Caricature and Characterisation: the Sausage and the Rose

There are certain words that, though frequently used, remain, for me at least, uncertain in meaning, and while this isn’t usually a problem in everyday conversation, where approximate meanings tend to be good enough, it becomes more of a problem in areas where a greater degree of precision is required. Literary criticism, for instance. Now, what on earth are we to make of that oft-used term “realism”? It is a word used with almost reckless abandon in literary criticism without anyone ever bothering to define what it means. Or even what they take it to mean.

The dictionary is of limited use here. The Oxford English Dictionary goes through the various different meanings in different contexts, and the one that comes closest to its use in literary criticism is as follows:

Close resemblance to what is real; fidelity of representation, rendering the precise details of the real thing or scene.

As a dictionary definition that is possibly about as good as we can get, but when we try to apply it to individual cases, problems arise. Ghost stories, we may assume, aren’t real, since the reality of ghosts, though believed in by many, remains unproven. But are we therefore to describe Hamlet as “unrealistic”? Indeed, since people in real life do not speak in blank verse, should the entire works of Shakespeare be labelled “unrealistic”? We tend not to think of Shakespeare’s plays in such terms, rightly recognising that through this highly stylised (and hence, unrealistic) form, profound realities about our human lives are revealed; and hence, in that sense, at least, these plays are “realistic”. But once we recognise this, the dictionary definition given above doesn’t prove very useful. If terms such as “realism” or “realistic” are to be in any way significant, we must first of all define what we take them to mean in the context of our argument. Otherwise, one person may say that Animal Farm is realistic because it accurately depicts political realities; while another may say Animal Farm is unrealistic because it depicts talking animals; and they would both be right.

That reality can be addressed through the deliberate use of what is unreal is, of course, a fundamental principle in art, but that does mean we have to use the terms “realism” or “realistic” very carefully. And, in much that I encounter, they aren’t. Even in many scholarly works I have read, the term “realism” is used without any attempt at definition, and with the blithe assumption that, even without a working definition, we are all agreed on what is meant by it. And this imprecision leads to all sorts of questionable conclusions. One of the most persistent, I find, is the conclusion that characterisation – that is, “three dimensional” characterisation, as defined by Forster in Aspects of the Novel – is realistic, and hence Good; while caricature is unrealistic, and hence Bad. Or, if not Bad, as such, less Good than three-dimensional characterisation.

Before we discuss this, I think we need at least some working definitions of “characterisation” and of “caricature”. No, really. I insist. In brief, Forster described “three-dimensional characterisation” as that in which we may see the fictional characters from different perspectives, and, as a consequence, view that character as a complex of different, and sometimes contradictory, traits. A “caricature”, on the other hand, is “flat”. We are shown only a few traits, or sometimes just one trait, and, as a consequence, the character lacks the complexity of a fully three-dimensional character. And hence, in terms of literary artistry, is inferior to the three-dimensional character.

This seems, on the surface at least, entirely reasonable. Characterisation reveals the complexity of reality; caricature simplifies that reality by flattening it out. And if the aim of the art is to depict reality, then clearly the former is superior. Alternatively, if depiction of reality isn’t the aim of the art, then whatever that art is aiming for is clearly a lesser aim. Why? Well – it just is, that’s all. We may admire the caricatures of Gillray or of Daumier, but let’s not compare them to the portraiture of Rembrandt.

We should, at this point, note two distinct strands in this tangle. The first is the contention that works of art that do not aim to illumine reality in any way are necessarily inferior to those that do. According to this contention, a ghost story by M. R. James, whose ambition extends no further than to frighten the reader, must by definition (i.e. by the way we have chosen to define it) be aesthetically inferior to a ghost story by Henry James that uses the supernatural to depict real depths of the human mind. I don’t personally accept the contention that leads to such a conclusion, but let us leave this to one side for now, and address the other strand: is a rounded three-dimensional characterisation necessarily superior to a caricature for the very reason that it is three-dimensional, and, hence, a truer representation of reality?

