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New Left Review 28, July-August 2004

Rachel Malik on Alex Woloch, The One vs the Many. The creation of character-systems in the realist novel, in a bold account that proposes a new political economy of major and minor.



Character is an unfashionable subject within the current doxa of literary studies, and one of the many strengths of Alex Woloch’s study is his unabashed facing of the problem head-on. Naïve responses that treat characters as people and pay no attention to the processes of representation are easy targets; but the seemingly non-gullible alternatives are, for Woloch, equally evasive. Character cannot be reduced to theme, or rhetorical figure, or an action-potential within the plot, any more than it can be simply read off (and perhaps seen off) as an ideological position. Such strategies should always be part of how we read character, but they do not, on their own, grapple with the anthropomorphism of characters, who so often seem to exist beyond the repertoire of gestures, actions, thoughts and words in which they are inscribed. Character is a myth in Barthes’s sense (though Woloch himself treats Barthes rather peremptorily), and must be read as at once true and unreal. We need to accept the true force of character: why readers can treat characters as people (or even intimates), speculating about their pre-and-post narrative ‘lives’. But we must also explain it, as a constituent and effect of the textual process.

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Rachel Malik, ‘'We Are Too Menny'’, NLR 28: £3

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