Interior-Exterior Relationship: Fictional Characters as Readers in Crisis
Michelle Li

This paper explores how a fictional character’s interiority, the common understanding of “self,” interacts with what is external to it, though the focus will be on the social structure of the novel. Specifically, I plan to investigate when the interior-exterior relationship breaks down for the character’s self and becomes negative. Because the development of a fictional character’s interiority is undeniably linked to the nature of its relationship with its exterior, this negative relationship could explain why a character’s interior is in crisis. What constitutes these negative interactions, and how do they unfold? To answer these questions, I will frame my analysis using the theory of mind as presented by Zunshine in “Cognitive Alternatives to Interiority,” where an interior compulsively reads interiors into its exterior. To complicate Zunshine’s model of interior as reader and exterior as read, I consider when a character’s interior doubting its own reading process; it is uncertain of how it interprets the external. The destabilizing effect of this on interiority is analysed through the lens of paranoia and agency panic in Melley’s “Empire of Conspiracy,” and the fictional character Oedipa from “The Crying of Lot 49” (Pynchon). I also examine the consequences of a reversal in the relationship, where the exterior becoming reader and interior becoming the read object. The destructive potential of being a read object is illuminated through the process of identification outlined in Frow’s “Interest”, where identification with an “other” brings the external other into one’s interior. The fictional character Pecola in “The Bluest Eye” (Morrison) exemplifies this.
In “Cognitive Alternatives to Interiority,” Zunshine argues that humans have “evolved cognitive adaptation for reading mental states into behaviour” (Zunshine, 147) which “we cannot turn off” (Zunshine, 150). We make sense of behaviour in terms of mental states. This constant process of attributing a mental state (interior) to observed behaviour (exterior) persist when we read fictional characters: “we do not distinguish between attributing states of mind to real people and attributing them to fictional character” (Zunshine, 150). It follows from Zunshine’s claim that a human interior engages in perpetual mind attribution that in order for writers to create an illusion of human interiority in fictional characters, the characters too must engage in the theory of mind. Thus, one way to understand the interaction between fictional character interior and exterior is to understand it in terms of a reader-read relationship.
Zunshine remains fairly neutral in her assessment of the consequences of the reading process. She acknowledges that people “misread and misinterpret minds all the time” (Zunshine 150), and that 18th century fictional characters who misattribute mental states to things without mental states are labeled as mad (Zunshine 157). However, the consequence of this mistake is only a negative social perception, and does not extend to actual damage to the interior self purely from the process of misreading.
In “Empire of Conspiracy,” Melley identifies a negative interior-exterior relationship which he termed as “agency panic” in post-war America. In agency panic, the agent believes that larger social structures have taken control over individuals. According to Melley, this happens because the common conception of self is as a “rational, motivated agent with a protected interior core” (Melley 14). This conception bases personhood in an all-or-nothing approach to autonomy and agency, so it cannot account for social regulation. Therefore, in the face of growing social structures, the response is to perceive it as an attack on the “protected interior core”, and the self develops an “intense anxiety about an apparent loss of autonomy or self-control” (Melley 12). The panicked agent has two main features: “nervousness or uncertainty about the causes of individual action” and “secondary sense that controlling organizations are themselves agents” (Melley 12). In terms of Zunshine’s theory of mind, there is the interior that reads the exterior (social structures) as hostile to it. In fact, it further reads (attributes) intentionality into the external world, such that the social structure too is an agent with interiority. This corresponds with Zunshine’s mad characters, who read interiorities into entities without any, but they seem to perform the process without damage to its interior. However, the self in Melley’s paper is clearly in crisis, so something must distinguish Melley’s reading from the theory of mind framework.
