“Why,” Driblette said at last, “is everybody so interested in texts?” (Pynchon 78)

“Characters Referencing Texts”:
References as Manifestations, Reinforcements, and Disruptions of Social Hierarchies

Authors construct worlds within their novels that include works of art and literature, fictional and nonfictional, that often function as referents by which characters construct themselves. Readers, in turn, construct impressions of these characters’ internal selves using those same works. Examples from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home illuminate the implications and uses of these textual references on construction. I draw upon Alexander Gelley and his analysis of character construction within the world of a novel, Tzvetan Todorov’s theories of character and world construction, and Lisa Zunshine’s work on the role of embedment in character interiority to analyze the ways in which intertextual references and characters’ descriptions of works shape a hierarchy of interiority, and in doing so, demonstrate the role textual references can play in mirroring, reinforcing, and subverting the many hierarchies of society both within and beyond their novels.

As a special form of intertextuality, a fictional character discussing another text within the text of a novel directs the reader to the world within the novel and the intentions of the fictional character. Broadly, intertextuality is the relationship between a text and other texts—a novel may take structural or thematic inspiration from a previous novel, may quote other works, or may simply exist in a dialogue with other works. Often, describing a text’s intertextuality requires the reader to do the work of connecting ideas across texts, rewarding the reader for having read other works and having recognized their mutual influence. These types of intertextuality prime the reader to think about the novel’s relationship with the exterior world and the author’s intentions in creating that relationship. However, unlike those other forms of intertextuality, fictional characters’ explicit references to other texts refer to the idea of texts existing in the fictional world of the novel rather than in the external world of the reader, and primarily credit the work of crafting the connection to the fictional character, not the author.

As a result, fictional characters’ choices of texts to reference influence how the reader constructs their fictional character. When an author writes that a character is referencing a text, the character, not the author, appears to be the one choosing to notice another work. For theorist Tzvetan Todorov, the reader constructs a novel’s world and a fictional character’s character by engaging in “symbolization” (Todorov 73), or interpretation, of the author’s signified facts. The reader thus interprets an author’s signified textual reference as indicative of a character’s internal traits, or interiority. Such psychological determinism, or the reader’s interpretation that “[a character] acts in a certain way, because he is shy, weak, courageous, etc” (Todorov 77), is what allows a fictional character to appear to have real human character. In The Bluest Eye, when Morrison has the character of Pauline refer to movies and describe “the big clean houses” they depict, and has Pauline refer to a magazine picture of Jean Harlow, the reader constructs the idea that Pauline has certain internal traits because of what she is shown to watch, read, and notice. Perhaps she is a jealous soul, prone to boredom, or superficial. As part of each reader’s symbolization, the specifics vary from reading to reading, but each impression of Pauline’s interiority derives from the same external markers provided by her references.

As external markers, however, textual references represent part of how an author builds a world and society within a novel. It is not a given that a novel will contain a social context—as Todorov writes, “What exists first and foremost is the text itself, and nothing but the text… we construct, from our reading, an imaginary universe” (67). Fictional characters also construct understandings of their own universes from their own readings of the available facts, which include texts internal to the novel. Such understandings allow them to construct their characters in relation to texts, and ultimately, to their societies. Without distinguishing between fictional and nonfictional characters, theorist Alexander Gelley terms this method of character construction “self-display and exteriorization.” Each character, according to Gelley, is “indissolubly bound up with an order of possible realization available to it in society, and until such possibilities come to be articulated in one way or another, its substance remains indeterminate” (Gelley 73). A character’s self-display is its “speech, behavior, or act” (Gelley 64), the outward articulation through which a character attempts to realize its societal possibilities. Gelley paraphrases Lionel Trilling to say that “man’s spiritual nature” (67), or the inner self, “has become capable of expression only in reaction to society or, what is the same, in an alienated identification with it” (67). With psychological determinism, an external reaction to society also comes to represent the internal nature of a person. Society, however, is often an amorphous concept, so texts are necessary as material representations of the society to which characters react.

