Jean Paul’s characters have been controversial ever since the first publication of Titan. Some viewed the characters as the most sublime embodiments of idealized human nature; others found them incredible, strained, and implausible, both too grotesque and too abstract to be believable. That division has persisted: Modern critics either praise Jean Paul for the nobility and intensity of his creations or damn him for his distortions and exaggerations. Even his admirers note the inexplicable gap between his high critical celebrity and his lack of readership. Some of this can be attributed to the difficulty of his style; yet that has not proved to be a handicap to even the greatest writers, including William Shakespeare.
The dilemma can be resolved in part by recognizing certain qualities of Jean Paul’s period and certain consequences of his central themes. First, his era. Jean Paul was an almost exact contemporary of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron. Like them, he seized on the larger-than-life possibilities that seemed implicit in the critical and political theories of the revolutionary phase of Romanticism. He, too, suffered from the waning of those ideals in later, more cynical periods. Like these other authors, Jean Paul ceased to appeal to the common reader, for whom extravagance of any kind became increasingly out of fashion.
Second, his themes require a unique manner of characterization. Jean Paul’s aim was to use words and images in order to set the imagination free, to release it from material bonds and enter the sphere of eternity, where it naturally belonged. To achieve that, he set everything in his novels into tumultuous motion and emotion, as if images and characters could then shake themselves free. Thus, all the characters exhibit “Titanic” energy. One result of this technique is that characters who seem very different at the outset appear fundamentally alike in the end.
Thus all the characters are intentionally overstated. Albano’s insistence on intense experience requires him to be drenched with feeling. In fact, all the main characters are “Titans”: Liane is the idealist of feeling; Linda requires the passion of defying convention; Roquairol is the consummate dramatist of the self; Gaspard is the manipulator, using others as puppets to his ends; and Schoppe is both a cynical opportunist and a philosopher abstracted from life. Each has to learn to temper this Titanism; failure to do so brings loss, death, or both.