Such a view, though admittedly coherent, seems to me to leave much to be desired. It seems self-evident nonsense to describe Gogol’s Dead Souls, say, as inferior literature – as we must if we are to consider caricature aesthetically inferior to characterisation. It seems perverse to describe Mrs Bennet, Mr Collins, Aunt Norris, and Mr Elton as among Austen’s lesser achievements because they are caricatures rather than fully rounded characters. If our view of aesthetics is to be derived from what we find aesthetically satisfying, as seems to me reasonable, we must revisit the view that regards these creations as inferior.

To try to understand why the caricatures of Austen or of Gogol aren’t inferior creations, we need to consider the impact they make on us. That, after all, is the starting point of any aesthetic inquiry. And here, we run into problems. For the words we use to describe the impact these “flat” characters make on us – vivid, vital, striking, and so on – are not very easily defined. We recognise these qualities when we encounter them, but explanations aren’t easy. We recognise, for instance, that Fagin is a striking creation, and “comes alive” on the page in a way that Monks from the same novel doesn’t, but there seems no way of expressing that in objective terms, or in terms that would convince someone who fails to respond to Fagin in such a manner.

But I think it isn’t irrelevant to note that vast numbers of readers, from different eras and from different cultural backgrounds, have found Fagin striking and more memorable than any number of three-dimensional and well-rounded characters in any number of other novels. The subjective view of one reader, or of a group of readers, may not be admissible evidence, but when that view is shared by so many readers from so many different backgrounds and so many different generations, it does, I think, command some attention. That the caricatures of Gogol, of Austen, of Dickens, have captured and continue to capture so many imaginations is not easily dismissed. So let us accept then that there is indeed something about these characters which, though it cannot be captured in objective terms, strikes readers forcibly, and imprints itself upon the memory. And that the ability to create such characters is indeed a gift, for few are capable of doing so. The ball then is back in the court of those who insist on the inferiority of caricatures to explain why this gift – this gift of creating striking and vivid caricatures – should be any less in value than the gift of creating fully rounded characters.

I think my personal view on this matter is fairly obvious by now, but I might as well say it explicitly: the ability to create good caricatures – that is, characters that, despite being “flat” and exhibiting only a small handful of traits, have a life of their own, are striking and memorable, and emerge from the page with vitality and vigour – is every bit as remarkable as the ability to create complex, fully-rounded characters. It is a different kind of skill, but I know of no metric whereby it may be judged to be of lesser value. Of course, there is the contention that the fully-rounded characters depict reality more accurately, but I don’t know that contention amounts to much given that the depiction of reality through the employment of that which is unreal is, quite demonstrably, often in the very nature of art.

In short, I love Dickens as much as I love Tolstoy. Further, I think they were, in their different ways, equally great novelists. And if we really are to insist that art must illumine reality, then I would argue that Dickens, through his unique stylisations, illumines reality just as brightly as Tolstoy does – that Bleak House holds up the mirror to nature every bit as remarkably as does Anna Karenina. Dickens’ mirror happens to be a distorting mirror, but it’s a mirror all the same.

Orwell, in his famous essay on Dickens, says at one point that it is pointless trying to compare Dickens and Tolstoy: it’s like comparing a sausage to a rose – their purposes barely intersect. I remain grateful that I encountered both at an impressionable age, and the powerful impressions made then on my malleable mind have remained there imprinted after all these years.

10 responses to this post.

  1. The buildings whose facades are all I know of them are just as “real” as my own house, which I know intimately. Many of those facades are pretty memorable, and are works of art. I claim that this pretty skimpy metaphor adds great weight to your argument.

    When did critics start claiming that fiction owed any fidelity to “realism”, anyway? I blame Aristotle and his nonsense about the superiority of probable impossibilities to improbable possibilities. What a killjoy that guy was. I’ll bet he was the life of the party. Aristotle has a lot to answer for, man.


