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Bakhtin, Dialogics, and the Aesthetics of Ambiguity in The Piazza Tales STEVEN FRYE Antelope Valley College M elville’s The Piazza Tales have been characterized as a remarkable exploration of the “perspectival,”manifesting in various tales a distinctly romantic portrayal of the individual imprisoned within an idiosyncratic and divided identity. Mark Slouka sees this thematics of perspectivity revealed through the Melvillean protagonist’sjourney from “the anthropological to the psychological sphere, away from culture toward the self.”’ Louise K. Barnett explores the linguistic permutations of the themes of isolation and perspectivity through an analysis of speech acts, suggesting that the “linguistic counterpart of these thematic concerns is the withdrawal of the Melvilleanprotagonist from speech.”ZBut while the thematics of perspectivity and isolation cannot be ignored in the works of the American dark romantics,3 Melville often takes particular care in placing his protagonists in regions which appear to transcend time and place. At first seemingly divorcing his characters from a cultural context, the author locates them within the realm of the exotic , or in the “immemorial,unremembering sea.”4But this apparent eradication of place does not limit the influence of Melville’s culture upon his work, nor does his art portray a singular “perspective.”In fact, The Piazza Tales portrays a multiplicity of historically grounded perspectives, and rather than merely recounting a protagonist’sjourney toward the “self,”the tale cycle displays the movement from what Mikhail Bakhtin characterizes as a self-centered monologic perspective toward a culturally based dialogic perspective. The Mark Z. Slouka, “Herman Melville’sJourney to ‘The Piazza,’American Transcendental Quarterly 61 (1986): 2. Louise K. Barnett, “Truth is Voiceless: Speech and Silence in Melville’sThe Piazza Tales,” Papers on Languageand Literature 25 (1989): 59. 3A term generallyapplied to Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville.In “Towarda Theory of Romanticism,” Peckham uses the terms dark romanticism and negative romanticism interchangeably. See The Triumph of Romanticism (Columbia: Universityof South Carolina Press, 19701,pp. 3-26. The negative romantic is a figure lost between two worlds, between classic and Christian, between nature worship and skepticism, a writer who exists in a state of epistemologicaldoubt. G. R. Thompson, in “The Developmentof Romantic Irony in the United States,”suggeststhat the dark romantic consciously foregroundsdoubt and ambiguity through the adaptation of genre such as the Gothic, and through literary conventions and devices such as the grotesque and the arabesque. See Romantic Irony, ed. Frederick Garber (Budapest:Academiai Kiado, 19881,pp. 267-89. 4 George Dekker, The American Historical Romance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 186. L E V I A T H A N A J O U R N A I . O F M E L V I L L E S T U D I E S 3 9 S T E V E N F R Y E Melvillean protagonist in these tales never “withdraws” from speech entirely. Rather, the Melvillean narrative gives way to heteroglossia, permitting a polyvalent play of multiple voices and perspectives, reflecting the movement from monologue to dialogue and in the end warning us against monologic interpretation . Thus Piazza Tales should not be considered a “collection” of discrete units which bear no relation to the tale cycle as a whole. The tales involve the aesthetic framing of distinct viewpoints into dialogic unity, functioning as an elaborate system of commentaries and counter-commentaries, of historically and culturally grounded “perspectives” and “counter-perspectives.” In “Discoursein the Novel,” Mikhail Bakhtin theorizes the practice of the dialogic artist. He sees a complex network of interdependency between artist, text, and world, between individual perspective, narrative, and culture. He argues that novelistic language in particular reflects the heteroglossia, or multiple voices or “perspectives” of a given historical moment. The dialogic novelist gives play to these perspectives, allowing for dialogic interchange, while never permitting a single voice to dominate. Novelistic discourse is a social phenomenon, “social throughout its entire range and in each and every of its factors, from the sound image to the furthest reaches of abstract meaning .”5At its inception, the novel is a product of culture, filtered through the conscious artifice of its creator, but nevertheless reflecting the concerns and voices of the world at large. The novel takes culture as its...


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