The One vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel

The One vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel

The One vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel

The One vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel


Does a novel focus on one life or many? Alex Woloch uses this simple question to develop a powerful new theory of the realist novel, based on how narratives distribute limited attention among a crowded field of characters. His argument has important implications for both literary studies and narrative theory.

Characterization has long been a troubled and neglected problem within literary theory. Through close readings of such novels as Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations, and Le Père Goriot, Woloch demonstrates that the representation of any character takes place within a shifting field of narrative attention and obscurity. Each individual--whether the central figure or a radically subordinated one--emerges as a character only through his or her distinct and contingent space within the narrative as a whole. The "character-space," as Woloch defines it, marks the dramatic interaction between an implied person and his or her delimited position within a narrative structure. The organization of, and clashes between, many character-spaces within a single narrative totality is essential to the novel's very achievement and concerns, striking at issues central to narrative poetics, the aesthetics of realism, and the dynamics of literary representation.

Woloch's discussion of character-space allows for a different history of the novel and a new definition of characterization itself. By making the implied person indispensable to our understanding of literary form, this book offers a forward-looking avenue for contemporary narrative theory.


Critics have always noted the presence of flat characters in Jane Austen’s oeuvre—and Pride and Prejudice particularly—but they have rarely insisted on analyzing this flatness. On the contrary, the distinction between flat and round characters helps facilitate critical analysis—by opening up a rich series of thematic antitheses—but is rarely subject to interrogation itself. Mary Crawford and Fanny Price; Emma Woodhouse and Jane Fairfax; or, in Pride and Prejudice itself, Collins against Wickham, Bingley against Darcy, Charlotte against Elizabeth, Mary and Lydia against each other: these oppositions are the grist that has kept the thematic mill running so strongly in Austen criticism for so many years. Critics, of course, use all sorts of characters in this way, but few characters—or character-groups—have proven themselves as useful as Austen’s. To be a character in Austen is to get continually contrasted, juxtaposed, related to others, and, as such, to help build the thematic architecture that critics then discern. And if the weight of narrative signification seems to rest on all of these characters’ backs, it is minor characters, in particular, who bear the heaviest portion: unequal partners in a dialectic that could not take place if attention were limited to the protagonist herself.

How does criticism respond to this multiplicity of persons who are so integral to the novels’ thematic ambitions but who hold their place so strangely, and precariously, in the narrative world? Most often readers have understood Austen’s flat characters as a reasonable imitation of actual life. If there are round and flat characters in Austen, this is an accurate representation of the real social universe—which has a few sympathetic people (always including the reader or critic him- or herself) and many simple and superficial people. For instance, Tony Tanner writes that “Elizabeth has a dimension of complexity, a questing awareness, a mental range and depth which almost make her an isolated figure trapped in a constricting web of a small number of simple people” (126). In this reading, minor characters such as Mary Bennet, Lydia Bennet, Mr. Collins, Mr. Wickham, etc., are essentially verisimilar, and the novel is stocked with flat characters because there are so many “simple people” in real life.

Other critics take an opposite tack, noting the way that Austen’s minor characters are clearly distorted and, therefore, cannot be interpreted as the transparent reflections of credible persons. For instance, D. W. Harding discusses a set of techniques that Austen uses again and again to effectuate . . .

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