What do we understand by “Ideology” in the Theory of Althusser?  How does it function in society, and also in subject formation?  In what ways do Foucault’s ideas correspond with or supplement Althusser’s, and to what extent do they conflict with them?

One can hardly discuss the ‘ideology’ of Althusser and Foucault without first disclosing the Marxist foundation upon which their views were laid – Foucault’s theories first, becoming foundations for Althusser’s theories. I will discuss these theories in relation to Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein.

Marx reversed the idea held in his time, the mid-19th century, that human religious and political society was the creation of divine reason and human consciousness, arguing “that all mental (ideological) systems are the products of real social and economic existence.” (Selden & Widdowson, 1993, p. 71)  With his famous architectural metaphor of ideology and politics as ‘superstructure’ that rests upon a material/economical ‘base’, Marx argued:

that what we call ‘culture’ is not an independent reality but is inseparable from the historical conditions in which human beings create their material lives; the relations of exploitation and domination which govern the social and economic order of a particular phase of human history will in some sense ‘determine’ the whole cultural life of the society.” (ibid, p. 71)

Behind these statements lies the understanding of the class struggle created with the destruction of the feudal system of production where workers were self-employed with owned equipment, replaced by the Capitalist mode of factory production with profits going to the owners who paid the workers cheaply for their labour. The ‘Ideology’ that Marx presented, as sociologically driven, arranged by the minority upper classes to control the lives and behaviour of the majority lower working classes, was picked up by later philosophers and literary critics – Lukacs, Althusser, Foucault, Macherey, and Eagleton – and used to show how literature ‘reflected’ this ‘ideology’, presented it, developed it, and promoted it.

A historian, Michel Foucault saw himself as an archaeologist who looked at layers of ideas and concepts.  Like Nietzsche, who looked at things from the power position, for example how good and evil are dictated by those in power in society, Foucault looked at how power operates in society through people and their language/discourse. He determined that this discourse is language in relation to power – “the circuits of communication are the supports of an accumulation and a centralization of knowledge; the play of signs defines the anchorages of power”. (Foucault, 1977, p. 88)  Access to the diverse and ‘professionally specific’ language/discourse of the ruling, educated class, gives individuals power, while those in the lower class with only a rudimentary language/discourse are subjected by their ignorance.  Thus the teaching and acquisition of language is used to perpetuate the power of the dominant over the dominated classes.

Not necessarily oppressive, this discursive power is a controlling force or energy that runs through society.  For Foucault:

[o]ur society is one not of spectacle, but of surveillance; under the surface of images, one invests bodies in depth; behind the great abstraction of exchange, there continues the meticulous, concrete training of useful forces; …. it is not that the beautiful totality of the individual is amputated, repressed, altered by our social order, it is rather that the individual is carefully fabricated in it, according to a whole technique of forces and bodies. (ibid, p. 88)

Interested in social and medical institutions, rather than tracing their history, Foucault looked at the discourses of, for example, madness, sexuality, and illness – as social constructs as well as medical conditions. Via their language/discourse these key concepts are constructed explicitly and implicitly.

The ‘economy’ of discourses – their intrinsic technology, the necessities of their operation, the tactics they employ …. such as] the listening technique, the postulate of causality, the principle of latency, the rule of interpretation, [and] the imperative of medicalization …., the effects of power which underlie them and which they transmit – this, and not a system of representations, is what determines the essential features of what they have to say. (Foucault, 1978, p. 92)

Desirous to see a unified relationship between individual subject and society, Foucault believed this uniformity had to be created by force to control society in either of two ways – by rigid expulsion of individuals (moral / ethnic / religious cleansing); or by imprisonment.

Foucault saw Bentham’s Panopticon, a circular prison block around and open to a central control tower, as a metaphor for the way society imposes discipline on its subjects.  He believed it had use as a correctional device in various social capacities, for example as a means of instilling discipline in “a madman, a patient, a condemned man, a worker, or a schoolboy.” (Foucault, 1977, p. 85)  Within the Panopticon, the subject is always visible, but cannot communicate with his neighbours; and the watcher is never visible – in fact may not necessarily be there.  The subject is not controlled at all times, but is subject to the possibility of continual surveillance.  Thus self-discipline is created – the individuals control themselves.  Discipline, as a power, operates in society in the same way –

by ‘specialized’ institutions (the penitentiaries … schools, hospitals … or by pre-existing authorities … family … educational and military, … medical, psychiatric, psychological … administrative apparatus … or finally by state apparatuses whose major … function is to assure that discipline reigns over society as a whole (the police). (ibid, p. 87)

