Character: Three Inquiries in Literary Studies

Character: Three Inquiries in Literary Studies

by Amanda Anderson, Rita Felski, Toril Moi

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Over the last few decades, character-based criticism has been seen as either naive or obsolete. But now questions of character are attracting renewed interest. Making the case for a broad-based revision of our understanding of character, Character rethinks these questions from the ground up. Is it really necessary to remind literary critics that characters are made up of words? Must we forbid identification with characters? Does character-discussion force critics to embrace humanism and outmoded theories of the subject?

Across three chapters, leading scholars Amanda Anderson, Rita Felski, and Toril Moi reimagine and renew literary studies by engaging in a conversation about character. Moi returns to the fundamental theoretical assumptions that convinced literary scholars to stop doing character-criticism, and shows that they cannot hold. Felski turns to the question of identification and draws out its diverse strands, as well as its persistence in academic criticism. Anderson shows that character-criticism illuminates both the moral life of characters, and our understanding of literary form.  In offering new perspectives on the question of fictional character, this thought-provoking book makes an important intervention in literary studies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226658667
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/23/2019
Series: TRIOS Series
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 160
Sales rank: 640,066
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Amanda Anderson is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities and English and director of the Cogut Institute for the Humanities at Brown University.
Rita Felski is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English at the University of Virginia and Niels Bohr Professor at the University of Southern Denmark.
Toril Moi is the James B. Duke Professor of Literature and Romance Studies, and professor of English, Philosophy, and Theatre Studies, at Duke University.

Read an Excerpt



Toril Moi

Never treat characters as if they were real people!


Here are some things we can and some things we can't do with fictional characters. And some things they can and can't do with us. We can't libel them. They can't sue us. We can neither murder nor marry them. (So there is no point in warning us against doing any of this.) We can imagine that we talk to them. But they can't talk back. Yet they can place claims on us, claims we may feel compelled to respond to. We can love them, hate them, acknowledge them, imitate them, be inspired by them, carry them in our hearts and minds, think about them when we want to understand our own lives. We can also invent further adventures for them, and we can imagine what they would be like if they lived in our place and time. To understand all this is to understand what fiction is.

When I feel horror, a searing physical discomfort, at watching someone being tortured in a movie (Reservoir Dogs or Pan's Labyrinth come to mind), my friends sometimes try to comfort me by reminding me that "it's only a movie" (when we say the same thing to children, we don't remind them of anything but rather teach them, initiate them into our ways of living with fictions) — as if I had forgotten that I was dealing with fiction, as if I took the images to be actual events in the real world. But I haven't forgotten that I am watching a fiction film. I feel upset because I am watching a torture scene. In fact, such reminders can easily become annoying: is the idea that I ought to be able to blunt my sensitivity to torture by focusing on the scene's filmic virtues? Or that my reaction blinds me to the technical points of the scene, so that I can no longer analyze it with the proper critical acumen? But then we are coming close to the idea that emotional responses will always impede critical analysis. And that can't be true. A critic incapable of emotional response will surely miss a lot more than I do.

Academic critics understand this as well as anyone. We are not more likely than others to mistake fictional characters for real people. Yet our discipline is replete with warnings against doing precisely this. Here are some things academic literary critics are told not to do with fictional characters. We must not ask how many children Lady Macbeth had. We must not think of characters as "our friends for life" or say that they "remain as real to us as our familiar friends." We must not talk about the "unconscious feelings of a character," for that would be to fall into the "trap of the realistic fallacy." We must beware of treating "fictional characters as the equivalent of persons [for] it's a tricky business theorizing the ontological hybridity of characters."

Here are some things academic literary critics are urged to bear in mind about fictional characters. We must never forget that "le personnage ... n'est personne," that the person on the page is nobody. We must always remind ourselves that characters "exist only as words on a printed page" and that "they have no consciousness." Should the "feeling that they are living people" arise, we must firmly repress it, for it is an "illusion." We must remember that if characters fascinate us, it is only because they "invit[e] cathexis with ontological difference." We must also keep firmly in mind that there is always a "tension between thinking of characters as pieces of writing or imaging and thinking of them as person-like entities."

I have wondered for over twenty years — since well before I began working on Henrik Ibsen's modernism — what work these constant reminders and warnings actually do. Unlike Don Quixote, literary critics don't set out to imitate the deeds of their favorite fictional characters. We live in a world in which the concept of fiction has been part of our form of life for centuries. Even little children know that the characters of fairy tales and myths and cartoons don't exist.

I assume that we can agree that no literary critic actually takes fictional characters to be real. But then why do we keep accusing each other of treating characters "as if they were real"? What crimes are we trying to prevent? What problems are these constant reminders supposed to solve? What errors are the critics warning us against? Since no academic critic believes that fictional characters are real, they are obviously not warning us against trying to kill Othello or marry Mr. Darcy. What exactly is it we must not do? And what would happen if we did it anyway? What is this "treating characters as if they were real"?

