Okay, now that I'm not traveling, I can go back to my Narrative theory blogging. I'm rereading the chapter of Suzanne Keen's book entitled "People on Paper," where she talks about broad issues related to character. The central questions she asks introducing this discussion about "substantial hypothetical beings" (Baruch Hochman's term for characters) go like this:
"How broad a range of responses to character can be addressed within a formal analysis? Can counterfactual speculations about what characters might have done or said in extratextual situations ever contribute to a formal discussion of character?"
These questions reminded me of an argument I've gotten into recently on a Russian feminist community blog. It's a very lively community, and it's very easy to get sucked into a very intense argument, so I usually try to stay away from it -- but I do get involved sometimes when the discussion turns from activism to literary criticism. In this case, I responded to a post about Soviet texts that reinforced gender stereotypes by posting a poem by a well known Soviet author, Robert Rozhdestvensky. In this poem, the speaker addresses a woman and literally asks her to become weaker so that he would have a chance to be strong and rescue her. "Please, be weaker," he asks his lady, "And then I will grow taller, larger, will become special. I will carry you, still drowsy, out of the burning house" and "I will jump into the sea ... to rescue you." The poem goes on. The way I see it, the speaker basically asks his lady to drown ("at least in pretense") so that he could have a chance to play hero. I interpret this poem unambiguously as reinforcing patriarchal stereotypes on gender roles.
Another community member (she identified herself as a woman) refused to see my point -- she believed that the poem goes against the grain of the patriarchal stereotype in that it represents a strong female character -- and proceeded to engage me in a very involved argument. My opponent interpreted the speaker as an inherently weak man and the woman he was addressing as a dominating and oppressive figure who basically crushed his every wish. In many lines of the blog argument, it became clear that my opponent had an entire alternative narrative constructed in her mind: the speaker and his addressee were a couple on the verge of a breakup, and he would be forced to leave her if she didn't change. He was a weakling and admitting to it, and he thought she was perfect, and he was begging her to stop being so perfect because while she was perfect, he was no match for her.
None of these things were a part of the text: in the poem itself, it's not even clear whether the speaker and the woman he's addressing are romantically involved. The speaker doesn't attribute qualitative judgements neither to himself nor to his addressee (nowhere in the poem does he say that he thinks she's perfect). This story is entirely countertextual, it exists not on the page but in the mind of my opponent. All that we know about the two is best summarized in the speaker's opening request to his lady: "Please, be weaker."
I finally ended the argument by repeatedly asking my opponent to support her argument with textual references -- which she couldn't do, and so the argument fizzled out. But perhaps this is unfortunate, because the more insidious problem lies not in the fact that my opponent created this counterfactual legend in her mind, but the content of her legend itself. And this point I didn't have the patience to address: even according to my opponent's legend, the woman's strength is still her weakness, insofar as it's still unacceptable within the dimensions of this couple's relationship. This woman's perfection is still her failure and it fits very nicely within the patriarchal norms, built along the lines of the neat binary oppositions, strong -- weak, man -- woman, always privileging the strong man.