Friday, January 28, 2011

Character in Grace Paley's "Goodbye and Good Luck"

One area where the creative writing community is frequently at odds with literature and narrative theory students is the attitude toward characters. That characters aren't people is one of the tenets of contemporary literary criticism. Suzanne Keen writes: "your work will at some point or other be read by a critic who adheres to the principle that fictional characters should not be referred to as if they were human." (69). And she quotes at length from Richard Posner:

a critical difference between fictional characters and real people is that the evaluation of a fictional character is made within a framework created by the work of literature, and the framework is an artificial world rather than our real social world. ... We cannot say, without seeming ridiculous, that Pip is a better man than Achilles, or Leopold Bloom than Odysseus, because to make such comparisons requires ripping the characters out of their context and so destroying the aesthetic structure of which they are components.

This last quote made me laugh as it brought back a memory from my childhood. When I was in my early teens, I kept a running list of my favorite characters. These were mostly male but some female characters, and while I didn't specifically articulate their qualities I admired, I freely included anyone who I had a crush on, whom I wished I could meet in real life, whom I wanted to be or to be with. Every time I found a new character to love in a book or in a movie (I admitted exceptional movie characters to my list, even though I had a separate running list for my favorite movies.. also a separate list for my favorite ice skaters -- they, too, create very strong characters), I would consider where they fit on my list and reorder the ranks. The character who was never dislodged from the top was Sanya Grigoriev from "Two Captains" by Veniamin Kaverin (I blogged about this book recently). His compatriots on the list included the boy and girl heroes of Soviet literature, Timur and Zhenya from Alexander Gaidar's pioneer novels, Vasyek and Dinka from Oseeva's fiction; characters from foreign fiction -- Pip, ripped out from his "aesthetic structure" might have made the list at one point -- and D'Artagnan and Aramis were always there; characters from Russian classics, like Pechorin, Shtolz (a secondary character from "Oblomov"), Shubin (a minor character from Turgenev's "On the Eve.") As I grew older, I moved on from admiring the heroes and looked for characters who, I thought, weren't given justice by the author. Shubin, in my opinion, was a very charming and interestingly troubled young man -- Turgenev had undeservedly given him short shrift. I came very close to writing what I now know is called "fan fiction."

I'm not alone in this impulse -- to take characters outside of their textual constraints and force them to interact with other characters. I'm thinking of a Hollywood blockbuster, for example, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, that pitted Sherlock Holmes against Captain Nemo, Dorian Gray, and Tom Sawyer. (Mostly men; original genres all quite different.) The impulse behind my childhood fantasies and this and similar movies might be "ridiculous" from the literary analysis point of view, but it's clearly a powerful one.

Ultimately though I do believe that characters belong to the text, are functions of the text, they manifest reality only insofar as reality is defined by the text -- while readers read both fictional characters and "real" people by the same (or closely related) process, comparing a number of verbal and non-verbal clues to create their own ideas (fictions) about them in their minds. Characters are different from people -- they are defined by fewer variables -- but the reading process is not altogether different from making a new friend. (I wonder if there are neuroscience studies out there testing this hypothesis. Do we use same or different parts of the brain, meeting somebody for the first time vs. reading a novel?)

One of the most revealing parts of Jim Shepard's workshop, was when he suddenly turned to one of the participants and asked her: "Imagine somebody said to you that your eyes shone like those of a wolfhound. How would that make you feel?" He stared at the woman intently, like he really meant it. We laughed, and then realized that the idea of testing lines of dialogue and flashy narrative phrases on a real situation is not a bad one. Words -- characters -- have power. To compare somebody's eyes to a wolfhound is a violent act. A narrator, using a phrase "her eyes shone like those of a wolfhound," expresses an attitude towards a character -- anger, perhaps, or revenge. The relationship between the narrator and the character is immediately circumscribed by this characterization.

On my friend Genine's recommendation, I've started reading Grace Paley's Collected Stories. The first in the book is "Goodbye and Good Luck." In it, Aunt Rosie is telling a story of her life to Lillie, her niece. The niece doesn't materialize as a character in the course of the story -- there's no description of her and she doesn't have any lines of dialogue -- she mostly functions as a listener, as somebody to whom Aunt Rosie is telling the story. And yet the few phrases Aunt Rosie addresses to her every so often do create a viable character. Let me illustrate by copying out a few of the phrases where Lillie is addressed directly:

Only a person like your mama stands on one foot, she don't notice how big her behind is getting and sings in the canary's ear for thirty years. Who's listening? Papa's in the shop. You and Seymour, thinking about yourself. ...

Don't laugh, you ignorant girl. ...

In those days -- it looks to me like yesterday -- the youngest girls wore undergarments like Battle Creek, Michigan. To him it was a matter of seconds. Where did he practice, a Jewish boy? Nowadays I suppose it is easier, Lillie? My goodness, I ain't asking you nothing -- touchy, touchy ...

Well, by now you must know yourself, honey, whatever you do, life don't stop. It only sits a minute and dreams a dream. ...

So now, darling Lillie, tell this story to your mama from your young mouth. She don't listen to a word from me. ... Give me a kiss. After all, I watched you grow from a plain seed. So give me a couple wishes on my wedding day. A long and happy life. Many years of love. Hug Mama, tell her from Aunt Rosie, goodbye and good luck.

One reason these bits of dialogue function so effectively as characterization of Lillie is that aunt Rosie uses her as a mirror; in Rosie's eyes, Lillie is clearly a younger version of herself. If we don't know what Lillie looks like (and it's easy to picture her as a slimmer and even more pink-cheeked Rosie), we know what she must think of Aunt Rosie: she's eagerly listening to a rather long and elaborate story, and so she must by fascinated by Rosie, perhaps, admire her; but she's also capable of laughing at aunt Rosie, so she must also find her somewhat ridiculous. The little we know about Lillie turns out to be enough to create a complex, multifaceted character.


  1. Interesting question about whether we use the same or different parts of the brain.

  2. How many of us besides Olga can claim to have had a crush on a secondary character from "Oblomov?"