By Hugh Epstein, London
Polyphony in Fiction, a Stylistic Analysis of Middlemarch, Nostromo
and Herzog. Bern: Peter Lang, 2008. 328 pp. £32
As a novel is always, in some form, the product
of a reader’s collaboration with an act of narration, no consideration
is more telling, in the effort to convey both the fabric of its
surface and also the ideology that permeates it, than to describe
how the voice, the mood, the consistency, or the variety of this
narration achieves its invitations to the reader. However, as Masayuki
Teranishi points out, this cluster of devices is a stylistic character
more often named with the helpful array of terms that classical
rhetoric and modern narratology has provided than closely examined;
and, in this respect, his minutely attentive and sustained study
of the voice of the narration in three great novels is much to be
Although an unreformed Practical Criticism
is unlikely to make a comeback after the beating it took in the
era of high Theory, a capacity for close reading is still routinely
praised by academics and those who read their books, and many hope
that knowledge and methods drawn from linguistics and broader language
study can be the means to overcome the subjective and impressionist
‘"This is so, isn’t it?" of so much literary
"analysis" to get down to some real demonstration of how
a passage of writing actually works.
Applying stylistics as a critical tool to examine
literary narrative leads Teranishi to the issue of focalization
as the unifying topic of his book: it becomes his method to explore
in sentence by sentence detail the ways in which Bakhtin’s
various levels of polyphony might be seen to animate the narration
of three paradigm novels.
So far so good. Teranishi sets himself the
task of enquiring whether different modes of polyphony correspond
to three conventionally accepted "moments" in the development
of the Western novel: the pre-Modern, the Modernist, and the Postmodern.
His approach is illustrative and typifying and, despite a chapter
in which the literature defining these three concepts in relation
to the status of "truth" is usefully summarized as for
a student readership, the selection of his "chosen texts"
remains somewhat arbitrary and not grounded in any discussion of
historical relations. (Why not Daniel Deronda, Lord
Jim, and Augie March?)
Teranishi proceeds to explicate concepts of
focalization, and if the reader wants a guide to research in this
area this second chapter could not be bettered. Indirectness in
the representation of feeling, thought, and speech is a vital topic
for understanding the unique achievement of the novel as a form,
but, sadly, Teranishi almost never releases himself from a mode
of mere citation to develop a discussion of why such insights are
so creatively significant for analysis, as, for instance, Dorrit
Cohn did so engagingly in Transparent Minds thirty years
ago. He has certainly done his reading: one footnote on free indirect
speech cites seven studies, followed by four more in the footnote
on the next page and two further references in the text. This can
result in a dizzyingly swift assemblage of critical views, as:
Significantly empathy should be distinguished
from sympathy (Kuno 1976; Kuno & Kuburaki 1977) ... the narrator
in novels, for instance, can ironically empathize with a specific
character or echo (Adamson 1994;1995) his/her perspective. This
problem has not been appropriately examined by stylisticians (e.g.,
Short 1996; Chapman 2002), because it is an area heavily dependent
upon interpretation. [with Murfin & Ray 2003 cited in a footnote]
This mode of reference, ubiquitous in current
academic writing, vitiates genuine discussion to the extent that
it employs previous reading and secondary criticism as data, as
information to be summoned by a mouse-click. So while Teranishi
does have an original contribution to make to the field with his
idea of poly-subjectivization, its innovative force as a way of
opening up texts to a richer reading is rather lost in the welter
of survey-work from which it struggles to emerge.
On page 83 the analyses begin. Each of the
three novels provides four instances of characterization (including
that of the narrator), each of which is examined through four or
five typical passages unvaryingly analyzed on a sentence-by-sentence
basis. The focus of this analysis is (1) whether there are multiple
focalizers or subjectivities in a text; (2) whether the focalizer
functions as an evaluator; (3) how far the focalizer is situated
from the source of the story (Implied Author), and (4) how cogent
his/her perspective is. The line on Middlemarch, that it
is polyphonic rather than monologic (poly: good, mono: bad, seems
to be the assumption) is one that will recommend itself to devotees
of Conrad, although the focus on the construction and evaluation
of character does seem rather dated and less than adequate to confront
what the subtle voices of the narration of all three novels have
been created to explore.
