Character — Is It There? Is It Real?

September 1, 2015

This summer I’ve been reading Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe trilogy: The Sportswriter (1986), Independence Day (1995), The Lay of the Land (2006), and now four short stories about Bascombe in Let Me Be Frank With You (2014).  In each of these works we see the world through Bascombe’s eyes and only his, the narrative mixing dialogue with others and (more) interior dialogue. Each unfolds over a short period of time, a few hours or a few days.  Very little of importance happens during these stretches of narrative though in each he does reflect on the important moments in his life: his son’s death, his divorce and subsequent relationships, his changes of career, his health crises.

This is justly celebrated fiction often compared to John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom novels.  Bascombe has been described as “one of the most memorable and authentic characters in fiction,” and the novels and stories contain bracing glimpses of recent recent American culture.

These works have held my interest even as I’ve realized I’m not like Bascombe and don’t even much like him.  There is an honesty about Bascombe I admire, but there is precious little generosity in him and few enough moments of kindness towards family, friends or strangers. He lives comfortably (there’s never a moment of financial worry), yet he adds little value to the life of others around him, doesn’t even seem to try much. That isn’t a reason not to appreciate the novels: I’ve been given deep access to someone I don’t much admire.

In “The New Normal,” one of the stories in Let Me Be Frank With You, Ford has Bascombe say to himself

Character, to me, is one more lie of history and the dramatic arts. In my view, we have only what we did yesterday, what we do today, and what we might still do. Plus, whatever we think about all that.  But nothing else — nothing hard or kernel like. I’ve never seen anything resembling it. In fact I’ve seen the opposite: life as teeming and befuddling, followed by the end.

Bascombe is contrasting himself with his first wife, Ann:  “Being an essentialist, Ann believes we all have selves, characters we can’t do anything about (but lie).”

As I read that I thought perhaps this is what truly separates me from Bascombe.  I think he’s being honest that he doesn’t believe in character, but I do, and what’s more, I don’t think I would have continued reading about Bascombe if I didn’t think there was a stable character that held Frank Bascombe together, something that gave him a kind of coherence.

Of course I also believe “character” is a construct.  It’s not an organ in the body; it’s not something tangible to which one can point.  And yet it is a useful way of understanding human beings. Knowing someone well means coming to anticipate how they will act in new situations in the future: what will delight or frighten them, whether they can be trusted (and with what), how deep are the ruts  from their past or whether they are capable of doing something that breaks with what has come before.  With nearly everyone I encounter, I think I find a reasonably stable character. Understanding this helps me sort out how to deal with them.  (It’s astonishing to me that Bascombe doesn’t see the world this way.)

Of course I found myself wondering where that word came from, how we came to have that term “character.”  Here’s etymology.com:

character (n.) Look up character at Dictionary.com
mid-14c., carecter, “symbol marked or branded on the body;” mid-15c., “symbol or drawing used in sorcery,” from Old French caratere “feature, character” (13c., Modern French caractère), from Latin character, from Greek kharakter “engraved mark,” also “symbol or imprint on the soul,” also “instrument for marking,” from kharassein “to engrave,” from kharax “pointed stake,” from PIE root *gher- (4) “to scrape, scratch.” Meaning extended in ancient times by metaphor to “a defining quality.”

You remember Eponina, who kept her husband alive in an underground cavern so devotedly and heroically? The force of character she showed in keeping up his spirits would have been used to hide a lover from her husband if they had been living quietly in Rome. Strong characters need strong nourishment. [Stendhal “de l’Amour,” 1822]

Meaning “sum of qualities that define a person” is from 1640s. Sense of “person in a play or novel” is first attested 1660s, in reference to the “defining qualities” he or she is given by the author. Meaning “a person” in the abstract is from 1749; especially “eccentric person” (1773). Colloquial sense of “chap, fellow” is from 1931. The Latin ch- spelling was restored from 1500s. Character actor attested from 1861; character assassination from 1888; character-building (n.) from 1886.

“A defining quality,” yes, but its origin is from something marked on the body, like a branding. That’s interesting. That the meaning “sum of qualities that define a person” dates from the mid 17th century makes the term come into use with the rise of the novel as a literary form.

Here’s the Google Ngram, showing its use declining since before the Civil War. Is Bascombe’s view winning out?

Character

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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