Identification of Character
Identification of Character by Readers
Think of your favorite literary character. Why do you like them? Do you feel that you can relate to them? How come you like certain characters over others? The broad answer to all these questions is identification. You identify certain characters as good, likeable, relatable and others as bad, unlikeable, annoying, etc. Identification is what causing us to cry when a character dies, laugh when an unlikable character is embarrassed, and become nearly furious when our favorite character does something we do not like. Identification seems to come from your own preferences and how a character is written in accordance or discordance with those preferences. However, is it possible for us to be coerced almost into identifying with a character? In her stunning novel The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison toys with how and why we identity certain characters, from Pecola, the girl who seems to have a very minimal interiority that we as readers can connect to, to the three sexual predators that appear within the novel. Identification plays a huge role on our comprehension of a novel and its characters, but Morrison shows that identification is often arbitrary. These characters will forever be just as they are on the page; sometimes no amount of analyzing will allow us to understand them and their motives. Morrison tries to pull us away from this desire so we can see people within the novel for what they are—fictional characters. When we pull ourselves away from our need to identity with and understand a character, we are free to speculate further into what that character adds to the novel as a literary device.
In his book Character and Person, John Frow states that there are two kinds of identification: “identification of a character, and identification with a character” (Frow 38). The identification of a character refers to the recognition of that character as a fictional entity within the novel. As Frow writes, this “is generated by triggers such as a name or a personal pronoun, a body or a mask or (in radio drama) a voice, and it has to do with the separation of a character from all others in the storyworld and with the sense that the character is self-identical over time” (38). This process is always done through an interlocutor, a narrator, who posits the character as an object within the story. Frow calls this the “enunciating subject” (38). The enunciating subject controls how we are introduced to a character, or “enunciated object,” for the first time–whether our first encounter will be a colloquial one or a distance one, a short description or a long description, biased or unbiased. For example, in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, we are introduced to the character of Pecola in the beginning of the novel by an adult Claudia remembering her childhood. She introduces Pecola thus: “Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow. A little examination and much less melancholy would have proved to us that our seeds were not the only ones that did not sprout; nobody’s did” (Morrison 5). The narrator Claudia introduces the reader to Pecola in relation to her own childhood self, wedged between her memories of the marigolds of 1941. The narrator places us spatially within the novel; we are now in the position of listener, ready to hear what Claudia has to say. However, our position is not one that is actually in the novel, but almost rather in another dimension in which Claudia is able to speak to us whether through supposedly actual speaking or through writing. Frow states that “this bare, featureless place is the necessary condition for any more structured recognition and identification to occur” (Frow 39). We need a gate into the novel and therefore the character, and a narrator is just the vehicle for this. However, even before we identify Pecola as a character in the novel, we first must identify the narrator (who at this point in novel has yet to be named) as its own character that will lead us through the novel and through the identifications of other characters. How the narrator introduces us to characters is very important for our understanding of them. First impressions are everything, and ours of Pecola is quite shocking. With that short sentence, we are already trying to build a person and to figure out that person.
The second kind of identification is identification with a character, which Frow describes as “the filling of that initial moment of identification with an affective content” (38). Affective content or investment is our interest in a character and our initial feelings towards them. Identification with a character occurs simultaneously as identification of a character: “the act of recognition that identifies a figure in a text is, at the same time, a way of relating to that figure” (38). This occurs for both the narrator and for the character being spoken of. Frow states that “this positioning is dual: we occupy the space of an enunciating subject (however weakly specified as a quasi-person), and the place of a character who is spoken of” (39). In The Bluest Eye, we are most often in position of the subject of Claudia because she is the narrator and therefore a lot of the storyworld is being filtered through her; Pecola often is the “enunciated object” that we are placed in relation to because Claudia is in relation to her. Therefore, it is through the filter of Claudia’s thoughts and feelings towards Pecola that we must come to know her as a character. Our identification with Pecola can be negative or positive, empathetic or apathetic; this also has to do with our ability to relate to Pecola. These things are not necessarily dependent on how Claudia represents Pecola, however, because at the same time we are identifying Pecola, we are also identifying Claudia–whether she is likeable, unreliable, etc. The narrator in The Bluest Eye changes, though, which means that our position to Pecola changes throughout the novel. Our piecing together of Pecola from multiple perspectives (that of Claudia’s, of her mother’s, of her