1 Introduction: Novel Characters

Where Do the Novel’s Characters Come From?

Surprising Characters

Novel Types

I Wholes

2 Originals

Quixote: Or the Originality of Imitators

Original Claims and Final Reckonings

The English Original

Conversations with an Original

And Now for Our Heroines

3 Individuals


Women of Character

Aristocrats and Commoners

The Incomparables

II Fractions

4 Selves/Identities

Me and Mine

Visualizing the Self

All in All

The Final Me


III Compounds

5 Native Cosmopolitans

Native Cosmopolitans

Stereotypes and Mimic Men

The New Man and the Native Cosmopolitan



In Memory of Barbara Rietveld


Fictional characters don’t exist, but we often feel as if they did. Or wish that they didn’t. Mr Darcy can still make young women’s hearts flutter in the age of Twitter. Charlotte Brontë, alarmed by the ferocity of Heathcliff, wondered if it was even right that her sister, Emily, had conceived of him. In the “Kugelmass Episode,” Woody Allen fantasizes about a weekend at the Plaza Hotel with Madame Bovary. Different readers of varying degrees of sophistication, but all very much alike in their subjection to the power of novelistic characters to enthrall. Their responses are as representative as they are instructive: although we know them to be imaginary, novelistic characters can be as real to us as the book (or Kindle) we hold in our hand. We become involved with them, identify with them, love or despise, even fear them, care what happens to them.

Why this should be so is one of the deepest mysteries and pleasures of the imaginative but intensely real experience available to us in novels. E. M. Forster alludes to this feeling of intense involvement in the title of the two chapters he devotes to character in his “ramshackly” but sharply observed Aspects of the Novel - “People,” a word that works to reduce and in some measure demystify the distance between readers and novelistic characters. Regarded as people, characters are more likely to appear as familiars of our world and in fact play an important part in our experience of it. Forster is careful to distinguish our interest in “people” from our interest in story. Stories, he famously observed, pique our curiosity about what happens next. Characters open up a new source of mental incitement that appeals, Forster insists, “to our intelligence and imagination not just our curiosity.” That is because, Forster explains, with people, “a new emphasis enters [the novelist’s] voice; emphasis on value.”1

Novel Characters is a study of this “new emphasis” on the distinctness and value of novelistic “people” as they are in themselves and as they appear to others. My title entails an obvious, but I hope not egregious, pun, one meant to highlight the relation between what is “new” in the novel’s emphasis on people and what is intrinsically or generically “novel” about the particular forms it invents to accommodate them. These forms are verbal and conceptual as well as formal and structural: the novel conceives of character in a way unique to itself; the story it tells is meant to bring its characters into high relief so that they can be seen for the singular beings they are. They appear to us as “vivid” characters as opposed to inert marks on a page. It is their vividness that gives a “new emphasis” and incomparable value to the stories told about and through them.

As the emphasis changes, so do the values, a simple fact, but one that seldom colors or otherwise affects the way we generally think about novelistic character. This is a fact registered in my subtitle, A Genealogy, which asserts that a novelistic character may boast of its own particular pedigree, that its formations are not dictated solely by social and historical forces, but are determined by inner necessities, among which the most powerful is the necessity to become distinctly oneself. Genealogy is one of the primary ways we understand the genesis and evolution of people, and also of our ideas about people and their simultaneously distinct and malleable characters. Yet despite the revived interest in the novel’s representations of identity, emotions, the passions, and the moral as well as social and political sentiments, what a character is and what character may and should become is still very much a story left mainly to tell itself. Even the recent return to ethics in literary criticism, aimed at revitalizing the postmodernist assault on individual agency and autonomy, has focused more on the value of the novel as a form of moral instruction or as an instrument of social reform than on its representations of singular moral beings. Of character in itself, literary criticism of the present day has surprisingly little new or specific to say.

