Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 486
O., the narrator and principal character in a series of events that are not told chronologically but are instead presented as the free play of his memory, which acts as a kind of “mobile,” circling and changing position around a few fixed points, the most important events of his life. O.’s profession is never stated, but he is a classical scholar of sorts, and he is fascinated by the Battle of Pharsalus, about which he read as a schoolboy and the exact location of which, as an adult, he has tried to find in the north of Greece. His translations of Caesar, however, are awkward, and his interest in Roman history is limited to this battle and to Caesar’s profile on the coins and bills of the countries he visits on a train trip through Europe. O. is not a writer, but he is interested in the multiple meanings of words. Lists of Latin words, with their French meanings, are scattered throughout the narrative. the visual possibilities of letters fascinate him—the A in the word pantalon in an advertisement for a clothing store becomes a pair of pants. O. is not an artist, although he is writing an essay on a painting in a German museum and greatly admires battle paintings by Nicolas Poussin, Piero Della Francesca, and Paolo Uccello. Only briefly is O. seen in an office, which is probably in the old home on the family estate in southern France. He counts out small piles of money in it, just as Uncle Charles used to do, to pay the dirty, shadowy men waiting outside in the dark hallway. He still lives in this place, with a wife whom he does not love and two children whom he does.
Odette, O.’s lover, an artist’s model with dark eyes and a cloud of black hair. Her child’s face is made up like a “poisonous flower.” She sometimes lies among cushions, surrounded by porcelain and vases of flowers, wearing a Japanese kimono, after posing for the painter, Van Velden. Sometimes, she is with O., wearing a cheap street dress and chipped fingernail polish. Her promiscuity is well known and drives O. to behavior of which he is later ashamed.
Uncle Charles, a relative whom O. remembers as being in the office, which smells of old wine and tobacco, seated at his desk, holding a half-smoked cigar in his bony hand, wearing eyeglasses that reflect the light. He is correcting, and often ridiculing, the young O.’s translation of Caesar’s account of the battle of Pharsalus.
O.’s grandmother, a matriarchal figure in her old-fashioned clothes of serge or dark silk, with a high collar and small tucks across the bodice, a cameo at her throat. There is majesty and importance in her position and her age. To the young boy, she represents death.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 571
As is the case with Simon’s shifting of scenes in this novel, so his characters vary and merge somewhat from time to time. The two most clearly defined characters are Uncle Charles and O., the narrator (his nephew).Uncle Charles is now deceased; when he was alive he had a job in banking or accounting, for O. recalls his large desk full of money. Uncle Charles is intelligent and kind; he helps the young O. with his homework. In particular, Charles assists his nephew in translating Latin passages about Caesar’s battle with Pompey at Pharsalus in Greece. After Charles’s death, O. remembers these childhood lessons and sets out to see the actual battlefield at Pharsalus. Charles’s life, unfortunately, had its unhappy aspects. He fell in love with the artist’s model, Odette, who is unfaithful to him. Charles is not alone in his anguish over Odette, for the painter, Van Velden, also loves this beautiful young woman.
The narrator, who rather late in the novel refers to himself as O. for the first time, is a complex character. He most often represents Charles’s nephew, but he sometimes becomes a female persona as well. For example, when O. attempts to break into his lover’s apartment, he feels that he is both O. and the woman lover inside making love to another man. Similarly, at a few points in the book, O. seems to become Charles, as the distressed, jealous lover of Odette. Such character mergings in this novel can confuse the reader, yet they indicate the similarities of experiences between O. and Charles. When O. becomes a female, Simon seems to use this occurrence to emphasize the androgynous nature of all human experience.
There are only a few minor characters who appear in The Battle of Pharsalus who have discernible roles. One of the most fascinating of these is the redheaded soldier who goes crazy in a barracks, threatening imaginary opponents with his saber. Standing naked, drunk, and cursing on a cold winter’s night, this soldier is described as an ancient gladiator by Simon. Despite his disheveled and wild appearance, this demented man takes on a heroic aura. When he is arrested and led away by an officer, the situation seems almost tragic—a great man has been subdued and diminished.
Simon’s other minor characters in this novel serve merely as backdrops in various situations. There are the people who emerge from the subway in Paris and walk pass the cafe where O. sits. These pedestrians represent humanity in several of its aspects—they are carefree, worried, rich, poor, young, and old, all together; even Christ appears on this Paris street. These subway passengers resemble the people riding the train through Europe with O. They have a few distinguishing features but are basically an anonymous group that forms a backdrop and stimulates O.’s reflections.
Similarly, the soldiers in battle represent merely an aggregation of struggling human beings—in the armies of Pompey and of Caesar at Pharsalus, and in Flanders with O. in World War II. It is not important to distinguish fully between these two basic groups of warriors, for their function in the novel is the same—they represent frightened yet courageous men in battle. These sets of soldiers also blend in with the soccer players striving on the field in modern Greece, for their game is similar to a battle.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 41
Gould, Karen. Claude Simon’s Mythic Muse, 1979.
Jimenez-Fajardo, Salvador. Claude Simon, 1975.
Loubere, J.A.E. The Novels of Claude Simon, 1975.
Roudiez, Leon S. French Fiction Today: A New Direction, 1972.
Sturrock, John. The French New Novel: Claude Simon, Michel Butor, Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1969.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support