Conversation in the novel
Davis-Brown, Kristin A.
Morris, Wesley A.
Doctor of Philosophy
Among types of books, novels allow readers the most conversational possibilities: readers may "overhear" conversations among characters, among narrators and characters, among other voices, narrators and characters; readers may even find themselves participating in the conversation which novels demand. Because much of a novelist's style depends upon her/his conversational choices, literary critics discussing the function of conversation in novels frequently describe the ways in which dialogue serves to characterize characters. While such criticism reveals a remarkable range of novelistic conversation, it raises questions which too often it fails to answer. For example, our response to Mrs. Elton differs from our listening to Emma, to Mr. Knightley and to their narrator, and, realizing the extent to which Mrs. Elton's talk contains her, we begin to wonder why Mrs. Elton is in Emma's story. Wondering about Mrs. Elton involves recognizing a curious disequilibrium underlying conversation in Emma and in the novel. Placing Austen in conversation with James, Forester, Lawrence, Conrad and Faulkner--all novelists to whom conversation is of central importance, both stylistically and thematically--allows my study to discuss the reach of this disequilibrium, a reach which defines the novel itself. Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of polyphony provides my "disequilibrium" with a theoretical context. The novels which this dissertation reads fail to achieve sustained polyphony; that is, the effects of and the opportunities for the various voices inhabiting these novels are not equal. While one might respond that the concept "sustained polyphony" fails and not the novels, identifying the disparities which handicap the relationship between a novel's speaking selves and speaking others places one at the heart of the novel. Polyphony serves as a kind of asymptote; it is a conversation whose necessity and unattainability define the novel. A particular novel's failure, then, suggests that the novel works to make its reader aware of distance, disequilibrium... and of the pain caused by distance, disequilibrium..., pain which surfaces even in the most serene comic novels. The particular failure defining the novel allows the novel to extend its conversation, to succeed precisely at its point of failure.
Modern literature; English literature; American literature