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.
The place of minor characters, from Dickens’s memorable ‘gargoyles’ (as Orwell termed them) to the blank servants behind ‘dinner was served’, lay bare the problem of character most acutely, and Woloch rejects a wide variety of critical responses in forging his own argument about them. Minor characters cannot be conceived as a failure of representation—the static, even stuffed, quality of ‘Austen’s men’ would be one example. Nor can they be written off as not meriting the attention that the protagonist deserves. Minor characters cannot be viewed exclusively as foils for major characters, as figures for the protagonist’s dilemmas or unconscious desires (though they often also function in this way). Nor are minor characters ‘really’ major characters: Bertha Mason is not the ‘real’ heroine of Jane Eyre. This is not a book about unsung heroes but rather about the processes of ‘unsinging’. Woloch insists on minor characters as just that. His concern is with the literary processes—distortion, compression, dispatch—that constitute them as minor, or ‘flat’ (a term he develops from Forster). In one of many brilliantly defamiliarizing moments, Woloch defines the undeveloped minor character as one whose subjectivity has not been fully ‘effaced’. The protagonist’s interest, the way that narrative attention is distributed and redistributed, is as much a formal as an ethical question. And whilst minor characters may function as (developmental) foils to the protagonist, such formulas resist the fundamental interdependency of the two.
For Woloch, the emergence of a central protagonist as a self-reflective consciousness in the realist novel is structured by the ‘minoring’ or subordination of other characters within the narrative structure. The many varieties of minor character who jostle for attention, from the rigorously constrained parodies of Austen to Dickens’s compressed grotesques, are the necessary textual effects of the protagonist’s rich and complex interiority, so strongly marked in the classic fiction of this period. The One vs the Many explores an epoch—between about 1810 and 1865—of general novelistic innovation, centring on three writers—Austen, Dickens and Balzac—who, for Woloch, are explicitly interested in the narrative questions posed by character. His thesis calls for a very detailed mapping of character relations, and three of his four main chapters are devoted to close studies of single novels: Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations and Le Père Goriot. These are complemented by a number of fascinating excursuses, on Henry James, George Eliot, Shakespeare, Sophocles and the Iliad; a roll-call which summons up Auerbach’s Mimesis, an important intertext for Woloch’s book.
The structural dialectic between major and minor is clearly demonstrated in Woloch’s probing and original account of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth’s emergence as the protagonist, which is not a given at the outset, is only possible through the ‘minoring’ of those around her, and in particular her four sisters. Her coming-to-be as a reflective and critical agent, as a rounded character, has as its necessary counterpart, the flattening and subordination of others. Elizabeth’s judgements of her family and, crucially a less stable and circumscribed acquaintance, enable her to extract and abstract social characteristics. This process of exacting evaluation simultaneously constructs her fullness, as a thinking, conscious being and delimits and distorts the social world around her, creating an asymmetry or imbalance between characters which becomes a typical structure for the nineteenth-century novel.
It is in this context that we can start to make sense of Woloch’s argument that ‘minor characters are the proletariat of the novel’ and his concepts of character-space and character-system. The rounded character is not a naïvely imputed individual but the liberal subject inscribed in the Rights of Man. The asymmetry produced by the dialectic of round and flat is the registration of both the possible completeness of all, and the knowledge that individual development is achievable only at the necessary cost of the subordination of the many. Character-space is the intersection between this inherent individual potential and the determined space of the narrative as a whole; the character-system is the arrangement of these ‘multiple and differentiated character-spaces’. Elizabeth’s emergence as the protagonist, distinguishable from her sisters and from the blur of other young women, is predicated on the marriage market, where the general instability of social relations in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century is especially acute. For Woloch, this context is played out in the conflict between an individual marriage plot of which Elizabeth is the chief beneficiary, and the insecurities and dangers governing the marriage market as a whole. One woman’s security is gained at the cost of potentially uncountable others—the many. The two most important minor characters, Elizabeth’s youngest and most irresponsible sister, Lydia, and the seducer-adventurer Wickham, embrace the dangers of this larger social world and, for Woloch, represent the forces of social multiplicity that threaten the protagonist but are convincingly constrained by the end of the novel.
Competition is also a central feature in Woloch’s analyses of Dickens and Balzac’s Père Goriot, where he binds the various modes of being major and minor more explicitly to the relations between capital and labour. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth’s interiority emerges in the narrative process of the novel, which itself dramatizes the coming-to-be of the protagonist. For Dickens, in contrast, the novelistic protagonist is always already a given. Dickens is interesting to Woloch because the often weak protagonist’s interiority is threatened by social exteriority and, above all, multiplicity. In Great Expectations, Pip is frequently silenced, confused, and even overwhelmed by his encounters with others. In becoming a gentleman, Pip is bound inextricably to a seemingly endless chain of subordinated others: from lawyers and clerks to tailors and servers. Distorted, compressed, and frequently only ever half-visible, these minor characters are the necessary condition of Pip’s development, his Bildung, and in turn gesture to the greater multitude of the modern industrial city that can never be fully grasped. Distortion and flatness become so extreme that they become foregrounded: ‘the minor character’s significance rests in—not against—his insignificance; his strange prominence is inseparable from his obscurity’.
Through his analysis of Dickens, Woloch identifies the two types of minor character who ‘people’ the novels of the period: the worker and the eccentric. Both are read as embedded in a variety of discourses about the urban industrial working class (Engels, Marx, Mayhew). The minor character as a narrative worker is distorted, just as labour is reduced to its minimum functionality for maximum efficiency. The gallery of Dickensian characters, compressed to a series of repetitious phrases, gestures, actions, is a particularly clear instance. The eccentric minor character is the other side of the coin: the working-class dissipation and criminality suppressed and constituted by functionality that always threaten to overturn a precarious social and narrative order. In narrative terms, eccentrics explode into the text, disordering it: Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre is a defining case. In Great Expectations, Pip is bound to both types; most specifically, his wealth is predicated on the criminality that banished his benefactor Magwitch to Australia to make his millions. Within this socio-narrative context, Woloch argues that Magwitch’s homecoming represents the worker returning to claim the wealth he has produced. There is something to be said for this thesis, for Magwitch has certainly made Pip. But this argument can only be pressed so far, for Magwitch has done what labour cannot—accumulate capital. And in winning his passport out of the doomed repetitive time of the Dickensian worker-character, he changes.