More subtle than Foucault, Louis Althusser, a philosopher and political scientist, expanded on Foucault’s discourse/power theory, exploring the threefold way ideology operated in society.  He expounded that the ideology of society represented people’s imaginary versions of the reality in which they lived; that conflicting and diverse ideology ‘interpellates’ individuals as subjects; and that this ideology was controlled by Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) which governed their daily existence overtly and covertly.  These ISAs, a less rigid variation on Foucault’s prison, were not necessarily repressive, although they did include prisons, police, army, courts, and government agencies.  The social institutions/apparatuses which exercised power ideologically mainly consisted of the religious, educational, family, legal, political, cultural, and all forms of communication/media ‘institutions’.

Ideology imposes itself not simply through consciousness nor through disembodied ideas but through systems and structures; ideology is inscribed in the representations (the signs) and the practices (the rituals) of everyday life.  Most importantly, though, it is through ideology that individuals are constituted as ‘subjects’ – (mis)recognizing themselves as free and autonomous beings with unique subjectivities. (Rice & Waugh, 1997, pp. 51-2)

An example of ideology as ‘imaginary reality’ is the different viewpoints held and believed in by different social groups/sectors/ individuals, which often make conflicting demands, within the larger society.  Each systematically excludes the other as ‘wrong’, and each lives within his own ideology, unable to escape it. Ideology, rather than being conscious structures or sets of beliefs, are sets of pre-suppositions, values, and assumptions, held unconsciously, which we use to make sense of our lives by describing our relationship with the world in which we live.  While they help us to construct our perceived ‘real’ world, this differs from individual to individual, group to group. Our personal perception of the real world is ‘imagined’ – to place us in a position of power within it.  Thus, ideology can be delusory, with the imaginary conditions not matching the real conditions.

Althusser states:

there is no ideology except by the subject and for subjects. …. [A]ll ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects …. [and that] the existence of ideology and the hailing or interpellation of individuals as subjects are one and the same thing. (ibid, pp. 57, 58, 59)

Interpellation calls us into some kind of condition of internalised discipline, which causes individuals to ‘do the right thing’ as if constantly subject to surveillance.  Almost all our ethical behaviour operates in the same way, for example our reaction to speed cameras (causing us to slow down), or to red lights on deserted streets late at night (at which we stop and wait for the green light), are controlled by ideology and interpellation. This reaction, this process of being subject to demands, is an ongoing process of ideology, and we believe in the ethics behind our behaviour because of interpellation.

The ideological power, according to Althusser, operates only through the people, including those within the ISAs, who are also ‘subjects’; and the way ideological factors are interpellated differs according to the institutions in question.  We are constantly hailed, subjected to, and respond to ideology within ISAs, each of which subjects us to often conflicting ideology in and out of which we move as a subject in process.  These conflicting parts of society create a multiplicity of powers that cause the subject (as one in a position of power) to become ‘subjected’ (subjugated beneath the power of others).  Language/discourse is the vehicle which interpellates individuals into social positions as subjects.  Inherent in both Althusser and Foucault is the notion of the subject in a subjected sense, with the subjects within and the systems of society running themselves.  However, Foucault sees this happening controlled externally by institutions and by discourse, while Althusser sees the controls as both external (ISAs) and internal (interpellated self-discipline).

Within novels, characters are subjected to ‘calls’ of contradicting ideologies, their temporal and historical location dictates the ISAs that surround and govern them, and their ideology can determine the novel’s thematic subject matter.  Like  Althusser, nineteenth century novels were concerned with the relationship of the individual to society; one that was not homogenous, not exactly the same all the way through but full of conflicting social groups with their conflicting claims on individuals. The task of the novel was not to confront the irreconcilable social conflicts, but rather to provide imaginary solutions.  Novels have a  political/ideological unconscious, which, if they are read carefully, can be discerned in the ‘gaps and silences’ within the texts.  Even a tragic death is a resolution of a kind, giving meaning to the contradictions caused by the diverse social conflicts.

