What is the importance of characterization in the English novel?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The creation of memorable characters has, indeed, marked the English novel. Dickens's characters such as Scrooge, Fagin, The Artful Dodger, Madame Defarge, Miss Havisham, Sam Weller, Little Nell, Mr. Micawber, Mr. Bumble; Thomas Hardy's Tess; the Bronte sisters' Jane Eyre and Catherine and Heathcliff; Jane Austen's Elizabeth and Darcy; Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, and many other characters are what often shape the narratives of the English novel, driving it much more than any structure of plot. 

In addition, they frequently are the medium for theme. In Hardy's Tess of the d'Ubervilles, for instance, it is the character of Tess through whom Hardy expresses his concept of Immanent Will, as well as how the Industrial Revolution in England has diminished the quality of the lives of rural England. In another example, the eccentric Miss Havisham of Dickens's Great Expectations represents a frivolous aristocracy that has lost touch in Victorian England. The heinous Fagin of Oliver Twist exposes the criminal element of London as well as the exploitation of children in Victorian times. Clearly, the novels of the Bronte sisters, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, are structured around detailed characterization that convey concepts and themes. How better, for example, can deep passion be expressed than in the words of Catherine to Nellie?

"Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He's always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being."

Expressive of a national or cultural thinking, characters in the English novel often set the tone or atmosphere of a novel as well as reflecting its historical context. This cultural thinking is, indeed, evident in such novels as Henry Fielding's Tom Jones and Hardy's Tess of the d'Ubervilles in which Angel and Tess represent different social classes. Cultural representation is evident in Bronte's Jane Eyre, for instance, as Imperialism, Spivak contends in "Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism" structures the feminist individualism in the character Jane. Without question, character is of paramount importance to the English novel.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Characterization is broadly used throughout the English novel, as it is in all novels, simply by virtue of the function is serves to the plot. First, a novel is...

...a lengthy fictitious prose narrative.

A story line is the chronology of a story, however the plot is what carries all the other aspects of the story along. It is...

...the arrangement of events to achieve an intended effect consisting of a series of carefully devised and interrelated actions that progresses through a struggle of opposing forces, called conflict, to a climax and a denouement.

So the plot carries with it the conflict or conflicts, following a rising action to the point of greatest intensity (or the turning point), referred to as the climax, and ends with the resolution or denouement, where loose ends are tied off, questions are answered, and the reader is generally given closure.

The novel, as said, is fictitious, so the author's intent is to grab the reader's interest, revolving around the characters and their actions (and interactions); and the manner in which each member of this "cast" is portrayed (the characterization) is used to involve the reader, share the theme or themes the author is trying to portray to the reader, and create a reaction on the reader's part: humor, concern, displeasure, etc. The more the reader is involved emotionally, the more successful the author is in sharing his or her tale.

Characterization is not simply a question of describing a character—"creating an image." It is much more sophisticated than that; it...

...generates plot and is revealed by actions, speech, thoughts, physical appearance, and the other characters’ thoughts or words about him.

Direct characterization is when information about a character is shared in an outright manner by the author (or narrator) and even other characters. Inference is not necessary. In indirect characterization, inferences are drawn by what the character does:

...traits are revealed by action and speech.

Darcy in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice proves himself more worthy than Elizabeth every credited him as being. He quietly pays for Elizabeth's sister Lydia and the scoundrel Wickham to marry, to save Lydia's reputation. This is indirect characterization.

In Austen's Emma, Emma admits that she has been ridiculous:

"I am perfectly satisfied," replied Emma, with the brightest smiles, "and most sincerely wish them happy."

    "You are materially changed since we talked on this subject before."

    "I hope so -- for at that time I was a fool."

This is direct characterization.

Characterization affects the English novel, and all novels, by providing information regarding the characters that supports the story's plot.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial