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Character Study

aseidman's picture
Character Study

By Arielle Seidman


 Susan Sontag, in her rather dramatically phrased essay “Against Interpretation,” writes that “none of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art knew no need to justify itself, when one did not ask of a work of art what it said because one knew (or thought one knew) what it did (Sontag, section 2).” To paraphrase; one doesn’t need to agonize over the interpretation of what art means under the surface, when one has the ability to appreciate and enjoy the surface beauty of the work. I’ve been a devoted and enthusiastic literature lover since long before high school, and when I arrived at college I was certain that I wanted to be an English major. In the course of my collegiate studies, however, I often find myself disappointed and alarmed by the damage done to works of literature by the ruthless and sometimes senseless[1] interpretation of literary critics. One particular element of fictional literature which I feel suffers the most from modern literary criticism is that of character. By character, I am referring to the personalities who fill the pages of the story (insert, as needed; novel, vignette, play, narrative poem).

This is a topic that undoubtedly would take volumes to cover successfully, and I have no more than four pages. For the sake of condensing my brilliant expostulations, therefore, I will demonstrate, as an example, how Henry James’ short story “The Beast in the Jungle” suffers from the analysis and critique of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.

“The Beast in the Jungle” is a story, written by Henry James, about a man, John Marcher, who believes fervently that he is destined for some great tragedy. He convinces an acquaintance, May Bartram, that she must stand with him against the horrible thing in his future, and May agrees to be his confidant and comrade. All their lives, they live like this, maintaining a friendship that consists really of Marcher relying on May to buoy him and to support his idea that he is destined for greatness, while May, although she seems to be falling in love with him, doesn’t speak of it. Near the end of the story, she gets very sick and dies, leaving Marcher alone. That’s really all there is (plot wise, anyway) to the story. The reader is left to decide whether or not Marcher ever encountered his great tragedy.

Obviously this story, which has maybe two or three significant plot points throughout forty pages, revolves mostly around the thoughts, feelings, and considerations of the two main characters. Without well developed characters who are fleshed out enough psychologically to carry the story without making any significant movement backwards or forwards, the story would not have made its way into the canon.

Eve Sedgwick, author of an article entitled “The Beast in the Closet: James and the Writing of Homosexual Panic,” offers an interpretation of the aforementioned short story. She writes, “James’s ‘The Beast in the Jungle (1902)’ is one of the bachelor fictions of this period that seems to make a strong implicit claim of ‘universal’ applicability through heterosexual symmetries, but that is most movingly subject to a change of Gestalt and of visible saliencies as soon as an assumed heterosexual male norm is at all interrogated (Sedgwick, 161).” Sedgwick goes on to describe how Marcher’s obvious lack of interest in May, his feelings of confusion and loss and his discovery of his own emptiness when it comes to both emotion and understanding of the world around him all stem from the fact that he is, in fact, suffering a sort of “homosexual panic,” and is (in short) unable to come to terms with his own homosexuality.

I read the story over again after I had taken in Sedgwick’s interpretation, and I am forced to admit that it holds up relatively well. It is very possible to read “The Beast in the Jungle” and to see signs of homosexual panic…assuming you are looking for them. However, reading the story with an eye for the over arching social implications, such as those of deviant sexuality, seems to devalue or even eliminate the individual personalities of the characters. John and May are not stereotypical archetypes, placed in the story for the sake of representing a homosexual everyman and a frustrated heterosexual everywoman. They are, in fact, people with motivations, concerns, conversations, and emotions, all of which are established in the text. Reading the story as though as it is simply a discussion of homosexuality relegates them to props, put in place only to establish a greater point, when in fact they are well established, irreplaceable literary elements.


The trouble, therefore, with interpretation, is that interpretation separates the parts from the whole, eliminates some elements of the story in favor of maximizing emphasis on others. A feminist reader might search a text for indications of gender-related power struggle. If she interprets, however, the gutted hills of a mining town as exploited womanhood, she may miss the beautiful landscapes or the fact that the sky is a particularly startling color, etcetera. I hate to use clichés in academic papers, but interpretation really makes one miss the forest for the trees. [2]

Works Cited

James, Henry. The Beast in the Jungle and Other Stories. Dover Publications, April 23,



Sedgwick, Eve."The Beast in the Closet." Ed. Sayran, David. The Masculinity Studies Reader. Blackwell

 Publishers, 2002.


[1] Obviously, this is my own interpretation. Sorry, I mean, my own opinion.

[2] It’s no use. I hate using clichés, but the thing about clichés is that they really are universally understood. It’s a good way of getting your point across, stilted as it may be. Forgive me.


Anne Dalke's picture

writing like henry james

You write like Henry James: over the top!

So much to talk-and-think about here; I scarcely know where to begin. I’ll start with the poignancy of your taking on Eve Sedgwick just as she’s died. The most striking retrospective I’ve seen
(so far) highlights both the ways in which her work “perfectly embodied the weirdness of what passes for intellectual life in our colleges and universities,” and the remarkable contribution it made to our thinking about identity, largely conceived:

Some contend that gays are like everyone else (what Ms. Sedgwick called the “universalizing view”) and should be treated that way; others portray them as an oppressed minority (the “minoritizing view”) who deserve protection… those who would outlaw gay marriage can argue either that homosexuals are a deviant subgroup (minoritizing) or that the ubiquity of homosexual tendencies (universalizing) endangers the traditional institutions that underlie civilized society. The persistence of the deadlock between the universalizing and minoritizing views…is “the single most powerful feature of the important 20th-century understandings…of social relations…her brilliance was to show how both of these claims are often made at the same time, and that this is actually a productive tension.”

I quote this @ length because it starts to push back @ the central claim of your paper—that in foregrounding Marcher’s sexuality, Sedgwick is neglecting his larger character, reducing individuality to stereotype, replacing the “universal view” with the “minoritizing” one. I would even say (in the terms you evoke earlier, in describing James’s story), that she replaces “rounded” character with the “reductions” of plot. In the language of Michael Chabon (this from his 2008 Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands),

That’s the trouble with Plot, and its gloomy consigliere, Theme. They are, in many ways, the enemies of Character, of “roundedness,” insofar as our humanity and its convincing representation are constituted through contradiction, inconsistency, plurality of desire, absence of abstractable message or moral…,Plot is fate, and fate is always, by definition, inhuman. Thank god, then, for the serpent, for the sheer, unstoppable storytelling drive that is independent of plot outlines and thematic schemes, the hidden story that comes snaking in through any ready crack

So what I see you arguing is for us, as literary critics, to treat characters as ends in themselves, not means to other projects; to handle them “as themselves.” But there’s a real problem here: what you insist “are not archetypes” but “in fact, people with motivations, concerns, conversations, and emotions” are IN FACT NOT PEOPLE, but characters, in fiction, created by typeface on a page, that activates a fantasy in your mind, characters that you, too, are relegating them to “props” in your own dreamworld…

How to move beyond THIS conundrum? Have you been hoisted on your own petard? I can’t wait to listen to you keep on thinking this one through ….