- Unflattening Mrs. Micawber
“Characters arrive when evoked,” E. M. Forster announced during the now-famous lectures that he delivered in Cambridge in 1927, “but full of the spirit of mutiny” (Aspects of the Novel 66). He was thinking about the difficulty of reconciling the lives of human beings with the construction of “people” in novels and about the challenges of maintaining an effective balance between character and other aspects of a novel. A somewhat different kind of mutiny is proposed here, one that focuses on a traditionally devalued character in order to challenge the widespread practice of repeating Forster’s formulas in ways that have encouraged a superficial dismissal of Dickens’s methods of characterization. While acknowledging the broader and decisive shift in modernist attitudes toward the representation of inner life in fiction, though without entering into full confrontation with Bloomsbury anxieties toward Victorian influences, I would like to wrest Mrs. Micawber out of the clutches of an attitude that has made it easier to iconoclastically gloss over Dickens’s art of the novel.
According to E. M. Forster, the “really flat character,” for which he offered Mrs. Micawber as his paradigmatic example, can be “expressed in one sentence” that is easily remembered by the “emotional eye.” Such characters, he claimed, fail to “surprise in a convincing way” because they do not exhibit “the incalculability of life” – even if “life within the pages of a book” (67-78). Prominent explicators of narrative fiction (and life) immediately took issue with Forster’s definitions,1 yet their caveats remain less popular than his categorizations along with his choice of examples. Every study of literary character must therefore acknowledge today that Forster’s categorizations are permanently entrenched in our critical discourse,2 and this extraordinary [End Page 201] impact makes it particularly intriguing to revisit the character who bears the brunt of flatness theory.
Deirdre Lynch reminds us that E. M. Forster did not invent the concepts of round and flat characters. Early-nineteenth-century reviewers referred to “insipid, lifeless characters” as flat because they tasted like “soda water, too long in the bottle, that has also gone ‘flat’” (267, n. 4), and rotundity was used in the seventeenth century to evaluate Falstaff’s ambiguities (137).3 Still, Forster’s definitions and examples have become the cornerstone for assessments of literary characters, especially in introductory guidebooks. James Brown’s and Scott Yarbrough’s Practical Introduction to Literary Study, which advocates reading fiction in order to develop critical thinking, does not rehearse Forster’s examples but it does summarize his definition of flats that “stay the same no matter what they have encountered” vs. rounds who are capable of learning something (58). By contrast, Jeremy Hawthorn’s Studying the Novel goes in for the entire kit and caboodle, albeit hedged in by a gentle attempt to attenuate its validity. He begins by citing Forster’s reduction of Mrs. Micawber to one sentence (‘I never will desert Mr. Micawber’): “There is Mrs. Micawber – she says she won’t desert Mr. Micawber, she doesn’t, and there she is” (Hawthorn citing Foster). He then clarifies that “Mrs. Micawber does not change because she is not allowed genuine interaction with other people and situations,” (90) but signals a degree of skepticism by adding in a glossary that Aspects of the Novel “provides the now-clichéd distinction between the round and the flat character; the former having depth, complexity and unpredictability, and the latter being reduced almost to a single quality” (149). The overall effect despite this guidebook’s nuanced and extended discussion of characterization, is nevertheless a perpetuation of Forster’s examples, if not his categorizations.
Encyclopedia Britannica cites Mrs. Micawber as the classic (and only) example of a flat character that never surprises the reader, and H. M. Abrams’s entry on “Character and Characterization,” arguably the most authoritative Glossary of Literary Terms, offers Mr. Micawber (instead of his wife) as “unchanged in outlook and disposition, from beginning to end” in contrast to Austen’s Emma, who allegedly undergoes “radical” change (48). Even if we concede that twenty-year-old Emma Woodhouse agreeing [End Page 202] to get married and be...