Minor Character as Narrative Strategy: the case of Zoshchenko's "Strashnaja noch'"

James Driscoll, Harvard University

Literary criticism has shown a distinct favoritism towards the problem of "major character" that seemingly inexplicable phenomenon where characters, by the sheer power of their narrative presence, appear to escape the boundaries of the text in which they were born. In Story and Discourse, Seymour Chatman gives the example of Anna Karenina, a character who seems to remain "undimmed" in memory even when the words of Tolstoj's novel pass from recollection.

While the achievement of characters such as Anna should not be overlooked, scholarly focus on narrative celebrities has meant that the use of minor character has not received an adequate amount of theoretical development. Although most narratologists take time to consider the problem of minor character, they often treat minor characters as devices of juxtaposition, either as foils to major characters, or as "reduced" characters with a diminished number of traits or a limited impact on the plot. Alternatively, theorists attempt to juxtapose minor characters with elements of setting, usually based on plot significance. Unfortunately, neither approach recognizes minor character as an independent narrative strategy with special aesthetic qualities and effects. As a result, the study of authors who deliberately make minor characters the heroes of their story, such as Zoshchenko, Babel' and Olesha, has not reaped the benefits of new developments in the study of literary character.

Recently, some of the most intriguing work on character has emerged from the field of cognitive science. Interestingly enough, this work seems to corroborate the relationship of characters and plot, but in a way that is much more open to developing theories of minor character. For example, Ross (1975) has demonstrated that when attributing motivation to behavior, observers tend to make dispositional (trait-oriented) rather than situational (plot-oriented) attribution. Gerrig and Allbritton (1993), in applying these findings to imaginary literature, note that the author's control over the reader's point-of-view permits the author to engage the dispositional sympathies of the reader based on cognitive manipulation. These sympathies, often derived from first impressions, are proprioceptive and resistant to correction˜two qualities that take on special significance in the context of minor character.

In this paper, I offer a reading of a text that is notable for the level of transparency it brings to the use of minor character. The text, Zoshchenko's "Strashnaja noch'" (1925), is one of Zoshchenko's "sentimental" tales and is the story of an unnamed writer/narrator and Boris Kotofeev, his literary creation. My paper, which adapts new research to the problem of minor character, examines in detail the relationship between existents, plot, and point-of-view in order to show how Zoshchenko's use of minor character can be seen as a deliberate narrative strategy that carefully negotiates its relationship with the reader. By carefully controlling the reader's awareness of plot, character and setting, the author consistently maintains an observational (vs. participatory) threshold of perception that not only enhances any satiric effect, but also elicits an atmosphere of sympathy against the absurdity of everyday life.