The thing that draws me to Mikhail Bakhtin is his focus on the novel – not just as a genre, but as a vehicle for heteroglossia via language/ discourse/ dialogue.  At last, the theories about the minutiae of linguistics, the ideologies and the underlying psychological forces of societies are gathered, sorted, some set aside, while the aggregation of the often contradictory elements of others are compounded into something useful for the literary critic.

[Bakhtin] emphasizes performance, history, actuality, and the open-ness of dialogue, as opposed to the closed dialectic of Structuralism’s binary oppositions.  Bakhtin makes the enormous leap from dialectical, or partitive, thinking … to dialogic or irrational thinking.

 (Clark, & Holquist, 1984  p. 7) 

He applied the nuances of these past theories, combined with his own early views (on architectonics, aesthetics, consummation, the self and other, the author and his hero), with his later major works (on dialogism, heteroglossia, and the novel as genre), to literature – demonstrating their applicability with high-lighted examples from authors such as Dickens.

In his ‘Introduction: The Architectonics of Answerability’ Michael Holquist defines architectonics as: “the general study of how entities relate to each other, whereas aesthetics concerns itself with the problem of consummation, or how parts are shaped into wholes.” (Holquist & Liapunov, 1995, p. x)  These provided a ground for Bakhtin’s discussion of

how relations between living subjects get ordered into categories of “I” and “another” …. [and] how authors forge the kind of tentative wholeness we call a text out of the relation they articulate with their heroes. (ibid, p. x) 

As one would expect they also evolved and were incorporated into his more complex notions of heteroglossia in relation to the novel.

Bakhtin’s focus on language began with his focus on the individual and the way one sees oneself – from within and not from outside.  Thus every individual is incomplete from within but sees every other individual as complete, because they can be observed from outside.  In order to see oneself as ‘I for myself’ it is necessary to see oneself as ‘I as seen by others’ – in other words, one needs to know others’ perspectives of oneself in order to see oneself as complete.  Although they may show similar characteristics, each individual is non-identical, different, unique – thus there are a multiplicity of individuals.

And there are a multiplicity of languages, saturated with ideologies, which ‘interpellate’ the individual throughout life.  While Althusser thought in terms of ISAs (Ideological State Apparatuses), institutions controlling society, Bakhtin thought in terms of individuality – the micro level of society.  Every individual has a language, which can be grouped in rings of relationships – overlapping language rings, for example an individual’s sporting group language overlaps his University group language which overlaps his work group language which overlaps his family group language and so on.  These languages saturated with ideologies are multiple.  Thus the world consists of multiplistic languages/ discourses/ voices – in other words heteroglossia.

The natural world is a world of heteroglossia.  The centripetal tendency to create a unity of language silencing other forces, for example that of a unitary language, subsumed to the poet’s voice, as the only language for the discourse of serious poetry, is a violation of this.  (An exception is T S Eliot’s poem ‘The Wasteland’ which with its multiple voices is very heteroglossic.)  Today’s tendency is centrifugal – a fleeing away from unified language to that of multiplicity.

The centripetal forces of the life of language, embodied in a

‘unitary language’, operate in the midst of heteroglossia.  At

any given moment of its evolution, language is stratified not

only into linguistic dialects … but also … into languages that

are socio-ideological: languages of social groups, ‘professional’ and ‘generic’ languages, languages of generations …. [even] literary language. (Rice & Waugh, 1997, p. 232)

In Epic and the Novel Bakhtin stated that the earliest work of literature was the epic, which was National not personal, always in the past and completed – its end was in the past even before it was written down, for example Homer’s Iliad – and was separated by epic distance from the reader’s time.  In the epic,a single line of movement ran through the narrative, often tied up with identity, especially National identity.  Because there was no alternative to the hero’s destiny (he had no choice – his life was his destiny) it could only be seen from one perspective – monoglossic – with no competing voices/languages.

In contrasting the epic to the novel, Bakhtin showed the way society changed in the third century BC in Greece and in the Middle Ages in Europe.  Social turmoil broke down the centripetal monoglossic language with the emergence of parody, in which the hero was seen multi-dimensionally rather than flat.  Instead of epitomising perfection, the hero was seen with flaws comically highlighted.  Profound social changes caused an inversion of social languages and figures of authority seen in the late Middle Ages/early Renaissance Carnival which conveyed a comical inversion of the social order, debunking figures of authority on the one day of the year.  (This is still seen today with the Carnival at Rio, and the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in Sydney.) Bakhtin thought this was essential, and wrote Rabelais and His World (suppressed by authorities, then published at the end of his life) for his university thesis detailing the use of parody and humour as liberating factors.

