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Narrative Voice: Interpretations and Critical Responses

narrative voice

Meaning of Narrative Voice

Voice, in context of narrative, may be defined as the phantom projection of a variable identity that articulates the speaker’s projection of ‘self’. Narrative being a rhetoric of representation. Capable of semiotic articulation, voice can be seen from various perspectives. In narratology, the basic question concerning voice is “who speaks”. It is also understood as a characteristic vocal or tonal quality projected through a text. A narrator (narrative agency) establishes communicative contact with an addressee (narrator), manages the exposition, sequence of events and manner of narration, becoming the “voice” of the narrative.

Theorizing “Voice” and its Functions

In Roman Jacobson’s terms, narratorial discourse can serve a variety of functions: an addressee oriented phatic function, an appellative function and an emotive function. All these are highly indicative of a text’s projection of narrative voice. Of course, a voice can only enter a text through the reader’s imaginary perception. Hence, unless the text is an oral narrative, voice is strictly a reader’s construct. In his “Rhetoric”, Aristotle (followed by other Greek and Roman rhetoricians, pointed out the projection of “ethos” as a means of persuasion. In a recently evolved usage, Voice signifies an equivalent to “ethos”, thereby suggesting the traditional rhetorician’s concern with the importance of physical voice in an oration. The particular qualities of voice, for instance, in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones manifest themselves in creating the wise ironic persona who ostensibly tells the story and comments on it.


Bakhtin and his Dialogics

bakhtin: professed multiplicity of voiceHowever, under the impact of Mikhail Bakhtin, it has become a standard practice to assign all potential agencies (‘senders’) in the model of narrative communication, their own (potential) voices. textual voices are those of the narrator and the characters whereas the extra-textual voice is that of the author. According to Bakhtin, there are two primary voice-effects: monologism and dialogism. While in monologism, all voices sound similar, in dialogism, a text contains a diversity of authorial, narratorial and characterial voices, creating significant contrasts and tensions.

Heretoglossia: Multiplicity of Voice

Bakhtin maintains that every novel “taken as the totality of all languages and consciousness of language embodied in it, is a hybrid.” The novel not only labours under the necessity of knowing literary language, but it must know all the other languages of “heteroglossia”. The novel, in expressing a Galilean perception of language, denies the absolutism of any single or unitary language. In doing so, it denies even its own language as the sole verbal and semantic centre of the ideological world. This dismantles the idea promoted by New-Criticism (under E.M.Forster) that novels should be organic, artistic wholes.

Truth behind Narrative/ Narrative Behind Truth

Fiction presents two kinds of truths and two levels for them—the kind that sets the genre and establishes the conventions of the reader’s belief; and the kind which is set by the limits of the reader’s ability to accept what is told. Within the latter kind of truth, there are two levels—the truth of the narrator’s voice when the narrator is objective and non-involved as a character and the truth given by a narrative voice that assumes the role of a characteconradr. The latter is found to be subjective in its presentation of events, clouded by wishes, anxieties and psychological indoctrinations.
Therefore, Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” becomes a poly-vocal narrative where a hybridized narration is projected through the apparent articulation by Marlow and the latent voice of Conrad. Voice does not imply the presence or absence of a narrator from the story, nor is it a marker of whether a narrative is in first-person or third-person. It goes beyond such classifications. What becomes more important is the reader’s sense of the kind of character (or non-character) it is whose voice colours the narrated story.

The act of narration… is itself the author’s presentation of a prolonged ‘inside view’ of a character.
— Wayne C.Booth (“The Rhetoric of Fiction”)

Voice vs Implied Author

Wayne. C.Booth examines the act of narration in terms of Jean-Paul Sartre’s “durational realism”. While the earlier novelists attempted to validate the existence of author, the existentialists hurled the reader “into the midst of a universe where there are no witnesses.” Booth says that, even if the author decides to simply tell the story of Oedipus or “The Three Bears”, without attempting any projection of his/her self, the very act of choosing the story becomes a projector of the author’s personality and voice.
In fact, Booth prefers the term “implied author” to voice. An implied author is an “ideal, literary, created version of the real man”. Critics such as Walter J. Ong, on the other hand, distinguishes between the author’s “false voice” and “true voice”. However, the sense of an authorial voice and presence, whose values, beliefs and moral vision control the narrative, helps to sway the readers to yield the imaginative consent without which the narrative would only remain an elaborate verbal game.
This sense of a distinctive authorial presence is also evident in works of recent writers who, unlike Fielding, pursue a strict policy of authorial non-interference. In effacing themselves, they try to give the impression that the story tells itself. However, there is a great diversity in the quality of the authorial mind and temperament which pervades through works like James Joyce’s “Ulysses”, Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs Dalloway”, Hemingway’s “The Killers” and Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury”.


Postmodern Critical Responses

Critical responses to the problem of voice take an interesting turn with the theorists of Deconstruction. Jacques Derrida maintains that projection of voice reveals the space or gap between the speaker and what is thrown out as the simulation of the speaker’s presence. His interrogation of the unitary relation between speaker and speech-act is part of a larger postmodernist movement. This includes other factors: Saussure’s re-articulation of relationship between signs and meanings, and the conceptualization of the relation between body and identity in terms of genetic code, have combined to amend our understanding of voice and its relation to the construction of identity.

Heart of Darkness: Politics of Voice

From a postmodern perspective, the Bakhtinian notion of voice as a politico-historical-cultural construct is further problematized in terms of understanding the author’s subject-position. Multivoicedness is celebrated by Bakhtin as a disassembly of an anachronistic concept of singular identity. For instance, Conrad (subject position of a European despite being a victim of colonialism) is seen as a racist by Chinua Achebe (subject position of an individual with African roots). Language in Conrad is both truth-revealing and truth-concealing, creating a tension which is analysed by Edward Saidpoint of view or narrative voice as “two voices in Conrad” or Conrad’s Janiformity.
Voice, being essentially a product of ‘troping’, has become an important signifier, in the postmodern context. It is a vortex around which considerations of form, genre, identity and difference have swirled. Paul de Man effectively examines the issue of voice—how the author gives voice to the voiceless and face to the faceless. Marlow confers a voice to the Africans but, paradoxically, takes away their own voice.

Every voice with presence is already an inscription…having anticipated its own passing.
— Geoffrey H. Hartman

Voice: Tool of Narratology

Voice in a narrative is seen as a phantomized presence. The complete significance of voice is understood in terms of the Platonic contrast between the order of mimesis (represented narration) and the order of diegesis (narrative representation). This addresses the issues of free indirect discourse, focalization, second-person address and ideological interpellation in relation to the Bakhtinian dialogics and feminist narratology. However, like all signifiers (with meanings slipping away in differance), voice becomes a problematic zone demanding multiple approaches and interpretations.


Author: monami mukherjee

Poet, Blogger, Undergrad Professor. Literature and film enthusiast. Excited about both critical and creative writing.

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