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Man’s Changing Mask

Man’s Changing Mask: Modes and Methods of Characterization in Fiction

Charles Child Walcutt
Copyright Date: 1966
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 384
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  • Book Info
    Man’s Changing Mask
    Book Description:

    Man’s Changing Mask was first published in 1966. Taking a bold new step in literary criticism, Professor Walcutt attacks the problem of characterization in fiction by going back to a neglected concept of Aristotle, namely that the action is more important than the characters, and that it generates the characters. By close examination of a wide range of works he shows how characterization is a product of the action (or plot) and demonstrates how it may be understood in that context. Most of the works he discusses are novels, although he devotes a full chapter to a brilliant analysis of Hamlet in which a new interpretation of that play appears. In the second half of the book, which deals with modern fiction, he suggests how profoundly the roles of fiction influence the images of man that prevail today. Professor Walcutt traces the growth of the character-action relation in three stages. First only the story mattered, and the character appeared in the deed. Then came the notion of a motive apart from the deed. And third, the romantic idea of a self that could not be expressed fully by any deed leads to the contemporary mode that presents the aimless hero in the plotless novel, a character (or un-character) left in a void by the absence of clear, firm issues to which he can respond with significant choices. It is here that life may be copying art, rather than the reverse.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-6483-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. iii-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    C. C. W.
  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-2)

    • [PART I Introduction]
      (pp. 3-4)

      A novel is made of action, character, and idea in a great many different proportions. Melodrama may at an extreme be almost entirely action. Character alone presides over the pure stream-of-consciousness, but it does so generally without taking shape. Allegory features the idea, with contrived action and two-dimensional characters. Moving in from these extremes, we find the richest (and perhaps the best) novels where the three elements of action, character, and theme are fused and balanced. My purpose in this study is to explore the what and the how of characterization, in what has turned out to be three aspects:...

    • 1 What Is Character?
      (pp. 5-19)

      Mark Twain (or was it Charles Dudley Warner?) said that everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it. Something of the sort could be said about characterization in fiction. Every critic talks about it because it must be the axle upon which all fiction turns; clearly we read fiction because it is about people and because we expect to learn something about them, which is another way of saying that character is the central substance of fiction. Why, then, has it always been so difficult to write about? Why is the criticism of fiction forever dealing with...

    • 2 Some Illustrative Versions of Melodrama: American Westerns; Corneille’s Le Cid; Lillian Hellman’s Toys in the Attic; The Conjugal Bed; and America America
      (pp. 20-38)

      Although the aphorism declares that actions speak louder than words, anyone who is seriously concerned with fiction and drama will probably insist that what characters say is more significant and more interesting than what they physically do, and he will go on to explain that words are deeds. When an author wants to display his people, he puts them together and sets them to talking. Such talk is action and interaction. The stream-of-consciousness is an interior dialogue in which the character talks to himself about himself and his world: it presents the mind in action. But, as we shall see,...


    • [PART II Introduction]
      (pp. 39-40)

      Aristotle said that character was composed of intellect and ethos, these being the areas in which a person manifested the flavor of his individuality. In the Greek tragedies the action was so strong that it had a life of its own: thestoryof the House of Atreus stood there dominating its actors, ignoring them. Thus Aristotle seems to have been impelled to seek out qualities of mind and judgment that identified the persons in one of these great actions apart from the fated deeds that they performed in the story, deeds that were going to take place inevitably and...

    • 3 Hamlet as Action
      (pp. 41-70)

      I should like to try to discussHamletto make some fundamental points about characterization in the terms I have been exploring. One hesitates to propose anything new on a play about which “everything” has been said; but I am impelled to it by the fact thatHamletis crucial to the emergence of modern notions about character in fiction. If there have been something like three thousand books and articles published on the play since 1900, it is because (and here I can make one statement without qualification) the character of Hamlet continues to puzzle us and everything written...

    • 4 Jane Austen’s Minuet: Pride and Prejudice
      (pp. 71-90)

      The problem ofHamlethas grown and grown since the seventeenth centurypari passuwith the post-Renaissance dissolution of certainty. It is no accident, however, that the alienated Hamlet was not deeply explored until the Romantic movement. When that phenomenon burst upon the intellectual front it redefined man as “a god in pain,” in Keats’s phrase, a creature for whom the occasions of reality were mean, stifling, and inadequate and whose spirit must revolt against the narrow mold that contained it. With this new spirit the assault on the bases of society itself begins. While Coleridge reaches for Xanadu, Wordsworth...


    • [PART III Introduction]
      (pp. 91-92)

      I should like to let the example of Jane Austen stand for the works of such great storytellers as Fielding, Thackeray, Dickens, and Trollope. For all their differences, they are spun from the same yarn. The novel of manners could be what I might call “ideal” only in writings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Before then, the novel had not been perfected; afterwards the manners did not prevail over the whole body of society. The genre continues, of course, even now, but it is generally a minor expression, particularly in the American novel.

      Before we come to the impact...

    • 5 To the Last Outpost of Evil: Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”
      (pp. 93-103)

      Conrad’s narrator in “Heart of Darkness” (1899), Marlow, begins his story on a sailing ship anchored in the Thames Estuary, waiting for the tide to carry him and his friends down to the sea; he begins with a thought for old England and some Roman soldier yielding to the fascination of the abomination as he struggled with himself in the dark forests of a barbarous clime. He cryptically outlines the story he is going to tell: “The fascination of the abomination — you know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.” The...

