The is selectively silent and reserved in a purposeful

The introductory question posed by Robert Alter in his chapter ‘Characterisation and the art of reticence’ succinctly describes the problem he addresses. Alter asks “how does the Bible mange to evoke such a sense of depth and complexity in its representation of character with what would seem to be such sparse, even rudimentary means?” That is to say, how do the Biblical writers portray characters with enormous variation and richness, despite narrating in a way that is, in a sense, alien to the western tradition. Alter rightly points out that the methods utilised to achieve depth and individuality in characterization within western novels (a tradition dating back to the Greek epics) appear more or less absent in the Bible, therefore, he poses the question as to how, despite its apparent lack of narrative complexity, personages as variant, complex and vivid as Moses, Saul, David, Jacob and Rebekah are created and sustained. In this chapter, Alter discusses the various modes of characterization utilised in the Bible and focuses particularly on the ‘art of reticence’, or being selective, as the foremost means of characterization evident in the Bible.   Ostensibly, the Bible seems to give only the “barest hints about physical appearance, dress, material milieu”, yet Alter rightly indicates that it is also a library with a dense background and numerous possibilities attached to every character. Alter’s response to the issue of how the Bible creates varied characters via seemingly unsophisticated methods, as indicated somewhat in the title, is that Biblical narrative is selectively silent and reserved in a purposeful way. In other words, the reticence seen throughout the Bible in relation to character is there in an purposefully artful manner. Alter argues convincingly throughout the chapter that the Biblical narrators maintained their ‘simple’ treatment of character tactfully, purposefully including or omitting detail in order to both convey nuances between characters and leave adequate space for inference, where this adds more to the story than words.   In establishing his point, Alter focuses on a series of related passages from the Biblical stories of David, in his view the character most elaborately depicted. This focus on the complex David allows Alter to unpick how the Bible is able to produce “sharply defined surfaces and a sense of ambiguous depths in character”, and throughout the chapter he highlights where Biblical narrative is explicit and where, contrastingly, Biblical narrative invokes the ‘art of reticence’ in order to allow for inference and conjecture. Alter’s main focus is on David’s relation to Saul, and to his subsequent wives, most notably Michal in a passage taken from 1 Samuel 18. Through this Alter highlights how the Biblical narrators are able to invoke a sense of varying degrees of ambiguity in different characters and at different times, as they utilise what he describes as an ascending order of explicitness. Alter convincingly argues his point throughout the chapter, that they shrewdly vary the means of presentation from one person to the next, with lesser or greater reticence accordingly. This explains how David remains completely opaque while Saul is wholly transparent, since the Biblical narrator presents Saul unambiguously, revealing his inner thoughts and motives. Contrastingly, Alter explains how and why the Biblical narrator shrouds David in a veil of uncertainty, divulging only his outward, public speeches and withdrawing from his individual person, leaving ‘the door open’ for varying interpretations. Alter seems to indicate that although Biblical narrative blocks explicit access to the intimate David, this shroud of ambiguity allows for the reader to wonder and infer, establishing the grounds for multiple and conflicting interpretations. Moreover, Alter argues that this technique allows for emotions to convey feelings unsaid. In this sense, the absence of words and speech in the Bible seems, when used skillfully, to often do more than their inclusion. The power of this reticence is highlighted countless times by Alter, who asserts that when one reads the Bible, the narrators are compelling us to infer character and motive “from fragmentary data, often with crucial pieces of narrative exposition strategically withheld”.  This is most evident in the stories of David, which Alter uses to highlight the strategic removal of particular information as a way of expressing his multifaceted nature. This is contrasted with Saul who is delineated as transparent, instead highlighting his nature as a “failed Machiavellian plotter”.   This chapter has clear and recognisable implications for the reading of the Bible and, in particular, the understanding of differing forms of characterization. Alter lucidly explains how the Bible differs from all other books, particularly in that the writers “embody the abiding mystery in character” which he argues contrasts with the tendency in Greek literature (I.e. Homer) to explicitly state motive, emotions and character traits – a predilection that has been adopted into the western tradition also. Thus, this chapter awakens one to the radically different style employed by the Biblical writers and suggests that an sharp attentiveness is key to a successful reading of the Bible, in order to fully appreciate the narrational skill. However, this chapter may not be suitable for those unfamiliar with the Bible or academic works in general since the vocabulary is, often, complex and subject specific. Nevertheless, for those intrigued by the Bible as a vast library ridden with literary gems, this chapter is ideal in that Alter writes cogently, following his line of argument with adequate examples from the section of the Bible he chooses to work from. The only criticism may be that his use of examples are, in a way, limited. Though, in the space of a chapter Alter adequately convinced me of the existence and implications of reticence in the Bible.