Dead Center: The Invention of Character in the Language of Modernism Open Access

Hovind, Jacob (2011)

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In "Dead Center," I examine the way in which the modernist novel interrogates and rethinks literary character as an effect of language. The project shows how the heightened concern with the primacy of consciousness and subjective experience converges with an emergent set of writing practices that emphasize literary experimentation and that interrogate the autonomy and impersonality of literary form. The modernist character is intimately linked with an understanding of the textuality of character that cannot however be reduced to a simple linguistic analysis. Neither simply an implied person nor a linguistic structure, character is always a figural play between both; a figure of language in which figure is always pointing beyond language. And we cannot think this tension inherent in character without looking at the modernist novel's intervention into the representation of personhood. Paradoxically, both aspects of the literary character, its textuality and its life, are exacerbated in modernism.

I first identify this conception of character in the criticism of Erich Auerbach, particularly in his readings of Dante and Flaubert, before turning to individual readings of major modernist novelists, each of whom poses the question of character in vital ways that unfold the implications uncovered in Auerbach's ontology. I trace the way in which literary life unfolds in Henry James as a rhetoric according to which the consciousness for which his characters are so celebrated emerges out of a ghostly structure of haunting, while I read Virginia Woolf's construction of character as the product of a complex web of personhood involving the death of the author and the transposition of textual authority to the impersonality of narrative voice, as it is structured according to the sentence of free indirect discourse. Lastly, I find in Samuel Beckett's novels the gradual reemergence of character out of its initial absence, reading his work as an allegory of the construction of character in any novel, as it becomes figured as the invention of something out of nothing, or life out of death.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Character and Modernism 1

Chapter One: Erich Auerbach's Figural Ontology of Character 18

Chapter Two: The Ghosts of Henry James 104

Chapter Three: Untangling Virginia Woolf's Web 213

Chapter Four: Samuel Beckett and Company 282

Conclusion: The Afterlife of Modernism 357

Key to Frequently Cited Works 371

Bibliography 373

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