In what ways and to what extent are we invited to believe in characters as real people?
George Eliot wrote that a real person must be accepted as they are 1. However, the message from The Real Thing is that real people and are unable to bend and fit into stories. Reality TV such as Big Brother would be an example of a text which can convey a real person s reaction to a certain situation, but it is difficult to do this in a novel for it would become too tangential and would not convey the writer s original story. Even in novels such as Angela Carter s Wise Children2, where stream of consciousness is employed to impart the memories of an Dora Chance s life, the reader does not know where the story will take them next but there is still a sense of representational exactness and in the analytical surgery of the text the writer s seams can just about be seen. In Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf expands her characters into larger people, adding context and depth where writers such as Conrad do not. However it is clear that as a reader or a writer of any text, one can only look at characters as representative, for real people are unusable by the author. Through the investigation of three quite different approaches, those of James, Woolf and Conrad, alternative presentations of character will be examined to find the purpose of this representative viewpoint. In Henry James The Real Thing we are told repetitively that the Monarchs are the real thing . But what we know about the Monarchs does not bring them to life in the mind of the reader; in fact they seem quite unbelievable. On the first encounter with Mrs Monarch, she dropped... upon a divan and burst into tears 3. This reaction from her character is extreme and holds no relation to her personality before or after the incident. Perhaps this is because of the inability for our narrator to see the characters of those in a higher class whom he does not understand, in which case their unreality is representative of their class. Or perhaps it is because these characters have no depth apart from when it is used by the author to represent a certain emotion. Either way these characters are representational and there is no requirement to see them as real. No other character is offered any real depth beyond the frame of the story. The Painter, our narrator and supposedly closest link to the world we peer into, is not even offered a name. Jack Hawley, Oronte, Miss Churm; none of them are given much life beyond the frame of the story apart from an immediate context, and the only real importance of their role is to provide a contrast to the real thing . If we look at what Henry James text is actually saying it shows that an artist - in his case a painter, in ours a writer - cannot model their characters on real people. Instead characters must be looked at as representations of real characters because real people cannot be moulded by the story. The Monarchs are meant to be the real thing , but because they are, they can only be used as the real thing. This is represented by their vanity in the story. Other models can adapt into different situations because they are unreal, like the situation. So in this text, we are not asked to look at characters as real, but purposeful; they are instruments of James. In Virginia Woolf s Mrs Dalloway, characters are not just introduced with their immediate context. They are also given a past and history for example: when her aunt, Miss Parry, is introduced as past eighty.
G. Eliot, Adam Bede, 1859, chapter 17 A. Carter, Wise Children, Vintage 1992 (1991) 3 H. James, The Real Thing, Seminar Handout, Pg 211
She ascended staircases slowly with a stick... was placed in a chair 4. She is all these things currently, so we can see on the surface what Miss Parry is, and what her circumstances and situation are. However, Woolf takes the character s context further and after a tangential detour, we learn of her memories of a distant past in India. Now a new image grows and flourishes in the mind, and Miss Parry is journeying in the freedom of her youth, alive, not dead 4. In this way Woolf expands the characters into real people, with lives and effects that are beyond the perspective frame of the novel. However when we step back from this vision that Woolf has presented us, we remember that she has still only told us what she wants to. With the earlier example, it is possible to see how she builds a character image and then colours it with historical detail, personal experience and emotional depth. However, each character boils down to lines and circles on a page which represent letters and words which represent the characters. Although this is a technical detail it prevents the union of reader and subject, and prevents the entry of the reader into the world of the story. So the only interaction the reader can have is to watch, but even then they must conjure their own interpreted image from the basic components which represent a known language. These constraints on the reader must therefore be accounted for by the writer in the way of representational characters. In Mrs Dalloway, the reader cannot simply jump in and ask details of the past of Miss Parry, so the narrator is utilised by Woolf to convey the knowledge. Similarly, characters themselves are utilised to convey certain views or emotions by representation. James uses the Monarchs to represent real people, and thus the Monarch s intransigence and inability to be represented by the Painter are representational of his difficulty to see beyond the Monarch s exterior and therefore paint nothing beyond it. So what this all means is that the characters with which we are acquainted in stories are not real people, because to convey the writer s meaning of who the character actually is, reality must be sacrificed in order for representation of this reality to work. In Joseph Conrad s Heart of Darkness, the reader is presented with the character of Marlow as the narrator and the closest link to the world of the story. He begins as a two dimensional character, offering no past, instead excusing himself by saying: I don t want to bother you much with what happened to me personally 5. Because of the afore-mentioned one-way interaction between character and reader, it is difficult for the reader to learn more of Marlow beyond the frame of his story and this means that Conrad is not asking us to look at his characters as real, but to look at the message of his tale as real. And so in order to reveal and impart, to its full depth, his message, Conrad uses the characters in the story representatively. In the earlier quote from the start of the tale, the writer has underlined for the reader that Marlow is not the focus of the story, and it is learned later that it is instead his journey and ultimate realisation which are central. Therefore any relationship struck with Marlow is a byproduct of his large role in bringing the reader into the heart of darkness , where they can make the discovery with Marlow and find their self. So Marlow and the other characters are agents through which the writer channels his themes. For instance, the two old ladies who were knitting black wool 6 when Marlow first arrives in France are also tools of Conrad, representing the white oppression of blacks. In addition, Kurtz never grows from the seed of a great man into a real person representing the never
V. Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, Penguin 2000 (1992) pg 195 J. Conrad, Heart of Darkness, Dover edition, 1990, pg 05 6 J. Conrad, Heart of Darkness, Dover edition, 1990, pg 07
ending centre of self, for Marlow s search for Kurtz could never be completed when he found him dead causing his discovery of nothing at his final goal but his self. All the characters, including Marlow, do not have pasts, but positions. They have exterior depth in the way of purpose but no interior. Conrad does not ask us to look at his characters as real, but instead as resources which are used by the story to create an image and an outcome for the reader which is real beyond the point of influence. In conclusion, writers cannot ask readers to look at characters as real people, because they are not. Behind the descriptions and actions there is no real person, even if the original idea for the character was based on one. This is because the reader is not actually in the world that they read about, so in order for them to be able to create it in as much reality as possible, characters and events must be used by the author to represent more of this reality than a real person would. The key is in remembering that a story is merely a representation of events to an audience who were, and always will be, absent. Thus to breach the gap of absence the reader must recreate a small piece of the unreal world inside each character so that it can be brought into the real world, and in its interaction with a real reader, bring the unreal to life. AA
Bibliography: J. Conrad, Heart of Darkness, Dover edition, 1990 V. Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, Penguin, 2000 (1992) G. Eliot, Adam Bede (1859) H. James, The Real Thing, Seminar Handout A. Carter, Wise Children, Vintage 1992 (1991)