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  • The Narrator and the Nation-Builder: Dialect, Dialogue, and Narrative Voice in Minority and Working-Class Fiction
  • Alexander Beecroft

The representation of social class and other forms of social centrality and marginality (race, regional identity, rurality, etc.) presents a dilemma for literature. Since in most contexts the literary language is, or is at least held to be, a monopoly of elites, to report characters from the margins speaking and thinking in such a register can seem like an egregious violation of the tenets of realism. On the other hand, to have such characters speak as they would in daily life mars the smoothness and literariness of the text’s language, in way most often thought suitable only for comic effects, from Aristophanes to Dickens. The question of how to balance these issues, marking marginal characters enough to make their status legible without interfering with the expected literary qualities of the text, has been, and remains, a challenge.

Earlier periods in literary history relied on other techniques to convey differences in class and status among characters. Where noble and educated characters in Shakespeare tend to speak in verse, for example, servants and other humble characters frequently speak in prose. Similarly, in Sanskrit drama, such as that of Kalidasa (dating perhaps to the fifth century BC), kings spoke in Sanskrit, while other characters spoke in various registers of Prakrit—the partly regionalized, partly vernacularized languages of India that coexisted with Sanskrit (see Deshpande 113–14). Similar phenomena can be identified in other traditions, allowing for the careful demarcation of social class or status while preserving the integrity of the literary language. Modern European literary realism (and its non-European offshoots) lacks this option. Realism demands that characters speak as they would in daily life, that dialogue accurately record the thoughts of characters without unduly distorting their language. At the same time, the ancient conviction that the literary representation of uneducated, lower-class, or marginal registers of the language can have only comic effect remains surprisingly powerful even in our own time. How can the experiences [End Page 410] of non-elites be represented in the realist novel without either translating those experiences into a literary register that demeans their origins or inciting laughter rather than serious engagement by remaining faithful to the register in which they would have been uttered?

When a writer working from a relatively elite position describes marginalized characters, as with Harriet Beecher Stowe and African-American slaves, or Henry James and the working-class revolutionaries of The Princess Casamassima, or D.H. Lawrence with gamekeepers and miners, it seems perfectly natural that the potentially colloquial dialogue of those characters is framed by a soothingly elevated narrative voice, maintaining himself or herself at a cool distance from the experiences described. Any irony or tension that may be felt between the two registers of the language is a perhaps inevitable consequence of attempting to speak for the subaltern.

When the writer belongs to the marginalized group described, however, these ironies become more potent—and more problematic. How can a narrator adequately represent the experiences of marginal individuals, when he or she must speak in a language quite alien to them? How does, for example, an African-American writer, or an English writer speaking from the working classes, represent his or her characters in realist fiction in such a way as to balance linguistic integrity and literary dignity? As we shall see, an interesting compromise seems to have emerged historically, one taken for granted, perhaps, by many readers: dialogue may be represented in a vernacular register suited to the character, but narrators speak almost exclusively in the standard literary form of the language. While this pattern seems to hold very consistently for writers speaking from some kind of class or social marginality, and the hegemony of standard-language narration remains largely unchallenged even in the post-1945 era, the story is somewhat different with writers whose marginality is understood as geographic and/or ethnic (and hence as at least potentially national) in nature. Novels by the latter kind of writers do more frequently employ narrators using non-standard versions of the language, although to be sure many also do use the...


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pp. 410-423
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