In Frankenstein, Shelley uses three individual narratives to show ideology at work in society – how the implicit and explicit controls of their respective societies governed their positions within it and their actions to try to escape it.  In Volume One, the first narrative is provided via the letters of Captain Walton to his sister in England.  Through these we learn as he replies to her, of her fears for his safety as he rushes to find adventure outside the safe parameters of society.  He holds an imaginary version of the reality of his life, seeing himself as the finder of the north polar passage and thus beneficiary of the world.  In his first letter he raves about the beauty and wonders of the north polar region, ignoring the possibility of blizzards, icebergs and pack-ice that would crush his ship.  His views are idealistic, with little contact with reality – yet it is his reality – an imaginary version of reality.

I may discover the wondrous power which attracts the needle …. I shall satiate my ardent curiosity with the sight of a part of the world never before visited …. These are my enticements, and they are sufficient to conquer all fear of danger or death, and to induce me to commence this laborious voyage with the joy a child feels when he embarks in a little boat, with his holiday mates, on an expedition of discovery …This expedition has been the favourite dream of my early years … (Shelley, 1992, pp. 13-14)

The second ideological demonstration of society is provided via Victor Frankenstein’s narrative.  He reveals his life story, from birth, with details of the characters and type of society that surround him.  For his parents he was

their child, the innocent and helpless creature … whom to bring up to good, and whose future lot was in their hands to direct to happiness or misery, … as they fulfilled their duties towards [him, w]ith this deep consciousness of what they owed towards the being to which they had given life … (ibid, p. 33)

Frankenstein fails to follow their example, when he flees in fear from his creation, the monster, without a thought for his responsibility for its care.  He tells Captain Walton that the turning point in his search for scientific truths was caused by the dismissive way his father reacted to his discovery of the works of Cornelius Agrippa.  According to the ISA of family that existed at the time, a father need not explain himself to his thirteen-year old son – it should have been enough that he “looked carelessly at the titlepage of [the] book and said, ‘Ah!  Cornelius Agrippa!  My dear Victor, do not waste your time upon this; it is sad trash.’” (ibid, p. 38)  His father is interpellated as head of the family, the power-figure whose word is law, and Victor is interpellated as young inquisitive school student/son who obeyed those in power.  His mother has also been interpellated as young defenceless woman in need of protection, pampering and cosseting back to ‘tranquillity’.  With his description of the hovel in which Elizabeth is discovered by his mother, Victor reveals the degree of material and social difference between the classes.

Another ISA is the university faculty at Ingolstadt, which directs Victor’s studies in Chemistry and Natural Philosophy.  The two professors who teach Victor are interpellated by him as worthy or unworthy of his attention by appearance and class.  M. Kempe he classifies as “that conceited little fellow” (ibid, p. 46) because he is “a little squat man, with a gruff voice and a repulsive countenance …. an uncouth man” (ibid, p. 45) who ridicules Victor’s former obsession with outdated philosophers.  On the other hand his reaction to M. Waldman, whose “certain dignity in his mien during his lecture, … [at home] was replaced by the greatest affability and kindness”, (ibid, p. 47) is dictated by Victor’s own sense of position in society (his interpellation), his feeling of equality with Waldman, and his search for the truths of natural philosophy.

Until his creation of the monster, Frankenstein had lived an imaginary version of reality, creating the narrative of his life in relation to his esoteric and laboratory research.  He believed in what he was attempting to do – construct a living form animated by electricity to “banish disease from the human frame and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death!” (ibid, p. 40)  After its creation however, the values instilled in him by his family and society’s ISAs, his sense of right and wrong, as dictated by that society’s morals, alter his ‘imaginary version’ of reality to that held by his community.  The enormity of his deed affects him dramatically.

Mingled with the horror, I felt the bitterness of disappoint-ment; dreams that had been my food and pleasant rest for so long a space were now become a hell to me; and the change was so rapid, the overthrow so complete! (ibid, p.57)

As legal ISA, the court system, constrained to judge on evidence alone, incarcerates, tries, and hangs Justine, who by her innocence is an individual in conflict with society.  The ‘indignation’ and animosity of the general public – a collective group, an ISA by their unity – focusses on her as the perpetrator of a heinous crime, “charging her with the blackest ingratitude”. (ibid, p. 82)  This triggers in Victor a need to repair the damage he had caused by destroying his creation even if this means the loss of his own life.

