hold true in Heart of Darkness. Kurtz has a loyal circle of champions of his genius: the senior management of the Trading Company, individuals who have worked with him, and most notably, the Intended who waits for him back home. Marlow's sense of Kurtz's character comes mostly from dialogue with these individuals at different points along the journey. Kurtz himself remains inaccessible for conversation till the end, with only the briefest, and most sinister, glimpse of his character emerging beforehand through his scrawled note on the end of his otherwise eloquent report on the condition of the native peoples: "Exterminate all the brutes!"

Your comment that the third person "narrator leads us to the brink of revelation, only to conceal the very thing we long to know" certainly applies in spades to Heart of Darkness. Conrad is constantly teasing us with the prospect of insight, but leaves us instead only with enigmas, as Marlow chases Kurtz's shadow and finds himself grappling at the edges of human comprehension and moral understanding to describe Kurtz's journey, and his own.
(contd in next comment ...)

Julian Jenkins said...

The other interesting feature is the use of the double third-person narrator. Marlow himself is viewed at a critical distance by an unnamed Revered Friend. They are both part of a small circle of friends united by the bond of the sea. In this instance, there is not the same overt declaration that Marlow is a remarkable figure. It is more by inference, both through the intermittent descriptions of Marlow in religious terminology ("an ascetic aspect","[he] resembled an idol", "a meditating Buddha"), and through a tacit recognition that Marlow's existential journey into the heart of darkness, and the lingering weight of its impact upon his soul, reflects a remarkable sensitivity for and sober engagement with the dark depths of the human condition. It is more of a passive reverence, but a reverence nonetheless, for all that Marlow has endured, and his moral courage in stepping back from the abyss.

I'm curious as to whether there are other examples of third person narration where the final destination of the Remarkable Protagonist ultimately falls short of the promise, where their talents are deployed for evil purposes rather than for good. Anything come to mind?

Philip Harvey said...

Cervantes and Shakespeare died in the same week. It's definitely the end of the Middle Ages, now. Harold Bloom believes Shakespeare created certain characters that are completely new in literature: Hamlet, Falstaff, Iago... In other words, self-consciousness without illusion. Don Quixote blends absolute certainty with complete self-delusion, which is why we need Sancho Panza. Hamlet, like Quixote, is a creature of the book and we are told as much. They had to make books about Jesus, just to get a grip on what had happened. Samuel Johnson is a walking dictionary, with Boswell skipping around him.

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