Laughter destroyed epic distance; it began to investigate man freely and familiarly, to turn him inside out, expose the disparity between his surface and his center, between his potential and his reality. (Bakhtin, p. 35) 

Bakhtin saw this pushing, probing, asking questions, as a move into heteroglossia; and with more languages, saturated with ideology, being uttered, heteroglossia moved into literature.

Bakhtin viewed the novel as a genre separate from that of the epic – the former incomplete, flexible, ever-changing – the “most fluid of genres” (ibid, p. 11), “determined by experience, knowledge and practice (the future)” (ibid, p. 15); the latter complete, closed, contained, with “memory, and not knowledge, that serves as the source and power for the creative impulse” (ibid, p. 15).  The novel defies the organising principles of genre, with experts unable to “isolate a single definite, stable characteristic of the novel – without adding a reservation, which immediately disqualifies it altogether as a generic characteristic.” (ibid, p. 8)  Bakhtin gave several examples including that a “novel is a love story” when many are not, or that it “is a prose genre” when there are “excellent novels in verse”, (ibid, p. 9) and so on.  He enumerated the three characteristics that distinguished the novel from other literary genres:

(1) its stylistic three-dimensionality, which is linked with the multi-languaged consciousness realized in the novel; (2) the radical change it effects in the temporal coordinates of the literary image; (3) the new zone opened by the novel for structuring literary images, namely, the zone of maximal contact with the present (with contemporary reality) in all its openendedness. (ibid, p. 11)

He focussed on the chronotope, the spacio/temporal matrix (an inseparable fusion of place/space and period/time) that shapes any narrative text.  As with binary opposites, which Bakhtin believed worked together rather than in opposition, within the chronotope neither space nor time is privileged.  Rather each is interdependent, woven throughout spoken or written dialogue.  “There is no existence, no meaning, no word or thought that does not enter into dialogue or ‘dialogic’ relations with the other, that does not exhibit intertextuality in both time and space.” (Morris, 1994, p. 247)  This dialogism incorporated monoglossia (a stable unified language), polyglossia (a means of demonstrating the national languages within a language), and heteroglossia (‘different-speech-ness’), that

refers to the conflict between ‘centripetal’ and ‘centrifugal’, ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ discourses …. present at the micro-linguistic scale; every utterance contain[ing] within it the trace of other utterances, both in the past and in the future.” (ibid, pp. 248-9) 

But, according to Bakhtin, this heteroglossic viewing of a language through the eyes of another language, language speaking to language, languages within language, “should not be confused with ‘polyphony’ …. used … to describe … ‘multi-voiced’ novels, whereby author’s and heroes’ discourses interact on equal terms.  ‘Heteroglossia’, on the other hand, foregrounds the clash of antagonistic social forces.” (ibid, p. 249)  It also provides, with its far wider scope of languages speaking dialogically, an even more effective vehicle for imagery, ideas, and ideology within novels. The modern novel, “as a genre that is ever questing, ever examining itself and subjecting its established forms to review” (Bakhtin, p. 39) is the only truly heteroglossic literary form.

Bakhtin discussed in ‘Discourse in the Novel’ the role of ‘common language’ (the normal written and spoken language of a social group) as used by the author to validate his fictional societal values and points of view.  The author manipulates the aspects of this ‘common language’, “the impersonal going opinion” (Rice & Waugh, 1997, p. 236), to distance himself or to merge “his own voice with the common view.” (ibid, p. 236)  The comic style of novel demands that the author utilise variety in his relations with and distance from “those parodic stylizations of generic, professional and other languages … as well as compact masses of direct authorial discourse – pathos-filled, moral-didactic, sentimental-elegiac or idyllic.” (ibid, p. 236)  Thus the relationship between the author and the language can be direct or subtle, portrayed via character voices that reflect the views of that character type, or views advanced by the author via another’s voice or an authorial aside.

