Plagiarism in Peter Ackroyd’s Fictional Biography "Chatterton"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2009 23 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



Introduction: Plagiarism and Fictional Literary


1. The Palimpsest

2. Doublings

3. The Mask

4. The “Anxiety of Influence”

5. Parody



Introduction: Plagiarism and Fictional Literary Biography

By problematizing originality, authenticity and truth, this paper deals with the concept of plagiarism in a poststructuralist mode. It is especially concerned with the representation of plagiarism in Peter Ackroyd’s fictional literary biography Chatterton. The question at stake is: how does Chatterton play with pla(y)giarism? This challenging task requires a concise discussion of the addressed issues, which will be the aim of the following introduction. It reflects on the essence of plagiarism and fictional biography.

Plagiarism originates from the Latin word plagiarius, meaning kidnapper or thief, stealing slaves. (See Zwierlein 2000, 499) It was not until the 18th century, however, that the word began to designate an intellectual theft. At that time artists became financially independent from their patrons and had to assert themselves on the literary market. (See Ackermann 1992, 22) Plagiarism has been recently regarded as “Anmaßung der geistlichen Urheberschaft: dadurch wird erstens der bewußte Akt der Übernahme betont, zweitens die Tatsache, daß der Plagiator als der Schöpfer des entlehnten Materials auftritt“. (Ackermann 1992, 18) According to this definition, plagiarism supposes, firstly, intentional arrogation of an intellectual work and, secondly, the plagiarist’s claim to be the creator of the stolen material. This production-oriented view gives rise to the following questions: who acknowledges the assumption of other works and classifies it as plagiarism? and who decides whether it is intentional or not?

I consider a psychological explanation of a plagiarist’s motivation as an effect of readers’ perception and presumption. The social, political and aesthetic norms, defining plagiarism, are results from a specific historic-cultural period. As previously mentioned, the word ‘plagiarism’ appears first in the 18th century in the sense of intellectual theft. Therefore, plagiarism is a social, cultural construct, which exists only by virtue of a collective belief or a contract, acknowledging a work of art as condemnable or praiseworthy. Apart from being contingent, the readers’ value judgements depend also on non-textual criteria such as: “the status and perceived genius of the authors, both plagiarizing and plagiarized; the status achieved by the plagiaristic text before the discovery of the ‘plagiarism’; the national and patriotic interests of accuser and accused”. (Randall 2001, 4-5) Therefore, I consider plagiarism as a category of reception, rather than of production. The Reader, the receiver in other words, is the one, who recognizes it, names it and condemns or praises it. In this regard, I treat both the Reader and the Plagiarist in the manner Foucault - the Author, not as individual subjects, but as cultural constructs, attributed a discursive function. (See [1969] 2000, 174-187) Furthermore, Barthes infers that “the author is a modern figure, a product of our society” ([1968] 2000, 147). I argue that the Plagiarist is also a modern figure, a product of our society, emerging together with the notion of the author as an original creator. One needs to invent the Plagiarist in order to construct the ‘Creator’ in opposition to him, to settle a contract, recognizing a work of art as plagiarism, in order to establish the notion of original literature in contrast to it.

Still, the concept of originality remains a very problematic one. Barthes considers the text as a “multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash”. ([1968] 2000, 149) He continues that “the writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original”. ([1968] 2000, 149) Keeping these two statements in mind, let me now return to the origin of the word plagiarism - the Latin plagiarius, coming from plage, which means snare, net. (Stepchyshyn and Nelson 2007, 65) The author seems to be captured in a network of previous texts, where every idea and word has already been used, and thus becomes a quotation. Then, the only possible position for a writer is that of a pla(y)giarist, playing with the quotations and, thus, “ forming new and happy combinations”. (Ackroyd, Chatterton, 58)

