Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Utopia's Minor Characters

Utopias frequently contain minor or even marginal characters who have very much more narrative potential than the books’ main plot lines (insofar as utopia does have a plot) seem to allow for them.

Take, for instance, the child Ini, whom the utopian anarchist Shevek meets on his visits to the Pae household in Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. ‘He represented something to the child which Ini could not describe. Even much later in his life, which was profoundly and obscurely influenced by that childhood fascination, Ini found no words for it, only words that held an echo of it: the word voyager, the word exile’ (ch 7).

Or take, from Morris’s News from Nowhere, the daughter of Philippa the Obstinate Refuser: ‘a taller woman, quite a girl she seemed, who was at work nearby, had already knocked off, and was standing looking from Clara to Dick with delighted eyes. None of the others paid much heed to us … she turned out to be Philippa’s daughter, but was a tall strong girl, black-haired and gipsey-like of face and curiously solemn of manner … [Philippa] only shrugged her shoulders when her daughter came up to her and touched her’ (ch XXVI).

Such intriguing details may be no more than what Roland Barthes terms the ‘effet du réel’, whereby, through its surplus of signification, a narrative attempts to give persuasive groundedness to its fictional world. But Ini and Philippa’s daughter surely also take us beyond that immediate world, whether Le Guin’s Urras or Morris’s Nowhere. We want to know what kind of profound and obscurely influenced life the boy Ini subsequently leads, and we ask ourselves why Morris’s young woman is so fascinated by Dick and Clara, why her manner should be so curiously solemn, why her mother’s final gesture to her is so cold and unfriendly, and above all what may become of such a tantalising figure in the years ahead.

Such narrative promises are not kept, in either text, but they have none the less been made; and in such tiny ways, I would suggest, utopias begin to sketch the outline of possible sequels to themselves, sequels which might build systematically on the latent but undeveloped narrative potentials all such works secrete in the margins of their major or ‘official’ story-telling projects.