This dissertation is an examination of character in the British novel from the novel’s early history, through mid-Victorian realism, and all the way to realist and science fiction works of the fin de siècle. My goal is to articulate how authors variously invite readers to make more of the textual constructs we call characters, even as they draw attention to those characters’ inextricability from language or underscore their blatant fictionality. I argue that we need to be attentive to both character’s formal and human components, and that only in doing so might we understand the full range of what character can do for us. I discuss the importance of space in acts of character co-creation between author and reader, and explain how characters often have an implied personhood precisely because of the diegetic space that novels provide, space within which readers are given room to imagine and elaborate the human plenitude characters might contain. Furthermore, I argue that characters and situations within novels are often suggestive of the reading practices that authors urge us either to espouse or avoid in our approaches to character. The texts I describe therefore already contain within them the tensions that are bound to show up in discussions of character as a crucial part of narrative fiction. My analysis across generic lines emphasizes character's stability and variety across modes of description and audience expectations.
I hope to expand upon recent debates concerning the nature of character, especially the problematic emplacement of character between structure and reference discussed in various ways by Alex Woloch, John Frow, Toril Moi, and others. While I can’t claim to cut this long-discussed Gordian knot, my project helps us understand how Woloch’s category of the implied person, despite criticism, continues to function as a necessary and useful generalization that opens up texts to a variety of rewarding readings. Part of my mission in this dissertation is to further explicate the idea of the implied person and how texts nudge it into being or are resistant to its application. In my emphasis on the co-creation of character, which is always an ongoing cognitive process, part of what is at stake is the difference between detached study and the absorbed experience of literature, and my project is driven by the idea that experiencing a text is an indispensable precondition of its study. By taking seriously both the formal strangeness of texts and their capabilities to produce a sense of human plenitude, this project aims to contribute to critical understandings of character and to better understand the phenomenological experience of character as a crucial aspect of everyday life.
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Ryberg, Cole, "Novel Humans: Character, Space, and the Aesthetics of the Possible" (2023). English Theses and Dissertations. 17.
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