Next, I will focus on the second issue, addressed at the beginning of this introduction, namely the essential features of a fictional biography. Drawing upon Ina Schabert’s argument in In Quest of the Other Person, I argue that its most characteristic traits are ethics of interpersonal knowing and aesthetics of open form. (See 1990, 35) Fictional biographies strive to convey a creative vision of the other person’s reality and their narrative harbours various, sometimes contradictory views on this person, gathered by the author during his or her thorough examination of different sources and materials. My paper explores the way in which the use of palimpsests, the motifs of the double and the mask, intertextual references and parody serves the purpose of presenting Chatterton as a multilayered and multiperspectival text. The mentioned items will be discussed thoroughly in the same succession as outlined above. My goal is to examine the way in which, due to the enumerated devices, Ackroyd’s fictional biography plays with the concepts of plagiarism. Thus, I will go in quest of Chatterton ’s contribution to the whole debate on this issue.

1. The Palimpsest

The palimpsest, the result of a process of layering, could be appropriately described as an involuted phenomenon, which is a term coined by de Quincey. According to him, the adjective involuted designates the way in which “our deepest thoughts and feelings pass to us through perplexed combinations of concrete objects [...] in compound experiences incapable of being disentangled”. (Dillon 2007, 4) It refers to the relationship between the different texts, inhabiting the palimpsest. Despite being intricately interwoven, they preserve their singularity. The palimpsest is the membrane, which holds diverse texts simultaneously together and apart from each other. In this regard, the adjective palimpsestuous describes the palimpsest’s structure, “in which several figures and several meanings are merged and entangled together, all present together at all times”. (Genette 1982, 226)

This paper embarks on a palimpsestuous reading of Chatterton, because it adds to the already existing palimpsest of the text. Thus, in the process of reading, the Reader enlarges this novel, augments it with his or her thoughts, which originated from and converged with those of others. The Reader does not anymore designate a particular individual or a psychological subject. The Reader is “without history, biography, psychology”. (Barthes [1968] 2000, 150) So, I deal with an ideal Reader, standing for a certain cultural function and not for an assemblage of human beings. In this regard, “the reader is a space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost [...]” (Barthes [1968] 2000, 150) Therefore, I assert that the Reader is a palimpsest, harbouring a multiplicity of texts, which are internalized without being assimilated. The quotations, mentioned by Barthes, remain foreign bodies in the palimpsestuous space, the Reader embodies.

Next, I proceed by mediating on the position of the author. I do not allude to Peter Ackroyd as a psychological subject, but to the author function, performed in the novel Chatterton. It gives rise to several selves, which do not “refer purely and simply to a real individual”. (Foucault [1969] 2000, 182) The self that writes the dedication “For Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson” at the beginning of the book, is not identical with the self that provides the reader with short biographical information about Thomas Chatterton on the next page. (See Ackroyd, Chatterton, 1) Straight after that, a third person narrator introduces a story, developing simultaneously on three historical levels, marked by the three main protagonists Chatterton, Meredith and Wychwood. (See Ackroyd, Chatterton, 2-3) Next, there is a self, dividing the text into three parts (See Ackroyd, Chatterton, 5, 79, 189), which is immediately succeeded by a self, quoting Chatterton’s verses. A self, endowed only with separate verses, emerges at times. These verses are written in italics and put on a new line, so that they could stand out. (See Ackroyd, Chatterton, 13, 17, 21) These selves are identical with each other neither in their positions, nor in their functions. They operate simultaneously, without the assimilation of the author function by one of them at the expense of the others. So, the relationship between the selves, possessed by the author function, could be compared to that between the texts in the palimpsest. They all work together, interweave, but do not lose their separate identities.

Furthermore, Foucault considers the Author in terms of the discussed author function. Thus, the Author as a discursive position refers to the mentioned plurality of selves. In other words, the Author becomes a palimpsestuous space, where several selves, identical neither in their positions nor in their functions, operate simultaneously without the assimilation of any of the selves by the others.