The complication is in the role uncertainty plays in the panicked agent. The uncertainty is sourced in the paranoia of the panicked agent that becomes a conspiracy theorist. Melley distinguishes clinical paranoia from this paranoia, which describes “individuals [that] not only suspect an array of invisible determinants to be at work but also suspect their own suspicions” (Melley 19). Not only is the agent uncertain of their position in the social world, more importantly they are also uncertain about their interpretations of the external world. This brings the issue beyond the question of whether the conspiracy is “objectively” true and reflective of reality. The process of trying to gain knowledge of the objective truth becomes second priority when the process itself is uncertain. If we put all this back into Zunshine’s framework, the agent has an interior that has read a conspiracy into the external world, going so far as to read mental states into the social structure. There is the uncertainty of whether such an interiority and meaning exists in the social structure. But before that is the problem that the agent can doubt its own reading of the external. Their reading and interpretation process is plagued by uncertainty (“suspect their own suspicions”, their reading). What needs to be addressed next is the effect of uncertainty in the interior’s reading process, and the effects it has on the interior.
When the paranoid character is uncertain of their self, the uncertainty necessarily leaks back into their interiority. If one genuinely cannot trust one’s own reading, the uncertainty cannot be pointed to the exterior. The doubt must be pointed to the interiority itself, because it is the interiority that is doing the doubted reading. If the agent believes their actions are still under the control of the social structure, then they are not truly engaging in suspicion of their own suspicion. I am dealing only with the paranoid character who is uncertain of their interior in the way I have been describing.
The destabilising effects of uncertainty on a character’s interiority can be observed in the character Oedipa in “The Crying of Lot 49.” Oedipa displays the features of the Melley paranoid: she reads a threatening interiority into the external world and is uncertain about her own reading. For example, Oedipa reads intention into the external world when she perceives a “sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate” (Pynchon 14) in the urban sprawl of San Narcisco. Like the mad character Zunshine cites, Oedipa attributes a mental state (intention) into an entity without any, and so far still has an intact even if precariously so self. It is not until she starts to delve into the global mail conspiracy of Tristero that the uncertainty of her reading of the external begins, and when we see a corresponding destabilization of her interiority.
The mail conspiracy has all the flavors of a Melley conspiracy: Trystero might be a large mysterious mail company in control of communication. Oedipa perceives Trystero as threatening, implied when she sets up “sides” (Pynchon 59), her side against an unknown. The unknowability of the truth is encountered through the character Driblette who tells Oedipa that the play’s “reality is in this head… I’m the projector” (Pynchon 62), and that she can spend her whole life trying to piece together clues on the characters’ reactions to Trystero “and never touch the truth” (Pynchon 63). This calls to Nagel’s idea of how we cannot know other people’s consciousness and mental states. The play is a projection of Driblette’s mind (his interior put into the exterior), and the truth of his mind is inaccessible to Oedipa. Reality is set up to be not completely knowable in this novel. The interaction between interior and exterior is not completely open. While the inability to reach the truth frustrates Oedipa, we still do not see a true disturbance of Oedipa’s self.
We soon see that the problem is not with truth and objective reality, instead the issue is whether one can be certain about their perception of the external world. The conspiracy theory begins to consume Oedipa “until everything she saw… would somehow come to be woven into the Tristero” (Pynchon 64), the external world is associated with Trystero because Oedipa reads it to be so. But what if her reading is uncertain? At first, Oedipa frames her journey as a pursuit of truth, “All these fatigued brain cells between herself and the truth,” but doubts set in: “She thought of how tenuous it was” (Pynchon 74). Uncertainty grows, and eventually the error is attributed to her interiority: either Trystero did exist “or it was being presumed, perhaps fantasied by Oedipa” (Pynchon 88). Secondary suspicion, as Melley calls it, is seen in how Oedipa’s doubt is pointed at herself: her reading method is faulty, if it is only fantasising.
In the height of her frenzied wander through San Narcisco and reading the Trystero symbol everywhere in the external world (Pynchon 94), she thinks “Each clue that comes is supposed to have its own clarity… But then wondered if the gemlike “clues” were only some kind of compensation. To make up for her having lost the direct, epileptic Word, the cry that might abolish the night” (Pynchon 95). This is the key turning point for Oedipa. Oedipa starts off certain of her reading but then is finally explicitly aware of her self-uncertainty, and that she “suspects [her] own suspicions.” She is uncertain of her reading of the external, whether the clues are meaningful or not. The concern is not whether what the clues point to are there, but the validity of her access to the clues (her reading of the external world). Under this reading, the “Word” that can end the night of frenzied clue reading, would be “certainty” instead of “truth.” As I have argued before, if the character cannot trust her own reading, then the concern is in the validity of the reading process, not the validity of the read object (here external world).
