How Calvinist theology helps us read characters in the early British novel, shedding new light on the origins of modern secularism

The strangeness of fictional characters in the eighteenth-century novel has been well documented. They are two-dimensional yet complex; they suggest unstable correspondences between the external and the internal. In Reading Character after Calvin, David Mark Diamond traces the religious genealogy of such figures, arguing that two-dimensionality reproduces through form a model of interpretation that originates in Calvinist Protestant theology.

In Calvin’s teachings, every person possessed a spiritual status as saved or damned, and their external features ostensibly reflected this inward condition. This belief, however, was always haunted by the possibility of a discrepancy between the two. Diamond shows how Calvinism survives in the pages of early novels as a guide to discerning religious hypocrisy and, eventually, distinctions related to imperial race-making. He tracks the migration of Calvinist character detection from its original, sectarian contexts to the worlds of eighteenth-century fiction, revealing the process by which religion came unbound from doctrinal orthodoxy and was grafted onto the ambition of racialized global dominion.

Analyzing a diverse set of texts, Diamond offers a fresh account of both how literary character worked and how it works to naturalize, question, or critique the violence of empire.
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