Pauline’s mass media movies and magazines, along with The Crying of Lot 49’s invented Jacobean revenge play and Fun Home’s numerous highbrow literary references, illustrate how integral the tangibility of texts is to allowing and limiting how fictional characters construct their characters and demonstrate their interiority. In The Bluest Eye, the movies and magazines Pauline consumes serve as her sole “education” (Morrison 122) in society’s idea of physical beauty. However, Pauline cannot display herself according to that one visible possibility of beauty—white and wealthy—despite her attempts. In Pauline’s own recollections, “I ’member one time I went to see Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. I fixed my hair up like I’d seen hers on a magazine…. It looked just like her. Well, almost just like” (Morrison 123). Pauline wishes to see herself as beautiful, but the available media supports a social hierarchy of beauty along racial lines, keeping Pauline in a detrimental place in the hierarchy. Upon the realization that she would never look like Jean Harlow, Pauline “let [her] hair go back, plaited it up, and settled down to just being ugly” (Morrison 123). Even if the idea exists anywhere in society that her plaited hair might also be beautiful, Pauline has not encountered texts that convey that version of society. Without alternate texts, she can only construct herself according to how the dominant society already places her in the social hierarchy, and the reader assesses her interiority according to that construction.

The type of referenced text itself further underscores the transfer of a society’s racial and class hierarchy of possibilities and limitations to Pauline. The magazine, as a form of relatively cheap print mass media, was created by a narrow sector of society for distribution to the widest audience. A magazine’s emphasis on images gives it a low barrier to access, further expanding the audience. As a result, the magazine indicates that the possibility of such beauty is for everyone to consume. However, since this particular text is an instance of one-way media, a magazine tells people what they should aspire to without actually giving it to them. Those who already possess it have positive experiences of character construction, while those who do not already have it must construct their characters according to unfavorable reflections. Furthermore, when a reader assesses Pauline’s interiority, the reader may assume that the low barrier of access to reading magazines and watching movies indicates that Pauline’s interiority is similarly uncomplicated.

In The Crying of Lot 49, the contrast between elaborately detailed description and obvious holes in the text of a play also cement Oedipa’s position in her own world’s hierarchy as a powerless person subject to the whims of a larger obscure conspiracy. The scene-by-scene description of the play’s plot and characters is thorough, an example of the literary device of ekphasis, but at a certain conspicuous point in the play, “Certain things, it is made clear, will not be spoken aloud…though it is difficult to imagine, given the excesses of the preceding acts, what these [events not shown] could possibly be” (Pynchon 71). Oedipa is bereft of information despite her access to what was previously a tell-all performance, even as “every flunky in the court” knows (Pynchon 72) and “the audiences of the time knew” (Pynchon 72). The embedded text of the play, a narrative within the main narrative, should be “subordinate to the narrative within which it is embedded” (Rimmon-Kenan 94), but even when previous highest-level and present lower-level characters are included, Oedipa, a character in the highest level of narrative, remains palpably excluded.

As a play, its live performance and its inaccessible physical text continue to prevent Oedipa from revisiting and clarifying her doubts and thus rising in the novel’s hierarchy of knowledge. The presence of a single auteur director further represents a powerful figure with “the reality… all the closed little universe visible in the circle of that stage” (Pynchon 79) in his head alone. Throughout the scene of the play and her encounter with the director, a reader can see how the right text might bring Oedipa into a higher rung of her social hierarchy by revealing information to her. Hypothetically, Oedipa could find this text and self-display in the context of a society that cares about her rather than one that doesn’t. However, by the end of the novel, any such text has remained hidden, and like Pauline, Oedipa’s possibilities within her society remain limited by her previous place in the hierarchy.

In Fun Home, Bechdel uses canonical literary texts as reference points for the interiorities of other characters in addition to herself, which ultimately adds layers of complexity to the reader’s interpretation of Bechdel’s own interiority. Initially, with regard to herself, Bechdel has no word to describe her sexual orientation until she comes across printed texts that introduce her to that side of society. She first learns the word “lesbian” in the dictionary, and a later book “led quickly to others” (Bechdel 75) that eventually prepare her to attend a “meeting of something called the ‘Gay Union’” (Bechdel 76). Unlike Pauline and her scarcity of alternate texts, and unlike Oedipa and her tempting yet incomprehensible play, Bechdel finds texts that represent the corner of society in which her self-display, created from her inward feelings and resulting outward sexual actions, can construct something internally positive about her character.

Repeatedly, in fact, Bechdel finds and references texts that apply to her and her parents’ exterior lives and emphasize the quality of their interiority. Bechdel compares a scene in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby about Gatsby’s book collection to her father’s books, writing that they “in a way…signify the same thing—the preference of a fiction to reality” (84-85). She discusses the way Fitzgerald’s life story and fiction “resonated so deeply with [her] father” (85). Bechdel references the texts that her father referenced in order to construct his character, providing the reader with two impressions of interiority: that of her father as someone who references certain texts, and that of herself as someone who can at least partially conceptualize her father’s interiority.