The effect of uncertainty, the distrust in one’s own perception of the external, is the destabilization of internal reality, which in turn destabilises the self. After the turning point, the concern of the novel also shifts from external to personal internal reality. Oedipa’s reality, after her conscious acknowledgement of her uncertainty in her reading, is plagued by a similar uncertainty. Her personal internal reality is in crisis, and it is uncertain whether the increasingly strange events she comes upon are hallucinations (Pynchon 96-107). The idea of personal reality being a separate existing entity is seen when “Oedipa, to retaliate, stopped believing in them,” the uncooperative children huddled around an “imaginary fire, and needed nothing but their own unpenetrated sense of community” (Pynchon 96). The children are engaged in their own personal/communal reality highlighted by the “imaginary” fire which exists only to them, setting it apart from an objective external reality. Oedipa writes off their reality in her own reality when she stops believing in them. The focus is not on the validity of any of these proceedings in an external and objective reality, but the subjective and internal conceivement of what is real. And here, the internal reality of Oedipa is shaken, and it is uncertain what is real for her anymore.
The internal reality under crisis because of uncertainty is supported by her “want [for] it all to be a fantasy- some clear result of her several wounds… She wanted Hilarius to tell her she was some kind of nut and needed a rest, and that there was no Trystero” (Pynchon 107). Oedipa does not care about finding the truth, because the truth and external reality will not set her free of her torment. She does not care if it is a fantasy or not, she just wants a definitive conclusion to happen, and for it to “be” a fantasy would be that. What Oedipa needs is certainty, even the illusion of certainty which she wants Hilarius to provide by telling her from a position of external authority. The illusion of certainty is what can restabilize her interiority. Oedipa has seen “with her own eyes” (Pynchon 107) the Trystero empire, but she cannot trust her reading. In the end she appeals to something external to herself (her interiority being uncertain) to reintroduce and impose a certainty for her understanding of external reality. The source of destaibilisation is not the conspiracy but is instead her uncertainty about the conspiracy. The only way to make her interiority stable again would be to make herself certain again, no matter of what, and to do so Oedipa would need to regain certainty in her reading of reality. Melley mentions a “contest over reality” (Melley 20) but here it is more a struggle for certainty of one’s perception because if uncertainty wins, the interiority is destabilised.
While this first problem of interior-exterior relationship addresses a problem from the interior end, another potential source of problem is when the interior-exterior reader-read relationship is reversed. Zunshine claims that it is possible for a character to read an interior into an external entity. Melley’s paper supplants this by raising the possibility that the exterior entity’s read-in interiority can have agency and intentionality of its own. It then follows that this exterior entity could take on the ability to read into what is external to it, that is the fictional character in question. This would go with Melley’s argument for the post-structuralist self solution to agency panic where “identity is constructed from without, repeatedly reshaped through performance” (Melley 15). In John Frow’s “Interiority”, the post structural interior “constructed from without” is carried out through the process of identification.
Frow cites Laplance and Pontalis, who argue that identification is a “psychological process whereby the subject assimilates an aspect (…) and is transformed, wholly or partially, after the model the other provides” (Frow, 49). Frow also mentions Freud’s definition of identification as “a mechanism by which a loved object is introjected into the ego, splitting the ego into part that loves or hates and part that is loved or hated” (Frow, 50). Put in terms of Zunshine’s theory of mind, the external is reading the character’s interior and going further, the external has become a part of the interior. Self construction has the potential to be done “from without” (Melley 15). Melley’s post structuralist self is presented as a desirable alternative for the panicked agent, but from Frow’s presentation of the exterior to interior direction interaction, it is clear that this form of interaction makes the interior self vulnerable.