father’s, of Soaphead Church’s) is the exact process by which a fictional character is created according to Frow: “Fictional character is textually constructed in the play between positions of enunciation and figural constructs in the storyworld, and these positions are cumulatively and complexly filled during the course of a prose narrative…” (41). With each new narrator or focalizer—meaning the character’s perspective that a passage is centered around even though they’re not the narrator—we as readers are given a new position within the novel, and each changes our position to Pecola. Remember, the narrator is our key into the world of the novel; we cannot change the perspective or narrator that the novel is being filtered through. This identification with an enunciating subject can be at times quite frustrating if we dislike that character because we are trapped in their perspective. For example, at times in The Bluest Eye we are forced to see the novel through the mind of Cholly, Pecola’s father, and Soaphead Church, a pedophile who Pecola goes to in order to receive blue eyes. They are not the narrators, but rather they are the focalizers of these chapters. The narrator switches from Claudia reflecting on her own memories to an ominscient third-person narration. The narrator allows us to be privy to Cholly’s and Soaphead’s deepest thoughts and desires, which makes for some horribly uncomfortable reading. It is a much different reading experience when these characters–Cholly and Soaphead Church–are brought up as the object of another character. For example, we are introduced to Cholly in the beginning of the novel just as Pecola’s father who raped her; at first we are not even given his name until the end of that brief paragraph on page 6 when Claudia says, “Cholly Breedlove is dead; our innocence, too” (Morrison 6). We are introduced to Soaphead Church in an vaguer instance. On page 76, Claudia and Frieda are arguing about whether they should go get ice cream or candy with the money Mr. Henry gave them. As a reason not to go get candy at Miss Bertha’s, Claudia argues that “‘that crazy old Soaphead Church lives there’”. To this Frieda replies, “‘So what? We’re together. We’ll run if he does anything at us’” (76). The next time Soaphead is brought up is also during a conversation between Frieda and Claudia. After Mr. Henry molests Frieda (we will talk about all the molestation in this book in a bit, don’t worry) Claudia asks, “‘Picked at you? You mean like Soaphead Church?” Though we can infer the creepiness and pedophilia of Soaphead through the two girls’ talk of him, we are nowhere near the potency of his character that we receive later in the novel after Pecola visits him. This is because in the girls’ conversation, he is merely a brief object of their attention, whereas in the later chapter I am referring to, he is the focalizer. Our position in that chapter is looking at the novel through Soaphead’s eyes. This is what makes Cholly’s rape of Pecola so difficult to read because it is as if we are not some third party reader but in the position of Cholly himself. This begs me to ask the question: why would Morrison write it this way?
Although identification doesn’t necessarily mean sympathy or empathy, I think that the closer we are brought to a character and the more we see of their interiority, the more we seem to want to understand them. We want to understand the motives of their actions, why they feel and act the way they do. I think this desire to understand characters comes from what Lisa Zunshine calls an “illusion of interiority” in fictional characters (Zunshine 147). She writes that most readers, from undergraduates to literary professors to book club participants, are in the “practice of treating fictional characters like real people” (149). This process of making fictional characters real is done through what Zunshine calls “mind-reading,” our way of trying to make sense of the behavior of others, including fictional characters: “‘All human actions are forevermore perceived to be the products of unobservable mental states, and every behavior, therefore, is subject to intense sociocognitive scrutiny’” (150). Was their action caused by anger, by greed, by love, by insanity? We can never know someone’s true thoughts, which makes interpreting them ourselves a very unreliable process. Zunshine also writes, “So important is mind-reading for our species, that, at least on some level, we do not distinguish between attributing states of mind to real people and attributing them to fictional characters” (150). As I said before, we treat fictional characters as real people with vast interior lives, and therefore we feel the need to understand them, just as we would a real person. We want to understand what would lead someone to kill, to molest children, to rape their own daughter. The difference, however, between understanding the psyche of real people versus those of fictional characters is that characters can be focalized through an omniscient narrator, so we can sometimes have knowledge of their thoughts. However, I do not think that mind-reading and focalization are mutually exclusive. Sometimes if a character’s thoughts are stated, it leads us to understand their interiority, but that is not always the case. Sometimes even if a character’s thoughts are splayed out on the page for us, we still feel the need to disect their psyche even further. Cholly’s rape of Pecola is focalized through him; we know what he is thinking as he does it, yet do we really understand? His motivation seems to be something like “the confused mixture of his memories of Pauline [his wife] and the doing of a wild and forbidden thing” and also a feeling of “hatred mixed with tenderness” twoards Pecola (Morrison 162-163). This part of the novel may even be so difficult to read that our desire to understand Cholly is castrated, yet Morrison has forced us into Cholly’s mind, a place we cannot exit until the chapter is over. We are left floundering for meaning, still in shock that Cholly could have done such a horrible thing when Cholly is not even a real human being.