    • It started around the 18th century; the scientific outlook was such a powerful novelty that its gravity field pulled the arts into emulating it; since then the novel has tried to be as objective and impersonal as science in rendering only what can be empirically shown. That also accounts for the second class status of fantasy/horror/SF: since these genres dealt with supernatural, ie non-empiracally-observable-and-reportable things, they were most unscientific, and hence untrue, false, and by association bad, childish, silly, not the proper stuff of gentlemen.


      • I don’t doubt you, but there was clearly resistance, from Swift, Fielding, Sterne, and then Hoffmann. I think “realism” in fiction has always been a fiction, the critics notwithstanding.

        I read a ton of fantasy/horror/SF when I was younger.

      • Of course there was resistance, but kind of futile. It’s interesting that so many early so-called realist novels were mocked: one could say Gulliver’s Travels is a response to Robinson Crusoe, while Fielding’s Shamela parodies Pamela.

        But them and Sterne notwithstanding, realism in the sense of a narrative reporting an external, objective world in an impersonal style, with the smallest trace of subjective distortion of “reality”, won and became unstoppable. Hoffmann was already part of a conscious reaction to a growing trend that alarmed the Romantics, and his brand of fantasy and talking cats didn’t stop Balzac and Zola and Tolstoy and Hardy and James from establishing “realism” as the default mode of fiction, a legacy that has lasted till now.

  2. Posted by Guy Wells on January 18, 2022 at 1:20 am

    Be they sausages or roses, I’m glad to have your thoughts on them, and the ideas in me that they provoke. I hope the New Year brings more from you and also for you yourself. Always a delight.


  3. Shakespeare wrote when the question between “realism” and its contrary were a moot point. Realism is a concept that entered literary minds more or less in the 18c and gained real traction since the 19c. Ibsen certainly didn’t write in blank verse because that would have been deemed “unrealistic” and hence in bad taste by society. Although of course society found lots of other reasons to call his plays bad taste.

    “But I think it isn’t irrelevant to note that vast numbers of readers, from different eras and from different cultural backgrounds, have found Fagin striking and more memorable than any number of three-dimensional and well-rounded characters in any number of other novels.”

    Oh, yes, I concur! Eça de Queiroz, whom I adore, has a long rap-sheet when it comes to inability to create”souls”: he often produced only types and caricatures instead of showing the intense inner lives of his characters, others said. In the 1920s and 1930s some novelists who had recently made a show of introducing “psychologism” in the Portuguese novel were always knocking him down a few pegs. They thought hey were so more sophisticated and sensitive than poor Eça, who only knew how to describe characters from outside.

    Well, nowadays Eça is still widely read and loved because of his memorable characters and those detractors are all but forgotten with their psychologically profound but dull characters.

    Like you I prefer vitality. Forster’s distinction is too unfortunate and has only caused harm over the years.


  4. Apropos of Dickens and caricature, what do you think of James Wood’s “hysterical realism” concept? He blames Dickens for it:


  5. Hello, and my apologies for taking so long to get back to you.

    Just as there are many different types of realism, there are many different types of unrealism also. There is the downright unrealism of depicting things that can’t possibly happen – of animals talking, or people passing through a looking glass. There is the unrealism of things happening that, if not physically impossible, are highly unlikely – of the penniless Jane Eyre wandering around aimlessly happening to stumble upon he doorstep of her distant cousins. There is the kind of unrealism you get in Dostoyevsky – where the unrealism is not that characters are so intense and irrational and febrile, but that so many characters of comparable levels of intensity, irrationality and febrility (and if that isn’t a word, well, it is now!) should congregate together.

    No doubt it would be great fun classifying these different types of realisms and unrealisms, and attaching labels to them all. It seems the label “hysterical realism” is already taken, which is a shame, as I’d have liked to apply that to Dostoyevsky!


  6. I don’t care about labels; I do like “hysterical realism”, and it’s a pity Wood gave it a pejorative meaning, although some have tried to rehabilitate it.

    I do think there’s something hysterical about Dosto, his tone was never moderate, composed and level-headed. He never sounded sotto voce to me. That’s why I like him.


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