Noticeably Absent On the power of unseen characters.

Noticeably Absent On the power of unseen characters.

  • Words Caspar Salmon
  • Artwork © Michaël Borremans. Courtesy of Michaël Borremans, David Zwirner and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp

Of all the unseen characters in literature, one of the most interesting is Mr. Perry, the doctor in Jane Austen’s Emma. Perry, who never actually appears in the novel, is alluded to often, and his wisdom is constantly cited by Emma’s hypochondriacal father. Along with the book’s other background characters, he deepens the world Austen evokes by giving texture to the village of Highbury; he also furthers the plot and allows Austen to get in a little dig at the growing popularity of physicians at the time.

Movies often use unseen characters, and the device is particularly effective since film is a visual medium, where everything else is presented outright. Absence can hang heavily over proceedings, as we see in Hitchcock’s ingenious adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca. Rebecca’s beauty was legendary, but we only glimpse it in a portrait displayed on the landing of Manderley. By existing in our imagination, the off-screen character has a terribly powerful aura—in contrast to the prosaically real people we see depicted. In the film this adds to the suggestion of Rebecca’s sensuality, and keeps the past out of reach—two factors that make her lingering image so intriguing.

The idea of the unseen character as a symbol is front and center in Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, where the perpetually anticipated Godot stands, perhaps, for the absurdity of our existence. Only our imagination is up to the job of conceiving of so transcendent a personality. Beckett makes his onstage characters especially earthbound, in order to clash with such pregnant imagery.

Off-screen characters have also been used to illustrate the battle of the sexes. In the classic British sitcom Dad’s Army, the wives and partners of the soldiers are never seen, while in George Cukor’s scintillating 1939 comedy The Women, adapted from a play by Clare Boothe Luce, no men ever appear. This gives a sense of characters manipulating action in the background, but it also removes sexuality (in a predominantly heterosexual world) from the dynamic between characters, which perhaps enables them to get the business of comedy nailed down more effectively. In Dad’s Army, the absence of Captain Mainwaring’s wife suggests that she is the person pulling all the strings behind the scenes, and lends an air of trifling absurdity to the captain’s endeavors. But in The Women, we do not get a sense of male partners being all-powerful. The film eradicates men entirely, as a nuisance almost: In a heavily patriarchal society, this is a conscious choice that pokes fun at men’s opinion of themselves.

When we consider unseen characters, our imaginations throw a sort of gauze of mystery over the all-too-real elements we perceive; we can conceive of these people so vividly that they easily lock step with the fictional worlds they never enter. Off-screen characters represent a tussle between the concrete and the intangible—and in grappling with that tension, we actually participate in the art we are consuming.

You are reading a complimentary story from Issue 35

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