In Character: Ken Follett’s World Without End and an Analysis of Character in Literature

Last night I said farewell to old friends. I left them where they were and walked down the dirt road that led through town. I passed through the heavy gates that protected the city. I walked over the bridge, the centerpiece of my friends’ lives, and out of the Middle Ages, back into 2008 and the busy paved street that led to my house with indoor plumbing, central heat and air, and a great big comfy reading chair. I closed my book, placed it on the table beside me and sat silently for a few minutes, grieving. I had just finished Ken Follett’s historical fiction novel World Without End.

After nine hundred and twenty-seven pages, I had become attached to a cast of fascinating people. In the best novels, we are deliciously tricked into believing that when we close the cover, life between the pages goes on without us. How can characters so vivid just disappear into thin air when the book is closed? Therein likes the writer’s craft. Character Basics

Unlocking the character code can be a tool for critiquing literature. A character is born where speech, appearance, and action come together around a name. A characterization is the process by which the writer makes the character seem real to the reader. The protagonist, a hero or heroine, is the character with whom we become most deeply involved. The antagonist is the character that parallels or opposes the protagonist, providing the conflict in the story. A character that does not change through the text is a static character. A dynamic character does go through change as a result of the action in the plot. A flat character is one that has one or two simple qualities or traits and is not psychologically complex. Sometimes flat characters are called “stock characters.” These can be easily summarized, and are more a “type” than an individual.

Characters that are more complex and fully developed are round characters or dramatized characters. Round characters generally are consistent in action and reaction, and plausibly motivated. Writers may use direct presentation to tell the reader by exposition or analysis about the character. Writers also use indirect presentation, showing the character in action and letting the reader infer the character’s qualities. Traditionally, readers explore characters on a personal level. In other words, a reader asks, “What kind of person is this character? Is she a person I’d like to know?”

A reader might also try to figure out why the character behaves as she does, or compare the character’s action with what we would do in a similar situation. In order for a reader to become involved with a character on a personal level, we make a few assumptions about literary characters •• The character is motivated from within to act •• The character is responsible for their own actions •• The character is unique and responds in personal ways •• The character is can be judged by comparing thoughts with actions.

A personal approach to reading characters implies that the character is morally accountable for her actions in the same way a real person is judged accountable. As with contextual readings based on social customs, character readings based on social customs may reinforce the prevailing set of values and discount new, different, or novel beliefs and practices.

Characters as Signs

Another way to interpret characters is to see them as signs or devices that represent values in the text. In fiction, characters can be used to open up or explore aspects of human experience, or to illustrate a trait of human behavior. A symbol is something that stands not only for itself, but also for an abstract idea, belief, or quality. Conventional symbols are ones that are widely accepted and used by writers. Some symbolic characters are consistent throughout the text, but others gather new meaning throughout the text.

An archetype is a universal symbol or prototype that evokes response in a reader, sometimes unconsciously. An archetype symbolizes basic human experiences, regardless of time and place. Conventional archetypes include •• the “great mother” •• the “wise old man” •• the “trickster” •• the “scarlet woman” •• the “faceless man.” •• the “artist-scientist”

Example: The Symbolism of the “Artist-Scientist

One archetype is that of the “artist-scientist.” The artist-scientist is a builder, an inventor, a seeker or dreamer, and a thinker. They may be so caught up in their own thoughts, they often must be reminded to eat or sleep, or come in out of the rain. They are both highly knowledgeable and innocent. They represent the wonder and the danger of curiosity.

The artist-scientist is an agent of change. This archetype character might spend hours concocting elaborate plans to reach the tower of the castle to rescue the princess, while the hero simply walks in the front door and up the stairs, scoops up the damsel and rides off into the sunset. The artist-scientist has an idealized view of reality. As a failure, the artist-scientists may symbolize the futility of trying to control one’s own fate. If successful, the artist-scientists can symbolize the idea that you can’t stop a dreamer from trying to change the world. Frequently naïve, the artist-scientist can also symbolize a gap between knowledge and fact.

Application:   The Artist-Scientist in World Without End

In Follett’s historical novel World Without End, the characters were vivid and detailed. His research was thorough, and he effectively used indirect presentation to flesh out the characters, which behaved, thought, and spoke in keeping with the historical period. The character Murthin is an example of the artist-scientist archetype. He’s of noble birth, but forced by poverty to become a builder. Since little science and engineering was known in those days, Murthin had to excel as an engineer, an architect, and a physicist.

