Theses Doctoral

Centers of Consciousness: Protagonism and the Nineteenth-Century British Novel

Clark, Anna Elizabeth

Since Aristotle, we have categorized characters in terms of relative quantity and proportion. From Henry James's "center of consciousness," to E. M. Forster's theory of "round" and "flat," to Deidre Lynch's "pragmatics of character," to Alex Woloch's influential "one versus many," scaled distinctions between "major" and "minor" characters have remained unchallenged since the Poetics. Yet such classifications don't capture the ways characters claim amounts of interest and consequence that are disproportionate to their textual presence. My book counters these approaches to character by calling attention to how novels concisely render the rich interior fullness of even very minor figures. While literary critics associate representations of consciousness with major characters, I demonstrate that, through the application of narrative techniques such as first-person narration and focalization, the limited amounts of text allotted to minor characters can yield brief flashes of depth. These depictions of consciousness may lack the "exhaustive presentation" that Ian Watt claims is inherent to the novel, but they are nonetheless brimming with the personality and specificity critics typically associate with central characters. Indeed, many canonical novels, especially those of literary realism's highpoint in nineteenth-century Britain, resist the character hierarchy implied by distinctions such as major and minor. In addition to manifest examples such as Wilkie Collins's "experiment" with many narrators in The Woman in White (1859), we can count instances in which the centrality of a major character is disrupted or challenged. From Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), where the title character's initial prominence is undermined by his creature's arresting autobiography, to George Eliot's Daniel Deronda (1876), in which readerly affections are split between a Jewish hero, an egoistic heroine, and a narrator's attempt to relate "everything" to "everything else," novels that are far from generic outliers fit uneasily into scaled models of characterization, even when their titles and critics imply otherwise. By recuperating the significance of representations of minor characters' consciousnesses, I argue that such novels disrupt the impulse for sustained identification with a single exceptional perspective, directing attention towards characters who might otherwise appear nondescript, inscrutable, threatening, or even inhuman. My rethinking of minor characters' interior fullness allows me to reframe our understanding of the social purpose that Victorian authors such as Dickens and Eliot claim for the novel. As Eliot suggests in "The Natural History of German Life" (1856), literature should "amplif[y] experience and exten[d] our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot," resisting stock figures and stereotypes to produce a form of social sympathy that is deliberate, sustained, and self-reflective. This view of the novel's morally instructive capacity is refracted in recent arguments by scholars such as Martha Nussbaum, who claims that readers' involvement with the novel's prolonged form and involved descriptions cultivates their ethical imagination. Yet both Eliot and latter-day critics suspect that the readerly experience of identifying with characters impedes the novel's social utility: the narrator in Middlemarch (1871-2) must ask "But why always Dorothea" of its likeable heroine, while Wayne Booth describes identification as an "immature" approach to literature that occludes "aesthetic experience." Character, however, is not always so all-consuming. I argue that both the brevity and the sheer numerousness of depictions of minor characters' consciousness make them the locus of novels' engagement with socially-oriented sympathy. By countering a protagonist's too-engrossing psychology with many full conscious centers, minor characters both mark and extend beyond novels' textual limits. In their ability to encompass and briefly reorient themselves around these many rich individual points, nineteenth-century novels themselves come to embody an ideally sympathetic perspective: capacious, inclusive, and free of excessive partiality.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Marcus, Sharon
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 31, 2013