A peculiar characteristic of The Pornographer is that its main characters are somewhat flat and repetitive, while its minor characters are colorful and diverting. The protagonist’s conversational style, for example, will probably strike the reader as taciturn, and his conversational range seems decidedly limited, particularly in view of the fact that he earns his living through words. Maloney, on the other hand—the narrator’s employer and to some degree his mentor also—is a most exuberant conversationalist. Similarly, the narrator’s uncle has an attractive interest in the life of things in the world around him which seems quite lacking in his introspective and somewhat alienated nephew.
Such contrasts, however, do not betoken a facile method of characterization, a method wholly dependent on labeling characters with elementary differences; on the contrary, they hint at the heavily muffled satire detectable beneath the plangent strains of moral parable which superficially inform the novel’s narrative tone. The minor characters, including the nurse who replaces Josephine, are immune from the moral entanglements which consume the narrator, his aunt, and his mistress. This freedom gives them an appetite for going about their business, which is conspicuously lacking in the case of the lovers and which is obviously impossible in Aunt Mary’s case. Both Maloney and the narrator’s uncle have the effect of both highlighting and diminishing the magnitude of the narrator’s dilemma, offering through their different approaches means of putting the dilemma in perspective which the narrator himself cannot provide.
Yet, with the arbitrary exception of Maloney, all the characters are united in either total or virtual anonymity. This tactic contributes to the parablelike effect of the narrative and makes the characters a combination of the individuated and the generic. It also has the effect of depersonalizing the central situation between the narrator and Josephine, as though they were merely instruments of their active or passive wills, functioning much as characters in works of pornography typically might. Thus, as The Pornographer satirically proposes, complex and apparently intractable situations strip their participants of individuality, while conversely, it seems, superficial characters lead lives of moral ease. Such propositions are not, however, intended as verdicts on the way people are; rather, they should be considered as evidence of the manner in which this novel’s mode of characterization contributes to its overall preoccupation with the inescapably problematic nature of moral conduct.