An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory - Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle 2016


Nothing is stranger, or more familiar, than the idea of a voice. In George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876), a character called Mrs Meyrick observes that ’[a] mother hears something like a lisp in her children’s talk to the very last’ (423). In Shakespeare’s King Lear (1605), the blinded Gloucester recognizes Lear from his voice: ’The trick of that voice I do well remember; / Is’t not the King?’ (4.5.106—7). In both of these examples we have what appear to be confirmations of the persistence of identity, expressed in the singular or peculiar nature (the ’trick’) of a person’s voice. But in each of these exchanges we are also presented with a kind of strangeness as well: in the context of Eliot’s novel, for example, we may reflect on the irony of the fact that what the mother recognizes in her children, what it is in their voice that confirms the persistence of their identity, is something that cannot be heard, a lisp perceived only by the mother. Moreover, there is something strange in the idea that an adult’s speech should be, in a dream-like or hallucinatory fashion, haunted by the past in this way. In the example from Shakespeare, on the other hand, it is difficult for us not to be aware of the terrible precariousness of recognition and, by implication, of identity: Gloucester may believe that he recognizes, and may indeed recognize, the trick of the king’s voice, but we are all too aware of the fact that he can never again see the king, never confirm the king’s identity by sight. And ironically, Gloucester is only reunited with Lear thanks to help from his son Edgar, whose voice (disguised as Tom o’ Bedlam) Gloucester fails to recognize.

The examples from Eliot and Shakespeare appear, at least initially, to be about the familiarity and individuality of voice. But like literary texts more generally, they are also concerned with the ways in which a voice may be strange and disturbing. We may enjoy a novel like Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister (1949) partly on account of the distinctive, gritty, cinematographic voice-over of Marlowe the narrator, but one of the things that makes this novel haunting and powerful, as well as comical, is its sensitivity to the strangeness of voices. Thus, for example, we have Miss Mavis Weld, apparently concerned about her brother: ’She clutched her bag to her bosom with tight little fingers. “You mean something has happened to him?” Her voice faded off into a sort of sad whisper, like a mortician asking for a down payment’ (39). Or we have Marlowe recounting a phone call: ’The phone rang before I had quite started to worry about Mr Lester B. Clausen. I reached for it absently. The voice I heard was an abrupt voice, but thick and clogged, as if it was being strained through a curtain or somebody’s long white beard’ (41).

The power of a voice is made dramatically clear by the British government’s censorship of the politician and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams: for a number of years (until September 1994) his voice was, in effect, illegal. His words, when broadcast, had to be spoken by an actor. Few voices could be said to have haunted the British media at that time as forcefully as Gerry Adams’s. But a concern with what is powerful, haunting and strange about voices is hardly a recent phenomenon. One need only think of the importance of oracles, and the intimate links between voice and prophecy in the Bible and other classical texts. Consider, for instance, the voice that announces in I Corinthians 13: ’Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. / And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing’ (1—2). Or think of the apocalyptic voices at the end of the Bible, in the Book of Revelation — for example of the angel who comes down from heaven, whose ’face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire’ and who

cried with a loud voice, as when a lion roareth: and when he had cried, seven thunders uttered their voices.

And when the seven thunders had uttered their voices, I was about to write: and I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Seal up those things which the seven thunders uttered, and write them not. (Rev. 10: 3—4)

In both of these biblical quotations voice is described in terms that identify it with the non-human — with musical instruments (sounding brass or tinkling cymbal), with the sound of a lion or with the sound of thunder. It is also presented in terms of multiplicity (speaking in tongues, the voices of the seven thunders) and of uncanniness (the voice that has the gift of prophecy and is apparently omniscient; the voice that is forbidden, that must be sealed up). All of these characteristics are important for thinking about literary texts more generally. Literature, in fact, might be defined as the space in which, more than anywhere else, the power, beauty and strangeness of the voice is both evoked or bodied forth and described, talked about, analysed. In this respect, reading literary texts involves attending to extraordinary voices.

