Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

The United States

The United States, a different state being discussed in each chapter. The novel has no characters in the accepted sense. The reader is presented with a map of the United States and then, as the title suggests, is led from city to city and from state to state, with signs at state lines welcoming the visitor. Mobile is written in the fashion of a quilt, with the reader moving along the roads of the United States in cars of every make (Studebaker, Cadillac, Nash, Edsel, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Volkswagen) and color (from pink to orange, from white to black). As in any quilt, there are repetitions, such as the hellos of friendly Americans and descriptions of Audubon’s birds. The traveler may stop and get any flavor of ice cream at the next Howard Johnson motel. The United States is a New Europe composed of New Europeans—German, French, Irish, Hungarian, and Spanish—who read newspapers in their own language in their own neighborhoods. The immigrants move west, befriending the Indians or attacking and making them mobile. Persecuted, the New Europeans become the New Persecutors. Mormons flee the Midwest and settle in Salt Lake City. Religions abound in the new society, Episcopalian, Baptist, Roman Catholic, Jewish, and Christian Science among them. The Italians are here as well. Giovanni da Verrazzano discovers New York, a patchwork now composed of the Upper West Side, Fifth Avenue, Little Italy, Macy’s, and Bloomingdale’s. Washington, D.C., is the capital of the United States, the pantheon of the country’s gods, and the center of the only religion to be truly practiced. The buildings are a shimmering white. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin form part of the American pantheon, with their respective monuments in Pennsylvania and Virginia, and their own monumental writings. The reader is shifted about, from name to name and flavor to flavor, from colonial times to standard time (Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific) and to time fixed in one space: the museum of colonial homes in Shelburne, Vermont. The museum holds quilts and Impressionist paintings, showing the presence of the French. The quilt is filled with shifts, designs, and colors. The author’s name, in the manner of a painter’s signature or Alfred Hitchcock film appearance, is inscribed (butor is a French word meaning “bittern” or “boor”) many times in this patchwork.

The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Since there is no story or sequential narrative in Mobile, there is no character or single person around whom the story revolves. Butor is, in a sense, characterizing the huge expanse of the United States from its beginnings to the 1960’s, when the novel was published. Written in French by a native Frenchman, it is a rather unflattering portrait of the United States and its inhabitants. The United States is noted for its great cultural and business centers, such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and New Orleans, yet Butor concentrates on the country’s endless supply of forgotten and for the most part forgettable small towns scattered across five time zones. The references to New York focus on a tawdry theme park called “Freedomland” rather than on the internationally famous Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building.

Another characteristic to which the citizens of the United States point with pride is the large number of national monuments. The narrator observes, however, that what Americans like to call a national monument is nothing more than an “archaeological curiosity,” one of the worst examples being Mount Rushmore, which he describes as having “enormous, clumsily carved faces of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.”

National pride in early leaders is another facet of the American character that Butor ridicules. Blasphemous reverence for George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham...

(The entire section is 417 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Alberes, R. Michel Butor, 1964.

McWilliams, Dean. The Narratives of Michel Butor: The Writer as Janus, 1978.

O’Donnell, Thomas D. “Michel Butor and the Tradition of Alchemy,” in The International Fiction Review. 1975, pp. 150-153.

Roudiez, Leon S. Michel Butor, 1965.

Sturrock, John. The French New Novel: Claude Simon, Michel Butor, Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1969.