A Little Different, but Still Valuable

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“A careful examination of the nature of the realistic fiction as modern criticism is coming to conceive it will show that in certain cases it is proper to treat literary characters as real people and that only by doing so can we fully appreciate the distinctive achievement of the genre.”

-From Bernard Paris’s “The Uses of Psychology” in Donald Keesey’s Contexts for Criticism page 217


Some of what Paris discussed seems to clash with what we have talked about in our previous English courses.  For instance, in the quote above, Paris suggests that it is helpful to treat the fictional characters within a story as real human beings.  We are always told never to do this in our courses, but this seems to me to be the only way that any type of Mimetic Criticism, especially Psychological Criticism, could work successfully.  I also wanted to point out that we might be moving into a new stage of criticism that rejects the use of a realistic examination of a character or voice/narrator in the story/poem because this essay was first published in 1974 according to the footnote on page 215.  In fact, many of the essays we are reading were written in the 1970s and 1980s, if not before, but I think this is the sort of subject that you must study in terms of its history.  

Another section of his text that I found interesting, yet countering the information that we have learned, occurs at the end of Paris’ essay.  He writes, “Psychology helps us to talk about what the novelist knows; fiction helps us to know what the psychologist is talking about” (222).  I think that this statement counters what we have learned because most of our experiences in studying literature are characterized by a devotion to a historical approach rather than one devoted to a mimetic, intertextual, reader-response, or formal approach.  I do see how Paris’ statement is possible and agree with what he is writing.  It seems as though he is suggesting that Psychology is a tool that we can use to evaluate a novel only because novels capture the fundamental portions of humanity that can be evaluated psychologically.  I completely agree with this statement, if this is his meaning.  I know I personally have learned a lot about real people from reading.

Because I now see that there is value to looking at literature in these previously seldom used “lenses,” I think that I will read much differently than I have in the past, and should I ever teach at a high school level or early college level, I would be sure that my students are trying on some of these more difficult lenses, if not so they master them, then so they know that they exist.


See what others have to say about Paris' essay.


Greta Carroll said:

Erica, I really liked when you wrote, “I know I personally have learned a lot about real people from reading.” I definitely agree with you and I like what Paris said there too. He points out that it can work both ways, we can use psychology to better understand literature and we can use literature to better understand people. It really does make sense, and I certainly think that literature has helped me to better understand people as well.

However, I do have some reservations to treating characters as if they are real people. When it really comes down to it after all, no matter how good an author is at creating a character and letting that character’s personality manipulate the plot of the story, when it really comes down to it, the character does not exist. The character must rely on the author and is limited by what the author can imagine. I talk about this in my blog entry on Paris, if you’d like to read more about it: http://blogs.setonhill.edu/GretaCarroll/2009/03/if_realistic_fiction_exists_ho.html

I definately agree with you two. I can just hear the my teachers of the past and present say, "They are not real, so they cannot teach you about reality." This comment would always burst my bubble. Mimetic criticism seems to rebel against the more philosophical kinds of criticism, which I love.

Greta, isn't some small shred of a character real, though. After all, EVERY character was written by a person and based off of a person who could, in some way, be real. For example, Superman could be real. And I'm not talking about some other universe or planet here but think of it like this. Clark Kent is an employee of a newspaper. He is in love with a co-worker. He hides his secret from her and everyone else to protect them. With the exception of superpowers couldn't this story be about a mobster? A man who tries to look like he makes an honest living but is really something quite different could fit Kent. All I'm really saying is that all characters have a shred of humanity in them. Although they aren't real, all characters have something that makes them interesting to read (the author has to put that in there because if the characters was completely out there, we wouldn't want anything to do with them.)

I think that Paris's point is that all characters are not suitable for mimetic criticism, think of the three little pigs, but some especially developed characters are because so much effort was put into making them that way. I agree that it is our responsibility to at least briefly look at characters like this.

Erica Gearhart said:

I agree with you Angela, when you say that there is "some shred of a character" that is "real." We know this happens because we can only base writing on reality, because if we did not base it at some point on reality, no one would understand it. The Clark Kent example is a great one. However, I also see what Great means when she says we "cannot treat characters as if they are real people." This is why I like both of your comments: we cannot look at a character as if they are a real person, but we can look at them in terms of reality, and therefore use mimetic criticism.

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