One of the most obvious extremes of voice in literature is in relation to music — in other words, the idea that voice becomes pure sound, turns into music. Here we may recall Walter Pater’s proposition that ’all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music’ (Pater, 1919, 111): this is as much true of the ’smoky kind of voice’ (202) whose singing transfixes and transforms the life of the narrator in Jean Rhys’s story ’Let Them Call It Jazz’ (1962) as it is of the glozing, serpentine voice that seduces Eve in Milton’s Paradise Lost (Book 9: 532ff.), or of the song of the skylark or of the nightingale to which Shelley and Keats respectively aspire in their great song-like odes. At the same time, however, we are all perfectly aware that literary texts are not (simply) music or song. Part of what makes texts literary is indeed their peculiar, paradoxical relation to music (not least in lyric poems and ballads, originally performed with or as music). That is to say, poems or short stories or other texts may aspire towards the condition of music, but they are necessarily stuck in their so-called linguistic predicament. Thus Coleridge’s ’Kubla Khan’ (1798) is concerned with the demonic power of music played by ’A damsel with a dulcimer’ and with the paradoxical desire to ’build’ the very things that the poem has described (a pleasure-dome and caves of ice) ’with music’:

A damsel with a dulcimer

In a vision once I saw:

It was an Abyssinian maid,

And on her dulcimer she played,

Singing of Mount Abora.

Could I revive within me

Her symphony and song,

To such a deep delight ’twould win me,

That with music loud and long,

I would build that dome in air,

That sunny dome! those caves of ice!

In Shelley’s ode ’To a Sky-Lark’ (1820), on the other hand, the speaker ends by implying that he is unteachable:

Teach me half the gladness

That thy brain must know,

Such harmonious madness

From my lips would flow

The world should listen then — as I am listening now.

Shelley’s ode thus aspires to the ’harmonious madness’ it can never voice. Similarly, Keats’s ode of 1819 can acknowledge the ’ecstasy’ of the nightingale’s ’voice’, but the speaker also recognizes that he can never triumph in the desire to ’dissolve’ his identity with that voice. Being stuck, in this respect, is no doubt a fundamental condition of literature. Not surprisingly then, literary texts call to be thought about not only in terms of how they body forth voices but also in terms of how they reflect, comment on and analyse what ’voice’ means. As Eve’s temptation by the snaky sibilants of Satan suggests, in Milton’s Paradise Lost, a voice can be astonishingly seductive. Interestingly, a voice can become even more seductive by referring to the fact that it is being seductive. Voice seduces: as the etymology of seduction may suggest (se-, aside, ducere, to lead), it leads us aside or draws us away.

What does it mean to talk about voice in relation to literary texts? Take the opening of a short story by Raymond Carver, entitled ’Fat’ (1971). It begins:

I am sitting over coffee and cigarettes at my friend Rita’s and I am telling her about it.

Here is what I tell her.

It is late of a slow Wednesday when Herb seats the fat man at my station.

This fat man is the fattest person I have ever seen, though he is neat-appearing and well dressed enough. Everything about him is big. But it is the fingers I remember best. When I stop at the table near his to see to the old couple, I first notice the fingers. They look three times the size of a normal person’s fingers — long, thick, creamy fingers. (64)

This is, in some ways at least, a descriptively straightforward opening. But once we reflect on it, we find that it is doing many different and quite sophisticated things. The first point to observe is that this is a first-person narration with a strong sense of a speaking voice: we are drawn away by what we might call the ’reality effect’ of a speaking voice that is produced in part through the conversational language — the lexical items and syntax, the topic, use of the present tense, repetition — and in part through the explicit reference to the fact that the narrator is speaking and ’telling’ us something. The opening sentences, in a quite subtle way, put the reader in the position of the narrator’s friend Rita (’I am telling her … Here is what I tell…’). Despite the seductively ’realistic’ or ’everyday’ quality of voice here, something fairly complex is going on: we are presented with a narrator who, even in the apparently straightforward language of the opening two sentences, makes it clear that this is a self-referential or metafictional story, a story that is at least at some level a story about storytelling. The seductiveness of an apparently casual speaking voice tends to distract attention from this dimension of the text. Moreover, without really drawing attention to the fact, we have up till now been referring to the ’I’ of the story as the narrator. In other words, we have been making an implicit distinction between narrator and author. This is a first-person narration and the narrator, we quickly learn, is a waitress. What we are being presented with, in other words, is the ’voice’ of a girl or young woman. At the same time, however, there is a sort of double-voicing here to the extent that we may recognize this text as being characteristic of Raymond Carver’s work. In this respect, we could say, there is also the phantasmatic voice of Carver lurking in these lines. We hear the ’voice’ of Carver in a figurative, ghostly sense (like a signature tune).

Rather differently, there is Thomas Hardy’s poem ’The Voice’:

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,

Saying that now you are not as you were

When you had changed from the one who was all to me,

But as at first, when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,

Standing as when I drew near to the town

Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,

Even to the original air-blue gown!

Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness

Travelling across the wet mead to me here,

You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,

Heard no more again far or near?

Thus I; faltering forward,

Leaves around me failing,

Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,

And the woman calling.

Written in December 1912, ’The Voice’ belongs to the series of so-called ’1912—13 poems’ that Hardy wrote following his first wife’s death. (Emma Hardy died in the preceding month, November 1912.) It is difficult, in other words, not to read this poem as autobiographical — to understand it as a poem about the poet’s experience of mourning following his wife’s death. But the poem is more than simply autobiographical: it is about the radical uncertainty of human identity and experience, their faltering. ’The Voice’ not only describes the uncanny experience of hearing a dead person’s voice but in some sense transfers the call to us in turn. The poem functions as a strange textual switchboard. Again, we can respond to the poem in quite straightforward terms — it is a poem about someone who is out walking in an autumn or early winter landscape and who thinks he hears the voice of a woman whom he once loved (who was ’all’ to him) but who is no longer above ground (’heard no more again far or near’). As its title suggests then, it is about ’the voice’ he hears. But it is also a poem about voice more generally, and about the relationship between poetry and hearing a woman’s call. (This may in turn recall the notion of inspiration in classical Greek and Roman times, in other words, hearing the voice, music or song of a female Muse or Muses.) This is evident, for example, in the opening line: ’Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me’. What we are presented with here is an affirmation of the spooky actuality of hearing a dead woman’s voice — an affirmation which the poem proceeds to question (’Can it be you that I hear?’), but which it concludes by reaffirming (’Thus I; faltering forward … And the woman calling’). This opening line, however, is at the same time grammatically ambiguous: ’how’ suggests a questioning as well as an exclamation. ’Call to me, call to me’, on the other hand, can be read as an echo (as two voices, even if the second is a double of the first) or as changing from an exclamation — ’how you call to me’ — to a demand or appeal: ’call to me’.

The ending of the poem suggests either that the speaker is off his head, hearing voices, or that the dead really do come back and that it is indeed possible to hear voices from beyond the grave. But it also suggests something about literary texts in general. Every one of the writers who has been discussed in this chapter is dead. But as we indicate in our discussion of the ’death of the author’ (in Chapter 3), every literary text can be thought of as involving a voice from beyond the grave, since every text is at least potentially capable of outliving the person who originally gives voice to it. The woman in Hardy’s poem is in this respect a figure of the poet par excellence. Do we hear Hardy’s voice in ’The Voice’ or not? Or — to reflect on the poem in a quite different way altogether, that is to say in the light of what Harold Bloom calls ’the anxiety of influence’ — do we perhaps hear Keats’s voice in this poem? Bloom’s celebrated theory (Bloom 1973) is that what impels poets to write is not so much the desire to reflect on the world as the desire to respond to and to challenge the voices of the dead (see Bloom 1973). For Bloom, any ’strong’ poem will always involve an encounter between the ’living’ poet — in this case Hardy — and the dead — in this case perhaps most obviously Keats, whose ’Ode to a Nightingale’ is also explicitly concerned with the ’dissolving’ qualities of voice and identity. From a Bloomian perspective, Hardy’s reference to ’You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness’ might be read not so much as an address to the poet’s dead wife (strange enough as that gesture may itself seem) but rather as an eerie and ambivalent ’revisitation’ of Keats’s lines:

That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,

And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget

What thou amongst the leaves hast never known…

Keats’s voice might, in this sense, be said to haunt ’The Voice’ as much as it does other Hardy poems, such as ’The Darkling Thrush’ (1900) — the very title of which echoes Keats’s ode (the nightingale was traditionally considered to be of the thrush family, and the word ’Darkling’ appears in line 51 of Keats’s poem). In poems such as ’The Voice’ and ’The Darkling Thrush’, in other words, we can recognize the ’trick’ of Hardy’s voice in terms of an idiomatic tone (lugubrious, plaintive, ironic, etc.) and idiomatic rhymes and neologisms (’listlessness’, ’wistlessness’). But this is ’voice’ in a figurative, ghostly sense. Moreover, it is ’voice’ as plural — haunted by, for example, the voice or voices of other poets.

The examples of Carver and Hardy are helpful because they highlight a number of important ideas for thinking about voice in relation to literature. First they suggest that the question of voice is never simple, even (or perhaps especially) when it appears to be. Second, and more specifically, they suggest that literary texts not only present voices but also have things to say about what voices are and how we might or might not hear them. Third, there is invariably more than one voice in a literary text, even if it is a matter of a voice ostensibly just talking or responding to itself.

