Crossing the Line: Characters’ Re/actions as a Driving Force of Narrative

Andrea Dietrich


I have not come across many people who don’t believe that we define ourselves through actions. We are what we do; we are the sum of our actions. Whether we take an existentialist approach to subjectivity and claim that we are fully responsible for every action, whether we take a Structuralist stance and believe that our subconscious mind underpins all of our actions, or whether we are somewhere in between these two poles, it cannot be denied that whatever we do or have done in the past is, in some way, inextricably linked to the entity we call our Self. 

Why is it then that in literary criticism, characters’ actions and reactions to the events they participate in ‘are the least investigated means of characterisation, as compared with external and internal descriptions, speech acts, or point of view’ (Nikolajeva 4578)? 


How can cognitive poetics enable us to rethink literary characters and their re/actions?

[Image by eltpics under a CC BY-NC-SA license]


In this article I argue for the relevance of a model of character analysis based on characters’ re/actions. My reflections are inspired by cognitive poetics (e.g. Stockwell 2002) which is a relatively new discipline involving the application of cognitive linguistics and psychology to literary texts. My article specifically builds on Yuri Lotman’s narratological event theory (1977), which shall act as stepping stone towards my cognitive poetical application of figure-ground theory. I have chosen to combine these two theories as they emphasise the dynamic and plot-determining nature of characters in new and, hopefully, interesting ways. 

I want to show that from an intra-textual perspective, characters’ re/actions have a plot-determining quality and that, from an extra-textual perspective, characters’ re/actions sustain readerly interest. I argue that, effectively amounting to a story’s motor, the dynamics of characters’ re/actions can give us insights into what makes us keep ploughing through a book or what might make us want to throw it against the wall in frustration.

To illustrate my points, I will conclude my reflection with a very brief analysis of the dynamics of Offred’s re/actions in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985).


Characters’ Re/actions as Constitutive Elements of Plot

According to Yuri Lotman’s event theory, ‘the smallest indivisible unit of plot construction’ (Lotman 232) is the literary event. Zooming in more closely, an event is ‘the shifting of a persona across the borders of a semantic field’ (e.g. from poor to rich; from unknown to famous etc.) (233). Additionally, for Lotman, an event always involves ‘the violation of some prohibition’ (236). He gives the example of jay-walking being an event as it constitutes an act of transgression from the perspective of traffic law (236). The border demarcating the potentiality of transgression and which separates the character from a semantically opposing field constitutes a barrier, which can assume various forms:

whether it be the "adversaries" in a fairy tale, the waves and winds and currents hostile to Odysseus, the false friends in a picaresque novel or the false clues in a detective novel, for in a structural sense they all have an identical function: they make the movement from one semantic field to another extremely difficult . . . (241 f.) 

In light of all this, it follows that to be able to understand a plot, one needs to identify its constitutive events. To identify an event, one needs to look at that which has the capacity to constitute a trans-semantic movement. The most obvious contender to have such a capacity within the story world is the literary character, more specifically, it is their action within or reaction to a certain situation, which can pierce through the inter-semantic barrier and transport the character into a new semantic environment. In my analysis of The Handmaid’s Tale, we will see how Offred constantly transports herself from the semantic realm of (forced) obedience into the realm of rebellion/(conceptual) freedom through her thoughts, or reflective re/action if you will, which challenge the Republic of Gilead’s status quo. 



Understanding trans-semantic movement: narrative events need to be understood as those plot moments in which characters move into another semantic context or environment

[Image by Charis Tsevis under a CC BY-NC-ND license]


Only by looking at characters’ semantically-transgressive re/actions throughout the story are we able to evaluate the eventfulness of a plot and thus identify a given plot’s narratological structure. Understanding characters’ re/actions equals understanding a piece of fiction’s plot. 

Henry James once illustrated the interdependence of characters’ actions and events in a famous series of questions: “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?” (qtd in Hochman 21). Regardless of whether we take a semiotic stance to character whereby it is a mere ‘linguistic device’ (Stockwell 56) and thus subordinate to plot, or whether we take a mimetic approach whereby character is understood for its individuality, to understand a story’s trajectory it is indispensable to study characters’ re/actions.


Characters’ Re/actions Sustain Readerly Interest 

We have just seen that to understand a plot’s structure we need to study the dynamics of characters’ re/actions. To further reflect upon the question of why we should integrate them into character analysis, we will now shift our focus from the text to the mind of the reader. 

