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The characterisation of the figures in the Institution and the Evangelistary — or can a character break out of the borders of the genre?

Split Literary Circle - Marulianum, centre for Studies on Marko Marulić and his Humanist Circle
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  • Literature


A basic question that arises alongside the status of a human figure in a literary text is about its nature: is the character a person or is it a verbal construction that consists exclusively of the sum of specifically stated features in the text? The status of figures in genres that are not strictly speaking fictional is additionally obscure, for apart from a literary they also have a pragmatic function. The problem of character is here treated in the context of the genre features of Marulić’s two prose moral and didactic works, the Institution and the Evangelistary. The following facts need to be taken into consideration here: 1) In these texts narration and interpretation are quite equal. 2) The hypotext for them, fundamentally the Bible and the hagiographic writings, are held to be historically true. Marulić’s figures first of all exist in history, then in the Biblical text, in writings compiled on the basis of the Bible, and only then in the two books considered here. 3) The figures present in them are purposeful and necessary in the unfolding of the history of God’s work on Earth. Any reduction of the features of the characters that appear in them or the faking of them do not suit the genre, which does not allow the creation of an alternative literary world. Marulić’s character has to fit in with the appropriate homonymous character from the hypotext. 4) Unlike the fictional narrative text, Marulić’s works find the cultural code the most important thing. The features of the characters in Marulić are on the whole reduced to those that are adequate for the character to be able to perform its role in the sacred history. However, as concession to the requirement delectare, to make the work attractive to the target public, the author has had, in spite of the constraints of the exemplum genre, in places to stress the human dimension of the character. The dominant feature of the two works are given characteristics or traits the bearers of which come successively in the chapters. This paper in its search for a character moves from an opposite perspective. It assembles indicators of a character scattered through the text and makes conclusions about the manner in which they are characterised. The characters that come into in the centre of attention are the New Testament morally somewhat (at least) compromised characters of the Peter the Apostle, Mary Magdalene and Judas. Sections that are good for the characterisations of Peter are those that deal with the meetings with Simon the Sorcerer, the walking on the water, and the triple denial. Marulić’s omniscient narrator is fond of a direct definition of the features of a character with an epithet or an adverb, and thus often mentions his love for Christ, his remorse or his innocence. However his kind of direct characterisation is rare. We can usually conclude more directly from the actions of the character, about Peter’s hasty temperament and his generosity for example (In. I, 7 and II, 9). Repeated actions and habits talk of Peter’s modesty at the table, and his simplicity of attire. Devices that stress individual features lie in the area of style too (In. I, 12 and IV, 10). A sign that the character has broken free of its hypotext and that it has matured in a literary sense is the narrator’s expatiation about his hidden thoughts, concealed motives and unachieved intentions (In. III, 1 and Ev. IV, 1). The character of Mary Magdalene is more often defined than speculated about. From this point of view it is less mature than the figure of Peter. In the Institution Marulić equates Mary Magdalene with Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, the woman who anointed Christ’s head, and with the sinner who in the house of Simon the Pharisee anointed Christ’s feet and wiped them with her hair (the sinner from Luke 7, 36). In the Evangelistary, the identification of Mary Magdalene with this sinner is dubious, and Mary the sister of Martha is considered a different person. For this reason, Mary from the Institution, who has four different persons in her, is richer in features. Discovery of the cause of this kind of distinction might lead to information about the tempo, order and period of life in which Marulić wrote the two works, or individual parts of them. The traits of Judas are shown as particularly striking examples of their kind, and are very useful for the presentation of certain forms of behaviour by negation. Judas’s characterisation, apart from through the possibilities listed above, expands through apostrophe, with the narrator’s cries of loathing, through the topos of the unutterable. His traits are presented in such a way that we can imagine them individually in everyman. Judas, the ultimately negative figure, is shown as man and as the victim of human nature, while the positive figures are that way as a result of divine intervention that stifled their sinful human nature. Figures who are perfect in both thought and action - personae perfectae - are perfect in a literary sense too - they have all the characteristics necessary for them to be an example and moral model. On the other hand, characters who to say the least are not perfect, personae imperfectae, are literarily not finished, and require additional treatment in order to explain their egregious actions. The examples given show that within a genre powerfully governed by economy of expression it is possible to find traces of characterisation that cross the borders of the moral and didactic. Flat characters dominate the exemplum, but in some places they become rounded, break through the borders of their own genre. The maturity of individual characters that it is to be hoped has been demonstrated as being present in Marulić’s moral and didactic works is an additional proof of his literary qualities, and, perhaps, one of the causes of the enthusiastic reception of these two great works.

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