I have already stated the fact that we as readers often perceive fictional characters as real, but we have not analyzed what exactly makes us want to do so, therefore inviting us to identify with them. Mieke Bal explains the reason behind this phenomenom very well in her book Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative: “The character is not a human being, but it resembles one. It has no real psyche, personality, ideology, or competence to act, but it does possess characteristics that make readers assume it does, and makes psychological and ideological descriptions possible” (Bal 113). The way in which a writer creates a character on page makes us feel that it is real or not. Bal names this phenomenom the “character-effect,” which “occurs when the resemblance between human beings and fabricated figures is so great that we forget the fundamental difference” (113). By reading a book, we feel like we can come to know a character like we would with a real person. Most readers probably even feel more connected to fictional characters they love than to other humans; you probably have much more intimate knowledge of Harry Potter than you have of most of your co-workers. Bal states that this is problematic because fictional characters are so blatantly not real people; they are apsects of a literary work and should be viewed as such in order for us to fully understand their contribution and meaning within a novel. She writes that the “psychological criticism” we attach to a character is “clearly not adequate to account for the literary or cinematic qualities of the text” (114) This goes along with our desire to understand characters and their interiority. We often try to put characters in specific boxes so they are easier to understand: this character is good, this character is bad, is flat, is dynamic, etc. We expect a certain coherence of characters that then creates a problem for us when the character seems to stray from our expectations of them. As Bal writes, “…readers tend to attach so much importance to coherence that this material is easily reduced to a psychological ‘portrait’ that has more bearing on the reader’s own desire to ‘recognize’ the character than on the interchange between story and fabula” (114). I think the concepts of coherence and recognition can really help us analyze the characters in The Bluest Eye, especially the characters that are sexual predators (Mr. Henry, Cholly, and Soaphead Church). For each of these three difficult characters, Morrison plays with how we identity them as coherent, as something (or rather someone) that can be easily labeled and also how we identify with them. How much can we actually understand these characters? Does Morrison even want us to understand them?
Let us start by analyzing Mr. Henry and the evolution of our relationship with his character. When he arrives at Claudia and Frieda’s house, he is introduced thus, “He smelled wonderful…He smiled a lot, showing small even teeth with a friendly gap in the middle” (Morrison 15). Not only does Mr. Henry have a friendly disposition, but he is also very friendly to Frieda and Claudia, which is a surprising contrast to the usual way adults treat them. He calls them “Greta Garbo” and “Ginger Rogers” and even plays a little game of find-the-penny with him. I think we can consider this a pretty good first impression. Even with the bit of foreshadowing at the end of this scene (“We loved him. Even after what came later, there was no bitterness in our memory of him”), we probably have labeled Mr. Henry as a “good” character, whether consciously or unconsciously. Even though there is the hint of some upset to come concerning his character, it is so vague and does not sound very serious from the way Claudia brings it up. Maybe Mr. Henry and Claudia’s parents get into an argument, maybe they have to kick him out because he can’t pay rent, but it cannot be that bad since Claudia still has positive memory of him, right? Even after Claudia and Frieda see Mr. Henry at their house with two local prostitutes, our perception of him as a kind person probably does not change. Whenever we see him interact with Claudia and Frieda he is always nice to them, but never too nice. All these encounters create a coherence of his character for us, which is then ruptured when we find out that he has molested Frieda. This act seems “out of character” for Mr. Henry; none of his actions up to this point in the novel seem to hint that he would do something like this. Our initial identification of him was incorrect as most likely was our identification with him, too. We liked Mr. Henry, and now he has gone off and made us not like him anymore. It leaves us scrambling for a new portrait of Mr. Henry, one that now includes pedophilia. We are never really given any piece of Mr. Henry’s interiory, just a string of a few episodic actions that we feel we must weave together into a person. This is where Bal’s mind-reading comes into play: what caused him to do it? Is this the first time he has done something like this? Why did he just molest Frieda? And probably the most puzzling question for me, why does he sing “Nearer, My God, to Thee” as Frieda’s father is chasing him out of the house with a broommstick? However, these questions are never answered because Morrison has chosen not to answer them for us. This drastic switch in our identification of Mr. Henry is much different from the way we perceive Cholly and Soaphead throughout the novel.
The characters of Soaphead Church and Cholly Breedlove are both introduced to us as sexual predators right off the bat. We meet Cholly in the beginning of the novel as Pecola’s now-deceased father who impregnated her. We meet Soaphead as I stated earlier through Claudia and Frieda talking about his pedophilial tendencies. Both introductions makes us identity these characters as “bad.” We don’t want to feel anything but contempt for them, just as we would feel towards pedophiles in real life. However, Morrison does not make it that easy for us, especially in regards to our relationship with Cholly.
