Recent approaches to literary character treat fictional population as a defining element of narrative form but continue to read novels at the level of individual characters. This essay uses the tools of narrative network analysis to bridge the gap between microlevel readings and the interpretation of the novel’s character-system as a population. Network analyses of three highly populous works—Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and David Simon’s HBO series The Wire—yield measures of social density and character centrality that show how Joyce adapted a Dickensian network plot that emerged amid the population explosion of nineteenth-century Britain to an Irish context marked by demographic decline. This adaptation of Dickens’s plot structure prepared it for a similar use in The Wire. Both Joyce and Simon use a large fictional network to periodically decenter their protagonists and undermine the typological assumptions of much realist fiction. The essay suggests that, rather than read these developments as evidence of a formal rupture between modernism and realism, we view Bleak House, Ulysses, and The Wire as playing a role in an understudied tradition of “population thinking” in the novel.

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