To find some answers, I'll look at two exemplary versions of the taboo on taking characters to be real. The first, L. C. Knights's 1933 essay How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?, belongs to the foundational moment of modern academic literary criticism. Although it might be interesting to follow the analysis of Knights's text by a historical tour of the Russian and Czech formalists, the New Critics, structuralism, the theorists of the nouveau roman, and the poststructuralists, this would require a book, not a mere essay. Instead, I'll skip straight to the most monumental recent attempt to theorize characters, John Frow's Character and Person from 2014.

I'll show that the taboo on treating characters as if they were real originally had far more to do with a specific aesthetic and professional agenda than with philosophical arguments. In 1933, Knights wasn't trying to develop a theory. He was, rather, laying down some ground rules for a serious, professional critical practice. But sometime after World War II, the taboo on treating characters as if they were real people hardened into a dogma. In the 1950s and 1960s, critics of various formalist persuasions began to treat the taboo as a fundamental axiom, that is to say, as a cornerstone for further theoretical and philosophical arguments. The result was theory that silently incorporated Knights's professional and aesthetic agenda — his commitment to professionalizing criticism alongside his commitment to a criticism that could account for modernism — in its foundations.

When the taboo on treating characters as if they were real hardened into theoretical doxa, it incorporated the aesthetic commitments of modernism. The resulting "modernist-formalist" ethos encouraged literary critics to privilege form over subject matter, prefer "literariness" to "literature," and reject thematic and moral analysis as the expression of naive realism and equally naive humanism. Over time, it became received opinion that any critic who discussed characters "as if they were real people" simply had to be a realist humanist or a humanist realist. Theorists began to assume that these despised views were "logically connected" to the idea that one can discuss characters "as if they were real." In this essay I'll show that no such logical necessity exists. What connects the three "forbidden" positions or practices is simply a specific set of aesthetic and professional preferences, which has been mistaken for a philosophical necessity.

There simply is no good philosophical or theoretical reason to accept the taboo on treating fictional characters as if they were real. The real questions raised by this strange taboo are: What should literary criticism be? Does literary criticism have to rest on formalist foundations? How does literary criticism respond to contemporary artistic and intellectual movements? What do literary critics find interesting and important? What kinds of character discussions are we willing to consider sophisticated and intellectually challenging?


To avoid misunderstandings, I need to explain what I mean by "formalism." By "formalism" I understand the belief that professional literary critics must privilege form over meaning, themes, or content, often coupled with the belief that there is something unsophisticated, even amateurish about readings that focus on characters, themes, and content. Formalists look for "literariness," cultivate the pleasures of pure textuality, warn their students against the dangers of the "referential illusion," and insist that it makes no sense to ask whether a character "really loves" another character, since they exist only on paper and therefore don't have existential depths. Formalists believe that literary criticism simply is the study of form, whether form is understood, as it conventionally has been, as the study of patterns, narrative techniques, figures, and tropes; as an "arrangement of elements — ordering, patterning, or shaping"; or as the conviction that "thinking about 'literariness' [is] the special quarry of criticism." In literary studies today it is common to oppose "formalism" to "historicism," as if we had to choose between doing serious historical (or political) analysis and investigating literary form. I don't think this is an accurate distinction. In my experience, some formalists connect form to politics and history, while others don't. I find it more helpful to distinguish between "pure" formalists, who oppose historical, social, and political analysis, and "political" formalists, who enthusiastically argue for uniting formalism and politics.

The second group can be subdivided into "abstract" and "historicizing" political formalists. The "abstract" wing is exemplified in the work of a contemporary critic such as Caroline Levine, who establishes a number of extremely abstract forms that she then offers as instruments for interdisciplinary political analysis. The "historicizing" political formalists came to the fore in the 1980s, when Marxist, feminists, queer, postcolonial, and anti-racist critics began discussing the "politics of form." For them, there was no fundamental conflict between "historicism" and "formalism." Like other formalists, they confidently built on Saussure's understanding of the sign, espoused the modernist aesthetic agenda, and privileged the study of patterns, tropes, figures, and other literary techniques, at the same time as they sought to historicize formal patterns and ascribe ideological meanings and effects to them. (For me, Antony Easthope's 1981 analysis of the ideological effects of iambic pentameter remains an unforgettable example.) "Politics of form" criticism is usually committed to establishing the political and historical significance of a given form. At the same time, it is as obsessed with condensation and displacement, fissures, breaks, cuts, boundaries, and the "beyond" as other kinds of formalism.

I have always felt that my own work has significant affinities to that of the "historicizing" political formalists. But when I studied the reception of Ibsen's plays, I discovered that a monomaniacal search for the "politics of form" can have deeply problematic side effects. Some feminist critics, for example, simply couldn't shake off the belief that realism as a form just is intrinsically conservative. As a result they entirely failed to do justice to one of the most radical feminist texts to come out of the nineteenth century, A Doll's House.