In the beginning of the novel, Cholly is only described as an object through other character, like Claudia, Claudia’s mother, and the third-person narrator. For example, an adult Claudia explains to us why Pecola had come to stay at her house for a bit: “Cholly, Breedlove, then, a renting black, having put his family outdoors, had catapulted himself beyond the reaches of human consideration. He had joined the animals; was, indeed, an old dog, a snake” (18). Cholly is also described as having “the meanest eyes in town” and an “habitual drunkenness and orneriness” (40-42). As the novel progresses, we slowly become closer to Cholly, starting with the chapter that focuses on the Breedloves and where live and then becomes even closer to him through the chapter on Pauline. In Pauline’s chapter, we begin to see a softer side of Cholly. The narrator states, “Pauline and Cholly loved each other. He seemed to relish her company and even to enjoy her country ways and lack of knowledge about city things. He talked with her about her foot and asked, when they walked through the town or in the fields, if she were tired. Instead of ignoring her infirmity, pretending it was not there, he made it seem like something special and endearing” (115-116). Pauline and Cholly do not have a great relationship in general, but Cholly seems genuinely caring and loving at times: “One winter Pauline discovered she was pregnant. When she told Cholly, he surprised her by being pleased. He began to drink less and come home more often. They eased back into a relationship more like the early days of their marriage, when he asked if she were tired or wanted him to bring her something from the store” (121). The chapter right after this one, the one centered on Cholly himself, brings us as close as we can. We learn of his tragic origin: “When Cholly was four days old, his mother wrapped him in two blankets and one newspaper and placed him on a junk heap by the railroad” (132). We learn about his painful childhood, from his aunt dying to the horrifying incident with Darlene and the two white men to his search for his father ending with his father ignoring him for a game. It would a lie to say that in this chapter we come to feel sympathetic towards Cholly. We cannot judge the adolescent Cholly based on what the adult Cholly has done. Now that we have learned of Cholly’s capability of kindness and of his horrible past, identification of and with him changes. We may have even forgotten about the transgression that was told to us so many pages ago. However, at the end of this chapter comes the rape scene. Right when we have come to like Cholly a bit or even just pity him, we are forced to be strapped behind his eyes and see the scene through his perspective. Morrison invites us to connect to Cholly, then smacks us with the rape scene. It’s like she is asking us, “So what do you make of him now?”
The character of Soaphead differs from Cholly in that he begs for us to feel sympathy for him, but I doubt many of us do, whereas our sympathy towards Cholly came naturally after hearing his history. We know that Soaphead Church molests young girls going into the chapter that is focused on him, but the creepiness and comfortableness on our part skyrocket when we hear his personal thoughts on this. We learn that he is absolutely sickened by all human kind, leading him to direct his sexual cravings towards little girls since their “bodies were the least offensive”(166). Soaphead also blames God for creating an imperfect world that is full of evil but never takes responsibility for his own perversion: “The buds. The buds on some of these saplings. They were mean, you know, mean and tender…Daring me to touch… Have you ever seen them, Lord? I mean, really seen them? One could not see them and not love them…I couldn’t, as you must recall, keep my hands, my mouth, off them” (179). He even says that he felt he was “being friendly” when he molested these girls (181). He is trying is make us identity with him, pity him, but it doesn’t quite work for us. We become privy to his strict father, abusive upbringing, the desertion of his wife, so why don’t we feel bad for him like we did with Cholly? Do we as readers pardon Cholly’s transgression more than Soaphead’s because he has a worst fabricated past? Why would Morrison choose to write Cholly more sympathetically?
In this novel, especially through these three sexual predators, Morrison is playing with our perception of characters, making us aware of how and why we identify or don’t identify with certain characters. Cholly, Soaphead Church, and Mr. Henry are all predators, yet through the way Morrison constructed each character, we see them as three entirely different people; our feelings towards and our capacity to sympathize with them are all different. We could go into extreme depth close reading and analyzing each character, trying to figure out their interiority, but that would be a waste of time. Instead they should be analyzed in regards to their contribution to the novel as a whole. We should be asking why Morrison would create three male pedophile characters, all with different personalities, in a novel about beauty. I think that is the much more interesting question that Morrison wants us to think about. For the African-American girls, objectification is everyone; they are valued in society only by their appearance, whether it is the scorn and distaste from white people or the sexual manipulation from adult men—men who live behind the candy store, men who live in their own houses, men who are their own fathers. No one can seem to protect them from this since it is so pervasive. Morrison shows that molestation is not some far-off danger for these girls but a very real, very common occurrence. The three predators in this novel all have different histories and personalities, yet their stories all end in the same sin, whether we understand them or not.
“Interest.” Character and Person, by John Frow, Oxford University Press, 2014.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. Vintage Books, 2007.
Zunshine, Lisa. The Cambridge History of the English Novel. Edited by Robert Caserio and
Clement Hawes, Cambridge University Press, 2012.