NOTE: This post was originally written on 13 Decemeber 2021, but it’s published now, months later because of the cyberattack that UAB suffered then and that caused the temporary suspension of this blog
As far as I know, Alex Woloch’s The One Vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel (2003) is the only book attempting to theorize the secondary character (note that he calls them ‘minor’). I have found books on secondary characters in specific authors (for instance, Wisdom of Eccentric Old Men: A Study of Type and Secondary Character in Galdós’s Social Novels, 1870-1897 by Peter Anthony Bly of 2004) and a volume studying how secondary characters have become protagonists in, for instance, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (Minor Characters Have Their Day: Genre and the Contemporary Literary Marketplace by Jeremy Rosen of 2016). Not, however, any other monograph on the concept of the minor character.
After writing about some secondary characters (Sirius Black in Harry Potter, Anabella Wilmott in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall), I have come to the conclusion that quite often the conceptual centre of fiction can be found in their characterization. We tend to pour our critical energies into the study of the protagonists, but not only is there plenty to say about the secondary characters –just think of Romeo’s friend Mercutio–; it is also the case that in literary criticism we don’t know how to distinguish between the near-protagonist secondary character (Samwise in The Lord of the Rings) and the basic ‘spear-carrier’ with one line. We don’t have a theorization that helps us say with certainty what type each character is and perhaps it is about time we develop a classification into levels that can determine whether a character is secondary, tertiary, quaternary, quinary, senary, septenary, octonary, nonary, or denary, if there are indeed only ten levels.
Woloch is not interested in this classification but he tries hard to move beyond E.M. Forster’s division in Aspects of the Novel (1927) of all characters into flat and round. It is possibly not at all Forster’s fault but literary theorists have spectacularly failed to elaborate a more nuanced categorization, seemingly satisfied that, after all, flat characters do not require literary analysis. Woloch demonstrates quite the opposite by offering fascinating readings of the minor characters in Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations and Le Père Goriot, among other texts such as King Lear, proving that the development of the protagonists cannot be understood without them (think of Elizabeth Bennet and Charlotte Lucas), that the space of the major characters is conditioned by the space minor characters occupy in the novel (think of Pip and Abel Magwitch), or that it is not always easy to decide who is the protagonist and who the secondary (think of Goriot and Rastignac). Woloch does not answer questions that have always baffled me –how do writers know when a secondary is needed and how many are required for a plot to work–but he comes up with a number of intriguing ideas and concepts, certainly worth considering.
Thus, he refers to character-space as “that particular and charged encounter between an individual human personality and a determined space and position within the narrative as a whole” (14), making characterization mostly a matter of narrative structural needs. In his view, the character-system results from the combination of all the character-spaces into a “unified” narrative world, though he clarifies that by character-system he means specifically “the combination of different character-spaces or various modes through which specific human figures are inflected into the narrative” (32, original italics). In this way, Woloch discards romantic views of the character as a pseudo-person colonizing the writer’s imagination (the view mostly sustained by writers who claim that characters come ‘whole’ to them as if they were people), and foregrounds the idea that a novel is always a construction in which different elements must be balanced.
Woloch understands novels as spaces in which the characters vie for attention, with the protagonist assuming most of it in tension with the minor characters. This works well for Pride and Prejudice, in which the first chapter does not immediately present Elizabeth Bennet as the protagonist, portraying instead her family nucleus (parents and sisters). Yet, there is no doubt in Great Expectations, dominated by Pip’s first-person narrative voice, that the six-year-old scared out of his wits by Magwitch in the first chapter is indeed the protagonist. We do notice, as Woloch does, that he is a ‘weak’ protagonist, that is to say, a first-rank character excessively shaped by his minor companions, but, still, he is the focus of the novel. What I don’t quite see is why Woloch gives potential protagonism to, at least, the first circle of secondary characters. There are novels in which Miss Havisham and Estella are the protagonists; even Austen’s dull Mary has a novel to herself. Yet, we are in no doubt ever that the protagonist is distinguished from the rest because the plot is focalized through her or him, whereas in the case of the minor character this doesn’t happen, or only very occasionally. I wish we could see the bizarre proposal scene in Pride and Prejudice through Mr. Collins’ stubbornly biased perspective, and it would be great if novels could be written in this multi-angle way but the asymmetric structure of characterization is just a fact of fiction. Quite another matter, of course, is that we find minor characters so attractive that we are not satisfied with their limitations (hence their becoming protagonists in other novels, as Rosen has studied).