Unsurprisingly, there are a number of subconscious processes involved in the act of reading. As Peter Stockwell points out in his work Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction (2002), readers often use the metaphor of transportation to comment on a good book: ‘“I was carried away by it”, “It swept me off my feet”, “It was like another world”, “I can lose myself in a book”, and so on’ (152). Books judged to have failed to ‘operate as vehicles of imaginary transportation . . . receive comments like, “I just couldn’t get on with it”, “It didn’t seem to go anywhere”’ (153).  To maintain this journey-like experience and to thus keep the reader engaged in the embodied act of reading, their attention needs to be constantly captivated. 



The act of reading involves a number of subconscious thought processes, in which readers' attention is captivated by different focal points within an imagined visual field

[Image by Ashton Pal under a CC BY-NC-ND license]


As readerly attention is selective, readers tend to select and focus on certain elements in a visual field whilst deselecting or neglecting others. Cognitive psychologists have also used the metaphor of the ‘spotlight’ as a means of understanding the focus of attention (Stockwell 18). In textual terms, attention requires an element of newness and is achieved through the constant renewal of the figure and ground relationship (Stockwell 18). The figure can be anything that stands out within the text through movement or some sort of development such as: ‘a character in a fictional narrative or a building or other setting in a lyrical poem’ (Stockwell 19). The reason for this is that attention in the visual field is usually caught by movement (Stockwell 18). When establishing the link between figure-ground theory and the literary character, Stockwell states that

In most narrative fiction, for example, characters are figures against the ground of their settings. They have boundaries summarised by their proper names (‘Beowulf’, ‘Hamlet’, ‘Winnie the Pooh’), and they carry along or evolve specific psychological and personal traits. Stylistically they are likely to be the focus of the narrative, moving through different settings, and are likely to be associated with certain verbs of wilful action by contrast with the attributive or existential sorts of verbs used descriptively for the background.

Stockwell hints at it but doesn’t spell it out: stylistically speaking, the figure can be said to be associated with the literary character and the ground with the background against which the character acts. It is the action of the character against the background of the plot, or rather, through the actions undertaken by the character (figure) against the backdrop of the narrative framework (ground) that the reader’s attention is captivated. Studying characters’ actions has therefore an intrinsic cognitive-psychological value as it is linked with the sustenance of readerly interest. It has the potential, if you will, to reveal why a particular piece of fiction is (or is not) captivating. This insight might explain E. M. Forster’s conviction outlined in Aspects of the Novel (1927) that the study of the development of the novel implies the study of the development of humanity (Forster 153). By examining character development in popular and less popular novels, one might discover interesting correlations between particular plot patterns and the popularity of the novels they feature in.


Rebellious, Plot-Advancing Reflective Events in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

We have seen that characters’ eventful actions constitute plot and that their cognitive-psychological ‘figure’ quality captivates and sustains readerly interest. To illustrate these points, I’d like to briefly examine reflective events and their relation to figure-ground theory in The Handmaid’s Tale. I have chosen this particular novel because it takes the form of a memoir and is therefore, interestingly, mainly driven by Offred’s thoughts/reflective action. I won’t be able to outline all instances of reflective events in the space of this short article but I shall try to grasp some of the earliest and most striking ones in the story. 

Key to reflective eventfulness in The Handmaid’s Tale is the dichotomy of obedience and rebellion: Offred moves from the semantic space of obedience to that of (overt or covert) rebellion challenging Gilead’s regime. I shall therefore concentrate on sifting out rebellious thoughts (figure; semantic space of rebellion) which stick out against the backdrop of the portrayal of the (mostly) conforming Republic of Gilead (static ground; semantic space of obedience).

The first thirty pages of the novel mainly constitute descriptive passages of the regime’s status quo. We learn, for instance, about a certain ‘decorum’ (21) that must be adhered to; we encounter characters called ‘Unwomen’ (20) and ‘Handmaid[s]’ (29); we learn that in Gilead ‘thought must be rationed’ (17) etc. The status quo constitutes the static ground on top of which Offred acts as figure. Whilst the reader’s attention is captivated by the Otherness of Offred’s universe, they impatiently read on to find out whether or not Offred sides with the regime and whether or not she is willingly or unwillingly obedient. The reader is captivated by the narrative in so far as it promises culmination in the complete or, at least, partial revelation of Offred’s stance regarding Gilead’s regime.

