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  • Hearing Voices in Narrative Texts
  • Richard Aczel (bio)

Voice, in the study of narrative discourse, is a complex and problematic category. As an entity attributed to (silent) written texts, the concept of voice inevitably raises questions of ontology and metaphoricity which remain inseparable from its more technical delimitation as a textual function or effect. The question of “who speaks?” in narrative discourse invites the further question of whether texts can really be said to “speak” at all, and if so what are the theoretical motivations and implications of the metaphor of “speech” for “writing”? 1 This paper addresses these questions from an essentially pragmatic perspective. It argues for a qualitative, as opposed to merely functional, concept of voice and emphasizes the centrality of stylistic expressivity—features of style which evoke a deictic center or subjectivity—in the identification of voice effects and their agents. Positing voice as a textual effect rather than an originary anima, it insists on a radical separation between textual signs of stylistic agency and projected (metatextual) principles of narrative organization and unity (such as the Boothian implied author or the Benvenistean sujet d’énonciation). Finally, these textual signs are themselves construed as a configuration of stylistic and rhetorical strategies reconstructed into a composite subjective entity, or voice, by the reader.

Although the frame of reference of such a concept of voice naturally includes the speech of both narrators and characters in narrative fiction, this paper concerns itself above all with voice in its narratorial aspect, which continues to constitute one of the most controversial areas in narrative theory. The first three sections offer a critical survey of a number of influential narratological discussions of voice (Genette, Chatman, Lanser, Coste), 2 focusing on questions of narrative level, narratorial (c)overtness, and ontology. The fourth section considers the much debated role of voice in free indirect discourse, while the fifth contrasts Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of “double-voiced discourse”—the implications of which have yet to be fully explored by narratology—with Ann Banfield’s critique of dual voice theory. The final section addresses the question of “narratorless narrative” as raised most challengingly by Banfield and Fludernik, 3 and I conclude by briefly mapping the basic [End Page 467] territory of a pragmatic, qualitative, and dialogic approach to narrative voice. Most of my narrative examples are drawn from the later fiction of Henry James, where issues of voice are clearly foregrounded. My discussion of these examples attempts to activate the qualitative concept of voice to which this paper appeals, identifying in James an overt and distinctly audible narratorial agency on the basis of rhetorical strategy and stylistic expressivity, rather than solely according to the more widely adduced narratological principles of explicit (grammatical) self-reference, direct reader address, comment, and interpretation.

Voice and Narrative Level

“The term voice in narratology has been coined in connection with the question ‘who speaks’ (Genette), usually in distinction from the narrative categories perspective or point of view (Genette’s ‘Mood’), which correlate with ‘who sees?’” (FL 325). Gérard Genette’s delimitation of the concept of voice in Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method remains the starting point for most discussions of the term in narratology. While few today would deny the importance of this distinction between voice and perspective, the determination of narrative voice in terms of the question “who speaks?” has considerable limitations. In fact, for Genette, the question of “who” incorporates the further questions of “when” and “from where”—which is reflected in Genette’s division of his chapter on voice into three discrete areas: time, level, and person. The question of how a narrator speaks does not appear, for this typology, to belong to the issue of voice. This is problematic for at least two reasons. First, and most obviously, the question of who can often be (although doesn’t in principle have to be) predicated on the question of how. To identify “who speaks”—at least in situations where the attribution of voice is ambiguous (classically, for example, in a text like Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse)—it may be necessary first to identify how a particular voice speaks, and to distinguish it from other competing voices...

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pp. 467-500
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