The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Banville opens Doctor Copernicus in such a manner as to ensure that his hero will be viewed more as an artist than as anything else by having his initial sequence dealing with the infant Copernicus contain inescapable echoes of the opening sequence of James Joyce’s novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). More important than the merely formal elements of such an invocation, however, is the fact that it enables the author to develop, from the outset, a strong sense of his hero as an outsider. Between his perceptions and the world he perceives there falls, from the start, a shadow of misgiving which follows Copernicus throughout his life, and which his passion in facing his vision of the universe finally confronts and authenticates.

As an outsider, however, he differs from every other character in the novel. The most notable, and problematic, character-contrast is between Copernicus and his brother, Andreas. This gilded youth embodies what it is to belong to the world. Without any conception of who he is or what he wants to do, Andreas is blown by whatever wind of fashion prevails. His time is devoted largely to looking the part of a contemporary notable, an effort which merely contributes to his eventual moral and physical erosion. The glibness with which Andreas appears to participate in contemporary life is matched by the cynicism which festers in him as a result of such participation. His personification of degeneration may be unwitting,...

(The entire section is 571 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Nicolas Koppernigk

Nicolas Koppernigk (KOH-pehr-nihk), known as Copernicus (kuh-PUHR-nih-kuhs), the central character, son of a provincial merchant in the Ermland province of late medieval Prussia. He becomes a canon, a scholar, and an astronomer, ultimately revolutionizing the central concepts of astronomy and cosmology. After losing his mother at an early age and his father before he is ten years old, Nicolas is reared by his Uncle Lucas, a bishop, who has him educated in the church for the ecclesiastical life. Phenomenally quick at his studies, Nicolas is less adept socially, as he is shy, retiring, retreating before bullies, and uncomfortable with the physical. Perhaps because of his nature, he gives himself easily to the intellectual world, particularly to geography and astronomy, the mathematical triumphs of the period. He develops a fierce allegiance to truth as mathematically demonstrated. Because of this mathematical orientation, he begins to formulate the principles of a scientific method; recognizing that this will threaten philosophical and theological orthodoxy, however, he temporizes. His entire life is a struggle between the abstract to which he is drawn and the concrete that is forced on him. Thus, he repeatedly discovers that what life offers is not what he wants. The church offers security and membership in an elite class; the university offers academic prestige and membership in another elite class. During his episode in Italy, his fellow intellectuals offer love, both in fellowship and physically. Each appeals to different aspects of his personality. Each also requires, however, both accepting the status quo and abandoning his eccentric theories, that is, his unorthodox pursuit of the truth. This conflict leads him to delay publication of his masterwork,De revolutionibus, until he is on his deathbed.

Andreas Koppernigk

Andreas Koppernigk, Nicolas’ older brother, a playboy and a sensualist. As frivolous as Nicolas is single-minded and serious, Andreas addresses himself solely to the sport of living. As a boy at school, he constantly torments and teases his master; later, at the university and after, he pursues only pleasure. As a result, he suffers the physical consequences of such a course in that period of primitive medicine: His body deteriorates rapidly. His suicidal lack of self-control and...

(The entire section is 995 words.)