Craig White's Literature Courses
Terms / Themes
Multi-voices in the novel genre
classical literary theory relevant to the novel genre
Mimesis--Greek for "imitation" or "representation" (compare "mime" or
imitates nature" or "art imitates reality" = fundamental theory of art and
literature, articulated by classical Greek philosophers including Socrates,
Plato, and Aristotle.
formula is pervasive, even universal in western and non-western art and
literature, though all three terms (art, imitation, nature or reality) and their
relations are continually questioned.
Shakespeare: In act 3, scene 2 of Hamlet, the title character urges the
visiting theatrical troupe:
Suit the action to the word, the word
to the action, with this
special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of
for any thing so o'erdone is from the purpose of playing
[i.e., theater or acting], whose end, both at the first
and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere the mirror up to
nature . . . .
subsequent question: How does literature imitate human action in the
Republic identifies two types of literary representation, identified with
voice, that may appear either separately or in a mixed genre
and its historical antecedents (the epic, the prose romance) are the foremost
examples of the mixing of the two types of representation.
Narrator or “Single Voice,”
in which one speaker or voice speaks directly to the audience.
Examples: lyric poems, songs, sermons, lectures, stand-up comic
monologues, news reports, or any other situation where a speaker directly
addresses an audience, camera, or microphone.
Drama or Dialogue, in which
two or more characters speak directly with each other, which the audience
overhears. Examples: most plays,
most movies, most fictional television shows such as sit-coms or police dramas.
Narrator + Dialogue, in which
two or more characters speak with each other while a narrator speaks directly to
the audience. Examples: novels; the
epic; “film noir” movies; TV shows like The Wonder Years where an older narrator speaks to the audience
while a younger self speaks with other characters.
Plato, The Republic. c. 373 BCE.
Benjamin Jowett, translator. The
Dialogues of Plato, 4th ed. (Oxford, Eng.: Clarendon, 1953); reprinted in
Hazard Adams, ed. Critical
Theory since Plato (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971): 19-40.
represent editorial changes or additions made by the instructor.
Bold highlights have been added by the instructor.]
[or reality] is always to be represented as he truly is, whatever be the sort
of poetry, epic, lyric, or tragic, in which the representation is given. . .
may be either simple narration, or imitation, or a union of the two. . . .
poetry and mythology are wholly imitative ( . . . I mean tragedy
and comedy); there is likewise the opposite style, in which the poet is the
only speaker--of this the dithyramb [or lyric]
affords the best example; and the combination of both is found in epic [or, now, the novel] . . . .
words, Plato says that drama [tragedy & comedy] is "imitation" or "wholly
imitative"--that is, when you watch a play or film, the dialogue is like an
imitation or representation of people speaking and acting in real life, only
more selective and intense.
also allows another type of voice: "simple narration" or story-telling, where a
single speaker tells what happened next, etc.
Longfellow, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere
is both . . .
Why this matters:
As a genre of multicultural literature, the novel's mixing
of voices is the first formal fact of the its unique "multivocality." For more
on this, see the notes from novel-theorist
also on the Research Links page.
These aspects of the novel's formal structure
remain remarkably identifiable, though always variable and arguable.
Different novels may emphasize either narration or
dialogue, with different effects.
Or narrative and dialogue may involve different parts of
the reality being represented.
This last possibility can be helpful for understanding how
literature processes the cross-cultural exchanges that constitute colonial and
Course Objective 2. To theorize the
novel as the defining genre of modernity, both for early-modern imperial
culture and for late-modern postcolonial culture.
By definition, the genre of the novel combines fundamental representational
modes of narrative and dialogue. These modes
respectively control and decenter storytelling.
Alternately, narrative and dialogue respectively
foreground literate and spoken voices. Especially in postcolonial literature
the narrator may be a “literate” voice, while characters’ voices represent
unwritten, spoken, or oral traditions—another intertextuality.
How may literary fiction instruct or deepen students’
knowledge of world history and international relations compared to history,
political science, anthropology, etc.?
Two more classical theories relevant to this last bullet:
Horace (Roman poet, 65-8 BCE):
Purpose of literature is to "entertain and inform"
or "engage and educate"; to please and uplift . . . .
Poetry [i. e., literature] in general seems to have sprung from two causes, each
of them lying deep in our nature. First, the instinct of imitation is implanted
in humanity from childhood, one difference between people and other animals
being that humans are the most imitative of living creatures, and
through imitation they learn their earliest lessons; and no less universal
is the pleasure felt in things imitated . . . . The cause of this again is,
that to learn gives the liveliest pleasure, not only to philosophers but
to [humans] in general