- Fictional Character:Response
Three decades ago, John Frow described literary character as “the most problematic and … undertheorized of the basic categories of narrative theory” (227). He might have added “stigmatized” as well, for this undertheorization stemmed, paradoxically enough, from high theory’s assault on character by figures such as Roland Barthes, Hélène Cixous, and J. Hillis Miller, among others. By 1974, suggests Rita Felski, “the case against character seemed closed” (v). This case stayed closed long enough that for Deidre Lynch, writing in 1998, Frow’s claim remained as true as it had been when he made it a dozen years earlier: Lynch quotes his passage at the beginning of her book The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning (1998).
Thanks in no small measure to the pioneering (and continuing) work of Frow and Lynch, along with Catherine Gallagher, Alex Woloch, and others, the fortunes of literary character have improved dramatically over the past two decades: literary character—or perhaps more precisely, fictional character—has been the subject of a good deal of exciting work. The emphasis on textuality that was central to the poststructuralist critique of character has been replaced by attention to character’s historicity and ontology, including the nature and significance of its (constitutive?) fictionality. Readerly investment in character has gone from being deprecated as a naive mistake—or, alternatively, a sophisticated trap—to being taken seriously as a complex historical and cognitive phenomenon with multiple, contingent psychological affordances and ideological effects.
No longer undertheorized—nor, what was even more the case, underhistoricized—fictional character remains nonetheless, in Frow’s term, “problematic.” [End Page 419] Richly so. Perhaps most strikingly, recent work, often aligned with cognitive studies, has called into question the salience of a distinction central to both the post-structuralist critique of character and the first wave of the post-poststructuralist return to character: that between fictional characters and actual persons. For example, Blakey Vermeule has argued that “the reasons that we care about literary characters are finally not much different from the question of why we care about other people, especially people we have never met nor are ever likely to meet” (xiii). Other recent work focuses intently on the play of similarity and difference in our experience of actual persons and fictional characters, taking this play itself as crucial to character’s interest and power.
The three papers from the 2016 NAVSA conference gathered in this cluster differ substantially with regard to their archives and their methods, but all participate in this project of rethinking the significance of fictional character’s fictionality—that is, rethinking the ways in which readers’ understandings of and relationships to fictional characters do and do not resemble and interact with their understandings of and relationships to real people. I selected these papers for their insights into these questions, for their resonance with one another, and for their wonderful suggestiveness. Learned and imaginative in their amassing of materials, making of connections, and drawing of distinctions, these papers taught me a lot. However, I appreciate them above all, both individually and collectively, for the questions they raised for me. In other words, these papers made me want to push back and made me want to hear more, in the way that the best conference papers do.
David Coombs’s “Does Grandcourt Exist? Description and Fictional Characters” begins by locating a famous narratorial pronouncement in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876) (“Attempts at description are stupid”) in relation to the history of philosophy: as Coombs explains, “Eliot’s career as a novelist coincided with the emergence of a philosophical distinction between … knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description” (391). Yet Coombs’s goal is not the classic New Historicist one of deepening our understanding of a literary text by demonstrating how it draws on or inhabits a now-obscure discourse. Instead, tracing the fortunes of the epistemological category of “knowledge by description” from these Victorian origins to the present day, Coombs treats Eliot’s novels as still-current participants in this ongoing philosophical investigation.
Such “philosophical presentism,” as it were, may be on the rise: Coombs’s paper shares this...