Novel Characters aims to redress this critical neglect. My claim is that the novel is the literary form best suited to create characters of real, often troubling distinction, and that indeed it has a generic disposition, amounting to an obligation, to do so. Novels are narratives that represent characters with a particular set of interests and moral outlook - a point of view, in novelistic terms - that may or may not align with our own. Unlike the epic and romance, the novel is concerned to show us not only the exceptional, but also the everyday, the feeble, or the stunted as well as the heroic manifestations of character. This is why the novel often attends to characters conventionally regarded as failures or of no particular interest. The novel is as interested in them as it is in those persons who immediately arouse our anxiety and curiosity - namely, the adventurous, the charismatic, the inordinately beautiful, the refined, the rambunctious, the intelligent, the insane. It never tires of recounting the countless difficulties that characters encounter in realizing or staying “in character,” challenges and obstacles that will vary according to time, place, social class, economic status, race or ethnicity, and gender.

In his engaging essay “The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes” Milan Kundera suggests how we might begin to organize such a history according to the logic and formal shapes the novel itself “discovered” as it set out to explore “the various dimensions of existence one by one” (that is, one character at a time as well as one novel at a time):

In its own way, through its own logic, the novel discovered the various dimensions of existence one by one: with Cervantes and his contemporaries, it inquires into the nature of adventure; with Richardson, it begins to examine “what happens inside,” to unmask the secret life of the feelings; with Balzac, it discovers man’s rootedness in history; with Flaubert, it explores the terra previously incognita of the everyday; with Tolstoy, it focuses on the intrusion of the irrational in human behavior and decisions. It probes time: the elusive past with Proust, the elusive present with Joyce. With Thomas Mann, it examines the role of the myths from the remote past that control our present actions. Et cetera, et cetera.2

Novel Characters, happily elaborating on the rich novelistic materials encompassed but left unspecified by Kundera’s “et cetera,” will accordingly proceed chronologically from the “birth of the novel” in Don Quixote and its European descendents to its great efflorescence in the canonical works of nineteenth- and twentieth-century, particularly British, fiction. It will conclude by considering today’s most imaginative and influential cosmopolitan fictions, novels that reflect in new idioms the novel’s enduring preoccupation with creating characters that might live outside as well as within their pages.

But first, a few advisories about my own avid, alternately bemused and beguiled, and undeniably partisan interest in novelistic character as it manifests itself over time:

1. I believe, most importantly, that there is such a thing as novelistic character, a claim many will dispute. I understand such skepticism, but don’t share it and indeed remain fundamentally unbothered and certainly undeterred by it. I appreciate that these “novel characters” exist in another dimension, one that can only be reached through the words that call them into being, describe their physical appearance, delineate their moral traits, report their social habits, recount the most mundane along with the most consequential of their actions, transcribe their inner feelings and thoughts. Since we know of their existence through the words that bring them to our notice and that, indeed, give them whatever life they can be said to possess, we need to attend to how they are written about. So in the pages that follow, my genealogy of novelistic character is constructed and inspired by certain recurrent “keywords,” in the double sense that Raymond Williams uses and recommends this term: as “significant, binding words in certain activities” and as “significant, indicative words in certain forms of thought.”3 The terms I propose to guide my genealogical inquiry into character - Originals, Individuals, Selves, Identities, Native Cosmopolitans - were chosen with this double signification in mind: they are words that direct our attention to the intrinsic ways the novel conceives of and defines its characters, that is, to the related, but distinctive ways the novel thinks about character and how it acts upon those notions in creating and representing them. These particular words also reflect the novel’s quasi-mathematical concern with Character as Entities that find their most complete expression in the Whole Person, their most distressed but also multivalent form in the fragmented Self and split- hyphenated Identity, and their most contemporary embodiment in the compromise formations of the Compound Identity. They are terms that define characters as belonging to what we might call a specific character type or genus - from the highest and foundational order (i.e. Wholes) of Originals, to the selfdirected and self-dependent class of Individuals, to the modern ranks of those characters constituted of many Selves (i.e. Fractions) or endowed, often burdened and afflicted, with a socially conspicuous Identity, to the new social manifestations of character (i.e. Compounds) that I will call Native Cosmopolitans.

