What can digital humanities tell us about Character?

My part of the collaboration with James has been thinking through what this text has to tell us about “Character” as a literary category and to consider how digital tools can help modern users interact with eighteenth-century characters.

There’s been a learning curve for me as I find out more and more about what digital formats can and can’t do. I think my biggest challenge has been learning to think about digital material spatially—in order for something to exist in our final product we have to think about where it goes and how to attach it. Our original plan was to preserve every page in three separate files—one with the image of the text, one with a transcription of the text, and a third that contained commentary for that page. The hope was that we could sync every file by line and thus create a no frills edition that could be accessible and transparent for all users.

We’ve been forging full steam ahead with the transcriptions, and I’ve learned a great deal about how to preserve physical features on page in a digital translation. I began to realize that I think of character conceptually, not spatially, and thus finding a way to break down what this text can tell us about Character by page began to seem less and less feasible—let alone breaking it down by line! A line by line commentary is useful to explicate specific things in the text—allusions that would escape a twenty first century reader, say, or translating Latin phrases into English. Each of these things occur at a specific place in the text, and are thus well suited to line by line annotation. We’ve shied away from doing that kind of annotation—not because it’s not useful, but because it’s already been done, and done well, first by Robert Thyer for the 1759 edition and for modern audiences by Charles Daves in 1970.

Butler’s work is a collection of Theophrastan Characters—a genre of writing that enjoyed a revival when Butler was writing in the late seventeenth century, but which had fallen out of fashion by the time the collection was published posthumously in 1759. Theophrastan Characters are an odd genre. They break down characters into general “types” and give a description that ostensibly describes every person that falls under that category. For instance, when Butler writes about “An Amorist” that “His Passion is as easily set on Fire as a Fart, and as soon out again.” We are meant to assume that 1) this is true of all Amorists, and 2) if we ever meet somebody whose passion is, err, easily stirred and just as quickly extinguished, that person is an Amorist.

We’re used to breaking down literary characters into round and flat characters, or individuals and types. Theophrastan Characters dwell completely on the side of types, which, when you think about it is kind of nuts. We tend to think of people specifically, not generally. If I were to ask you to imagine a lawyer, you would probably think of a lawyer you know, or a famous lawyer you’ve seen in the news or in pop culture—Elle Woods, say, or Johnny Cochran. But Butler asks us to imagine a generic lawyer, someone whose “Opinion is one thing while it’s his own, and another when it is paid for,” a figure who represents all lawyers everywhere. This is familiar to us when we think about type—who doesn’t love a good lawyer joke? But it’s strange when we consider this figure as a “Character.” In literature, even type characters require a modicum of specificity, which is dictated by their literary surroundings. When a lawyer appears in Bleak House, even though that lawyer is just a flat, type character, we still imagine a single figure in Chancery during 1852 litigating Jarndyce vs Jarndyce; it could not be Elle Woods, or Johnny Cochran or your college friend who went to law school. But Butler’s characters are devoid of context—his lawyer is at once every lawyer and no lawyer at all.

I’m hoping this project will be able to tell us two things. First, what tools do you use to create a general character? Just a surface read through shows us that Butler seldom uses traits or characteristics to describe his characters—they’re too individualizing. Instead he writes largely with metaphors. An Amorist is “like an Officer in a corporation” and a Lawyer is “like a French duelist”—which of course begs the question, what are the officers of corporations and French duelists like? Are there other devices that Butler uses? Does he use the same devices for every character? My plan is to run the text through Stylo to see if we can learn anything about how Butler creates his types.

Second, what will it take to find examples of Butler’s characters? What does it take to fit a specific person into a general description? Could we argue that perhaps Butler is describing Johnny Cochran, even if he is not describing Elle Woods? How would we show that Cochran fits into Butler’s category? By looking at what he’s done? How he acts? Who he is? Leaving aside lawyers, would we be able to find examples of Henpect Men or Fifth Monarchy Men in today’s world—or are types too dependent on their political and cultural context to translate?

Now that we have a good number of transcriptions we can begin to create a corpus, which I hope will be able to answer some of these questions.

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