When faced with a problem, Murthin never failed to invent or create something that solves it. In particular, Murthin designed a bridge to replace one that failed. Murthin studied the problems with the old bridge, and came up with new technologies to solve them. Superstition and religion are at cross purposes with Murthin’s science and Murthin mirrors the medieval trend from church rule to secular rule.

 To the townspeople, Murthin’s methods are strange and untried, and Murthin is faced with constant efforts to thwart his plan. Murthin represents the science side of the science-religion debate. He is determined, logical, and tolerant of new ideas. He is so persistent, that the changes he wants to bring to the town seem inevitable, like the proverbial progress that is said to be unstoppable.

By refusing to work with mindless adherence to the past, Murthin represents the idea that knowledge isn’t finite, that all there is to know is not already known. For Murthin, knowledge as dynamic rather than static, and mere mortals are capable of moving knowledge forward. Murthin literally and figuratively builds, stone by stone, the foundation for the village’s inevitable crossing into an uncertain future.

Bibliography

Schema (psychology); http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schema_(psychology)

Glossary of Literary Terms, Mayer Literature

http://www.bedfordstmartins.com/literature/bedlit/glossary_p.htm#top

 PAL: Perspectives in American Literature – A Research and Reference Guide – An Ongoing Project, Paul P. Reuben http://web.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/append/AXG.HTML

Literary Archetypes http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Literary_archetypes

Schema Theory: An Introduction, Sharon Alayne Widmayer, George Mason University, http://www2.yk.psu.edu/~jlg18/506/SchemaTheory.pdf

A Glossary of Literary Criticism http://www.sil.org/~radneyr/humanities/litcrit/gloss.htm Anatomy of Literary Criticism, Frye, Northrop 1957.

http://www.sil.org/~radneyr/humanities/litcrit/anacrit.htm

Follett, Ken, World Without End

 New York, Penguin Group. Moon, Brian, Literary Terms,

The NCTE Chalkface Series, 1999 Segal, Robert Alan; Jung, C. G. (1998). On mythology, Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-01736-0  

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Review of Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

There’s no denying that Per Petterson is a master storyteller.  His spare prose squeezes every ounce of meaning from the chosen words in his novel, Out Stealing Horses.  The Norwegian setting lends an other-worldliness to the story of an older man reassessing his past.  In particular, the man reconstructs memories of his father.  Partly from his own memories and partly from wartime stories about his father told by a friend, what emerges is a contradictory tale of a father’s wisdom and love and of a father’s neglect. 

Lovely prose and haunting subject notwithstanding, I was  nonplussed by Out Stealing Horses.  I never developed a relationship with Trond, the man at the center of the story.  It was difficult to keep my mind from wandering while reading about Trond.  His self-imposed removal from the outside world, which provokes his contemplation of this youth,  feels artificial.  Despite ooccasional wispy hints of his earlier life, Trond never becomes real.  Trond, isolated in a cabin in the Norwegian woods, seems more a vehicle for an interesting semi-story of wartime intrigue.  Trond is just another anti-social old guy who likes to live alone and think about himself.

Out Stealing Horses made the New York Times Books of the Year list, so perhaps I missed something.  Or, perhaps, certain authors of the male persuasion overestimate the charm of isolation and rumination.  Without a compelling character, reading about Trond’s memories of his life is like sitting through a long dinner with a first date who does nothing but talk about himself from soup to nuts.

Still, Petterson’s writing is lovely and spare, and ultimately worth reading.  I just don’t think the story is as universally appealing as some reviewers believe.

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An Apology of Motherhood–Meg Wolitzer’s The Ten Year Nap

I was in my car when I heard Meg Wolitzer on NPR discussing her new novel, The Ten Year Nap. For a weird second, it seemed like I was talking on the radio, but that was impossible because I was in my car, swerving inappropriately into other people’s lanes. Wolitzer was definitely talking about my life-the life of a woman who quit working to stay home with the kids. I dug around for a pen, and scribbled the title of the book on an old bank receipt.

I went straight home and ordered the book. The Ten Year Nap follows a group of women who put careers on hold to be stay-at-home moms. But, Wolitzer doesn’t write about that initial decision that comes as such a shock to many modern new moms who find themselves embracing what we thought was an old-fashioned notion of motherhood. Instead she focuses on a later stage of motherhood, when the infants have become school-aged, and what was meant to be a temporary situation begins to feel disturbingly permanent. Wolitzer examines the moment when the mother comes up for air, catches her breath, and figures out how to become comfortable in her own skin again. I responded as strongly as I did to Wolitzer’s book because I am a mother who quit working to raise a child. I was desperate to read The Ten Year Nap because I hoped to find some explanation or justification for the decisions I’ve made. Honestly, I was hoping the book would confirm that what I was doing was smart and worthwhile.

