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  • Problems of Bakhtin’s Theory about “Polyphony”
  • Qian Zhongwen (bio)

The problem of “polyphony,” put forward by Bakhtin almost half a century ago in his study of Dostoevsky’s novels, has now become a quite influential theory of narration with much prac-tical significance.

The “polyphonic” phenomenon deals first of all with the heroes in fiction. In Bakhtin’s opinion, the Dostoevskian “hero has his own ideological authenticity and, meanwhile, has an independent nature; he might be regarded as a creator who possessed his own complete ideology.” 1 Secondly, the “polyphonic” phenomenon also relates to the relationship between the hero and his author. The hero, to Bakhtin’s mind, “is not the object through which the author manages to issue his speech” (PD 28); that is to say, the hero’s argument with both himself and the world has the same value as that of the author. “Just like Goethe’s Prometheus, what Dostoevsky created was not a speechless slave (as created by Zeus), but a free man who could place himself in an equal position with his creator, being able to refute the latter’s opinions and even revolt against him” (PD 28–29). Thirdly, the breakup of the above-mentioned relationship would, in this critic’s eyes, surely lead to a profound change in the structure of fiction. Thereupon, Bakhtin assumed that the fictions in the past were all under the complete control of their authors, so in spite of their different characters having been woven together with each other, there remained nothing but “homophony,” namely, a sort of “monologic fiction.” As for the Dostoevskian novels, instead of falling into this category, they were “polyphonic fiction,” namely, a sort of “all-round dialogic fiction” (PD 76).

Surely, Bakhtin’s theory about “polyphony” has its originality. To analyze Dostoevskian works with this theory captures the major feature of the celebrated Russian novelist. As a matter of fact, Dostoevskian heroes are more complicated than those appearing in ordinary novels; they are fond of self-analysis and full of ideas. In short, “self-consciousness” is “the main artistic element in the structure of his heroes” (PD 121). In his novels Dostoevsky sought “to create the hero who could embody a kind of special view of both the world and himself, the hero who could embody the standpoint of human beings’ thinking and comment on themselves and the relationship between them and the surrounding reality” (PD 82). That is to say, the heroes themselves [End Page 779] explored reality and themselves, so that their thinking became the major object of the author’s artistic description. For example, the Underground Man in Notes from the Underground was none other than such a self-explorer. Since the features of many contradictory ideas were mixed in this hero’s body, they were an embodiment of a sort of ideology that possessed the value of completeness itself: he may after all be accepted as “one of the representatives of the living generation.” 2

Though there have been a good number of papers on Dostoevsky, almost all researchers set a low value on his language, a move probably initiated by Tolstoy. 3 On the contrary, Bakhtin discovered the new feature in Dostoevsky’s integrated structure of language, namely, its strong “dialogic nature.” He asserted that it was the dialogue that formed the fundamental content of “polyphony.” Bakhtin regarded all fiction prior to Dostoevsky’s as “monologic fiction,” assuming that only Dostoevsky had created the genuine “dialogic fiction.” In “monologic fiction,” “another person becomes the object of thinking, and not the one who can think himself” (PD 29). In such a case, “monologue tends to become the final conclusion; it has covered up the depicted world and characters,” 4 neglecting the subjective nature of characters. In reality, however, to live means to take part in social intercourse and in dialogues. This relation “is, in fact, a sort of all-embracing phenomenon, it seeps into all languages, all relationships as well as manifestations of human life, and permeates all the significant and valuable fields” (PD 77). The succinct point of this theory of Bakhtin’s lies in pointing out the fact that if a writer wants to make his...

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pp. 779-790
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