What puzzles me most about Woloch’s theorization is that despite taking great pains to detach characterization from cultural concerns and placing it squarely in the field of literary theory, he ends up invoking a labour theory of character to explain how nineteen century novels work. Here is a key passage: “The nineteenth-century novel’s configuration of narrative work–within the context of omniscient, asymmetrical character-systems–creates a formal structure that can imaginatively comprehend the dynamics of alienated labor, and the class structure that underlies this labor. In terms of their essential formal position (the subordinate beings who are delimited in themselves while performing a function for someone else), minor characters are the proletariat of the novel; and the realist novel–with its intense class-consciousness and attention toward social inequality–makes much of such formal processes” (27, original emphasis). Woloch is interested in tracing a connection between the abundant cast of characters in 19th century fiction and the new class awareness resulting from the emergence of a working-class because of the Industrial Revolution. Just as in life, he seems to argue, the upper classes rely on the alienated labour of the working classes, in the 19th century novel the protagonist holds that status by ‘exploiting’ the services of the minor characters. When the Modernist novel was introduced, the social panoramas of the realist 19th century novel were reduced down to the protagonist’s individual consciousness, though we might say that the readers’ preferences have always favoured the larger cast of characters which survives in popular fiction (think of a Ken Follett novel). It is mostly true that 20th century literary novels are far less comprehensive in their approach to society, with authors being far less ambitious than Balzac in trying to depict the whole ‘human comedy’. Yet, I remain unconvinced by the connection traced between class issues and narrative needs in Woloch’s argumentation, particularly because the 19th century novel is so blatantly middle-class and so resistant to opening up to the working classes except for melodramatic reasons (Gaskell included). Or maybe I misunderstand Woloch.
After teaching Great Expectations for so many years, I have been thinking for a while of writing an article about it taking into account the secondary characters. I was about to embark on a piece about Joe Gargery as an abused husband, when I came across John Gordon’s essay in the Dickens Quarterly arguing that Dickens is misogynistic in characterizing Joe’s wife Mrs. Gargery as an abuser. I have no idea why a man wants to defend an abusive female character just because she is a woman, when in fact Dickens builds very persuasively the case presenting Joe as a victim of abuse in his childhood (by his father) who, like many victims, later marries an abuser confusing abuse and love. The lesson I am drawing from this is that I should focus, following Woloch on structural needs and character-space examining another key secondary character.
In fact, I have read Woloch in search of a theoretical framework to analyse a minor character I had already chosen after discarding Joe: the lawyer Jaggers. The idea I will be defending is that minor characters play a role without which the plot collapses, whether tertiary and beyond can be dispensed with. Thus, Biddy, it seems to me, is not essential to Great Expectations which can well be imagined without her, no matter how much she enriches it, whereas Jaggers is the narrative fulcrum on which the whole plot hinges. Jaggers, I have noticed in my umpteenth reading of the novel, makes a crucial decision that he only very reluctantly acknowledges when Pip discloses he knows who Estella’s biological parents are. A man who shows no feelings whatsoever, Jaggers tells Pip, referring to himself in the third person:
“Put the case that he lived in an atmosphere of evil, and that all he saw of children was their being generated in great numbers for certain destruction. Put the case that he often saw children solemnly tried at a criminal bar, where they were held up to be seen; put the case that he habitually knew of their being imprisoned, whipped, transported, neglected, cast out, qualified in all ways for the hangman, and growing up to be hanged. Put the case that pretty nigh all the children he saw in his daily business life he had reason to look upon as so much spawn, to develop into the fish that were to come to his net,—to be prosecuted, defended, forsworn, made orphans, bedevilled somehow.”
The ‘confession’ follows: “Put the case, Pip, that here was one pretty little child out of the heap who could be saved”. Knowing that the father believed the girl to be dead, Jaggers bargains with the mother, his murderous client, to give him her daughter as the price for his services, not knowing yet where he will place the girl. Dickens needs to link Jaggers to Miss Havisham at the right moment and so she eventually tells Pip: “I had been shut up in these rooms a long time (I don’t know how long; you know what time the clocks keep here), when I told [Jaggers] that I wanted a little girl to rear and love, and save from my fate. I had first seen him when I sent for him to lay this place waste for me; having read of him in the newspapers, before I and the world parted. He told me that he would look about him for such an orphan child. One night he brought her here asleep, and I called her Estella”.
Everything that happens in Great Expectations follows from Jaggers’ decision to save one little girl “out of the heap” –doesn’t this deserve an article? So, yes, I’ll make sure to write it, and then will start thinking about teaching a course on the most attractive secondary characters –what a challenge to find them!
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