Relationships with the Reader
Reader Dynamics: Examining Investment in a Fictional Character
When reading a work of fiction, our primary expectation is that we invest ourselves in the world of the story as much as possible. This is mainly done by using the characters as an entryway. However, what happens to our perception of these characters when we pause to analyze the nature of this investment? Presumably this is the link that prompts us to keep reading a story, and consists of a variety of interchangeable terms such “relatability”, “identification”, “sympathy”, and “likeability.” Rather than treat each type of relationship as the sole determining factor in our understandings of character, it is necessary to understand them as partial contributors to our overall investment. This mindset is present in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, as she presents us with a variety of characters that challenge these categories and force us to compartmentalize our reactions to different components of their identities. A closer look at some of the controversial characters in the novel reveal the dangers of attempting to limit a whole personality to one reaction. Thus, through this analysis we see the various factors that combine to form investment, along with the drawbacks and benefits of each type of relationship.
This essay begins with Alexander Gelley’s definition of a character, which states that they are a reader’s primary means of access into the social world of the fiction. Contrary to the structuralist thought of Barthes, which states that characters are simply participants in the larger narrative, Gelley identifies the eighteenth-century novel as introducing “…a readership capable of entering imaginatively into another personality, the fictive character…” (Gelley, 60) This is complemented by a further idea from Tzvetan Todorov that a character’s perspective, emotions, and internalizations filter an audience’s understanding of the narrative. (Todorov, 1980) These basic definitions provide us with an undeniable link between the reader and the novel, as their concentration is focused on the experiences and thoughts of the character, primary or otherwise. Furthermore, Gelley identifies the difference between a character in the fictional sense and the “person” that they also are. While the former deals with the external interactions that maintain and determine one’s social status, the latter involves the internalization that produces outward actions and is “…a sense of self that represents a locus of responsibility in public terms but may well conceal the motives that actuate behavior.” (Gelley, 65) This distinction indicates the importance of evaluating which aspects of a fictional character readers are reacting to. While the role of “character” is an experience that readers can witness in daily life, a human’s role as a “person” is impossible to come across in its purest form except in works of fiction and particularly in literature, where an individual’s stream of consciousness can be displayed.
These theories are present in the role that the novel’s protagonist and- most of the time- narrator, Claudia MacTeer, plays. Her narration is a commonly used form of external focalization in which we are provided insights and information about the world from her perspective. Our working knowledge of the novel’s world is affected by her background and opinions, and lead us to inherently trust her narration. One of the larger themes of the novel, the imposing of separate beauty standards on black and white communities, is introduced and developed through Claudia’s unique views. Rather than adopt the popular opinion that white girls are beautiful, she bitterly resents this notion and states that the dolls which represent them disgust her. “But the dismembering of dolls was not the true horror. The truly horrifying thing was the transference of the same impulses to little white girls.” (22) Her distaste for this particular opinion is threaded throughout the novel and contrasts with the opinions of those around her, setting her apart from the community she is immersed in. Regardless of our familiarity with the topic of African-American discussions and reconciliations of beauty, we are implicitly made to align with the protagonist’s sentiment- if not the particularly violent nature of her views- and relate, in some level, to the general processes of alienation and insecurity. Our investment in her success stems from our perception of her inner workings as a person, rather than as a social character, and our we are inclined to identify with the struggles we see as applicable to our lives. While this aspect of relatability contributes significantly to our investment, it is worth stopping to think about the reliability of the narrator (or, in this case, simply the protagonist) and the information they provide. Particularly with a personality as strong as Claudia’s, our relation to her own journey can very easily overshadow our alignment with minor characters, as Timothy Melly outlines in his theory of “competitive consciousness”. (Todorov, 1980) Instances in which she narrates the life of those around her, such as Pecola Breedlove, reveal her to be an unsympathetic narrator. Certain sentiments- such as wanting to hurt little white girls- are alarming, to say the least. What, then, is the real link between the likeability or relatability and the reliability of a character? Such questions can lead us to construct deeper and more well-rounded images of a character, and lessen their burden of providing a holistic view of their world. Claudia is a prominent example of a traditional reader-character relationship, in which the relatability of a character constructs our investment in them.
