The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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.

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)


“I,” the anonymous narrator and main character, the pornographer of the title. An attractive man, thirty years old, he keeps very close guard on his feelings. Although he seems to have no major financial worries, he works as a professional writer of pornography and is mildly successful at it. He writes well as long as he can follow a formula; his employer, Maloney, furnishes him with a new formula after each assignment. He seems content to pursue casual affairs with attractive women in whom he has no interest other than to satisfy his sexual needs. He unfortunately impregnates a woman named Josephine who has fallen deeply in love with him; he refuses to marry her and takes little interest in the future of the child. He is cynical about the course of love, overly self-reflective, and haunted by time and the aging process. He does show genuine sympathy, though, for a beloved aunt who is dying of cancer and visits her on a regular basis. He seems to be heading toward some kind of permanent relationship at the novel’s conclusion.


Josephine, a thirty-eight-year-old woman, the principal female character. Attractive, passionate, and warmhearted, she falls deeply in love with the narrator. After becoming pregnant, she insists that they marry and that they will learn eventually to live happily in spite of the awkward beginning of their conjugal life. Although she has worked at the Northern Bank for twenty years, she has pursued her own writing career at a journal called Waterways: She takes trips on boats and describes them in her articles. There is some suggestion that she and the narrator will marry, but as the novel concludes, she is not aware of that possibility (even though the reader is).



(The entire section is 736 words.)