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Equating authors with their characters

Posted by Christopher Shea  June 23, 2009 11:14 AM

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Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene

It's often considered the height of literary naiveté to impute the views of a character in a novel to the book's author. And, to be sure, eighth graders need to be told that a protagonist is not simply a mouthpiece for his creator. And yet.

Reading "Graham Greene: A Life in Letters," Maud Newton notes a harsh exchange between Evelyn Waugh and Greene: Waugh thought that Greene had, in his novel "A Burnt-Out Case," treated his Catholic characters with disdain. In that novel, Querry, an architect who has lost the ability to connect with other human beings, travels to a leper colony in Africa to see if he can rescue himself. His every move is misinterpreted by the Catholics he moves among as evidence of his Godliness (or misinterpreted in other ways). Querry may be damaged, but he is smarter, or more worldly, than they are, and he views their interpretations with disdain.

In response to Waugh's complaints, Greene declines the easy out:

With a writer of your genius and insight I certainly would not attempt to hide behind the time-old gag that an author can never be identified with his characters. Of course in some of Querry's reactions there are reactions of mine, just as in some of Fowler's reactions in The Quiet American there were reactions of mine.

"At the same time, Greene adds,

I think one can say that the parallel must not be drawn all down the line and not necessarily to the conclusion of the line. Fowler, I hope, was a more jealous man than I am, and Querry, I fear, was a better man than I am.

In sum, the relation between an author and his progeny is more complex than book-review bromides typically imply. It is not a failing, as James Wood sometimes seems to imply, for a character to sound a bit like his author, but nor is the character a wholly autonomous creature whose views ought never to be attributed to the writer. All this may sound obvious, but "the time-old gag that an author can never be identified with his characters" lives on.

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Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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