Bechdel’s multilayered references to texts demonstrate that she is capable of high-level cognitive embedment, placing her at the top of a hierarchy of complex interiority compared to other characters. Theorist Lisa Zunshine, writing of the anxieties of eighteenth-century writers about the multiplicity of a single person’s mental states, suggests that writers “had to hierarchize the cognitive complexity of their characters” according to who could “represent more mental states than others” (153). A character like Bechdel, who uses a vast archive of textual references to represent and identify with the mental states of multiple characters, engages in a version of this type of “cognitive embedment.” Zunshine writes, “If we correlate fictional interiority with the ability to embed multiple mental states we begin to see the workings of the narrative mechanism that endows some characters with ‘more’ interiority than others” (153). Bechdel’s skill in cognitive embedment via her references to texts allows her to come across to the reader as highly cognitively complex. The scholarly status of her references, from Greek myth to the Jazz Age, bolsters her claim to cognitive complexity, as the reader’s default psychological determinism still interprets such exterior choices as the results of inherent traits.

However, the relationship between availability of useful texts and the societies that create them skew some characters’ opportunities to have useful texts in the first place, ultimately maintaining the societal hierarchies and inequalities that create and limit certain characters’ impressions of complex interiority. When a reader determines that a fictional character has complex interiority, the interpretive action is an act of mind-reading, which is, according to Zunshine, the error-prone way in which humans perceive both real and fictional other humans’ actions as “products of unobservable mental states” (150). Cognitive complexity in fictional characters is thus also error-prone, created by the reader based upon the author’s many hints, including specific references to texts. Bechdel, as author of her own narrative, gives her character in Fun Home access to the texts necessary for highly embedded cognitive complexity, so the reader is much more likely to make the interpretation that she is a cognitively complex person. In The Crying of Lot 49, Pynchon dangles access to relatable and useful texts over Oedipa’s head, so the reader does not have the same opportunity to judge her cognitive complexity positively but can still imagine that she might be capable of it under different circumstances. In The Bluest Eye, Morrison does not even hint at a wider world of texts to which Pauline can relate, so the reader is more likely to see her as a cognitively flat character. All of these relative character complexities are illusions, enabled by the variations in social possibilities for people who occupy different levels of their social hierarchies—possibilities conveyed or not conveyed, in these instances, by texts.

Because humans engage in mind-reading regardless of whether their subjects are real or fictional, the consequences of readers’ methods of interpreting fictional interiority reach beyond the hierarchies of the worlds of novels and into the real world. Novels provide an opportunity for readers to reevaluate the role of preexisting hierarchies in how they interpret interiority. When Morrison depicts the lack of texts in The Bluest Eye that could show Pauline greater possibilities for self-realization than white media, a reader may first judge Pauline’s interiority negatively for failing to represent her internal state as she wishes, but may subsequently recognize the obvious dearth of better-fitting texts. The play in The Crying of Lot 49 makes evident that the main character is excluded from the higher echelons of knowledge for reasons beyond her control. When Fun Home, an autobiography, derives interiority of supposed real people from multiple unrelated external texts, the reader more easily questions the validity of those reader interpretations. The conspicuous nature of a textual reference in fiction, that which already makes it so useful as a stand-in for society during a fictional character’s construction, is what may allow the reader to notice its presence and therefore society’s influence in the process of assigning different interior complexities to characters.


Works Cited

Attie, Anna and Jena Yang. “‘Cognitive Alternatives to Interiority’ – Lisa Zunshine.” 26 Feb 2018, Microsoft PowerPoint file

Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. 2006. Mariner, 2007.

Gelley, Alexander. “Character and Person: On the Presentation of Self in the Novel.” Narrative Crossings: Theory and Pragmatics of Prose Fiction, Johns Hopkins UP, 1987, pp. 58-78.

Hubbard, Caitlin and James Leahy. “Character and Person: On the Presentation of Self in the Novel.” 8 Jan 2018, Microsoft PowerPoint file

Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. 1970. Vintage, 2007.

Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. 1965. Perennial, 1986.

Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith. Narrative Fiction. 1983. Routledge, 2005.

Todorov, Tzvetan. “Reading as Construction.” The Reader in the Text: Essays on Audience and Interpretation, edited by Susan R. Suleiman and Inge Crosman, Princeton UP, 1980, pp. 67-82.

Zunshine, Lisa. “Cognitive alternatives to interiority.” The Cambridge History of the English Novel, edited by Robert L. Caserio and Clement Hawes, Cambridge UP, 2012, pp. 147-162.