Let me now explore the palimpsestuous structures in Chatterton on the textual level. There are marked and unmarked quotations throughout the novel. For example, at the beginning Chatterton cites some lines from Macpherson’s Ossian. (See Ackroyd, Chatterton, 2) Having in mind that the Scott is one of the greatest forgers in history, this citation could be regarded as an allusion to the problem of forgery, lying at the core of the novel. Another unmarked citation, this time quoted by Harriet Scope, is Wordsworth’s famous claim: “We poets in our youth begin in gladness. But thereof in the end come despondency and madness.” (See Ackroyd, Chatterton, 3) The novel is also replete with marked quotations from Meredith and Chatterton. (See Ackroyd, Chatterton, 132, 152, 170; 5, 77, 189) Therefore, Chatterton is an involuted, palimpsestuous space of intricately interwoven quotations, where the search of an origin becomes futile.

Furthermore, the plot of the novel, which develops simultaneously on three historical levels, also bears the structure of the palimpsest. Marked by the three main figures – Chatterton, Meredith and Wychwood, the three plot lines merge with each other and, still, remain separated.

The discussed examples lead me to the conclusion that the notion of the palimpsest could also be applied to the characters of the novel. They are permanently echoing the words and thoughts of others. For instance, Phillip realises that his work has “become a patchwork of other voices and other styles”. (Ackroyd, Chatterton, 70) Generally, “Whenever we speak the voices of other people speak through us, and whenever we create a work of art, other works are bound to be present in it, as in a palimpsest.” (Broich 2000, 81) This condition could be easily explained by Lacan’s view of language as an Other. The discourse we have about ourselves is not truly ours, since it is permeated by the presence of an Other, which is language. The language, presumed to be our native one, is actually our “mOther language”. (Fink 1995, 11) Through it we internalize the discourse and desires of others. According to Lacan, however, they still remain foreign bodies in a certain sense. Due to language, “the unconscious is full of other people’s talk; other people’s conversations, and other people’s goals, aspirations and fantasies.” (Fink 1995, 9-10) Thus, the self becomes a plurality of others, a palimpsest of other selves. In this respect, Phillip’s situation proves not as an exception, but as a metonymy of the normal case.

My final comment is on Chatterton’s portrait, which turns out to be a palimpsest of other pictures. It becomes a metonymy for the whole structure of the novel and its characters, presented as palimpsests, composed of others’ stories, thoughts, words and selves. Like the novel, the portrait shows that any search of a primary origin is doomed. Merk could only watch in horror how:

... the dissolution acquired its own momentum: the top surface was being stripped away, and the various underpaintings were now crackling and bubbling. The face of the sitter dissolved, becoming two faces, [...] these two faces recurred in a series of smaller and smaller images until after a few moments they had entirely disappeared. (Ackroyd, Chatterton, 228)

So, the portrait, respectively the novel, is to be considered in terms of a “palimpsest in which several figures and several meanings are merged and entangled together, all present together at all times, and which can only be deciphered together, in their inextricable totality”. (Genette 1982, 226)

The last issue, which deserves a short remark here, concerns the relationship between plagiarism and the palimpsest. As I have shown in the introduction, the Plagiarist is regarded as a copyist, whose work is based on the assumption of other works. By regarding the Reader, the Author and the Text as palimpsestuous spaces, inhabited by others’ thoughts, words and selves, I claim that plagiarism should not be regarded as a condemnable exception. It rather epitomizes the rule. Moreover, since Lacan asserts that the voices of others are speaking through the self, even one’s intimate thoughts become quotations. So, everyone is a plagiarist.

2. Doublings

Ackroyd’s novel is replete with examples of doubling. However, for the purposes of this short paper, I will limit my discussion to the following figures: Chatterton, Meredith, Wychwood, the hydrocephalus boy and the posture master. I regard doubling as a complex process in which, due to imitation or mirroring, the self gains an identity. Thus, the function of the double in this process is to supplement the self. To supplement something means not only to add something to it, but to complete it. Therefore, if a thing needs a supplement, there must already be absence in it. In Of Grammatology Derrida claims that: “Irgendwo kann etwas nicht von selbst voll werden, sondern kann sich nur vervollständigen, wenn es durch Zeichen und Vollmacht erfüllt wird. Das Zeichen ist immer das Supplement der Sache selbst.“ (Derrida 1983, 250)[1] In the same manner, I argue that there is lack in the self and it needs the double to become complete.

