Nature as a Character

As usual I forgot about #litchat until 40 mins in, or rather, forgot to keep an eye on the time. Seeing as lateness is something with which I’m familiar – you could almost say intimate – I decided to poke my head in to see whether or not the topic was something I was interested in. They were discussing earth/nature as characters. Unable to resist the challenge, I set my brain to work on thinking up novels in which you could possibly argue that earth or nature is a character and started throwing titles out there, such as ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’ (I confess without much thought other than ‘that might work’). At the same time, I noticed that Lord of the Flies had been highlighted already insomuch-as the boys are influenced by the wild island. This time I was unable to resist arguing (I do so love a good argument) and said that it’s not so much the island in itself as the lack of civilised society and the rules that go with it. Someone then pointed out to me that at first the island represents a utopia – freedom – yet becomes a darker force. I argued that it’s the boys’ perception of the island that changes as they change – not the island itself – in other words, the island doesn’t change the boys, the boys change the island through their change in view (or rather they change their perception of the island – the island itself in unchanged.) This made me wonder if nature could ever be considered a character or if it’s always nothing more than the actual characters perceptions of nature. Even if a character relates to nature as another character, isn’t that just a projection of their perception of nature and not nature as a character in itself?

However, as the chat progressed, I began to think that there were no books which didn’t have nature or the environment as a character, since people, and therefore characters, always relate to and interact with their surroundings – it’s inevitable – and surely it’s interaction that makes something a character.

What all of this boiled down to was one simple question: how do you define ‘character’?

During #litchat I was working under the assumption that a character is something with which other characters interact but if that is the case then pretty much everything is a character. Since then I have been thinking of it more in terms of whether or not it has a soul – or rather is portrayed by the author as having a soul. Think of a haunted house story in which the house does things to scare people away – it is portrayed as having a soul, right? There’s a difference between someone reacting to nature or the earth and the earth reacting to the person – I mean in a more than physics way – obviously if you pull an elastic band and release it, it will ping back – but if you snap at a flower and it wilts – that suggests a soul.

Perhaps this is why the chat was focused on natural things as characters, rather than anything, such as inanimate objects. A natural thing is at least alive. There’s less of a suspension of belief require there. Yet an author can portray such things as having a soul, too, although perhaps only through a character’s perception. Then again, the narrator is a character, even if the story is written in third omniscience – because it has a voice – so it could just be the narrator’s perception of the object or nature as having a soul. In truth, it may not have a soul and therefore may not be a character but since the story is told through the narrator, that is irrelevant – the narrator’s perception becomes the true world. Unless of course you’ve got an unreliable narrator – but that’s a whole other kettle of er fish.

I guess my point is that there is a difference between a strong sense of place and nature or environment being a character. In fact, there’s a difference between the setting being integral to the plot  and quality of the story and it being a character in its own right. So, when I said Wuthering Heights was an example, I’m not sure I was right. Yes, it couldn’t really be set anywhere else and yes the wild moors do symbolise and affect the characters’ passions but is the moor a character? Does it have a soul? Does it respond to the characters? Perhaps if I re-read it (it’s been a while) and analysed it I would find something that suggests this (that’s the great thing about literature – you can nearly always find something to back up any argument) but I can’t think of anything now. It can’t be a big part of the story – a big character – if a character at all or Bronte would have made more of a point of it.

I do, however, argue that in Captain Correlli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres does portray Cephalonia as a character. It does seem to have a soul. It is very much alive. It has a sort of god-like quality to it. I think this is also true of his Latin American trilogy. In fact, in these, the land itself guides the people to their new home in an almost biblical exodus. It is part of what gives his books such heart. (Yes, I am a massive Louis de Bernieres fan, in case you hadn’t noticed. Captain Corelli is my favourite book. I keep waiting for something to top it but nothing quite comes close. If you haven’t read it, well, I would order you to read it right now or I will disown you but that just seems a bit melodramatic and childish. All I will say is, you’re missing out. It’s your loss.)

So, yeah, I think I pretty much solved the problem of when is a non-human, i.e. nature, a character. Answer: when it is portrayed as having a soul.

Ta da!

Anyone want to disagree? Point out a gaping hole or bulging, angry volcano of a spot in my argument? Come on…I dare ya.

(P.S. As far as Lord of the Flies is concerned, I would definitely have to re-read it to make the call. Cannot remember anything about the portrayal of the island in itself, other than the wilderness representing freedom (a utopia) and then danger (a distopia) which has nothing to do with whether or not it has a soul and therefore is a character. If anyone has read it recently, or just knows it better than I do, please do chip in and resolve this for me.)

(P.P.S. Just wanted to thank and congratulate you on getting to the end of an unnecessarily long blog post. I mean, really, is it ever necessary for a blog post to be this long? Always did go way over word limits – even as a child. I am very tired, though, and have a tendency to waffle when tired. So I apologise for this. Also for making it worse by adding a ‘p.p.s’ to apologise. My bad. But thanks.)

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