What does one do with a major character who simplifies as a novel progresses—to the point where even this novel’s other characters begin to disregard him? Flat Protagonists shows that writers have undertaken such formal experiments—which give rise to its titular ‘flat protagonists’—since the novel’s incipience. It finds such characters in British and French novels ranging from the late seventeenth to the early twentieth century: by Aphra Behn, Isabelle de Charrière, Françoise de Graffigny, Thomas Hardy, and Marcel Proust.
Flat Protagonists also argues that these uncommon ‘flat protagonists’ challenge our larger views about the novel as a genre. Going against a long-standing tradition of valuing characters for their complexity, this book proposes that novels, and their characters, should be appreciated for highlighting the limits to how much attention any particular person’s self-expression tends to garner, and how much insight anyone has to offer her community. As invitations to consider how we might come across to others, rather than merely how these other people come across to us, flat protagonists subvert as well as complement the more conventional approach to novels as, at their best, sites of instruction in interpersonal empathy.