Let me illustrate my statement with a few examples from Ackroyd’s literary biography. The scene of Chatterton’s death is repeated several times in the novel. Chatterton dies in a garret, lying on a bed with his arm, hanging on the floor. The poet Meredith has to impersonate the marvellous boy for a portrait by Henry Wallis. He puts on similar clothes, lies down in the same garret and assumes the same posture. In addition, Charles Wychwood dies also in exactly the same posture as Chatterton; he has even a vision of the notorious poet’s death:

He had torn up the poem and allowed the pieces to drift across the floor where now, with his outstretched hand, he could touch them […] he could see it all, the garret window open, the dying roseplant upon the sill, the purple coat thrown across a chair, the extinguished candle upon the small mahogany table. (Ackroyd Chatterton, 169)

By replacing the marvellous boy in the death scene, Meredith and Wychwood become Chatterton’s doubles, whose function is to supplement the self. The following passage exemplifies my inference:

The two others have joined him [Chatterton] – the young man who passes him on the stairs and the young man who sits with bowed head by the fountain – and they stand silently beside him. I will live forever, he tells them. They link hands, and bow towards the sun. (Ackroyd, Chatterton, 234)

The union between the marvellous boy and his doubles demonstrates the way, in which the doubles complete the self. In addition, the doubles are designated as the two others, in the sense of the two other Chattertons. So, during the process of doubling, Meredith and Wychwood have gained the identity of the one, they are replacing – Chatterton. “Thus not only is one person shown to be a plurality of subjects, but at the same time a plurality of persons is shown to be really one; or, to put it simply, the Other is shown to be many and the self to be identical with the Other.” (Broich 2000, 81)

The next example of doubling, I will shortly comment on, concerns the hydrocephalic boy. I would like to pay special attention to the mirroring, taking place in the dialogue between him and Chatterton. As the poet asks the child: “Who are you?”, he echoes “Whoyoo?”. (Ackroyd, Chatterton, 209-10) Chatterton asserts: “I am Tom.” The boy repeats “Tom” and points to himself in imitation. (Ackroyd, Chatterton, 210) Being aware of the fact that the boy’s shelter is going to fall, the poet tells him: “You must leave here, [...], or you will die”. (Ackroyd, Chatterton, 210) The child echoes “dyen”. At the end of the conversation Chatterton remains unsure, whether the boy understands his words. The hydrocephalus just mumbles: “Worlds. [...] Wordso. Woods.” in a reply. (Ackroyd, Chatterton, 210) The boy’s lines mirror those of Chatterton. Therefore, the dialogue between the boy and Chatterton could be compared to that between Echo and Narcissus. Like the idiot boy, Echo has no discourse of her own; she is only able to echo Narcissus words. (See Danis 1987, 148)[2] The position of the hydrocephalic boy alludes to the position of the poet himself. As I have already discussed in the previous chapter, every one turns out to be quoting the words of others. Therefore, the poet is bound to be echoing other voices; he is captured in a snare of texts, where the search of an origin becomes futile. These reflections provide a plausible explanation for the emergence of the next ‘mirror’. Chatterton looks at the boy and “it is as if he were looking at himself.” (Ackroyd, Chatterton, 210) Thus, the boy becomes one of the Chattertons. Since that encounter, “the idiot boy was always known as Tom.” (Ackroyd, Chatterton, 211) In order words, one gains identity in the process of doubling, whereas the double supplements or completes the self.


[1] Derrida regards writing as a supplement of speech. The word différance, pronounced as difference, demonstrates the inability of speech to mark the difference between the two words. (See 1983, 244-9)

[2] The dialogue between Narcissus and Echo goes as follows:

“Ist jemand hier?”

“Hier”, antwortete Echo.;



“Warum meidest du mich?”

“Warum meidest du mich?” (Danis 1987, 148)


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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LMU Munich – Department für Anglistik und Amerikanistik
Plagiarism Plagiat Peter Ackroyd Chatterton Poststructuralism Parody Intertextuality Forgery Palimpsest




Title: Plagiarism in Peter Ackroyd’s Fictional Biography "Chatterton"