- Character and Person by John Frow
Oxford University Press, 2014. 352pp. $52.50. ISBN 978-0-19-877855-4.
Character and Person is at once one of the most difficult books I have ever read and one of the most suggestive and potentially far-reaching. Hence the belatedness of this review. This is a stunning book in multiple senses of the term, and it has taken me a long time both to read and to process.
The difficulty is primarily the result of the exceedingly loose internal structure of the individual chapters. At the macro-level, the structure is fine. The book is divided into eight chapters, each with a single-word title: "Figure," "Interest," "Person," "Type," "Voice, "Name," "Face," and "Body." Conceptually, these categories make sense, and John Frow amply demonstrates the importance of each to our thinking about character and personhood and the relation between the two. But within each chapter, he wanders very freely. Frow claims that this is "the methodological consequence" of his focus "on the interplay between different ways of being a person": "the weight of the book falls not on a linear exposition of a progressively developing argument but, rather, on the exploration of juxtaposed materials and the threads that tie them together. The form of the book as a whole is something like that of a prolonged essay" (vii–viii). I am not convinced that this was the best approach to take. On one hand, when coupled with Frow's astonishing breadth of knowledge, it means that one can learn a great deal about all sorts of things (what other book contains discussions of a curious mole in À la recherche du temps perdu, Indigenous Brazilian facial tattoos, ancient Roman funerary rites, pre-Reformation religious painting, the relation between masks and character types in New Comedy, and a quick history of the mirror in the same chapter?). On the other hand, it is easy to get lost, or worse, as Frow shifts from topic to topic (and discipline to discipline) without warning or much in the way of signposts. The experience of reading Character and Person is not unlike that of drinking from the proverbial firehose, and, like the latter, it is perhaps best done in small sips.
Nonetheless, we should all partake. At its heart (and Frow's preface nicely lays this out), the book is interested in how "characters and persons are at once ontologically discontinuous (they have different manners of being) and logically interdependent" (vii). That is, characters are not the same as real people and pretending otherwise can quickly lead us down the rabbit hole of attempting to count Lady Macbeth's children. But neither are they merely narrative or linguistic functions (if they were, they would not have nearly the kind of affective power [End Page 532] they clearly have). Rather, they are both "a formal construct, made out of words or images and having a fully textual existence" and "a set of effects which are modelled on the form of the human person" (vi). Thus far this is familiar territory to anyone who has thought about character in the past thirty years. But Frow does not confine himself to this now stock (and seemingly irresolvable) dichotomy, both sides of which presume that the personhood of "real people" is straightforward and fundamentally non-imaginary. Rather, he seeks to understand "not only how characters work as quasi-persons ... but also how social personhood works as a kind of fiction: ... a model shaped by particular social practices and institutions ... but also by the schemata that underpin fictional personhood" (vii). And it is in this latter move—the move to think about "real" personhood in the same frame as fictional character and as employing many of the same resources—that Frow comes into his own as an important resource for scholars of the eighteenth century.
Put simply, Character and Person offers a remarkable number of exciting ways of thinking about the "range of modalities" between the fictional and the real without ever reducing either to an effect or by-product of the other (vi). "Fictional characters have a more clearly...