For Bakhtin “a voice will always have a particular ‘intonation’ or ‘accentuation’, which reflects the values behind the consciousness which speaks.” (Morris, 1994, p. 251)  The conflict between the different voices occurs in several ways – 1) through the use of parody, 2) in concealed form with no formal markers to indicate direct or indirect speech, 3) “hidden diffused speech of another”, 4) “double-accented, double-styled hybrid construction”, an “act of authorial unmasking … merge[d] with the unmasking of another’s speech”, and 5) by “pseudo-objective motivation … the speech of ‘current opinion’” where “subordinate conjunctions and link words … lose their direct authorial intention, [and] take on the flavour of someone else’s language”. (Rice & Waugh, 1997, pp. 236, 237, 238, 239)

In Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway, heteroglossia is exposed line by line, as the voices of the characters continually interweave throughout the progress of the one day.  It is a truly unique style, guiding the reader to follow the lives of the two main characters, Mrs Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith, as their day unfolds, interrupted by the thoughts (voices) of other subsidiary characters, and cameo-characters who cross their paths.  It exposes not only the characters’ voices, but the language of a cross-section of social groups, their attitudes to life, each other, and other classes.  And it exposes Woolf’s voice, sometimes as inserted commentary, often bracketed, and sometimes merged within the voices of her characters.

There are a multiplicity of voices – Clarissa’s via her mind and memories; Septimus’s multiple voices due to his mental illness; his wife’s reflecting her anxiety and loneliness; the two doctors’ whose patronising authority triggers Septimus’s suicide:, the political voice of Clarissa’s husband, Richard; the kindly condescension of the courtly Hugh; and the bitterness of Miss Kilman – all revealing social conflict, the contradictory signals that constantly flow through society, as they jostle without markers, juxtaposed on the pages.  To facilitate the portrayal of these differing social classes, Woolf adapts the language according to profession or genre.  For example, when describing the florist-shop scene, Woolf used lyrical flowing language of floral tones, “delicious scents, [and] exquisite coolness” (Woolf, 1992, p. 14) to evoke its secluded oasis-like nature – a seclusion rudely shattered by the backfiring of the car outside.

The heteroglossic interchange passing from character to character, voice to voice, clearly occurs throughout the sequence of the regal car and the sky-writing plane. As the car halts in the street, its occupant’s face is glimpsed, and it moves slowly on, speculation becomes rife among the onlookers, pedestrians, shop-assistants, shoppers, fellow travellers, men in their club, as to the identity of the occupant.  Their attitudes towards the ‘crown’ and country are displayed via their station in life, and their language used to express their sentiments.  The Upper Class stand to attention as the car passes, the Middle Class sit and stare, the Lower Class “wish the dear boy well”, or come to blows over a Colonial insult to the House of Windsor.

The motor car with its blinds drawn and an air of inscrutable

reserve proceeded towards Piccadilly, still gazed at, still ruffling the faces on both sides of the street with the same dark breath of veneration whether for Queen, Prince, or Prime Minister nobody knew. …. But there could be no doubt that greatness was seated within; greatness was passing, hidden, down Bond Street … [the] ordinary people … [were] within speaking distance of the majesty of England, of the enduring symbol of the state(ibid, p. 17)

These italics are mine, used to indicate the infiltration into the text of heteroglossia, in the unmarkered concealed form of another’s language (elevated, official-ceremonial); followed by the underlined link word ‘still’ indicating pseudo-objective motivation; a hybrid form unmasking the merged voice of the author and the parodic-ceremonial other; moving on to the ‘current opinion’ of ‘greatness’ allied with the merged author voice; and finishing where it began with the parody of the concealed official-ceremonial form.  As the characters intersect to draw the reader away on their individual tangents, this heteroglossia rolls on page after page, flickering conflicting viewpoints within the same sentence, in neighbouring sentences, in paragraphs, through sections, culminating in the aesthetic architectonics that form the complete novel.

With the sudden appearance of the plane writing in the sky, the attention of the crowd is transferred. The car is forgotten and enters the gates of the palace unobserved.  Diverted, everyone looks up, to speculate about the message being written – its signification read differently by each voice, in language loaded with ideology, with heteroglossia – all social voices having their say.  It is relatively easy to read the differences and identify which language is speaking.  By means of the sky-writing plane which can be seen from a multiple of locations simultaneously, Woolf moves the heteroglossic action from venue to venue, character to character.

The Bakhtinian ‘theory’ about the self and other is also evident in Clarissa’s interpretation of herself.  She sees herself through the eyes of her husband, those of her daughter, of Miss Kilman, of her ex-lover Peter Walsh, of Hugh, of Lady Bruton, of the florist, and of the maid.

