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  • Men as Archetypes:Characterization in Soyinka's Novels
  • Anjali Roy (bio) and Viney Kirpal (bio)

Although Several Articles Have Been Written on the characters of Wole Soyinka's plays, his fictional characters have not been discussed in detail. This leaves a gap in the existing criticism of Soyinka's work, particularly since The Interpreters was specially cited for the Nobel Prize for Literature. This paper examines, in depth, the nature of characterization in two Soyinka novels: The Interpreters (1965) and Season of Anomy (1973), and hopes to fill this lacuna to a great extent.

Any critique of characterization in the African novel not taking into account the traditional African conception of "personality" and "individuality" is, even at its best, limited. Most western analyses of African characters fail for this reason. The majority of western critics underestimate the degree to which African writers are entrenched in the traditional world view and the depth of their conditioning by the traditional perception of man. They do not look up to western models for inspiration but to African oral literatures that, in various ways—realistic as well as stylized—reaffirm traditional images of man.

Originating in a view of personality more communal than individual, traditional standards of characterization are at odds with the western ideal of individualized, growing characters. For instance, the "type" is more of a norm than an aberration in traditional characterization. The modern [End Page 519] Nigerian novelist readily adopts traditional type characters: culture heroes like the warrior and the wrestler, stock figures like the trickster and the scapegoat, mythical beings like deities and spirits; whereas fictional criticism, by general consensus, has reserved the "type" for depicting peripheral characters. And although the practice has been shunned by most respected practitioners of modern fiction in the west, Nigerian writers introduce shades of type characterization even in their portrayal of the main characters.

The type characters of oral literature have an inherent advantage over those of fiction. Divested of the particulars of time and place and representatives of certain basic personality types, characters of myth, folktale, and epic transcend their parochial limitations and acquire a universal appeal. It is little wonder that Nigerian novelists should gravitate toward traditional methods of characterization. Also, the versatile nature of the "type" opens up a host of other possibilities. The ideal "types" of heroic poetry are appropriate for tragic and serious treatment;1 the caricatures of traditional satire can be exploited in ironic depictions; and the quotidian figures of folktale are suitable for making pragmatic comments on life in general.

But more importantly, the "types" are suited to the didactic thrust of the Nigerian novel. The "ideals" can be employed to praise and glorify, the "caricatures" to expose and ridicule. In employing traditional type characterization in the novel, these writers have gained a powerful aesthetic device consistent with their professed didactic intention. But they have also demonstrated the novel's innate capacity to absorb new experiments in form and technique.

"For we must admit," Forster wrote, "that flat people are not in themselves as big achievements as round ones, and also that they are best when they are comic" (50). Wole Soyinka has shown that flatness can encompass tragic depth and profundity and be as noteworthy an achievement as roundness. Forster regards the distinguishing feature of flat characters as their being "constructed round a single idea or quality" (47). The mask, a basic African art form, too, focuses on a single concrete quality. But it does so deliberately, to dispense with minute particulars and to capture the essence of a personality. Annemarie Hey wood was right when she described the characters of The Interpreters as "masks, voices in an adventure of ideation" (130). But, in her dissatisfaction with the characters' two-dimensional nature and incapacity for development, she overlooked the workings of the "mask" technique. At the root of this method lies a rejection of mimetic realism and an attempt to highlight [End Page 520] the "essential" idea. The clamour for complexity and roundness, on the other hand, emanates from a belief in verisimilitude.2 It is argued that people in real life are far too complicated to be summarized in a single idea. So when Soyinka...


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pp. 519-527
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