This final point can be thought about further in at least two ways. On the one hand, there is the importance of seeing literature as a space in which one encounters multiple voices. Literary texts call upon us to think about them in terms of many voices — for instance, in terms of what M.M. Bakhtin calls heteroglossia (literally, ’other tongue’) or of what he, Julia Kristeva, Roland Barthes and others refer to as polyphony (literally, ’having many voices’). Literature is, as Salman Rushdie has observed, ’the one place in any society where, within the secrecy of our own heads, we can hear voices talking about everything in every possible way’ (Rushdie 1990, 16). Saleem, the narrator of Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children (1981), is an excellent example: he is telepathic, like every so-called omniscient narrator in a work of fiction, and he is continually hearing multiple voices. As he remarks: ’I was a radio receiver, and could turn the volume down or up; I could select individual voices; I could even, by an effort of will, switch off my newly-discovered inner ear’ (164).

On the other hand, literature encourages us to think about the idea that there may in fact be no such thing as a voice, a single, unified voice (whether that of an author, a narrator, a reader or anyone else). Rather, there is difference and multiplicity within every voice. There is, then, not only the kind of socio-literary polyphony that Bakhtin describes, and which he illustrates for example by looking at the way Dickens orchestrates, inhabits and detaches himself from the role of various speakers in his novel Little Dorrit (Bakhtin 1992, 203—5). But in addition to this, and more fundamentally, any one voice is in fact made up of multiple voices. There is difference and polyphony within every voice. We have tried to suggest this by looking at some of the ways in which the voice of an author or poet is always a sort of ghostly site for a gathering of voices. We might conclude, then, with a thought proffered in one of the ’Adagia’ (or ’aphorisms’) of the poet Wallace Stevens: ’When the mind is like a hall in which thought is like a voice speaking, the voice is always that of someone else’ (Opus Posthumous, 168).

Further reading

For two traditional but thought-provoking accounts of voice and literature, see Yvor Winters, ’The Audible Reading of Poetry’ (1957), and Francis Berry, Poetry and the Physical Voice (1962). A more recent and theoretically informed account is provided by Furniss and Bath (1996), in their chapter on ’Hearing Voices in Poetic Texts’. James Mulholland’s recent study Sounding Imperial: Poetic Voice and the Politics of Empire, 1730—1820 (2013) contains an especially useful introduction (’The Global Aesthetics of Poetic Voice’), offering a summary of what he calls the ’New Voice Studies’. Roland Barthes has very engaging things to say about voice, for example in S/Z (Barthes 1990b). On heteroglossia, see M.M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination (1981). For Kristeva and polyphony, see for example the essay ’Word, Dialogue and Novel’ (Kristeva 1986). For a challenging but compelling account of the strangeness of the narrator’s ’I’ in a literary text, see Maurice Blanchot’s ’The Narrative Voice’ (Blanchot 1981). On voice in relation to print and reading, see Griffiths, The Printed Voice of Victorian Poetry (1989); and, also in the context of nineteenth-century literature, see Ivan Kreilkamp, Voice and the Victorian Storyteller (2005). On poetry, voice and hearing, see Geoffrey Hartman’s eclectic and stimulating essay ’Words and Wounds’ (Hartman 1981), and, for a more technical, difficult but fascinating study, see Garrett Stewart’s Reading Voices (1990). Steven Connor’s remarkable study Dumbstruck — A Cultural History of Ventriloquism (2000) offers a wide-ranging account of voice especially in relation to spiritualism and teletechnology. The philosopher David Appelbaum’s Voice (1990) is a brilliant and idiosyncratic study of such dimensions of ’voice’ as the cough, laugh, breath and babble, while Brandon LaBelle’s Lexicon of the Mouth: Poetics and Politics of Voice and the Oral Imaginary (2014) is also full of intriguing ideas and angles on which to chew. For another fascinating philosophical study, see Adriana Cavarero’s For More Than One Voice (2005). Oliver Sacks’s Seeing Voices (1991) is a thought-provoking exploration specifically in the context of deafness, while Wesling and Slawek’s Literary Voice (1995) draws on philosophy, linguistics and other disciplines to defend literary voice against ’modern philosophy’s critique of the spoken’. Finally, from a specifically psychoanalytic perspective, see Mladen Dolar’s ’The Object Voice’ (1996) and A Voice and Nothing More (2006).