Napoleon Symphony might, in some respects, be said to have only one character. Certainly Napoleon, as both protagonist and narrator, is the sort of strong central character whose shadow falls on every other character in the novel. Readers meet all the characters through Napoleon’s narration, and Burgess has been skillful in maintaining this focused point of view except where he needs to have someone tell about the retreat of Napoleon’s forces from eastern Europe. For this purpose, he introduces into the story an unnamed soldier from the Corps of Engineers who recounts the horrors the men experienced in building bridges over the freezing waters of the Berezina River, only to see them collapse before their eyes, but not before many soldiers have died.
Occasionally throughout the novel, Burgess uses the common soldier to provide necessary information and to represent the hardships of the torturous campaigns that the French lost. Through the common soldier, Burgess exposes his readers to the cold and the wet, to the mud and the squalor, to injury and death on the battlefield. Burgess’ Napoleon in the role of narrator would have no way of conveying to readers this necessary information, given his position as commander.
Burgess’ Napoleon is a highly complex character, a man whose ambition comes before all else. Like most madly ambitious leaders, Napoleon crushes people before him in order to get ahead. He orders four thousand...
(The entire section is 405 words.)