2. To ensure that the characters before me appear as vivid to you as they do to me, I will sometimes deliberately revert to a more archaic typographical style and capitalize certain words I want to call attention to. These are words that may have lost some of their signifying capacity, most obviously the words that denote the intrinsic disposition, defining trait, or determining circumstances that define, in different degrees and with various levels of success, the life of novelistic characters. In the current conventions of academic writing, only the word Other is routinely treated with this kind of typographical respect. I want to accord to character a similar respect and reintroduce, if only stylistically and typographically, the notion of Emphatic response, one that insists that Character may not be, as Novalis proclaimed, Fate, but it is Fateful for our reading of novels.

3. In writing this book I came to understand that my own character as an emphatic reader of novelistic people is distinctly American. Throughout you will note my particular debt to Emersonian notions of character - that character is Force, that it is centrality, that it wants room - notions that represent and respect character as an Originating Power, as a self-counseled individuality, as a persistent (even if dreadful or lamentable) self, as a chosen rather than imposed Identity, as a Native rather than alienated Being. You will note, too, that none of the characters I discuss, even those as Original as Don Quixote or Robinson Crusoe, achieve these Ultimate forms of character. This is because I will be talking about how characters are conceived and represented in novels, not as they are portrayed in epic or romance narratives, fictions in which human life is magnified to heroic proportions and even spiritual failings have a grandeur and a consequence rarely glimpsed, much less attained in ordinary life. Novels are of this world, although the best ones persist in looking and thinking beyond it. We don’t read them to encounter perfect specimens, but to learn about human, if imaginary, beings - people, to use Forster’s more idiomatic term - with all their faults as well as their unique claims to moral and personal distinction.

Whether there even is such a thing as novelistic character is a question that will bedevil us throughout this book, but for now let us proceed as if there is and that it is not simply a product of social and ideological conditioning or the phantom presence evoked by words on a page, but an imaginative, yet very real expression of the genius of our species for differentiating itself into highly distinct forms.

Maria DiBattista

Princeton University

May 2010


1 E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1954), p. 43.

2 Milan Kundera, Testaments Betrayed (New York: Harper Perennial, 1992), p. 8.

3 Raymond Williams, Keywords (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 15.


I am lucky to have had throughout my life friends of distinctive and entertaining character. Each has contributed in his or her own way to this book, although none has read a line of it: at Princeton - Deborah Nord, Suzanne Nash, P. Adams Sitney, Gaetana Marrone Puglia, Lee Mitchell, and Esther Schor; elsewhere in and out of academe - David Bromwich, Brigitte Peucker, Paul Fry, Lucy McDiarmid, Barbara and Alfred MacAdam, Edward Mendelson, David Quint, Julia Ballerini, Cynthia Avila, Susan Nanus, and Carlo, Marco, and Marete Rietveld, a family of born readers. I am espe- cially grateful to Susan Wolf, who invited me to co-teach a class on Character at UNC, and to the students of that class, who helped me to think about Character the way a philosopher might.

I want also to acknowledge a sterling cohort of literary critics much (some much, much!) younger than I who have enriched my life with their friendship and imaginative readings: Jay Dickson, Allan Hepburn, Barry McCrea, Emily Wittman, Masha Mimran, Ana Rodriguez Navas, Anne Hirsch Moffitt, Erwin Rosinberg, Jacqueline Shin, Rebecca Rainoff, and Mayaan Dauber. Marty Karlow deserves a place and category to himself - he taught me how to think about novels and to believe in the truthfulness as well as power of Original response. So does my sister, Dina, who always gives me her love and a place to stay when I most need them. Special thanks to Emma Bennett, who solicited this project and encouraged me along the way; Caroline Clamp; and my copy editor, Harry Langford.

My splendid sons, Daniel and Matthew, keep me sane and honest and always give me fresh reason to delight in their intelligence, their humor, and their company.

Finally this book is dedicated to Barbara Rietveld, a woman of extraordinary character and a subtle reader of minds and hearts.