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English Department's 30th Annual Josephine Gessner Ferguson Lecture

Uptown Campus
Woldenberg Art Center
Freeman Auditorium

Featuring Toril Moi (Duke Univ.)

"Never Treat Characters as if They were Real People": On the Origins and Future of a Taboo

In 1933, the young British critic L. C. Knights published a little book called How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth? The essay argued vigorously for a new kind of literary criticism, one capable of doing justice to the new, modernist literature that had begun to emerge after World War I.  L. C. Knights's major target was what he took to be the old-fashioned critics' infuriating tendency to treat characters as if they were real people. Literary texts are made up of words; the task of a serious critic is to pay attention to those words. After World War II, most ambitious critics forcefully rejected character-criticism as naive and unprofessional. This attitude persists to our day. Why? Toril Moi shows that the taboo on character-criticism rests not on solid logical and philosophical grounds, but on critics' wish to establish themselves as professionals (as opposed to amateurs), and on their allegiance to a formalist understanding of modernism. Today, a new kind of literature, one in which the traditional boundary between fiction and reality often collapses entirely, requires literary studies to rethink the concept of character, and move towards a less formalist understanding of form. 

English Department