The first (for the reader revealing and relieving) instance whereby Offred (figure) transcends Gilead’s status quo (ground) is Offred’s fantasy of touching the Guardian’s face: 

I think of placing my hand on it, this exposed face. . . . It’s an event, a small defiance of rule, so small as to be undetectable, but such moments are the rewards I hold out for myself, like the candy I hoarded, as a child, at the back of a drawer. Such moments are possibilities, tiny peepholes. (31, emphasis mine)

By fantasising about touching the guardian, Offred transgresses the semantic border (the supposedly accepted and internalised status quo) into the semantic space of rebellion, which, as you have seen, is literally described as an ‘event’ here. This sensual scene is prolonged by sexual fantasies and ultimately by frustrated thoughts of revenge such as ‘I hope they get hard at the sight of us and have to rub themselves against the painted barriers, surreptitiously’ (32). These scenes form an event as they are brought about by Offred’s dynamic thought of rebellion which catapults her across the semantic barrier of the status quo into the semantic space of rebellion. Ultimately however, Offred plummets back down into the semantic space of obedience at the start of Chapter Five where she structurally seems to blend with the ground as she describes her surroundings impartially thus not displaying any sign of rebellion: ‘Doubled, I walk the street. Though we are no longer in the Commanders’ compound, there are large houses here also. In front of one of them a Guardian is mowing the lawn. The lawns are tidy, the facades are gracious, in good repair . . .’ (33).



Applying figure-ground theory to a reading of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale opens up new questions concerning Offred's obedience and rebellion 

[Image by Kelly Garbato under a CC BY-NC-ND license]


Offred resurfaces into the semantic space of rebellion thirty pages after the first event when she finds the subversive message ‘Nolite te bastardes carborundorum (Don’t let the bastards grind you down)’ (62) scratched into her boudoir by one of her predecessors. Offred admits to herself that ‘it pleases [her] to know that her [her predecessor’s] taboo message made it through’ to her (62). Its content gives her ‘joy’ (62). Offred subsequently internalises it and repeats the words to herself like a mantra (see 62). Between these inter-eventful thirty odd pages (pp. 31-62) the reader is captivated through doubts of whether or not the first event of rebellion (fantasy of touching the Guardian’s face) was a mere oddity or indicative of Offred’s rebellious core convictions. These doubts are sustained after the second event due to Offred’s subsequent lack of eventful action.

The reader has to wait another 28 pages in which Offred remains static and, structurally, in tune with Gilead’s regime, until Offred’s sensual fantasy and identification with the taboo message finally progress into another event – the desire to ‘steal something’ (see 90 and 108). This desire to steal, the reader learns, derives from Offred’s deep-seated feeling of powerlessness. Offred desires to replenish her deficiency of being – an existential lack within her Self infused by Gilead’s totalitarian, individuality-suppressing regime – through self-affirming gestures such as stealing as ‘it would make [her] feel that [she] has power’ (90). By desiring selfhood and power, Offred, again, transgresses the semantic barrier of Gilead’s status quo and progresses into the semantic field of rebellion. 

If you continue reading, you will see that in the course of The Handmaid’s Tale, the reader’s attention continues being driven forward by the alternation between the (supposed) in-sync-ness of ground (Gilead’s status quo) and Offred’s ‘obedience’ and the ‘ground-breaking’ eventfulness of Offred’s reflective (and later externalised) rebellion.

Characters’ eventful re/actions can be said to be the driving force of narrative. When looking into the internal structure of a piece of fiction, we can see how pertinent the study of characters’ re/actions is for the identification of the eventfulness of a story’s plot. When turning our eye to the reader, we can see that the sustenance of readerly interest is inextricably linked with the dynamics of characters’ re/actions. Studying them can therefore lead to new and interesting insights into both the dynamics of character development as well as the internal and external workings of a piece of fiction at large.


CITATION: Andrea Dietrich, "Crossing the Line: Characters' Re/actions As Driving Force of Narrative", Alluvium, Vol. 5, No. 1 (2016): n. pag. Web. 30 March 2016.


[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Andrea Dietrich is an Associate Lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University where she is also currently writing her PhD on existential agency in Science Fiction, 2010-2015. She is a graduate of Johannes Gutenberg Universität Mainz, Germany (BA, MA), Université de Bourgogne, France (MA) and Birkbeck University London (MA).

Twitter: @MrsPassepartout[/author_info] [/author]


Works Cited:

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. London: Vintage, 1996. Print.

Bridgeman, Teresa. “Time and Space.” The Cambridge Companion to Narrative. Ed. David Herman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 52-65. Print.

Forster, E. M. Aspects of the Novel. London: Penguin Classics, 2005. Print.

Hochman, Baruch. Character in Literature. London: Cornell University Press, 1985. Print.

Lotman, Jurij. The Structure of the Artistic Text. Trans. Ronald Vroon. Michigan: Michigan University Press, 1977. Print. 

Nikolajeva, Maria. The Rhetoric of Character in Children’s Literature. Oxford: Scarecrow Press, 2002. Kindle AZW file. 

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Why Write?” in Literature and Existentialism (Original title: What is Literature?). Trans. Bernard Frechtman. Secaucus, New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1949. Print.

Stockwell, Peter. Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.



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