I’ve gained a few new followers of late, so I thought this would be a good time for me to reintroduce my philosophies on literature. I got thinking about my Master’s degree again recently, and the way that it shaped my views on literature, and I then felt the urge to write about and try to wrap my own mind around my ideas about fictional characters. It’s all a bit ranty, I admit, but I hope it will start some sort of discussion. Here we go…
- Sometime during my Master’s degree, I made it my mission to prove that fictional characters can be as real as real people. •
This statement may seem like a bit of a contradiction, but let’s unpack it further so I can explain.
It’s a pretty common belief that fictional characters are just that…fictional. Although they may be based on historical figures or take inspiration from the world outside their pop culture incarnations, fictional characters are not often believed to have any grounding in reality. Much to my dismay (as well as most other avid readers, I’m sure), characters from our favourite novels or television shows or films are not going to appear before us; they’re not going to leap out of the pages of worn and well-loved books or jump out of our television screens. They are confined to their fictional environments, to the world of the imagination, and there they are required (or doomed?) to stay.
I’m not at all interested in arguing that fictional characters can appear and become part of real-life. Technology hasn’t advanced that far yet. (Here’s hoping it does one day!) But, the idea that I became fascinated by as I was studying towards my Master’s, and one that I made it my vocation to explore, was the notion that fictional characters are real, just as real as the people all around us, within the confines of this fictional world they inhabit. Allow me to explain myself a bit better because this is, admittedly, a difficult idea to come to terms with…
I remember vividly the first time I encountered Charlotte Brontë’s Victorian novel Jane Eyre. I was in grade 12, so close to finishing high school and moving on to the University of Toronto, an academic institution I had been eager to study at for years. I was at that stage in my life when change was before me, inevitable and daunting but also exciting and exhilarating. I was going to have to go out on my own, make my own way, reestablish myself as a student and as a person in an entirely new atmosphere. More than anything, I needed a friend and a source of inspiration to bring with me on this journey, and it was at this time of vulnerability and uncertainty that I met Jane Eyre. Jane is a remarkable female character, unlike any other who appeared before or during the 19th century, or even since. She is strong, defiant, and feisty; she has confidence, even in her quietude and decorum, and she is uncompromising in what she believes to be right, moral and proper. She struggles and faces numerous challenges and must come to terms with what it means to be a woman in love while at the same time being an independent woman. She is exactly the sort of model I needed going into university because she inspired me to believe in my own power.
She became a sort of friend in this way. Don’t get me wrong, I knew she wasn’t a living, breathing friend who could sit down to tea with me. However, when I was uncertain about something, when I was faced with a difficult decision, she provided me with advice by presenting an example to me. In that way, she became my sounding board. More significantly for my argument here, I began to realize that although Jane Eyre couldn’t exist in the 21st century, and indeed would never exist outside of the pages of her novel, within her story, within the fictional environments of Lowood School and Thornfield Hall and Moor House, Jane did function as a real person. She made choices, she acted on them and she developed relationships with her fellow characters. She felt things, she had emotions that were so clear and abundant in her first-person narration, and she reacted to her surroundings just as any real person would.
So, imagine my delight when, in the second semester of my Master’s degree, I was assigned the presentation topic of discussing Jane Eyre’s relationships with her employer and love interest Edward Fairfax Rochester and with her rival Blanche Ingram. This was the topic I had been waiting for; I had considered Jane’s jealousy for years already, investigated it thoroughly when faced with my own romantic endeavours, and I felt fully equipped to speak knowledgeably about Jane’s sentiments and feelings.
That apparently was not what my professor wanted, though. I have to admit to being very surprised when my professor, at the end of my presentation, began to discuss with the class why they thought I was so fixated on making Jane into a real person. (To my professor’s credit, she gave me a great mark on the presentation and thanked me later for introducing such an interesting dilemma into our seminar…not that I did so intentionally!) My fellow students started to contemplate the desire of readers to transform their most beloved characters into real people, to analyze their decisions as if they were real people, and somehow they arrived at the conclusion that I was so emotionally attached to Jane Eyre that I wanted to assess her as though she was sitting beside me. Not necessarily untrue, but I felt as though my professor and my cohorts had entirely missed my point. I was never trying to suggest that Jane was a real person like any of us, sitting in a seminar room at a university in Canada. I was trying to suggest, though, that Jane was and is a very real person within the context of the novel Jane Eyre. At Thornfield Hall, when Jane converses with Mr. Rochester, she is a real person. Just as Thornfield Hall does not exist in “real-life” neither does Jane, of course; but, in a fictional world where Thornfield Hall is real, then so is Jane. I never once attributed feelings to Jane that were not amply supported by evidence from the novel, but at the same time, if Charlotte Brontë told me that Jane was feeling jealous, then she was feeling the very real emotion of jealousy that we have all felt, within her own literary world.
Maybe none of this really makes sense and never did, but it became an important distinction to me. It became the impetuous for my creating this very literary blog after graduation where I could and would talk about fictional characters as if they were real people as much as I wanted. Like I said, I would never claim that a character did or said something that wasn’t clearly asserted in the novel, but I did feel that it was totally justified to consider these actions and emotions with my real-life lens and evaluate these fictional characters the same way I would any person I encountered. Sure, a character’s world is limited to a specific time and place, but within that time and place, they are as real as any of us, and they should be analyzed as such. At least, in my opinion.
It’s no surprise to me that the academic community of my Master’s seminar wasn’t ready for this opinion. It’s not based in theory of any kind, and it’s probably a bit too emotional for an academic environment. That’s where my blog comes in, and any literary blogs for that matter; I see them as safe spaces to become attached to characters, to gush and rave about them, but also to wonder about them as if they were real. For they are real…maybe only within a specific number of pages, but in that universe they are very real and very much like any of us. After all, what is the purpose of literature if not to reflect and represent real life?
* In other news, I’ve recently created an email address where I can be contacted if you’d ever like to discuss literature or any of the topics I touch on here on the blog in more detail. The address is below and can be found in the Contact section on the right-hand side of this page as well. *
I’ll be heading on a short vacation to Québec City this upcoming weekend, so you may not hear from me for awhile…but stay tuned for posts when I return! I’m going to try to take many pictures of what I’ve heard is some beautiful scenery.
Janille N G
Girl with a Green Heart ❥