Characters as Metaphor

The most dynamic characters in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth all have one striking similarity: they all act as metaphors for larger, philosophical ideas.

All of these ideas embody some sort of conflict: spiritualism vs. materialism, fate vs. free will, nature vs. nurture. When Smith puts these ideas into character form, she generates characters who have at their core some sort of basic contradiction–which is the hallmark of an interesting character.

Samad Iqbal is a stand-in for the debate between spiritualism and materialism (with a side focus on nature-vs-nurture, because of his immigrant status). His desire to live a spiritual life is at odds with the materialistic nature of the culture in which he lives.

Archie, as we discussed in class, is a metaphorical stand-in for the fate vs. free will debate. He is a character who is subservient to fate, but is forced to make crucial decision after crucial decision. Of course, the defining choice at the end of the novel rests squarely on his shoulders (but is it a choice, or is it inevitable?). His contradiction is very interesting not only because the nature of the actual fate-vs-free will debate is intellectually stimulating, but because the crux of a story is based on a defining choice–and, because of the omniscience of the author, it’s never clear whether the character’s choice is born out of free will or inevitability.

Finally, Millat and Magid together are representative of the nature-vs-nurture debate. Like with Samad and Archie, internal conflict is born out of the metaphorical association of this idea.

It strikes me that it is entirely possible to construct a character using a metaphorical idea as a template. Some standard ones include the “Christ-like figure,” or a protagonist in a coming-of-age novel (youth vs. maturity, with the defining choice usually being the decision to reject youth). Crake from Atwood’s Oryx and Crake embodies a “desire vs. acceptance” idea.

I have a feeling that most memorable and inspiring characters in literature (and otherwise, because I’m very poorly read and because there’s more to the world of stories than literary fiction) embody a conflicting philosophical idea. Some I can think up off the top of my head include Scrooge (spiritualism vs. materialism), Paul Atreides (fate vs. choice), Superman (invulnerability vs. vulnerability), Bilbo Baggins (quiet life vs. life of consequence), Darth Vader (damnation vs. redemption), Jay Gatsby (a form of spiritualism vs. materialism), Lady Macbeth (ambition vs. immorality), etc. These are characters who, I feel, will still be widely remembered a century from now. Can anyone think of characters who affirm (or not) this idea?


~ by cskene on April 18, 2008.

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