The notion of subjectivity presents the challenge of simultaneously recognizing the self, “an inwardly generated phenomenon” determined by “particular (yet strangely abstract) qualities,” as a subject, “an outwardly generated concept” determined by “social laws or codes” (37). The challenge, it seems, is conceding control. Which is determinant, the substantial qualities from within or the social laws from without? Western ethnocentricity (or egotism) tends to privilege inward qualities and characteristics. French theorist Louis Althusser, though, concedes to outward social laws and context. The self, he proposes, is “interpellated” into a subject “by the institutions of modern life” (44). Characteristics, then, are secondary to their context. Perhaps Marie de France anticipated Althusser’s political philosophy, for characteristics’ dependence on context is prevalent in Guigemar.
Marie employs easily recognizable plot and character devices from various narrative genres, providing the most basic context for interpreting her tale: the literary (or oral) tradition. Simply depending on the genre, stock characters act accordingly. Context continues to play a role within the world of Guigemar (which actually blends genres), particularly the placing of characters in specific social contexts. Regardless of genre, social context dictates decorum. Overwhelmingly, personal characteristics are mere functions of class. Marie describes Guigemar as “intelligent and brave” only after he is sent to “serve the king” in a chivalric sphere (42-3). Similarly, the maiden’s “noble, courteous, beautiful, intelligent” persona is merely a consequence of her being “a woman of high lineage” (211-2). Marie hardly shows Guigemar and the maiden building character, but instead “responding to things [and titles] that are already there” (39). They tend to do this quite literally in their actions as well. Guigemar acquires his reputation inFlanders, where “there was always a war, or battle raging” just waiting for him to claim his fame (52). The maiden’s return to her lover depends largely on a conveniently placed boat “taking her with it” (688). The characters’ commendable actions, like their traits, seem reactionary. These short-cuts to characterizations seem to be cheats. Poetic license excuses it in Marie’s case, but what of Althusser’s political philosophy? Is character merely a reaction?