The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte, at first Buonaparte, a French general, a first consul, an emperor, and then a prisoner. He begins as a brilliantly successful general and rather incompetent and impatient lover; an introductory scene presents him as keeping everybody waiting for his wedding to the older widow Josephine, who already has two children and has been cast off as mistress by a member of the Directory. From the opening, Napoleon appears as an officer willing to use force to establish order and as ready to take chances; he is also sexually addicted to Josephine, to the point of absurdity. His Italian campaign keeps him from her for extended periods, however, and she is publicly unfaithful to him. He sublimates his sexual passions in military action, running up a string of successes; paradoxically, these make the politicians desperate to keep him in the field, away from the people and possible political activity of his own. Eventually, he comes to see through their partiality, and he discovers that he is passionately devoted to the Constitution and to the spread of republican principles. He recognizes this in part because he finally sees an opportunity to seize power. He also sees a chance to get his entire family in on the action, though they all have minds of their own. His first move is to invade Egypt, where everything falls apart: The English cut his supply line, his troops cannot adjust to the climate, and he learns that Josephine has been unfaithful again. His response in this situation is characteristic and establishes his pattern of response for the rest of his life. He acts, not always in complete understanding of the situation, and he is usually able to impose his will on others. In all of this, Napoleon simultaneously exhibits qualities of the great man and of the commoner, the hero and the fool; his endeavors and dreams are often magnificent but just as often petty and venal.


Josephine, actually Rose-Josef-Marie de Beauharnais, Napoleon’s first wife. At first little more than a token in a political game—the bone that Barras offers to secure Napoleon’s loyalty—Josephine at the outset treats Napoleon as an infatuated boy. She placates him when she must, but she keeps a stable of less importunate lovers. Eventually, however, she comes to appreciate his character, or at least his prominence. He, in turn, never gets over his...

(The entire section is 985 words.)