Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Literary Characters Versus Real People

For years, my thesis adviser kept telling me, "Clarissa, these are not real people you are discussing. These are characters. You are not analyzing historical accounts or ideological manifestos but works of art." I had no idea what she was trying to tell me and kept getting annoyed.

And then I started reading criticism on female novel of development and realized that the following argument keeps being offered by the critics who write on the subject: "Novels reflect reality. The reality of women in the 19th century was that they were miserable, stunted, and oppressed. After the women's liberation movements achieved important successes in the 1970ies, women became liberated, happy and a lot less oppressed. Ergo, novels about women written in the 19th century will be populated by oppressed, miserable female characters who are incapable of developing. After the 1970ies, novels will show crowds of happy, fulfilled female protagonists." 

When you start reading actual female Bildungsromane, you discover that both novels and reality are a lot more complex than such facile definitions allow us to imagine. These works of fiction do not conform to the critical expectations in the least. Often, they present the exact opposite of what the above-mentioned argument leads us to expect.

This is probably the rule of literary criticism that it took me the longest to learn: characters are not real people.


Rimi said...

I have a slightly bemused question: is this post genuinely meant, or is this a parody of graduate student life?

If this is seriously meant -- which I greatly doubt -- your adviser was trying to send your education for a toss by giving you below-par reading lists. Actively discourage a new historicist (or just plain contextual) read with the spineless of 'This is art'? Where was this person's intellect vacationing?

el said...

May be, many people can mentally "afford" reading about miserable characters, only if they're quite happy in RL. It would explain the "opposite" results. F.e. in "Martin Eden" his sister told him she didn't like reading sad stories since RL was hard enough in itself.

Iirc, I read that in a period, when unmarried women were forced to seek economic support from their brothers, many novels portrayed very positive brother-sister relationships, even if RL wasn't so ideal. Makes sense that women would seek reassurance from novels and not new ways to reignite ever-present RL concerns.

Pen said...

This is interesting. I had to puzzle through the original quotation before realizing that the definition of "real people" was not what I originally thought.

Just to check, though, here was my interpretation: characters are not real people in the every-day sense. They often don't share the same beliefs and background that one would come to expect from an author writing in x time period, and to find reality in a novel is generally to dig deep into interpretation, rather than plot and character arc (which is what a historical account or manifesto focuses on).

Anonymous said...

Perhaps I'm just being dense or misreading, but aren't you essentially saying: Women in novels are sophisticated, interesting creations, therefore they must not be accurate representations of 19th century women? If so, why that conclusion rather than concluding that if literary representations of women are more sophisticated than we thought, perhaps the women themselves were also more sophisticated than contemporary thinking would suggest?

Jonathan said...

1st. They don't exist. They aren't real.

2nd. They reflect not reality, but ideology. People's projections of how they want people to be or how they fear they might be.

3rd. Even an attempt to represent people as they actually are, instead of how one hopes and fears they might be, would be filtered through the author's consciousness.

We aren't really comparing literary characters against reality itself, but against our expectations of reality, anyway. We can't even know that many real women from the 19th century as we can know Fortunata or Ana de Ozores.

Clarissa said...

Rimi: I was very annoyed with this advice too initially. But now I have come to realize how right this scholar was. I am now regularly forced to read my students' essay that regale me with the following nuggets of wisdom: "Don Quijote was crazy which tells us that people in Spain were all kind of crazy at that time."

As for the rest, Jonathan said exactly what I wanted to.

Rimi said...

Clarissa, I remember *those* finals too. But one can hardly dismiss a more deeply-nuanced reading of a text because some of our students didn't quite get the hang of it. The logic seems rather like that of a Libertarian commentator on your blog, who once said, effectively, "This government did what no government is supposed to do. Therefore the concept of governance is flawed".

Any idiot who still professes characters are alienated, decontexualised creatures existing in vaccuum are still stuck in the glorious New Critcism rut of the early twentieth century. And given the prestigious places they teach in, they really shouldn't be.

Clarissa said...

Of course, I agree with you completely. The only thing I'm militating against here is this kind of gross generalization about "the people of Spain" or "all women" on the basis of one or two literary characters. I've just been encountering this position a lot in criticism and it's very frustrating.

Rimi said...

@ Jonathan:

"2nd. They reflect not reality, but ideology. People's projections of how they want people to be or how they fear they might be."

It's alarming how bona-fide scholars, who are looked up on by virtue of their profession as experts on these matters, would so naively and glibly speak of 'reality' as an absolute.

Let us have the courage to admit, Jonathan, that reality -- like fiction people write -- is arbitrated entirely by people's, as you say, projections, desires, and fears. A tea-party fanatic and you, I'm assuming, live in entirely different realities in the same space.

There is no ultimate, absolute reality that helpfully exists. The only difference between reality and books -- unless one wants to wave deliberately escapist fantasy or sci-fi to prove a point -- is that books stop at a certain point. Like at the wedding of the charming prince and the baker's beautiful daughter. Reality goes on right till the bitter end.

Please let's not teach our students the stilted, stifled, "Ars gratia ars", alienated ivory-tower nonsense we were taught? We owe it to our own functional brains.

Rimi said...

@Clarissa -- I know. My students did a LOT of that whenever they had to describe or analyse a culture different from them. I still recall with shudders the papers reviling arranged marriages in colonial Africa because "It looks like even flowers are too much effort for men in some cultures".

But my friend (whose student had submitted this) did not say anything to the student besides 'this is perhaps a generalisation'. He said it wasn't worth it, because this unconscious arrogance of generalising the other (those African men, those Spanish women) while being almostly completely ignorant about them was widespread.

In fact, he asked me if I've ever seen/read texts aimed at a teen/early twenty audience: Apparently they're rife with such stereotypes as well. Successful women will be ball-busting bitches, a caring man not on the football team will turn out to be a weakling and a wimp, token arrogant athlete will be humbled and become a nicer (and more successful) person for it, and so on. These kids are not being taught to think. At all.