[T]hank you, thank you, she went on saying in gratitude to her servants generally for helping her to be like this, to be what she wanted, gentle, generous-hearted.  Her servants liked her.  (ibid, p. 42) 

Via the dialogism of these people we also see Clarissa from the outside, building up a picture of who she is, just as she does.  Her thoughts betray her uncertainty, her regrets, her fears, as she realizes that if she had gone with Peter “[if she] had married him, this gaiety would have been [hers] all day”. (ibid, p. 51)   Instead she married Richard who had deserted her, to lunch with Lady Bruton.  Unaware that it was a business luncheon between Lady Bruton, Richard and Hugh, to discuss a submission to The Times newspaper, Clarissa felt she was no longer a desirable lunch companion.  “It was all over for her.  The sheet was stretched and the bed narrow.” (ibid, p. 51)  This alludes to her feelings that menopause has ended her sexual, physical life.  She is an ailing middle-age woman with little to look forward to.  All hangs, for Clarissa, on the success of her coming party.

Based on his past experiences, Peter in turn paints one of many pictures of her, as he tries to explain her to himself.

[S]he was worldly; cared too much for rank and society and getting on in the world – which was true in a sense; she had admitted it to him. (You could always get her to own up if you took the trouble; she was honest.)  What she would say was that she hated frumps, fogies, failures, like himself presumably; thought people had no right to slouch about with their hands in their pockets; must do something, be something; and these great swells, these Duchesses … one met in her drawing-room, … stood for something real for her.

(ibid, pp. 83-4)

With this outside view of Clarissa we also are privy to Peter’s own ‘view of self’.  His attitude to her characteristics reveals much about the way he has constructed himself in light of her standards.

Despite my limited examples, the novel Mrs Dalloway teems with heteroglossic material.  Its postmodern format, with its stream of consciousness style, presents a chronotopic slice of Britain after the World War I, with its changing attitudes about personal freedom, gender questions, and a need for better conditions. Both in Woolf’s novel and in his literary contribution, Bakhtin’s

 [d]ialogism is …. an account of relations between people and between persons and things that cuts across religious, political, and aesthetic boundaries.  [It] is not the usual abstract system of thought …. [and] never loses sight of the nitty-gritty of everyday life … the awkwardness, confusion, … pain… and joy”.   (Clark, & Holquist, 1984  p. 348)

 (C) Jud House  8/11/2005


 Bakhtin, M. Epic and Novel – Toward a Methodology for the Study of the Novel.

 Clark, K. & Holquist, M. (1984)  Mikhail Bakhtin  Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Holquist, M. & Liapunov, V (1995) (Translated by Liapunov, V. & Brostrom, K.)

Art and Answerability – Early Philosophical Essays by M. M. Bakhtin  Austin: University of Texas Press.

 Morris, P. (ed.) (1994) ‘A Glossary of Key Terms’ from Bakhtin Reader  London:  Edward Arnold

 Rice, P. & Waugh, P. (eds.) (1997) Modern Literary Theory – A Reader Third Edition  London:  Arnold / Hodder Headline Group

 Woolf, V. (1992)  Mrs Dalloway  London:  Penguin Books Ltd.


 Abrams, M.H. (1993)  A Glossary of Literary Terms – Sixth Edition  Fort Worth:  Harcourt Brace College Publishers

 Bakhtin, M.M. (1988) (Edited by Holquist, M. Translated by Holquist, M. & Emerson, C.)   The Dialogic Imagination – Four Essays Austin: University of Texas Press.

 Bakhtin, M. (1984) (Translated by Iswolsky, H.)  Rabelais and His World  Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

 Culler, J. (1997)  Literary Theory – A Very Short Introduction  Oxford: Oxford University Press

 Danow, D. (1991)  The Thought of Mikhail Bakhtin – From Word to Culture  London: MacMillan Academic and Professional Ltd.

 Hawthorn, J. (1998)  A Concise Glossary of Contemporary Literary Theory – Third Edition  London:  Arnold / Hodder Headline Group

 Howard, J. (1994) Reading Gothic Fiction – A Bakhtinian Approach  Oxford: Clarendon Press.

 Morris, P. (editor) (1994)  The Bakhtin Reader – Selected Writings of Bakhtin, Medvedev, Voloshinov  London: Edward Arnold.

Saunders, I. (1993)  Open Texts, Partial Maps – A Literary Theory Handbook  Nedlands:  The University of Western Australia

 Selden, R. & Widdowson, P. (1993)  A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory – Third Edition  Hertfordshire:  Har-vester Wheatsheaf

 Todorov, T. (1984) (Translated by Wlad Godzich) Mikhail Bakhtin – The Dialogical Principle  Manchester: Manchester University Press.

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