The third narrative is that of the monster in which Shelley blatantly spells out the ideology at work in society.  In the Introduction, Maurice Hindle (1991) points out that she

cleverly (some might think not so cleverly [and I am one of them]) … manipulates the plot … by having the Creature learn the language, history, ideas and morals of the world [in other words the ideology of the prevailing society] by eaves-dropping upon the fortuitously placed De Lacey household”. (ibid, p. xxxi)

thus creating a “class-consciousness” (ibid, p. xxxi) in the monster. Even with his acquisition of language/discourse the monster still has no power, because his discourse is borrowed, and not recognized by those with whom he comes in contact.  They are so traumatised by his appearance that they fail to hear him.  With his ‘education’ the monster learns that man exists in a variety of contradicting forms – he can be

so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, yet so vicious and base …. a scion of the evil principle … noble and godlike …. [He] heard of the division of property, of immense wealth and squalid poverty; of rank, descent, and noble blood. …. A man might be respected with only one of these advantages; but without either he was considered … as a vagabond and a slave, doomed to waste his powers for the profits of the chosen few!” (ibid, p. 116)

This is pure Marxist ideology, yet exhibits the Althusserian notions of the interpellation of individuals as subjects of ISAs, some empowered and others disempowered.  The monster has no place in society, is constantly rejected by society, has no name, no identity, and is always ‘the other’.  Instead of being an empowered subject or subjugated individual, he is positioned as an object, a Monster, Fiend, Daemon, outside of society’s controls, which, as a result, are ineffective on him. In other words the interpellation  that calls us into some kind of condition of internalised discipline, which causes individuals to ‘do the right thing’ as if constantly subject to surveillance is missing.  The monster is therefore not bound by moral ethics, and feels no compunction in seeking revenge upon his creator through his family.

With the narrative back in the hands of Frankenstein, he relates how the monster will only yield to the values upheld by Frankenstein, his family, and his society if he creates a companion to validate the monster’s existence.  When out of fear for the consequences of possible monster off-spring Frankenstein destroys the half-created companion, the fate of both he and the monster is settled.  The idea of revenge and reprisal, of crime and punishment, steps outside the regulated control of ISAs like the police or army.  The immediate result of Victor’s broken promise to the monster is the murder of Victor’s friend, Clerval, which causes Victor months of ill-health in jail.  With the death of his wife on their wedding night, begins the long pursuit of the monster by his creator that leads them across the polar pack-ice and into the company of Captain Walton and his crew.

With the final narrative back in Walton’s hands, we learn that Frankenstein’s tale has destroyed the ‘imaginary reality’ the Captain had originally lived by.  In his final letter to his sister he states that while he is unsure whether he will see England and his ‘dearer friends’ there, his “courage and hopes do not desert” (ibid, p. 205) him – traits instilled in him by the ideology of his society and its ISAs.  He continues that “it is terrible to reflect that the lives of all these men …. the brave fellows [who] look towards me for aid …. are endangered through  me.  If we are lost, my mad schemes are the cause.” (ibid, p. 205)

The monster’s last conversation with Walton presents Shelley’s final attempt to show how ideological power works in society, to engender some sympathy for those oppressed because of it, and to question the need to change this class system.

[W]hile I destroyed [Frankenstein’s] hopes, I did not satisfy my own desires.  They were forever ardent and craving; still I desired love and fellowship, and I was still spurned.  Was there no injustice in this?  Am I to be thought the only criminal, when all human kind sinned against me? …. I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on.  Even now my blood boils at the recollection of this injustice. (ibid, p. 213)

If ever an individual was in conflict with society and the world in which he lived, then the monster epitomised that being.

(C) Jud House  3/06/1999  &  18/10/2012


Foucault, M. from Discipline and Punishment (1977)’ andfrom The History of Sexuality (1978)’  in  ‘Subjectivity’  in  A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader

Rice, P. & Waugh, P. (eds.) (1996) Modern Literary Theory – A Reader Third Edition  London:  Arnold / Hodder Headline Group

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

Shelley, M. (1992) Frankenstein  London:  Penguin Classics / Penguin Books Ltd


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

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

Eagleton, T. (1996)  ‘Histories’  from The Illusions of Postmodern-ism  Oxford:  Blackwell

Forgacs, D  (?) ‘Marxist Literary Theories’  in ?

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

Marx, K  from the ‘Preface’ to ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’ in Literature and Society: Marxist Approaches

Marx, K. & Engels, F. (1947) from The German Ideology’ and from A Contribution to the Critiqued of Political Economy’  in  Literature and Art, by Karl Maarx and Frederick Engels: A selection of Their Writings  International Publishers Co., Inc.

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

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

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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


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