Characters and dialogue
Characters are created as fictional entity, that is to say they have meaning that surpasses their sole existence. Alexander Gelley advocates for the critique not to see characters as real people, and in consequence we should treat them as recurring patterns used to convey something about the world (60). Characters express themselves in various ways, through their acts, their thoughts, but also through their words. Through their paradoxical nature, as the way a text creates orality in the written form. The dialogues in a literary text are one of the most true-to-life renditions of someone interacting with a character, as only their words are accessible, and they are accessible unmediated by a narrator. Indeed, dialogues in the direct speech are not mediated by the narrative voice, as the inverted commas offer a respite from the narrator, and for the character to express him or herself directly. Yet a dialogue is not exactly a conversation: the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the dialogue as both “a written composition in which two or more characters are represented as conversing”, and as “the conversational element of literary or dramatic composition”. That is to say that a dialogue is always a representation of a conversation, mediated through a specific medium – most often, writing.
The dialogue is thus solely a representation of a conversation through mimesis: a character, for example, is always more eloquent than a person. A character’s contribution in a dialogue is always relevant in some way, never to be completely dismissed. The process of creation of a dialogue is interesting in the way that it involves having two different but equally fictional consciousness grapple with each other. Does being able to take part of a dialogue make any fictional object a subject, and therefore a character? Literature if filled with objects talking and having conversation from which we input beliefs and feelings and a consciousness – the most famous being in Alice in Wonderland, for example. Any kind of conversation implies a consciousness making the dialogue coherent: how a character answers, how he comes to certain conclusion, must fit both the overall coherence of his person, and relate to the cohesion of the novel in a meaningful way. In that case, how is a dialogue different from the narration of the characters’ thoughts? The dialogues add a social component and the recognition of the characters’ voice within the boundaries of the novel. Dialogues allows for the characters to interconnect, to express themselves in relations to others, and to choose what – or even whether – they want to express, without the mediation of the narrative voice. This last component deals with the dichotomy between interiority and surface inherent to fictional characters.
Characters, as they are representation of people, are expected to take part in conversations – and their representative equivalent, dialogues. The presence of a character is established in a text through various means, but most of them have to be mediated by the narrative voice. Most of the times, the narrator chooses how to present the characters. When it is a first-person narrative, then the character is established as an “I”, someone who is authorized to talk and tell their story, but also someone who can impart some representations on other characters. In The Bluest Eyes, for example, Claudia mentions Pecola for the first time as “having her father’s baby” (4), and then later as a “case”, “a girl who had no place to go” (16), a very strong first impression for the reader to get of a character he has not met yet. Frow (41) posits that the relationship with the reader and the subsequent identification with the character takes place first in relation to enunciation, before it takes place in character. That is to say, if a text has no character, or no recognizable character, identification with elements of the text is still possible through positions of enunciation – through the voice we hear, disembodied as it may be. This positionality of the voice is very clear- cut in a dialogue, but it is one of the instances for the reader where positionality does not seem ambivalent, where a character speaks in their own name. Enunciation in dialogues is always very easily identifiable, as it supposes a material presence in the text – even Pecola’s friend, in the last chapter, is clearly posited as a “character” of some sort, by the sheer presence of her voice within the dialogue. The enunciator in the dialogue is to the reader both the subject of his speech, and the object of the reading and the identification. The reader is pushed, after having correctly identified the character, to “fill that initial moment of identification with an affective content” (38). Pecola’s dialogues throughout the novel do exactly that, as they work in contradiction to Claudia’s first statements, showing through her voice her innocence and trying to dispel the original expectations the reader could have gotten – for example, the first dialogue in which she takes part in has Frieda explaining to her what periods are (28). There is a struggle for each character to work against the expectations and bias the narrative voice puts on him or her, to represent himself the way he wants to be represented – for Pecola, it must be without artifice, as she is a little girl who is still innocent. Dialogues are a way for the characters to gain some agency on their own story.