Here is Teranishi on the very first word of
Middlemarch ("Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty..."):
"The narrator seems to establish a kind of distance from the
character, since ‘Miss’ is not a title likely to be
employed by an intimate friend, but one conceivably employed by
impersonal observers" (88). If this sort of reliance upon the
common prevarications of "it seems" and "a kind of"
is to be Teranishi’s method, then what need all of the preceding
apparatus which is supposed to be the means of furnishing a definite
demonstration? Irony asks for confident knowingness, and sufficient
knowingness to undo the smugness that might accompany it: Teranisihi’s
offer of tentativeness is not an illuminating substitute.
Faced with, for instance, the fourth sentence
of the novel ("She was usually spoken of as being remarkably
clever, but with the addition that her sister Celia had more common
sense") Teranishi reacts as to an alien language system issuing
from a social system of which we have no prior knowledge. Irony
cannot function under such denials:
In (4), while "clever" and "common-sense"
refer to contrastive traits, it is unclear who is praised. Furthermore,
the stylistic device employed here makes the narrator’s
attitude more ambiguous. The passive phrase, "was usually
spoken of," suggests that this evaluation is reputation derived
from her neighbours. Middlemarchers as focalizers become conspicuous
But the whiff of disapproval in "remarkably"
and the delightful, confidential, "with the addition that"
This book throws up the very real problem of
how to conduct close analysis. Teranishi chooses short numbered
passages, used in discrete sections to prove different points. A
passage of twenty lines or so is substantial enough to get us involved
in the novel, but that isn’t his purpose: it is to get us
involved in his linguistic or narratological categorization. If,
as frequently, the passage sets off two or three pages of close
comment, proceeding sentence by sentence, by the time we have got
to sentence (5), say, we are having to check back to the quotation
and any sense of the larger movement of the passage has become fragmented
by over-scrupulous and even-handed attention to small linguistic
units. The problem here is that it is no longer enjoyable to read:
the point is made too slowly in blow-by-blow sequential detail in
the name of scientific objectivity and completeness.
The great sufferer in all this, as I’ve
suggested, is narrative irony, about which Teranishi’s judicious
standing-off ("and even the praise of Brooke could again be
read as ironic" ) is not the same as a quick subtlety
of appreciation conveyed by an equally light turn of phrase. Alertness
to polyphony is best conveyed not by comprehensive and exhaustive
procedure – for which Teranishi is admirably equipped –
but by a native wit to inhabit different sorts of utterance with
certainty but with no sticky adhesion, to move as nimbly in one’s
critical writing as one does in the registration in one’s
Teranishi does considerably better with Nostromo.
He identifies four masks worn by the narrator, and for the textual
analyses he also conducts of Nostromo, Monygham, and Mitchell he
asks us to "consider which mask is worn for whose characterization"
(165); although, as he has earlier characterized polyphony as arising
where voices in the text are strong enough to compete ideologically
with the narrator – for example,. Lydgate possibly, Brooke
and Casaubon not – it is a lack that his chapter on Nostromo
does not consider Decoud or Mrs Gould. However, his initial approach
through "the general disposition of the narrator" is productive
of an interesting distinction between the critical and the artistic
narrative voice, and between the narrator as historian and evaluator.
He usefully distinguishes for us the different "collective
voices" that contribute to the narration in the first half
of the novel from the narrator’s direct comments that increasingly
dominate the second half.
