Character: The History of a Cultural Obsession

Image of Character: The History of a Cultural Obsession
Release Date: 
July 14, 2020
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by: 

The inspiration for Marjorie Garber’s interesting but ultimately frustrating book seems to be the political ascendancy of Donald Trump. As Garber points out, assertions about Donald Trump’s have widely circulated every since he began his campaign for the presidency. These assertions are usually in the negative; that is, they point out Trump’s lack of or deficiencies of character.

These sorts of claims led Garber to ponder exactly what the word “character” has meant historically and what it now means, given that much of the term’s complexity and history has been forgotten. Her investigation leads Garber to trace a number of aspects of the use of the word “character” from the ancient Greeks to the present. What do past writings tell us about “character”? Is a person’s character fixed or can it change?

Garber points out that in the past, character had two basic meanings. On one hand, the word, with its origins in engraving, suggested something stamped on us—our personality. On the other hand, character also meant moral or ethical principles which one learned. A person of good character acted on ethical principles.

There is some tension between these two aspects of the term. The former suggests innate traits; the latter patterns of behavior that can be taught or changed. Much of classical and neo-classical comedy, for instance, is based on fixed character types that could be codified in masks; for instance, the braggart, the lecher, or the fool. In fact, as Garber points out in detail, pseudo sciences like phrenology and physiognomy developed to read fixed character in the shapes of heads or facial features. At the same time, the possibility of character building was celebrated by organizations like the boy scouts and, later, self-help books offered advice on character formation.

Garber’s first chapter focuses on the ways in which questions of character are used in popular discourse. Politicians are supposed to be of “good character,” but some of the more famous or notorious ones are attacked for their character flaws or deficiencies of character. Terms like “presidential character” are bandied about without ever being clearly defined.  Moreover, revelations of immoral behavior on the part of celebrities who have celebrated “character” have led the term to be associated with hypocrisy rather than moral strength.

Garber also questions claims of “national character.” Can “character,” a term associated with individual traits be broadened to include a nation? As individual character is associated with the negative, so national character can be defined by what it is not. Muslim dress in France is “not French.” Middle Eastern refugees are seen as alien to the national character of some European right-wing politicians and their followers. As Garber points out, claiming that some groups are aliens to a national character often veers toward stereotyping or outright prejudice, as with the definitions of Muslims in some European countries or migrants from Latin America in the United States. The same sort of stereotyping has been applied to Jews, often not seen as native to the country in which they are born.

Garber is particularly interested in the moment when the concept of personality became ascendant over character, particularly among psychologists and psychiatrists. Some saw “character” as an evaluative term while “personality” was more descriptive and neutral. One would be diagnosed with a personality disorder rather than a character deficiency. In popular culture, the modern cult of personality often meant that people were more fascinating for their deficiencies of character.

Character is, of course, also a term used in drama and fiction. Garber discusses various literary notions of character, particularly as found in readings of Shakespeare over the centuries. As an academic, she is also interested in the ways in which the word “character” has affected college admissions, from restricting Jews to the recent Harvard case regarding quotas for Asian Americans.

There is a lot of fascinating material in Marjorie Garber’s 400-plus page book. The question is whether all of it is necessary to support some broad, vague theses. At the end of the book, Garber admits that she remains in doubt about exactly what “character” means. It is, she maintains, more noticeable in its absence. If her subject is, as she claims, wrapped in a “mystical haze,” why has she spent so much space trying to define it? One can’t help thinking of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, who cannot offer a coherent explanation or narrative, or Melville’s Ishmael trying for hundreds of pages to define a whale that remains indefinable. One does not always sense that there is a logical or necessary order to chapters or topics within chapters. Garber takes us down a meandering path in search of something we never quite find. There are interesting sites along the way, but it is an unnecessarily long journey.