Taking control of his own story is precisely what the Invisible Man seeks to do. Over and over again, we see him being denied a dialogue with various people in different ways. Even as an invisible man, one of his rare encounters with other people leave him unable to start a dialogue. As he accidentally bumps into a man who manages to discern his presence, the man only sets to call him “an insulting name” (4). This is one of the first instances in the novel within which we are made to understand that dialogues will not come to be a solution for the narrator. Seemingly having given up on it an effective way to gain social recognition, to be awarded a sense of self, he can only “demand”, order for the man to recognize him properly, not to identify him with an insulting name but to recognize him as a person. As dialogue is impossible, the invisible man’s only recourse seems to be violence, as he butts him “again and again until he went down heavily, on his knees, profusely bleeding”. The lack of recognition escalates into violence until the invisible man is ready to commit murder, to annihilate the other to gain a sense of self. This mirrors Hegel’s argument in The Phenomenology of Spirit, on how interpersonal relationships shape the sense of self by creating – or not – an environment where the self I recognized as a person, an equal. The dialectic of self-recognition must go through the recognition of other, that there is no being a self – or, being aware of being a self – without the other recognizing that self. Hegel describes this aporetic process in violent terms, as an act of enslavement: only someone with authority can recognize the self, but this authority needs to be gained somehow – through violence if necessary. The solution seems to lie in the dialogue, as the representation of a conversation between two supposed equals – in the way that it implies both speaking and listening, and then responding in kind – is paramount in this process. The first-person narrative of his story reflects this endeavor: of course, a character that gets to express himself in the first-person narrative does not need to counter either other characters or the narrator’s bias. That is why the invisible man’s first words are about defining himself: “I am an invisible man”. Being denied any kind of meaningful dialogue, the novel is a way for him to create a new kind of dialogue, one with both himself and the reader. He is trying to become a self that could not be defined by exterior factors, and only by his own self-awareness. Pushing to the final stage of Hegel’s dialectic, he endeavors to achieve consciousness and self-recognition through his own labor – in his case, the retelling of his past.
Completely taking control of one’s narrative seems to be the prerogative of the first-person narrative. But within the microcosm of the dialogue, barring any narratorial intrusion, the character makes his or her voice heard unmediated, directly, and has control of his or her own presentation. This allows any character to take on a persona, which he will want to present to both the reader and the other characters. The persona diachronically has a double meaning, according to Frow (Frow, 75), which seem contradictory but illustrates the blurring of the character and the self within the dialogue. Frow, paraphrasing Mauss, sees persona as meaning both “an artificial character (personage), the mask and role of comedy and tragedy, of trickery and hypocrisy – a stranger to the self (moi)” and “synonymous with the true nature of the individual”. The dialogue serves as a way to showcase both of those definitions, in various degrees depending on the context – but in a way that both the character and the reader cannot figure out to what degree, unless the narrator (either omniscient or taking on the character’s perspective) gives out more information.
It is illustrated in the test put together by Tyrell’s corporation in Blade Runner. It is both an extremely codified dialogue – an interrogation, really – where the replicant must answer in a satisfying manner to each questions, but it also becomes, through the back-and-forth of the answer, a proof that a conversation can be had between a human and a machine, or even between two machines. Leon pushes back against the questions, imposing himself through his own set of questions when he needs the police officer to be more precise. As a contrast, the Sequel, Blade Runner 2049 has a very different way of testing, where the replicant must simply answer correctly to a set of words without hesitating, as if he was programmed to do so – no conversation, no dialogue there. The test in the sequel does not acknowledge any semblance of humanity in the replicants, even if it is to deny it (or maybe it acknowledges that a dialogue would be a way for the machine to be awarded a sense of self and humanity). Tyrell’s test sees that, on the surface, humans and replicants are virtually the same, but that a lack of something human would spill over in the course of the dialogue. Testing this way, through a conversation, rather than a biological or programmed test as in the sequel, has in my opinion the merit of involving the human factor in the process. It is up to Deckard to figure out whether or not the exteriority – the dialogue, the choice of words and the answers chosen – indicates that there is a “person” and not a machine inside (this becomes of course even more complicated if Deckard is himself a replicant). This relationship between interiority and exteriority is prevalent in the knowledge a character has of another one: Deckard endeavors to construct the character of the replicants through clues that are present within the dialogue. Tyrell Co’s logic seems to imply that the structure of the test is such that the self – the persona as “the true nature of the individual” – must supplant their persona as mask within the dialogue, as if both were simultaneously showcased. Because Deckard never makes any mistake, the viewer is made to assume that interiority and exteriority are necessarily linked, that one spills into the other. Dialogues seem to be a way to sound the way the two are correlated, to shift the viewer’s position from one point of view to the other so as to identify with the characters.
Ellison, R. (1947), Inivisible Man. Vintage Books
Frow, J. (2014), « Interest », in Character and Person, Oxford University Press.
Gelley, A. (1947). Character and Person: On the Presentation of Self in the Novel. Narrative Crossings Theory and Prgamatics of Pose Fiction.
Morrison, T. (1970). The Bluest Eye. New York, New York, United States of America: Vintage Books.
Ellison, R. (1947), Inivisible Man. Vintage Books
Scott, R. (Dir.) (1982), Blade Runner. The Final Cut. 2007 ed.