Toward a Cognitive Theory of Literary Character: The Dynamics of Mental-Model Construction

By Schneider, Ralf | Style, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Toward a Cognitive Theory of Literary Character: The Dynamics of Mental-Model Construction


Schneider, Ralf, Style


Miss Bronte was struck by the force or peculiarity of the character of some one she knew; she studied it, and analyzed it with subtle power; and having traced it to its germ, she took that germ as the nucleus of an imaginary character, and worked outwards;--thus reversing the process of analyzation, and unconsciously reproducing the same external development.

Elizabeth Gaskell on Bronte's Shirley in The Life of Charlotte Bronte (1857)

1. A Cognitive Perspective on Literary Character

Mrs. Gaskell's statement about Charlotte Bronte's method of creating characters hints at the double nature of literary characters: on the one hand, they are based on real-life experiences with living persons; on the other, they are the result of processes of literary construction. (1) Whereas Gaskell looks to the author's contribution to construction, my aim is to look at literary character from the point of view of readers and to elucidate what effects this doubleness has on their experience of encountering characters in fiction. (2) It may be a truism to say that the reading of literary texts is a process in which textual information interacts with the reader's knowledge structures and cognitive procedures. (3) But in literary text-analysis the constraints on literary understanding that arise from the interactive nature of the reading process are rarely acknowledged. Whereas a number of theorists from Iser through to Perry and Phelan have paid attention to the dynamic aspects of narrative, such attention is by no means the rule, and categories for text analysis still tend to highlight the nondynamic, structural side. For the analysis of literary character, there exist some categories that at least show an awareness of the dynamics of reception. In a famous distinction between flat and round characters, implying such awareness, E. M. Forster defines flat characters as those who "are easily recognized," whereas round characters are "capable of surprising" (Aspects of the Novel 74, 81); for the experience of recognition and surprise, the reader must previously have established mental representations and expectations. Other categories, such as the well-known differentiation between static and dynamic characters, fail to account for these dynamics: to decide whether a character is static or dynamic, the reader would have to wait until he or she has read the whole book, since changes in the character's traits may occur late in the story. Of course, readers start forming impressions of characters from the very beginni ng of the reading process on, and from a reader-oriented point of view, the question is not whether a character is static or dynamic, but, rather, when and under which conditions he or she appears static or dynamic to the reader.

Even the categories aware of the temporal dimension of understanding seldom offer any detailed description of how the dynamic processing strategies of the reader interact with the successive presentation of information in the text. Drawing on results from cognitive psychology and cognitive social psychology, as well as from research in discourse processing, I attempt to capture the quality of this interaction more precisely than the more text-oriented, structuralist approaches have been able to do. My theory-building is similar to that of Richard Gerrig in his Experiencing Narrative Worlds (1993), in that my method attempts to align psychological models of the workings of cognition and emotion in text understanding with the description of textual properties. (4) In such an alignment, the interaction between reader and text appears, above all, as a dynamic process, for the framework of cognitive psychology affords a view not only on such general constraints on information processing and text-understanding as l imitations on working memory, but also on the interaction of bottom-up and top-down processing in using inference and forming hypotheses, activating schemas, and constructing categories. …

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