Wolitzer’s book, though, doesn’t take sides in the work-home debate. What it does do is elevate the debate by treating the subject intelligently, with wry humor, and a certain amount of contemplative reverence. It is a fairly realistic paean to the confusing mess of feelings that go along with modern motherhood. The women in the novel, each in their own way, are experiencing a kind of mid-life crisis. One central character, Amy, gave up a law career ten years earlier and now worries that she’s too out-of-date to go back to work. She’s also coming to grips with the financial toll the decision to stay at home has had on her family. Amy’s best friend, Jill, chose to stay at home to raise her adopted daughter with whom she is disturbingly unable to bond. Isolated in her new suburban home, Amy struggles to reconcile her expectations with her real life. The barrier-busting feminists from the early days of the women’s lib movement are represented in the character of Amy’s mother, Antonia. In a way, Antonia and her group of aging feminists seem almost as dated as a group of June Clever moms. Yet Amy can’t help wondering if, in making her decision to quit working, she has turned her back on the hard-fought gains made by women like her mother. Is a woman who quits work to raise children backsliding? It’s a question many women struggle to answer.

When I entered the work world in the 1980′s, women executives tied little scarves around their necks in a strange homage to the men’s necktie. Female veterans of the workplace warned of the danger of appearing too feminine. We should never coo over pictures of other people’s children and should never bring baked goods to office parties. God forbid anyone should visualize us in the kitchen with a mixer and an oven mitt. We were wedging our way into what had been an exclusively man’s world by mimicking as closely as possible the successful man. What our strategy failed to consider was that by modeling ourselves on men, we became conspirators in further diminishing the value of work traditionally considered “women’s.” If the feminist movement was about “self-actualization,” it has failed women who choose home over work. Women have gained status in the work world. But women who discover they want to stay home with their children can’t shake the feeling that they are somehow settling for less than they should.

If men and women were valued equally, there would be equal numbers of men and women choosing home over work. Clearly that is not the case. The Ten Year Nap illustrates how intensely personal these decisions are. It also reflects the biases that still remain in play between men and women. The decision to return to work or stay home with a child depends, not just on unique personal factors, but also on perceptions. Real parity between the sexes isn’t possible until both sexes perceive both kinds of work as equally valuable.

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Book Review: Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid brackets his first novel, Moth Smoke, with the story of Aurengzeb, the brutal ruler of the Mughal Empire.  On his deathbed, he regrets his life of cruelty and tells his sons not to follow his example.  But it was too late; the sons had already inherited their father’s fighting spirit.

            Against this ancient canvas, Hamid tells a story of modern Pakistan, rich with corruption, drugs, and privilege.  Daru Shezad is a restless, bored banker who looses his job and spirals downward from there, sleeping with his best friend’s wife and wading ever deeper into criminal activities to support himself.

 I knew the story would be dark when, early in the book, Daru drives the roads of Lahore on the way to visit a friend he’s not seen in a long time.  He drives with his knee as he empties the tobacco from a cigarette and fills it back up with hash.  I could not forget years of seeing news coverage of car bombs exploding in Middle Eastern countries.   Daru’s elaborate cigarette choreography was ominous. Didn’t he know he lived in a dangerous place?

           The answer to that question is, not really.  The title, Moth Smoke, comes from a game Daru makes up involving a moth, a flaming candle, and a tennis racket.  Like the moth who can’t help but fly close to the flame, Daru cannot see his own reckless behavior.  The game mirrors his accelerating downward spiral.   Daru isn’t an admirable man, or even a likeable one, but he is disarmingly clueless as to his flaws.  For instance, while he fiercely resents not quite ranking with the jet set, he sees nothing wrong with physically and verbally abusing his young house servant, refusing to pay his salary for weeks on end.  Despite his modern lifestyle, he is still tied fast to the ancient tradition of class.

            Hamid neither glorifies nor judges modern Pakistan and there’s no sentimentality for tradition.  In Lahore, as in other cities of the world, people get jobs, lose jobs, go to parties, and fall in love, and betray friends.  In Moth Smoke, though, it takes place in the shadow of Pakistan’s first nuclear test and you cannot forget that Pakistan is another character in this story. 

           

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Are Great Books Really That Great?

