Polyphony and Birdsong in The Brothers Karamazov

After my last post, drawing an analogy between the birdsong in my garden and the dialogue in The Brothers Karamazov, my friend Kazuko (thanks @EstherHawdon) on Twitter drew my attention to Bakhtin’s analysis. Bakhtin writes of the polyphonic quality of Dostoevsky’s novels, not unlike that of the birdsong that accompanied my reading in the sun. Here’s the opening bars of Bakhtin’s analysis which I shall have to read in full:

Any acquaintance with the voluminous literature on Dostoevsky leaves the impression that one is dealing not with a single author-artist who wrote novels and stories, but with a number of philosophical statements by several author-thinkers-Raskolnikov, Myshkin, Stavrogin, Ivan Karamazov, the Grand Inquisitor, and others. For the purposes of critical thought, Dostoevsky’s work has been broken down into a series of disparate, contradictory philosophical stances, each defended by one or another character. Among these also figure, but in far from first place, the philosophical views of the author himself. For some scholars Dostoevsky’s voice merges with the voices of one or another of his characters; for others, it is a peculiar synthesis of all these ideological voices; for yet others, Dostoevsky’s voice is simply drowned out by all those other voices. Characters are polemicized with, learned from; attempts are made to develop their views into finished systems. The character is treated as ideologically authoritative and independent; he is perceived as the author of a fully weighted ideological conception of his own, and not as the object of Dostoevsky’s finalizing artistic vision. In the consciousness of the critics, the direct and fully weighted signifying power of the characters’ words destroys the monologic plane of the novel and calls forth an unmediated response, as if the character were not an object of authorial discourse, but rather a fully valid, autonomous carrier of his own individual word.

B. M. Engelhardt has been quite correct in noting this peculiarity of the literature on Dostoevsky. “A survey of Russian critical literature on Dostoevsky’s works,” he writes, “shows at once that with very few exceptions it does not rise above the spiritual level of Dostoevsky’s favorite characters. It does not dominate the material at hand; the material dominates it completely. It is still learning from Ivan Karamazov and Raskolnikov, from Stavrogin and the Grand Inquisitor, entangling itself in the same contradictions that entangled them, stopping in bewilderment before the problems that they failed to solve and bowing respectfully before their complex and tormenting experiences.”

J. Meier-Grafe has made a similar observation. “Would it ever occur to anyone to participate in any of the numerous conversations in L’Education sentimentale? But we do enter into discussions with Raskolnikov, and not only with him, but with every bit-player as well.”

Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Edited and Translated by Caryl Emerson. Introduction by Wayne C. Booth

4 thoughts on “Polyphony and Birdsong in The Brothers Karamazov

  1. Thanks for an inspiring post and even mentioning my name! In fact, Bakhtin is a very important thinker not only to study literary works but also (personally) for my life. When I wrote a graduation thesis ( about 20 years ago!) I used his theory, discussing Dickens’ work (Great Expectations!) It revealed Diskens’ work also had polyphonic (or dialogic? Bakhtin indeed uses several jargons to express similar ideas, doesn’t he?), which allowed different perspectives (often exact opposite views) to coexist in a text. We may also see this dialogic nature in Karamazov such as affirmation /negation (of God etc.), like in the dialogues between Alyosha and Ivan, Ivan and Satan etc…. Well, inspired by your posts on Karamazov, I find myself prattling on Bakhtin, Karamazov, Dickens…it’s a nice opprtunity to remember how exciting it is to read literary texts. Thanks again for a fabulous post as always 🙂 Kazuko

    • Thank you again, Kazuko, for pointing me to Bakhtin’s text. It is fascinating. Dickens and Dostoevsky, though different stylists, have in common that ability to build open-ended narratives via multiple strong voices. I’ve read Bakhtin on Rabelais, an old favourite, but not this particular work before.

  2. This is actually very interesting. Last time I read the Karamazov Brothers I was impressed by the fact that certain passages seemed to come from different “voices” not to mention different personalities. I am not sure whether polyphonic is the right description though, I have to think more about it. However, there is an unlimited ambiguity when it comes to all the different views concerned. When do the author’s views stop and when do his characters’ views begin? Some parts seem to be out of context, story within a story, but not in the classical way of Dickens but in some form of patchwork. Is this a bad thing? Certainly not. One also has to bear in mind that previous unpublished works by the author probably made it into the finished novel.

    • I suspect that somewhere buried within the “voices”, is a hint of Dostoyevsky’s orientation or worldview, but without reading a biography it is hard to identify his viewpoints. Bakhtin uses the term ‘polyphonic novel’ to describe a “plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses.”

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