Teranishi is at his best in a section he calls
‘Transformation from "object" into "subject,’’
in which he explores how Nostromo is shown to change "from
an unconsciously acting man to a consciously thinking man"
(174). He identifies the paragraph which "for the first time
in this novel reflects his (i.e., Nostromo’s) inner
voice" (178): "... and the Capataz thought of Decoud alone
there with the treasure. That man was the only one who cared whether
he fell into the hands of the Monterists or not, the Capataz reflected
bitterly" (Nostromo 349). Teranishi’s bold conclusion,
that ‘It is in such a narrative milieu, where Nostromo’s
now clear-sighted view of material interest is predominant, that
the narrator linguistically merges with Nostromo’ (183), sees
him moving from his micro-analysis to the larger themes of the novel
in a way that one would wish more of in this study.
Sadly, Teranishi’s ear for comedy deserts
him when he comes to discuss ‘the excellent Senor Mitchell’.
A characterization at one point of ‘Mitchell as a strong employer
and Nostromo as a weak employee’, derived from Mitchell’s
sense that he holds ‘the right to evaluate him’ (189),
surely misses – or fails to convey, at any rate – much
of the irony embedded in Mitchell’s free indirect discourse.
We are offered two paragraphs of discussion upon the parenthetical
" – invaluable fellow –" of Nostromo’s
first appearance in Mitchell’s history, which is worthy but
leaden-footed. Attention to the detail of the writing is always
welcome, but the reader of Teranishi’s book can become detached
from the very passages he is trying to bring us close to because
of a mismatch between the suggestiveness of Conrad’s art and
the exhaustiveness of the analysis.
To do him justice, there are moments in which
he finds a neat formulation to encapsulate his lengthy procedures
succinctly: "Mitchell’s function gradually shifts from
that of focalizer who evaluates Nostromo to focalized object
as evaluated by the narrator" (192); and when he writes, "the
micro-structure of short passages which contain ambiguous focalization
makes us doubt the presence of a single truth" (195), his statement
could stand as a description of his procedure and his conclusions
throughout the book, whether he is discussing a pre-Modern, Modernist,
or Postmodern text.
Ultimately, Teranishi’s book becomes
one to consult rather than to read, because he has not been able
to find a balance between extensive close analysis and larger suggestions
or conclusions that is pleasurable to follow. On the single sentence
from Herzog, ‘Was he a clever man or an idiot?" he writes:
"(7) is thus interpreted as FIT comprising the narrator’s
linguistic control (past tense, third person pronoun) and Herzog’s
expressive element (question, evaluation). We are encouraged to
share the inner tension of Herzog who is asking a question to "another
Herzog’ who is supposed objectively to evaluate his character"
This has local precision and force; but five
pages of such analysis arising from this particular twenty-seven
line passage rather crushes the unremarkable broader point when
we finally get to it: "In this passage, Herzog defines himself
as a fragile presence, always threatened by outer enemies"
(243). It is a pity that we don’t come away from all this
exhaustive analysis with some new, sharp large insights about the
novels themselves, or a renewed feeling for them as novels. And
Teranishi’s desire to ‘isolate potential "Pre-modernist
polyphony," "Modernist polyphony," and "Postmodernist
polyphony’’ (285) yields, respectively, an "unreliable
pseudo-omniscient narrator," a "disbelief in the truth"
and a "dialectic world-view," and an "ontological
doubt about truth and scepticism about subject as origin of truth"
(292), earned so methodically that the feel of these things is lost
under the process of showing them to us.
Teranishi has done his work: his bibliography
is outstanding (although Conradians will regret that there is no
Michael Greaney and nothing from The Conradian). But this
is a very earnest book, and all three novels – serious though
they are – ask for a mobility and a lightness to respond to
their ironies. In the old New Criticism, in reading a typical small
passage closely one would say something about the whole; stylistics
is not so concerned to argue for a reading – and is the duller
for it. So Teranishi, in electing to stay on the safe ground of
textual science, inhibits his scope. There is an important book
to be written on the representation of consciousness in the novel,
using linguistic descriptive approaches to get beyond impressionistic
assertion. Unfortunately, this book is not it, although its exercises
in analysis will be useful as stepping stones towards that more
creatively conceived project.
© 2009 Hugh Epstein