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.


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