UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Conventions of ’character’ in Moll Flanders, Middlemarch and Ulysses Vanderham, Paul Michael


Through an examination of Moll Flanders, Middlemarch and Ulysses, this thesis attempts to demonstrate the limitations inherent in the common identification of novelistic character with human character or personality. It is based on the idea that character is a kind of language written and read relative to conventions originating in both the world of reality and the world of words; character necessarily refers to and is necessarily informed by cultural conventions and beliefs about man and the world on one hand, and literary conventions of genre or form on the other. While every novelistic character exists in relation to cultural and literary conventions, the apparent importance of these respective conventions may vary considerably according to the artistic intentions of an author. The novels chosen for study here permit the delineation of two extreme possibilities of authorial intention where the language of character is concerned. These correspond roughly to the disappearance and the appearance of character as language. In between these extremes lies a conceptually useful point of transition which marks the emergence of the language of character and explains its unequivocal appearance as a realization of novelistic potential. In Moll Flanders, Defoe creates the illusion of an autonomous person, the "character-person," by appealing to cultural conventions of human behavior according to which Moll is capable of telling her own story, of being both subject and object of the language that actually creates her. He strengthens this illusion by incorporating and undermining elements of picaresque fiction, thus suggesting that Moll is not written at all. In Middlemarch, Eliot attenuates the illusion of the character-person and allows for the emergence of the language of character by visibly using Will Ladislaw as an agent, a "character-agent," whose role as a parodic romance hero is visible relative to the literary realm. Eliot's sustained use of Will in the upsetting of romance conventions shifts the reader's attention from the world to the word and shows the character-person to be a conventional configuration of language created through the upsetting of traditional conventions. In Ulysses, Joyce undermines the conventions of the character-person to reveal character as language. Leopold Bloom begins his odyssey as a character-person, but is soon shown to be an agent whose role is partially determined by Homer's Odysseus. The shift from the world of Dublin to the words of the text allows the reader to see Bloom's odyssey as a voyage through the styles of the novel and to see Bloom, ultimately, as a "character-character": an arrangement of words, of linguistic signs on the page, that reach their most concentrated expression when "Bloom" assumes the form of a dot of ink. The examples of Moll Flanders, Middlemarch and Ulysses suggest that a given character may occupy any position between the extremes marked by the disappearance and the appearance of the language of character and that any such position is entirely a matter of convention. Movement from one extreme to the other would seem to be assured by the novel's appetite for undermining traditional literary conventions of any kind. This upsetting of convention can underplay what a character owes to literary conventions and make language disappear into the illusion of the character-person. Or, it can highlight what a character owes to literary conventions and make language appear as an object in itself. Character itself can remind us that character is, after all, language.

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