However, not all characters establish such easily identifiable relationships. Morrison constructs a heartbreakingly realistic narrative with characters that, as alienated and unique as they are, cannot be easily boxed off with dismissive labels of “good” or “bad”. We are introduced to this contradiction in Soaphead Church, a miracle-worker of that spends his time collecting any and all items. We are given a brief summary of his background, in which various factors led him to develop an aversion for dirt and the natural biology that accompanied human contact. Morrison constructs his character description in an extremely logical and natural sequence, and lulls readers into sympathizing- and perhaps identifying with- him before swiftly introducing Soaphead’s sexual attraction to young girls. “His sexuality was anything but lewd; his patronage of little girls smacked of innocence and was associated in his ind with cleanliness. He was what one might call a very clean old man.” (166) Rather than initially confront the readers with this, Morrison provides- if not a justification- at the very least a physiological explanation for this damnable trait. We are introduced to a self-reflection that directly puts us in Soaphead’s head. While by no means are we meant to empathize with his habits or sympathize with his actions, it is possible to argue the relatability of his essential dilemma; the shame and helplessness of an undeniable habit that must be kept secret to avoid societal repercussions. Perhaps it is fair to say that the relatability we may feel for this character is infinitesimally small compared to that of Claudia’s, and our investment in the two characters is incomparably different. However, what is essential in this process is recognizing the complexity of our view of Soaphead Church. Rather than instantly write him off, Morrison challenges us to delve into his character and separate the deeds from the person, rather than the character. Is it possible to be invested, even if we do not identify with, trust, or like a character? What compels us to give the character a chance if we like nothing about their person? These are all questions we should be asking when attempting to understand a character, so as to better situate ourselves within the world of the novel.
An interesting dimension to add to these categories of relation is the effect on our reception of art, with literature as a specific medium. Despite our investment in the world of the novel and our struggle to partition feelings of identification and relatability, we consume these materials with the constant knowledge that they are, ultimately, works of fiction. In theory, we have control over how much of ourselves we invest into them, and how much to retain and apply to our own lives. This is subtly included amongst Morrison’s numerous other messages in the novel, particularly apparent in the character Pauline’s interaction with movies. After viewing western films depicting beautiful actors- whom, interestingly, she does not attempt to separate from the characters they portray- “She was never able… to look at a face and not assign it some category in the scale of absolute beauty, and the scale was one she absorbed in full from the silver screen.” (122) Morrison depicts her as being consumed by two notions- romantic love and physical beauty- that could only lead to false projections, collecting self-contempt, and impossible standards for herself and those around her. While she is not the first character in the novel to be transformed by a reverence for “clean” and “white” beauty- Soaphead Church being a similar example- Pauline is unique in being involved with a process of consuming information in a manner that is startlingly similar to the process that readers are simultaneously experiencing. A possible interpretation of this scene, then, is as a warning from Morrison as to the consuming effects of false representations in all mediums. Perhaps it is best to invest ourselves in a work of fiction, but keep our extraction and application of information to a minimum. This intertextuality serves to create a contained reality in which readers can identify a relatable process.
Toni Morrison’s novel is confronting, multilayered, and brutally honest. Her characters vary on the spectrum of inciting a variety of reactions- empathy, sympathy, likeability, relatability- from us. Each of these reactions conflict and amalgamate to form the phenomenon of investment, in which we begin wanting a character to succeed. However, it is crucial in identifying the degree of our investment to recognize the different components of our relation to these characters. An individual that is not likeable can be relatable; another that warrants empathy may be unreliable. Morrison creates upsetting situations-for both character and reader- that may go to the extreme, but makes it impossible to villainize or shut down characters due to the semantics of the descriptions that she provides them. We see within these characters complex separations that painfully remind us of our own imperfections, and these distinctions- whether as character or people, realistic or fictional- are what cause us to invest so much in them. Thus, Morrison asks us to recognize the human aspect of all of her characters by revealing their innermost thoughts and constantly changing the narrative perspective of the story. (Word Count: 1760)
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.
Todorov, T. (1980). Reading as Construction. In S. R. Suleiman (Ed.), The Reader in the Text. Princeton University Press.