    • 6 Quest for the Antagonist: Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick
      (pp. 104-123)

      The ultimate journey into darkness in American literature is stillMoby-Dick(1851). To be sure, it is not as dark as Melville’sPierre, but it demands treatment in this part because it is so beautifully akin to our four other explorations into ideas — ideas about good and evil, ideas which dictate the form and dominate the characterization. Call me Ishmael, says the narrator, who acknowledges that when he gets the “hypos” he goes down to the sea in a ship and sets out to explore in some new fashion that epitome, that symbol of the outrageous strength and inscrutable...

    • 7 The Idle Inquiry: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”
      (pp. 124-130)

      After looking into “Heart of Darkness” andMoby-Dick, we may expect to find a short tale — really little more than a sketch at first glance — by Hawthorne something of a relief from the profundities of Conrad and Melville. But the relief is illusory: Hawthorne is as ambiguous as Melville, far more so than Conrad. Few journeys into evil have inspired more commentary than “Young Goodman Brown” (1835). It is constructed to be ambiguous. The hero starts off into the dark forest for a meeting that he does not want to acknowledge even to himself. At every step he...

    • 8 Freedom Afloat — and Adrift: Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
      (pp. 131-144)

      Melville inMoby-Dickis not concerned with the void between the individual and the state; he leaves social problems to assail the Ultimate. The story carries the little world of thePequodin a quest for the demonic secret of the universe, a quest that begins and continues away from the patterned manners of a class-bound society. The voyage explores a mystery, and the action moves by stages deeper and deeper into the idea of evil that has taken possession of Ahab. The story involves certain constants of human relations, like courtesy, authority, and friendship, as well as certain universal...

    • 9 A Sargasso of the Sinister: Katherine Anne Porter’sShip of Fools
      (pp. 145-156)

      Some three decades a-borning, Katherine Anne Porter’s long novel,Ship of Fools(1962) was awaited devotedly by the admirers of her subtle symbolism and polished sentences. What would this great short-story writer do with the full scope and sweep of a novel?

      Ship of Foolsis a new journey into the heart of darkness, as the author explicitly states in a preliminary note. “. . . this simple almost universal image of the ship of this world on its voyage to eternity . . . suits my purpose exactly. I am a passenger on that ship.” We can assume that...


    • [PART IV Introduction]
      (pp. 157-158)

      What I am trying to indicate by the somewhat portentous title of this part is that here we shall observe the primacy of the action reduced and diluted by ideas. The journey patterns of the previous part were obviously chosen because the author elected to use an expository rather than a strictly dramatic form. He knew that he was embodying an idea, and his form was the shape of his idea translated into a movement that represented it.

      The novels discussed in this part have rich, full, and even elaborate plots. But at the same time they have so powerful...

    • 10 Character and Coincidence: Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native
      (pp. 159-174)

      In the opening pages ofThe Return of the Native(1878), Thomas Hardy elaborates a theme with a series of symbolic images which he modulates so that, by the time he has got to the end of his first chapter, the theme has been considerably enriched and qualified. At first the bright sky and the dark heath seem to be bold images of two sharply distinguished principles: “. . . their meeting line at the horizon was clearly marked. . . . the heath wore the appearance of an instalment of night which had taken up its place before its...

    • 11 The Illusion of Action in Henry James
      (pp. 175-211)

      What happens in a story by Henry James and what the event does by way of defining character are questions that take on veils of obscurity because his style generates a sustained uncertainty as to what he is saying. The mystery of what he is saying becomes confused with the mystery of what has happened, why the character has done what he has done, and what the act has meant to him. Except for rare bits of dialogue — and even in most of them — the style is James talking subtle circles about his subject. And whereas in Hardy...

    • 12 Aristocracy as Gesture
      (pp. 212-236)

      A third element that intrudes upon pure characterization through action is the condition of aristocracy in a modern world that increasingly seems to value its qualities in proportion as it generates social conditions in which the aristocratic qualities cannot dominate, as their very nature says they must do. Between the aristocratic ideal and the exigencies of the hard actual modern world, characters are squeezed into caricatures of the ideal. Observing the process of distortion is a highly intellectual enterprise that thrusts the novelist, again, between action and character.

      Where there is an aristocracy, the pattern of manners is a conscious,...


    • [PART V Introduction]
      (pp. 237-239)

      It should be possible at this point to see more clearly how the character-action relation has been evolving from earliest times — and how “moral” has grown into theme and then into idea and then into the state where a new sort of mixture has appeared.

      When only the deed mattered, characterization must have happened so naturally that it was almost an unconscious process, like walking. The clause “when only the deed mattered” assumes a theoretical starting point when the action was the essential substance of a fiction. Then the reader or audience considered only what the character did and...

    • 13 The Idea Men
      (pp. 240-300)

      Novels of idea, even when they are very thin in character and action, may appeal to their contemporary readers by the charms of topicality, wit, or style, for which novels have always been eagerly read, just as they are for the interest of reportage or satire. (We shall look at examples of all these.) Ideas would seem to be more important for most readers than character, and they are indispensable for nearly all. For example, Jack London’s tremendous popularity depends not upon substantial plots or profundities of characterization, for he has neither, but upon his ideas. His books dramatize the...

    • 14 The Diminished Self
      (pp. 301-356)

      I have noted in the previous chapters so many foreshadowings of the diminished self that the present chapter must come as something of an anticlimax. At least, I hope so. What we have been tracing is a double convergence toward a vanishing point — a long perspective of which one side is the action and the other the notion of man. The figure of a perspective will not stand too much weight, because we began with the assumption of a time “when only the deed mattered,” when people saw a play or heard a story in order to see what...

  9. Index
    (pp. 357-368)