Now the paralysis sets in.  I feel like we’re getting nothing done at school.  My son is tired all the time, and so am I.  We’re both anticipating that big jump from middle school to high school.  I try to remember, without much luck, what I felt like at fourteen.  I seem to recall feeling like I knew pretty much everything there was to know and my parents were totally stupid. 

Anyway, I’m trying to figure out what to teach next year.  The idea of a “great books” curriculum has always interested me, especially since I’ve been semi-following a Classical education program.  But, in reading about great books programs, I’ve learned that there is a big controversy over the whole philosophy of a core of western literature.  The liberal left – of whom I am one-feels the “great books” idea is a movement based on a religious agenda.  The whole western Christianity is better than anything else sort of stuff.  Well, I hadn’t planned on using just western lit in my great books program anyway.  But still, it niggles me.

I am halfway through David Denby’s Great Books.  He went through the core curriculum at Columbia University because he wanted to find out what all the fuss was about between liberals and great-bookers.  It’s thoroughly interesting and there doesn’t seem to be anything ominous about reading that particular list of books.  He makes the point that, while ancient Greek and Roman literature is patriarchal, for example, that doesn’t mean it should be avoided by we liberated women of today.   Reading Aristotle doesn’t demean me as a female.

Then, today, Mortimer Adler’s How to Think About The Great Ideas  arrived from Amazon.  I flipped through it, too tired to even begin a chapter.  I came across a section entitled, “Darwinism is Incompatible with Human Dignity.”  As a secular homeschooler, one of the biggest challenges is finding science programs that aren’t Christian-based–that exclude evolution.  It rankles me every year when I try to put together a science curriculum.  Now, here was this guy I’d been drawing on for ideas about rigorous and logical thinking, and he’s apparently challenging Darwinism. 

The best I can tell from a superficial reading is that one of the central ideas to Western thinking is the distinction between a person and a thing. Implicit in our cultural ideas is the idea that people are superior to animals.   If we believe that man is different from things or from animals–if he is unique rather than just another form of thing–Darwinism is inconsistent.  If we all descended from animals, then we are not unique or superior to animals but, rather, are only different in degree from animals.

I’m troubled by what I’m reading, but not sure why.  Underneath it all is the thought that I’m spending way too much time developing stuff for school.  I should be working on my book.  I’ve got another one percolating in my brain, and I have forbidden myself from doing anything more than scribble out stray thoughts.  Dude–it’s high school.  Am I up for this?

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How I Lost a Part of Myself

 

Everyone needs a good epiphany once in awhile.   An epiphany can knock you out of a rut, turn your head around, open new possibilities you thought weren’t possible.  The very best thing about having an epiphany is the spill-over.  Once you change your conception of one little aspect of your life, it’s possible that everything else will be affected by the cosmic shift.  For me, it happened two years ago when I lost a big chunk of myself.

This time two years ago I weighed sixty pounds more than I do today.  I gave up hope that I’d ever be thin again, no more admirers, no more double-takes.  I’d given up hope of ever again becoming incensed by whistling construction workers.   It wasn’t a happy truth, but I grew to accept that my shelf life had expired and I’d been taken off the market. 

I had the usual waistline and hip issues.  What surprised me was how seriously fat is attracted to breasts as well.  Mine were a living science project on gravity.   Large breasts make a great catcher’s mitts for spilled food and like a scarlet letter, all my shirts bore stains.  My wide behind was a billboard that said, “I have absolutely no self control.”  It didn’t help that all my friends are thin.  At parties, like an illicit lover I tried to act blasé about my lust for whatever sweets were served, but I’m sure my friends noticed me surreptitiously going back for seconds, thirds, fourths.  It took a lot of work to haul around that much fat and I was embarrassed by the savage shade of red my face would turn at the least exertion.  I was even more mortified when my face dripped sweat from every pore, forehead to chin. On the plus side, if I got thirsty, I could just suck liquid off my upper lip. 

I never really thought the whole diet thing would work.  Only in hindsight can I even own up to being fat.  I assiduously maintained plausible denial by shunning mirrors and other reflective surfaces and refusing to pose for any family pictures unless there was someone fatter in front of me.  You can tell it’s me in photos.  I’m the elbow on the far left. 

The problem with denial-even those most meticulously maintained-is that it all goes up like smoke if you let your guard down even for a minute.  My lapse happened at my doctor’s office when I thoughtlessly caught a glance of my chart while the nurse wrote down my weight.  It was careless and I knew better.  I had not memorized every inch of ceiling above that scale by being careless.  Denial was no longer plausible.  I told my doctor I was sick and tired of being fat and was ready to do something about it.  I think she believed me just a little less than I believed myself.

