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Character in Fictional Narrative: The Case of John Marcher by James Phelan, Ohio State University Although I have not read any other analyses of "The Beast in the Jungle" that interpret some of its details the way I will here, this paper is not primarily an attempt to offer a new reading of James's novella. Indeed, one reason I have chosen to focus on "The Beast in the Jungle" is that James's readers seem to agree in general about the movement and effect of the tale:1 it is the tragic story of John Marcher, who, believing that life has singled him out for some grand fate, wastes his life awaiting its arrival. May Bartram, the generous and perceptive woman to whom he has revealed this secret belief, gives him, through an offer of her own love, a chance to escape his empty life, but blinded by his egotism, Marcher fails to seize, fails even to perceive, his chance. Finally, shortly before his death, Marcher comes to understand both that his life has been nothing but a "sounded void" and that he badly missed his best chance to escape this very singular fate of his own making. Rather than challenging this view of the tale, I shall attempt here to place it into a theoretical framework that will shed light on some special features of James's achievement. These features involve James's treatment of both Marcher and the movement of the narrative, and the framework is a theory of literary character. James's treatment of Marcher is a natural subject for anyone interested in the theory of literary character because it poses in an especially suggestive way the problem of the relation between character as individual and character as embodiment of an idea. On the one hand, Marcher and what happens to him are, if not unique, at least unusual, but, on the other hand, he seems to represent an attitude toward life—waiting for it to happen—that makes him more representative than unique. What help does the theory of literary character offer in solving this problem? First, it must be noted that much of the recent work on character complicates the problem by emphasizing the extent to which character is an artificial construct—a function in the plot, a meeting place of signifiers grouped under a proper name, a linguistic entity.2 Indeed, perhaps "complicates" is too mild a word, for if character is essentially and fundamentally only an artificial construct, then the notion of character as an image of an individual is seriously undermined, and the problem I have posed above must be dismissed as the product of an erroneous assumption. Nevertheless, I think "complicates" is the appropriate word, because the notion of character as construct, however accurate and useful for a structuralist or semiotic theory of character, need not be the fundamental principle of all theories of character. My concern here is 106 The Henry James Review with a rhetorical theory, one that tries to account for the communications about character carried on between authors and readers, and to insist that character as construct be the single fundamental principle of this theory would be to ensure its failure: that principle would make it impossible to explain adequately most readers' experience of characters in realistic fiction as possible persons. If our theory tells us that Marcher is only a collection of words or only a plot function, then we must either regard our experience of forming some emotional attachment to him (it) as a mistake or we must seek a different theory that will enable us to account for that experience. Since my purpose is to account for the narrative not as an autonomous object but as a communication, I am choosing the latter course. Yet the findings of recent structuralist and semiotic theories cannot be simply dismissed, because even as readers react to a John Marcher as a possible person, they also recognize that a character is a construct. I am suggesting, then, that readers of fictional narrative have at least a double consciousness: they regard characters as possible people even as they tacitly recognize that characters are artificial creations. One consequence of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 105-113
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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