Literary Analysis: Characterization in Contemporary Literary Novels

The character journey is one core aspect of literary novels. This essay explores three contemporary literary works to examine the concept of characterization.

Restraint of Beasts – Magnus Mills

The first example of character growth was evident with the unnamed foreman character/narrator in Restraint of Beasts. Bourdain of the New York Times described the novel as “a working-class hell constructed by its own inhabitants … with its increasingly comprised central character and escalating atmosphere of unseen menace.” In the beginning, the character exhibited a passive personality, evident in his swift acceptance and little opinion on his sudden promotion to foreman. Inside his internal monologue, he admitted, “There was no big deal about the new arrangement” and established, “We’d just have to get used to each other, that’s all” in regards to his new subordinates. The foreman exhibited a strong work ethic through his insistence at finishing the job correctly, and his ensuring the fences were straight. Through the novel when the foreman and his two subordinates spent time living together, the foreman demonstrated a newfound assertiveness when he refused to wash their dishes or share his can opener. However, the foreman became increasingly influenced by the lifestyle of his subordinates, and his character changed as a result. Like his subordinates, he became much attached to culminating the day with a night out at the bar, and adapted a fiscally-driven approach to decision-making that they had, apparent in his decision to stop the work on Mr. Perkins’ fence to work for Mr. Hall for more reliable wages. After a series of events, including several accidental killings of clients, learning new fencing techniques and leaving “a trail of very disappointed people behind,” the foreman transitioned into someone a little less certain of himself, succumbed to his circumstances and environment, found himself at the center of reprimand instead of outside of it, and ultimately became a recognizably different character than who he was at the beginning.

We the Animals – Justin Torres

We the Animals was another novel that serves as an example of the significant evolution of character during adolescence. The narrator began through his memories as a boy among his two older brothers and the turbulent marriage of his parents. He turned seven and “want[ed] to study God and never get married” (loc. 14). However, throughout his years, he revealed moments in which he felt different from others, and moments that changed him. From “this thrill, this spark … this wicked tingle” that caused him to grab his mother’s injured face (loc. 16), his near-drowning, father’s disappearance, a grave that he believed to be for him, and the fact that his brother Manny confided only in him “because Joel had a way of closing himself off from crazy, but I couldn’t figure out how to stop …” (loc. 58). One chapter remarked his difference from his brothers when he was allowed to trip with his father because of better school performance than his brothers, he was left in a theater, and found dancing before his father admitted: “I got me a pretty one” (loc. 69). The most significant moment that may have inflicted the most trauma and change upon the narrator was witnessing a video of molestation, in which the narrator conveyed his disturbance, “Wasn’t no one to stop this. My brothers. Wasn’t no one. … Wasn’t none of it nothing like this” and the emotional line, “Why won’t you look at me, my brothers, why won’t you take my eyes?” (loc. 66). At the end, the culmination of these changes and experiences were exposed when the narrator became a teenager who denounced his brothers for “jump the runt was a trick mean as any they pulled on me” (loc. 72), admitted his embarrassment of his brothers, and admitted to himself, “Maybe there was no other boy like me, anywhere” (loc. 74). At the end, the extent of his differences was conveyed when his sexuality was exposed along with the journal of his fantasies with other men, ultimately landing him in an institution. An ending that Turrentine of The Washington Post described as “the narrator’s emerging awareness of the stark differences in sensibility and sensitivity that are pulling him away from his family.” Each of the little moments and changes helped demonstrate the evolution of the character, as well as the profound shift in the transition from “we” to “I” and “them,” which ultimately revealed his vast difference at the end than from the beginning.

Dept. of Speculation – Jenny Offill

One of the later novels, Dept. of Speculation, has another unique story and character evolution. The story began in a series of fragmented thoughts, immediately giving the impression that the character held a frazzled mind. Wood of The New Yorker confirmed this in describing it was “waywardness and unreliability of the mind’s contents compose a narrative of that mind before our eyes.” Her thought pattern only became grounded and developed some sense of clarity upon the birth of her daughter. Her character was largely changed by becoming a mother, although she remained discontent with her marriage, career, and home. Various clues scattered around the novel hinted at a mental illness, through references to pills, dying, therapy, and her mind in need of repair. She was the victim of her husband’s infidelity, and although it distressed her, it did not yield the detrimental changes to character that it could have. By the end of the novel, the character sought ways to save her marriage, and convinced her husband to move their family to the country. “We watch the narrator go to the brink of despair, teeter, and then recover—though it seems unlikely that [she] … will be able to find an easy peace,” Wood said. The novel ended with a profound transition from “the wife” and her husband to “we,” conveying a significant change in achieving contentment and hope.

Discussion

Although all three aforementioned characters were largely different and experienced unique challenges, all three of their respective novels shared the same character-driven quality that comprises the literary novel. The boy in We the Animals demonstrated the most recognizable amount of change among the characters in the three novels, however, a significant change is not a requirement of literary fiction. They demonstrated the raw and relatable struggles and challenges of humanity, and overcame and evolved. Whether that led to the hopeful endings in Dept. of Speculation and Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow, the happy ending of The Alchemist, and even more troublesome endings with Restraint of Beasts and We the Animals, each of the characters endured great challenges that made them stronger and wiser than they were on the first page. This is precisely the outcome that evokes a reaction in the reader, and inspires them to reflect on their own lives.

As Węgrodzka wrote, the literary character “came to be viewed as a representative of the culturally and ideologically embedded self, a product of a given set of discourses … construed as a complex field of multiple ideological struggles” (13). This is perhaps why we see struggles of poverty and the working class in Restraint of Beasts, impoverished immigrants in Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow, as well as the struggle of sexuality acceptance in We the Animals. These cultural and ideological struggles have transitioned into common themes of the literary novel due to how closely related they are to the human condition, and the circumstances affecting the literary novel character.

As society goes on, the current and relevant cultural and ideological struggles will continue to work their way into the literary fiction, further conveying literary fiction’s emphasis on the human condition. Literary characters will continue to serve as a reflection of humanity, and the challenge of individuals’ quest to find their identity and happiness. They will continue to leave an impact on readers, and inspire new generations of writers that continue to keep fiction alive.

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