I’ll be darned if the diet thing did work.  The first sign came while showering one night about two weeks into my diet.  Reaching around to wash my back side, I realized suddenly that I could SEE my back side.  There it was.  Just a little twist of the waist and there it was.  For a minute I thought I’d fallen into a parallel universe, but then I remembered that I’d been dieting and getting smaller was what was supposed to happen when one diets.  I’d heard the stories, but never put any stock in them.  Things snowballed after that.  One little taste of victory made me voracious for more.  It was like Christmas Day every day, except for the days when I felt like I’d won the lottery.  Lest I be guilty of overselling, not everything about my new small-sized perspective was good.  Being able to look down on myself past the top of my belly I realized that while I was as yet free of grey hairs on my head, I had silvered up in other areas.  Still, it was worth it to be smaller.

Shortly after the shower revelation, I was zoning out in the kitchen while my husband and son argued and noticed my size sixteen J Jill skort was kind of baggy.   Out of natural curiously (or perhaps it was the show-off in me) without unzipping or unbuttoning, I pulled down on the skort.  It came all the way off.  Glory be!  I was thrilled, but my son was somewhat alarmed.  Mama needed some new clothes, baby.

New clothes, indeed.  I needed new soup to nuts.  Bras, panties, pajamas.  Even my wedding ring got too big.  Only by going to Wal-Mart was I able clothe myself through size twelve, size ten, and size eight.  Size eight was where I figured I’d top out. That’s where I was before I got fat.  But my new destiny was revealed to me in a dressing room at the mall by a size six pair of blue jeans. 

Second only to the size six jeans, the most exhilarating purchase was a new bathing suit.  No bikini-I am a sensible forty-something lady after all.  But I did get an appropriately modest two piece with skirt and a supportive bodice.  It revealed just a small strip of my very pale and newly-flat belly.  Like my daddy used to say, if you’ve got it, flaunt it.

People congratulated me and called my weight loss an accomplishment, but I feel like I lost weight in spite of myself.   I never in a million years believed it would actually happen.  It dawned on me that there might be other heretofore impossible things I could do.   There were, especially physical things like chasing a Frisbee, sliding gracefully between chairs in crowded restaurants, turning backward somersaults, to name a few.  The best impossible thing I’ve done wasn’t physical, though.  By far the best thing I’ve done is letting other people read my writing. 

People often ask me for dieting advice.  They want to know “how I did it.” Then, usually, the person tells me all the reasons they could never do those things.   After awhile, I got tired of listening to excuse lists and began to feel a little self-righteous.  I’m trying to sidle off that high horse.  Most of my friends and family have gotten used to the new me and have stopped wanting to talk about diets.  I’m settling into the new me, too.  Maybe I’m almost back to being just me.  I’ve kept the weight off so far.  But, I swear, my thighs are looking kind of fat.

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Little Boy Going on Big

The cutest little boy used to live with us.  My husband and I were talking about him just the other evening.  He wasn’t with us long.  In fact, his stay flew by.  He used to hold my hand and climb up on my lap for a story.  He had a zoo-full of imaginary animals friends, including Gallup–a horse made of a broom stick and a bandanna.  I don’t know what happened to that kid.    I just wish I’d known when he took my hand that day it would be the very last time he would.  The next time, he’d wriggle his hand away from my grasp.  I wish I’d known and I’d have done something special, some ceremony or ritual to mark that dividing line between holding hands and walking alone.   There’s a great big, tall, low-voiced young man who lives with us now who has a charm all his own.  He’s turning fourteen soon and I know better now.  I know I’d better pay attention to the things he outgrows.  Just like with the little boy I took to the jungle jim at the park–every time I got used to one of his acrobatic feats, felt I could step back and let him go it on his own, he’d try something new, something that was almost, but not quite within his reach.  I’d have to rush in to steady or catch.   So, this year, when he turns fourteen, I’m going to remember what thirteen felt like.

 

Thirteen

You aren’t what I expected you would be

This other person in the house

How could I possibly have known

The sum of all your parts?

In my hand your little one nested

But yours grew bigger than mine

With veins like your father’s hands

My father’s eyes in certain light

Cherokee cheekbones with freckles

My brother’s goofy laugh

You used to steal my shoes to scuff around the house

Now you give me hand-me-downs

You hung medieval swords on your wall

And gave them each a name

Like the one-hundred and three stuffed animals

Inside a box in the basement

I still reach for your hand crossing the street

But you recoil because I forget sometimes

You are thirteen now

And you wrote no letters

To Santa Clause this year

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