- The One vs. the Many
Although the title of Alex Woloch's wide-ranging book suggests a work on philosophy or current events, the subtitle – Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel – offers a better clue about the contents. A prologue focused on the Iliad sets up the book's presiding question: "How can many people be contained within a single narrative?" (11). The introduction then proposes to examine how narratives deal with the problems of distributing "the character-space" among "heroes" and minor characters while maintaining their places within a unified structure, "the character-system" (14). Although Woloch's concerns lie primarily with formal analysis, he utilizes his narratological categories so as to include matters of theme, symbol, and social significance, e.g., to explore how the realist novel "is generated out of the relationship between inequality and democracy" (31).
The first chapter's study of Austen's Pride and Prejudice sets the stage for the book's major focus on Dickens and Balzac, since the asymmetry of Austen's narrative models the disequilibrium found in the other novelists. Woloch sees Austen in terms of a "struggle to produce a closed and ordered fictional universe that reflects a fundamentally fragmented and disordered social one" (59). Ultimately, Woloch finds that Austen triumphs because she manages to link Elizabeth Bennet's "interior development to the dispersion and fragmentation of the many other minor characters, producing a textual structure homologous to the social structure of capitalism" (124). Woloch has little to say about capitalism; however, he offers many useful critiques of interpretations that lock minor characters into excessively stabilizing functions or symbols. In Woloch's view of the novel, neither Gilbert and Gubar's deconstruction of an allegedly "repressed master narrative" nor Mary Poovey's reduction of a character like Charlotte Lucas to "a general ideology for which she stands" does justice to Austen's use of characterization for both thematic and functional purposes (95-97).
Chapter 2 examines the "significance of Dickens's distorted and exaggerated minor characters and the over-significance of minor characters within the novels" (125). Woloch here provides many interesting insights into how a novel like The Pickwick Papers revolves around charged interactions between protagonist and minor characters, themselves always the origin of strangeness or singularity (135, 143). At times, however, the chapter has a rushed look, as when Woloch jams discussions of Schiller, Gaskell, Mayhew, and Engels into four pages on minor characters and the division of labor (160-63).
Chapter 3 offers a reading of the character-system in Great Expectations along the lines previously established. While occasionally a minor character like Barkis in David Copperfield could become immortal precisely through his repeated eccentric phrases, the minor characters in Great Expectations overwhelm the protagonist and become all the "more [End Page 156] memorable as they get distorted" (178). Woloch establishes a typology of minor characters, here described as "narrative workers" in order to link their narratological functions with the theme of labor. By such means he tries, successfully in my view, to substantiate his major claim that the novel "explores and dramatizes two essential, conflicting dimensions of the minor character: as symbol, subordinated and thematically instrumentalized in relation to the dominant protagonist, and as a competing center of narrative interest, defined by his social positionality" (208).
For NCFS readers the most relevant part of The One vs. the Many will be Chapter 4 on "Characterization and Competition in Le Père Goriot and La Comédie humaine." Rastignac or Goriot? Woloch turns away from interpretations that opt for one character or that "shift from this fragmented character-field to a unified thematic one" (244). Instead, he relies on Lukács and Robbe-Grillet to set up a collapsible polarity between static and dynamic typification (258). As competitors and "co-protagonists" Rastignac and Goriot are not only opposed as narrative foci but as representatives of competing structures within the multiplicity of Parisian reality. Woloch assigns Goriot a space ("The Interior as Exterior") where subjective suffering "is...