books, ideas

why characters in novels act as they do

“…One already sees the “application” of “results” from the neurosciences and evolutionary biology to questions about why characters in novels act as they do or what might be responsible for the moods characteristic of certain poets. People seem to be unusually interested in what area of the brain is active when Rilke is read to a subject. The great problem here is not so much a new sort of culture clash (or the victory of one of C.P. Snow’s “two cultures”) but that such applications are spectacular examples of bad literary criticism, not good examples of some revolutionary approach.

If one wants to explain why Dr. Sloper in Henry James’s novel, “Washington Square,” seems so protective yet so cold about his daughter Catherine’s dalliance with a suitor, one has to begin by entertaining the good evidence provided in the novel ─ that he enjoys the power he has over her and wants to keep it; that he fears the loneliness that would result if she leaves; that he knows the suitor is a fortune hunter; that Catherine has become a kind of surrogate wife for him and he regards her as “his” in that sense; that he hates the youth of the suitor; that he hates his daughter for being less accomplished than he would have liked; and that only some of this is available to his awareness, even though all true and playing some role. And one would only be getting started in fashioning an account of what his various actions mean, what he intended, what others understood him to be doing, all before we could even begin looking for anything like “the adaptive fitness” of “what he does.”

If being happy to remain engrossed in the richness of such interpretive possibilities is “naïve,” then so be it.

– “In Defense of Naive Reading,” NYT

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