This can be seen in Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” where a negative form of the exterior reading the interior is manifested through Pecola’s madness at the end of the novel. Pecola identifies with her loved object: blue eyes, which she reads as beauty. These blue eyes however hate her, since they represent white supremacy and the racist social structure (external) that she has internatlised. So, when Pecola identifies with the blue eyes, she is bringing in what hates her into her self, according to Frow, such that her interior self then splits into two: the part that hates and the part that is hated.
This split is seen in the ending scene with Pecola talking to her “friend.” The clearest evidence of the external following into her internal is Pecola’s internal dialogue’s constant fixation upon her possession of blue eyes, which represent the poisonous external standard of beauty. This hating external object is manifested in the “friend” that lives in Pecola’s interior. Not only is Pecola’s interior is consumed by that which hates her, part of her has become that hating object. As Frow would put it, part of her hates her, and part of her is hated by her. Her “friend” is the Pecola-hating Pecola. The friend’s hatred is seen in how she brings into doubt whether she will have blue eyes forever (“You scared they might go away?” (Morrison 193) which feeds Pecola’s fixation and then bolsters it by reassuring her about the blue eyes again. Most tellingly of her external origin, the “friend” takes on the voice of external society is when she asks “Really? The second time too?” (Morrison 201) in reference to whether Pecola found her rape horrible. This mirrors the conversations Claudia overhears when selling Marigold’s when adults question whether Pecola might have some of the “blame” (Morrison 189). The most haunting part of the section comes at the end when Pecola begs her “friend” not to leave her to which her friend responds “I’ll be back. Right before your very eyes” (Morrison 204). Placed in reference to eyes, the “your” seems menacing. Continuing my reading, these are her “blue eyes.” Although Pecola is stuck in a self-hating interior, she clings to this interiority because while it is tearing her apart (literally as through identification her interiority has split), it feels comforting. In this state of post-identification interiority, she has blue eyes and does not seem to be in pain anymore. However the last words of the friend is a reminder that this interiority exists only “before” the “bluest eyes,” in the hateful external society that has been collapsed into her interiority and dominates.
Pecola’s interior is destroyed by the exterior reading her. This leads to the issue that neither Zunshine and Melley addresses: the problem when the exterior dominates in its reading of the interior in question, and the interior’s reading process is then subsumed in the exterior’s way of reading. Pecola is “constructed from without,” a without that hates her, so she is destroyed as a result. Because she lives in a structurally racist society in a position of lesser power, her reading process is dominated to be the way society reads her (as ugly). Since the external world is structurally oppressive, Pecola cannot read the external back (project her interiority out), she is only the read object. This results in the ultimate incorporation and identification of the exterior into her interior and the complete breakdown of her interior. While she has been “constructed from without” throughout her life, as she believes she is ugly and desires blue eyes, the complete exterior reading take over does not happen until the end, and thus the complete destruction of her interiority.
Although Zunshine’s model of understanding interior and exterior interaction is useful, it ultimately runs the risk of being too short-sighted because of its neutral presentation of the relationship. From both problems I raise: the interior doubts its own reading, and the exterior is a hostile reader of the interior, we can see that power plays an important role in the relationship. A further question that can explored from the first problem is to attempt to place the origin of the uncertainty; what fictional characters tend to be uncertain of themselves and their reading of the world and is it related to the power they have in relation to the world. The second problem more clearly has the issue of power in it, as it has a dominating and oppressive exterior that the interior stands in relation to. It is important to consider the power dynamics in the interactions between the interior of fictional characters and their exterior, to consider who reads and how they read, and how the observed reader-read relationship came to be.

Works Cited
Frow, John. Character and Person. Oxford University Press, 2016.
Melley, Timothy. “Empire of Conspiracy.” 2006.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. Vintage Books, 2007.
Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2014.
Zunshine, Lisa “Cognitive Alternatives to Interiority.” Cambridge University Press, 2015.

(not sure of years, but it’s the books assigned in class)