The method of characterization in The System of Dante’s Hell is as radical as are the novel’s style and structure. Although this is a highly populated work, none of its characters, with the exception of Roi and Peaches, is in any way developed. Rather, they are human analogies of the city’s various fixtures, occurring and recurring throughout. They are names more than they are people. They are zones of energy instead of being persuasively or engagingly individual. They seem to resemble members of a tribe, their social existence determined by rituals of self-assertion and self-protection, as opposed to being members of a complex, modern society. They flit in and out of Roi’s narrative as though they are sites of his experience rather than autonomous agents in their own right.
The kinds of work they do, their relationship to social institutions, their family lives, and their psychological and intellectual makeup are not directly emphasized by Baraka. Instead, the insistent stress is on the fact of their presence, as though the most important statement that can be made on their behalf is that they cannot be overlooked, avoided, or otherwise relegated to making a merely colorful, or minor, contribution to the problematic matter of Roi’s growth and development.
Roi’s peer group is presented as if it consisted exclusively of foreground and immediacy. This approach prevents readers from presuming to know any of these numerous minor characters with any degree of intimacy. The apparent irrelevance of their background keeps them at a distance and maintains them in Roi’s keeping. They are his...
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