Handout for 2/5

February 5: Austen (3). Fictional character. The historical meanings of “character” are documented in the Oxford English Dictionary, which every English literature student—this means you!—should learn how to access and use.

We did not have time to talk about the concept of heteroglossia and the brief passage about it on the handout. This term refers to a concept introduced by the Russian literary theorist M.M. Bakhtin. Bakhtin argued that the novel as a genre is distinguished by the way it “orchestrates” the many different kinds of speech found in social life. The “dialogism” of the novel does not just consist in the dialogue spoken by characters but in the way the language of both narrator and characters is marked by the speech styles of many social groups: every word is voiced through “other tongues” (hetero-glossia).

As we have already seen in our discussions of free indirect discourse and irony, what one person says can nonetheless echo or incorporate what another person says—but with a difference. At the opening of Pride and Prejudice, Austen’s narrator inflects the statements of “truth universally acknowledged” held by the members of the Bennets’ neighborhood with her own skeptical irony—a skepticism which she shares, in this case, with those members of the community whose “quickness” distinguishes them from everyone else: Elizabeth and her father. Heteroglossia here would be not just due to differing individual characters but to the tension between, for example, the social group of young women seeking independence and the adults who enforce the normative sexual order.

For more technical detail, see Valerij Tjupa, “Heteroglossia,” in The Living Handbook of Narratology, 2013. The essay by Bakhtin cited on the handout from class, “Discourse in the Novel,” is one of the most challenging and rewarding essays on the theory of the novel ever written.

Author: AG

Associate Professor, Department of English, Rutgers University, New Brunswick