- Flat Protagonists: A Theory of Novel Character by Marta Figlerowicz
Here is a get-over-yourself model of literary character. Flat protagonists are those that do not become more filled out or more compelling to others over the course of the novel even though they occupy the most space. Marta Figlerowicz takes a wonderful risk in giving her book this name because the flatness of the protagonists she tracks is not a dimensional reduction (as in: keeping them flat to study them from a distance, paring down their attributes until only the most essential—usually, historical materialist—ones remain, or turning them into the new objects of an anti-depth hermeneutics). Rather, their flatness inheres in their fidelity to a truth about the scarcity of attention and interest in the world. Her characters are those that get less interesting, less round, less representative of the world they centrally inhabit, not because of anyone’s failure or intention but because, regardless of genre or period, they realistically represent how most of our lives unfold.
Figlerowicz finds exemplary flat protagonists in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, François de Graffigny’s Letters from a Peruvian Woman, Isabelle de Charrière’s Letters of Mistress Henley Published by Her Friend, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. The philosophical question she poses to them—“Can a represented world make present to its reader not only the breadth and depth of character relationships, but also the resurging indifference that . . . inevitably dilutes them?”—is answered by a literary device rather than a literary topos (1). The flat protagonist is a solution to a problem of representation, not something that clusters into certain words or attributes. The natural diminishment of interest and attention cannot be “functionalized,” or seen in a character-space, or located on any social-network map of the novel.
A novel, like another person, does not have all the time and space in the world for you; and in a novel, as in human relations, the affective and social ties between people can only go so far. There are not communities or objects enough to be permanent audiences to our observations and insights. Although Figlerowicz’s novel theory does not care much [End Page 197] about genealogy, it does propose a different genealogy for the modern novel. Its ancestor would not be the protomodernist novel (if such a thing exists), but a character like Oroonoko, whose self-mutilation after murdering his wife and child is witnessed by onlookers who take nothing “deep or precise” from it (46). Or characters like Jude and Arabella, for whom “invoking familiar cultural tropes does not ensure that [their] lives will become compelling to others, or that the relationships to which they refer in these grand terms will last” (101). The novels themselves are “flat” insofar as they realize, through their protagonists, that even the world they think they are representing is incomplete, small, one in which wonderfully generalizable claims lose robustness and become trivial if their scope constricts even a little.
In a sense, the flat character is right in keeping with the essential characteristics of the bildungsroman. When you grow up, you realize the world was not as much for you as you thought even though you have gotten into the habit of orienting it around you. The more platitudinous version of this insight would be that as you grow up you realize how small you are, how limited your ability to make a real difference. Figlerowicz walks this line and defamiliarizes it by producing moments of deep interpretive accuracy, such as this one: “At the beginning of [Jude the Obscure], . . . Jude carves into the tree at his village crossroads an arrow pointing towards Christminster with his initials above it, as if his own departure there were as self-evident and important as the city’s geographical location” (103). I once wrote a botched close reading of this scene, over-allegorizing the carving, but also...