Alex Woloch and Sensation

I’m a fan of Alex Woloch’s book The One vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel, so I’ve been seeing connections to this book throughout a lot of my reading. And, since this book is on my exam list, I’m going to explore some of those connections here.

Here are some of Woloch’s key terms:

Character-space: “that particular and charged encounter between an individual human personality and a determined space and position within the narrative as a whole” (14).

Character-system: “the arrangement of multiple and differentiated character-spaces–differentiated configurations and manipulations of the human figure–into a unified narrative structure” (14). “By character-system, however, I don’t mean the interlocking of a number of distinct fictional individuals within a narrative totality but rather the combination of different character-spaces or various modes through which specific human figures are inflected into the narrative” (32).

Worker character: “the flat character who is reduced to a single functional use within the narrative”; this character is “smoothly absorbed as a gear within the narrative machine, at the cost of his or her own free interiority” (25).

Eccentric character: “the fragmentary character who plays a disruptive, oppositional role within the plot”; this character “grates against his or her position and is usually, as a consequence, wounded, exiled, expelled, ejected, imprisoned, or killed” (25).

The Labor Theory of Character: “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).

Asymmetric Structure of Characterization: “many are represented but attention flows toward a delimited center” (30-31). “On the one hand, we have the polycentric arrangement of the story, the plot that pulls in many different individuals, each of whom has a unique (perhaps unelaborated) experience within the story and a unique (perhaps submerged) perspective on the story. On the other hand, we have the single, delimited, finite, and particular shaping of this story into a fixed discourse, the actual discourse that arranges such characters in a specific way. Here, the tendency is always away from a polycentric, or symmetrical, distribution, toward the various forms of imbalance: all the characters still retain some position in the narrative discourse (else we could never place them in the story at all), but these are radically differentiated” (41).

Within these key terms, I see several points of connection to my argument(s) about sensation fiction. For one of these connections, Winifred Hughes’ account of the development of sensation from its melodramatic roots is important: “Whether heroine or villainess, it is always a woman who demands the spotlight in the typical sensation novel” (45). In the melodramatic tradition, the heroine is the angel in the house, the pure, innocent victim whose honor is constantly under attack. Melodrama structures a centralized heroine against a villainous antagonist, while “[w]hat the sensation novel does is to disturb this balance” (Hughes 44).  In Woloch’s terms, sensation fiction changes the nature of the heroine’s character-space. As E.S. Dallas writes in The Gay Science, “When women are thus put forward to lead the action of a plot, they must be urged into a false position. To get vigorous action they are described as rushing into crime and doing masculine deeds. Thus they come forward in the worst light” (45). On a historical level, I think this illustrates Woloch’s theory that different characters “jostle for limited space within the same fictive universe” (13). In the critical response to sensation fiction, the angel in the house is portrayed as jostling for limited space–the incredibly limited narrative space of the heroine–with the likes of Lady Audley and Magdalen Vanstone.

Another possible connection revolves around the question of how the character-system of a novel might shift around when it gets adapted into a play. For example, in No Name, the man that falls in love with Norah Vanstone is re-purposed as Magdalen’s lover. And instead of Norah being a governess, she becomes an invalid. Can a character-system accommodate a system of characters who each take up more than one space? Does that change or revise the concept of character-space?


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