Literary criticism and the existential turn

Toril Moi:

For generations, literature students have been told never to treat characters as if they were real people.1 Academic literary theory is replete with warnings against committing this cardinal sin. We must not ask how many children Lady Macbeth had. We must not think of characters as “our friends for life,” or feel that they “remain as real to us as our familiar friends.” We must not talk about the “unconscious feelings of a character,” for that would be to fall into the “trap of the realistic fallacy.”

If those are thoughts academic critics mustn’t think, then here are things we are urged to bear in mind: We must never forget that “le personnage … n’est personne,” that the person on the page is nobody. We must always remind ourselves that characters “exist only as words on a printed page,” and therefore “have no consciousness.” Should the “feeling that they are living people” arise, we must resolutely repress it, for it is an “illusion.” We must remember that if characters fascinate us, it is only because they “invit[e] cathexis with ontological difference.”