Poetics of Character: Transatlantic Encounters 1700–1900

Susan Manning

Research output: Book/ReportBook


Poetics of Character aims to explore the potential of a new form of literary history alert to nuances of connection and comparison. Rhetorical forms of analogy such as metaphor, metonymy, simile, repetition, and prosopopoeia current in eighteenth-century pedagogical texts offer a new approach to comparative literary history. Character is at the centre of my concern with representation because character was at the nexus of Enlightenment epistemology, ethics, pedagogy and understanding of social relations; recovering the range of its continuing allegorical implication with writing (the ‘character’ as letter or textual mark) and the comparative force of its rhetorical assumptions, literary-historical practice is able to re-engage analysis and affect. Character itself, I argue, needs in literary contexts to be read as a rhetorical figure; by which I mean that literary character reveals itself in patterns of textual relationship; these may be as much articulated through what I call a poetics of correspondence in the prose as through narrative acts of comparison. I argue for the value of recovering underlying structures of connection in character and correspondence as, respectively, ethos and practice. Arabesque patterning, metaphorical chains and networks of analogy may be revitalised as forms and expressions of ethical judgment. Though it draws on all of them, Poetics of Character is not a history of literary character, a history or sociology or psychology of reading practice, or a further investigation into the construction of the modern self. The intention, combining the resources of literary theory and the history of rhetoric, is rather to argue that character as allegory and metaphor – intrinsically relational forms of ethical representation – may shape literary comparison in a transatlantic context.
Analogies are by their nature not identities: similarity necessarily also implies difference, as correspondence implies distance. Both causation and coincidence are reductive pseudo-explanations that foreclose critical comparison. Literary criticism offers instead the opportunity to ask questions about the nature of the bridge which similitude offers between two or more works: if all judgment is comparative, as Samuel Johnson put it, what is the ‘texture’ of likeness in a particular case? How is it compounded of similarity and difference, and what are the rhetorical markers of resemblance? When and how is analogy an effective critical tool, and how may we tell? In literary terms significance depends on establishing meaningfulness in conjunctions that might otherwise be dismissed as random or fortuitous; such meanings themselves involved issues of probability, but also of the conviction a critic’s particular reading can carry with another reader. That is to say, they are necessarily contingent rather than absolute: imagination and memory of previous instances is as involved in their formation as reasoning or the kind of information that history may supply.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationCambridge, England
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages350
ISBN (Print)9781107042407
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2013

Publication series

NameStudies in Romanticism
PublisherCambridge University Press


  • Character, analogy, rhetoric comparative literary studies, transatlantic literary studies


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