Rightly assuming that form can have political effects, such critics wrongly assume that those effects can be established without regard to what the text is about (its "content"). As a result, they take the abstract form of realism to trump anything Ibsen or Nora say, as if the actual words of the play were of no consequence for its politics. But literary forms simply don't have political essences in isolation from their specific use. And on my Wittgenstein-inspired view, to analyze use is not the same thing as to analyze form and not quite the same thing either as to analyze the contents or themes of a text. It is, rather, to try to understand the text as meaningful form, as form embedded in human practices, as action, expression, and intervention, and as a claim for response.

I am not implying that all contemporary critics are formalists. Nor am I implying that all contemporary critics espouse the taboo on treating characters as if they were real. The manifold varieties of literary criticism simply can't be brought under a single concept in that way. Rather, I think of our discipline as an extensive network of practices and commitments in which some strands overlap and others diverge (see PI, §71). I am also well aware that there are critics — including my colleagues in this volume — who have long since set out to break with the modernist-formalist paradigm. But this is no argument against trying to bring out the stakes and commitment of the important strand of literary studies that interests me here: namely, the critical taboo on treating characters as if they were real.

It is time to turn to Lady Macbeth's children. Who is L. C. Knights addressing? Who is he arguing against? What picture of criticism is he promoting? What is at stake for him?



In 1933, when his pamphlet How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth? first appeared, L. C. Knights (1906–97) was a twenty-seven-year-old doctoral student at the University of Cambridge. A member of F. R. Leavis's circle, he had just cofounded the legendary journal Scrutiny. Knights remained an editor of Scrutiny from the first to the last issue (1932–53).

How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth? is a flat-out attack on the belief that it is intellectually interesting to discuss Shakespeare's characters. Pouring scorn on the idea that Shakespeare was first and foremost a "creator of characters," someone uniquely capable of creating men and women as "real as life," Knights singles out A. C. Bradley (1851–1935), the celebrated author of Shakespearean Tragedy (1904), as one of the worst offenders (HMC, 1). Bradley and other critics of his ilk, Knights argues, show their critical abjection by praising Shakespeare "because he provides 'the illusion of reality,' because he puts 'living people' upon the stage, and because he creates characters who are 'independent of the work in which they appear'" (HMC, 26).

Over eighty years after its first publication, Knights's attack on character criticism still makes for fiery reading. Fueled by a revolutionary ambition to transform literary criticism, the essay is a quintessential product of the so-called Cambridge Revolution. Anyone who reads How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth? (incidentally, a question not to be found in the essay itself) will notice that the author's intellectual heroes are I. A. Richards and T. S. Eliot, the lodestars of the Cambridge literary avant-garde. Consistently positioning himself as an intellectual on the cutting edge of literary and critical modernism, Knights fights character criticism because he is convinced that it will "condemn Wuthering Heights, Heart of Darkness, Ulysses, To the Lighthouse and the bulk of the work of D. H. Lawrence" (HMC, 3). Character critics must be stopped in their tracks, for they are incapable of doing justice to the modernist literary canon Knights wishes to promote.

As one might expect from a man of his modernist convictions, Knights rails against realism. Pitting Ibsen against Eliot, he declares that "Macbeth has greater affinity with The Waste Land than with The [sic] Doll's House" (HMC, 34). Twice he condemns an obscure tome published in 1923 called The Old Drama and the New (HMC, 25, 34). Why give it so much attention? The answer is revealing, for this turns out to be William Archer's (1856–1924) last book. Archer, an all-round man of letters, made his name in the 1880s and 1890s by championing Ibsen, translating several of his plays and participating vigorously in the so-called "Ibsen wars" in the British press. In 1933, to condemn William Archer was at once to condemn the late Victorian avant-garde and to recast its members, alongside Ibsen, as a bunch of traditional realists, thoroughly at odds with literary modernism.

Knights's hostility to realism in general (and Ibsen in particular) is typical for the modernist generation. So is his anti-theatricality. Anti-realist and anti-Aristotelian, Knights takes theater to be unbearably character and action oriented. He singles Bradley out for his wrongheaded (Aristotelian) belief that tragedy is "action issuing from character" or "character issuing in action" (HMC, 5). Utterly unsympathetic to the idea that tragedy should produce catharsis, Knights also pours scorn on critics who declare that they feel "'quietened,' 'purged' or 'exalted' at the end of Macbeth or of any other tragedy" (HMC, 54). The intensity of Knights's anti-theatricality is such that he even insists that Shakespeare's plays are neither theater nor drama but dramatic poetry, or simply poetry (see HMC, 7, 11, 28, 31, etc.).


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Table of Contents

Amanda Anderson, Rita Felski, and Toril Moi

Rethinking Character
Toril Moi

Identifying with Characters
Rita Felski

Thinking with Character
Amanda Anderson

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