My Curious Reading: Character Logic
Let’s begin by splitting a hair.
E. M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel (Harcourt, 1927), gives his seventh lecture on the theme of Prophecy. He introduces a metaphor: “song” to represent the voice of the prophet; “the furniture of common sense”, to represent verisimilitude. Towards the end of the this section, Forster says, referencing the furniture: “Perhaps he will smash or distort, but perhaps he will illumine.” (Page 135.) But…
You note that the seer will have to be a thing more complicated than a berserker in a furnished room, if he is going to become the lamp that shines light. Illumine is a metaphor in its own right, one buried long since in the language. Logic is what produces this quibble. We read a lot of prose that never achieves the perfect symmetry of logic; we may do so without noticing more than a vague dissonance, or dissatisfaction. My examples for this piece will be a short story I read many times growing up, and that I like, Ray Bradbury’s 1953, “The Dwarf”, collected in The October Country (Ballantine Books, 1955); and a novel I’m tepid on, but had chosen for the recommendation of its having won the Booker Prize.
Bradbury’s creation of atmosphere is a signal feature of his style; nearly a character in itself. In all his work, he strongly imagines a place, then weaves its presence into the narrative as though this setting were sentient and motivated, itself the menacing figure in the shadows. “The Dwarf” is told from a single point of view, that of a boardwalk performer named Aimee. The story is ultimately didactic (not pedantic), driving towards a moral—that Ralph, the Mirror Maze proprietor, himself is the small man.
The dwarf (Mr. Bigelow), has in his own right no antecedents, no foundational truths. Aimee seems a fixture of the place, but has newly discovered the dwarf on the day the story opens. He has been meant (this mentioned a few pages in) to have come to the Mirror Maze for a year. Before that, we might guess, he lived someplace else…or, he has made a decision to begin visiting—a decision which would require reasoned synthesis of various pieces of information: a strong, if not conclusive, characteristic of sanity.
A practical joke’s outcome (one involving a mirror switch), is projected to drive Mr. Bigelow to suicide.
If we take Mr. Bigelow as a real person, who exists in a real world (so far as life is replicated in fiction), then we know he knows he is a dwarf. We suppose him to know bullying, likely enough with a degree of expertise; to know the other side of the coin: patronizing “help”; to know his own physical limitations, the baffles a man of his size finds built into the “normal” person’s world. We must suppose he has seen himself reflected with unflattering distortion many times—in the shine of a coffee pot, in a puddle after a rain; or, as he walks along the street, in a car’s fender, shop windows. Mr. Bigelow has a career; he pursues his affairs. He writes detective stories—does research, presumably, sends inquiries, sighs over rejections, dickers over payments, pays his rent, eats his meals, banks…has purchased the lapeled garment he is described as wearing. He speaks to people, and people speak to him.
As the story is constructed, it is only on the evidence that he has this heart’s wish, to see himself “normal”, that we can account for his complete breakdown at the end (and on the meta-evidence that the story has been so framed and so plotted at all, to offer the concept of normal/not normal, using the dwarf vs. Ralph, as this dichotomy’s embodiment.)
Mr. Bigelow has no attachment to Ralph, no expectations of him, no reason to feel for Ralph the trust of a brother; hence, to feel a deep betrayal, subjected to Ralph’s belittling treatment. Ralph is a man whose speech is loutish and disrespectful, the signal to a seasoned victim, of all he expects of a bully. Ralph has telegraphed to Mr. Bigelow that he is about to pull this stunt—today, his “old customer” can go into the maze for free. Unless we add something to the dwarf’s backstory, assume a trauma or a sorrow associated with the dénouement, we can only take the contrivance of the fiction, the single point of view, the information we’re given, as explanation for why Mr. Bigelow would not assume at once a mean joke, the sort of thing his real life counterpart might resignedly roll his eyes over. A real Mr. Bigelow might be tough, fatalistic; he might well have a sense of humor. He might, in naïveté, merely say to himself, “Jesus Christ! Why do people change things around?”…go back to the booth, say to Ralph, “Hey! What’s up?”
The character is possible, then; made seemingly so by the story’s construction—but he isn’t logical. He hasn’t got a psychology true to himself. Even his sympathizer projects feelings and thoughts onto him, seeks gossip about him, makes plans to save him, and only belatedly thinks of speaking to him.
(copyright 2017, Stephanie Foster)