Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

'Lay Aside My Character': The Personate Novel and Beyond

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

'Lay Aside My Character': The Personate Novel and Beyond

Article excerpt

A group's knowledge or belief cannot be ultimate or irreducible - it must ultimately be individuals who are in such states, and, to speak of the knowledge of a group, or of society's representation of reality, must involve some kind of fiction.

- Bernard Williams, Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry

In The Economy of Character Deidre Lynch cites Samuel Person, an eighteenthcentury imitator of Theophrastus who blended (perhaps ambitious to unite his name with his theme) the meanings of "character" and "person." According to Person, character expresses both typical and individual qualities and is stamped not only with the "signatura rerum but also personarum."1 As far as Lynch is concerned, Person makes a blunder that has been duplicated in all treatments of the novel that assume the particularization of character results in a person, allowing character and person to be used as interchangeable terms. Thus, Ian Watt talks of "presenting character as a particular person."2 There is no need for this confusion, Lynch explains, assigning to character a vast repertoire of manifestations, which include the testimony of coins and printed paper, not to mention first-person narratives of creatures and things, as well as invented stories of named but nonexistent human beings. Although character may expand "in an inward direction," it can equally well remain on the surface, barely particularized at all: round or flat, just as you please.

Aside from the use of the word person to denote the physical properties of a man or a woman, it was quite common in the eighteenth century to find the ideas of character and person rightly or wrongly adjacent. In his Preface to his translation of Homer's Iliad, Alexander Pope announces, "We come now to the characters of his persons," as if to reverse Person's equation between person and particularized character, and suggest that a person outlines what a character fills in.3 In Spectator 262 Joseph Addison proclaims that nothing he writes is aimed at "at private Persons": "For this Reason when I draw any faulty Character I consider all those Persons to whom the Malice of the World may possibly apply it, and take care to dash it with such particular Circumstances as may prevent all such ill-natured Applications."4 Here the particularization of a fictional character serves to protect the actual person from any confusion with it. When the Prince first makes his erotic designs on Roxana clear, he says "lay aside my Character." To this she says, "I gave myself up to a Person who, tho' a Man of high Dignity, was yet the most tempting and obliging, that I ever met with." She tells him that "a Person of his rank . . . cou'd not be withstood," and she tells the reader, "I can go no farther in the Particulars."5 Evidently his person grows more interesting, as far as she is concerned, amidst the accumulation of particulars privately noted, leaving the world at large (where she seldom trespasses) and the publishable portion of her tale as the spheres where characters are seen to move.

It seems generally agreed that characters, whether particularized or not, are public, while persons, if they are really set on privacy, tend towards a narrower role and ultimately an inaccessible particularity, at which point they become something else altogether. Robinson Crusoe traces these degrees of difference while dealing with the mutiny on the English ship. He reports, "The Captain knew the Persons and Characters of all the Men in the Boat, of whom he said, that there were three very honest Fellows."6 We can be fairly sure these three honest men are characters, while those of more doubtful loyalty are persons, obliged to re-establish their credentials: "They promis'd faithfully to bear their Confinement with Patience."7 At the extreme of disobethence are found men like the boatswain, enemies of civil society beyond any kind of contractual remedy, outrageous and desperate. These are termed "the Authors of all the Mutiny on the ship" and are shown no mercy. …

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