Problematic Silence and Sense in Modern Narrative Fiction

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2009

11 Pages


Problematic Silence and Sense

In Modern Narrative Fiction

( Courtesy of Silence, a Grad Volume 2009 )

Mansour Khelifa, University of Sousse

Absolutes do not exist in humanities.

That is why silence as such is never heard of,

save as a hyperbolic figure of speech.

From the start, as the writer of fiction puts pen to paper, s/he is met with the dumbness of the blank space of the page and challenged by a welter of questions: How to begin? What to say? How to inform silence? How to make sense and coherence out of inchoate amorphousness? How to account for the lived experience? The novel’s primary aim is to tell a story, according to E. M. Forster in his not-so-antiquated Aspects of the Novel. The narrated story, more often than not, voices silent characters whose histories and frames of mind are revealed by an external agent / consciousness (the narrator/ the author/ another character/ a godlike or limited viewpoint). Occasionally, the story tells itself in the form of first-hand dramatised dialogues when the characters assume some distinct voice of their own, different from, and / or blending with, that of a third-person narrator / godlike author.

However, characters’ thoughts, inner debates, silences, emotions, schemes and motives may be revealed through the use of interior monologue or stream-of-consciousness method, which tends to verbally and metaphorically bring to life the unsaid parts of the narrated experience, with stronger and more palpable immediacy. Central to this modernist narrative technique, stream of consciousness, is the narrator’s attempt to voice the characters’ inner speech and represent language in its extreme form as a pre-verbalised, tentative and embryonic thought process. Even then, the question of narrative voice and agency cannot be totally disregarded; one may indeed ask: to what extent can the stream-of-consciousness method authenticate characters’ own silent verbal productions being translated into overheard thoughts and speeches? How accurate can one be while trying to discriminate between character’s streams of consciousness and sophisticated authorial intrusions or disguised narratorial comments? The boundary line cutting across the polyphonic, let alone the cacophonic, orchestration of narrative fiction is sometimes full of problematic silences.

In what follows, I will, space not allowing, focus on selected samples form D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young a Man and from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, in order to try to come to terms with the problematic notion of ‘silence and sense’ in these novels. I will hopefully show that silence is an integral part of an evasive narrative space allowing for artistic license, for character’s instability and finally, for the indeterminacy of meaning, three pivotal tenets of modern fiction writing.

It is quite surprising that in Michail Bakhtin’s well-known analysis of novelistic discourse and its genesis based on the concepts of “dialogism,” of “dialogized heteroglossia” (“Discourse in the Novel” 231), of “laughter” and “polyglossia” (qtd. in Lodge 132), it is hard to find any reference to the notion of “silence” as such, as if Bakhtin just wanted to concern himself with the “intonational” (132) compactness of language to the detriment of the cracks, stases and lulls in narrative voicing. However, he implicitly posits that “prehistoric” novelistic discourse is fashioned by the clashes, echoes and silences of ancient cultures and languages; he writes for example that “[i]n essence this discourse always developed on the boundary line between cultures and languages” (132). Accordingly, the poetics of fiction has probably emerged from the slow, silent and subterranean interaction between cultural and linguistic environments through the process of cross-pollination. What is more, still according to Bakhtin quoted in the following statement, the language of fiction is an evolving hybrid full of sound and fury: “The language of the novel is a system of languages that mutually and ideologically interanimate each other. It is impossible to describe and analyze it as a single unitary language” (qtd. in Lodge 130). In other words, the author/narrator, in addition to his or her representation of character, action, sensibility, theme and world view, tries to represent language, says Bakhtin, “as a living mix of varied and opposing voices [ raznorecivost’ ], developing and renewing itself” (qtd. in Lodge 131).

In the light of the above theoretical Bakhtinian hallmarks, Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs Dalloway, may be regarded as a web of variously monologised discourses all of which sound as inner debates about life and death, about sound and silence, and about noise and quietude. The coyness, calm composure and demure appearance of Clarissa Dalloway conceal a troubled mind riddled with a sense of failure, anxiety and doubt; a mind that is dramatised as an interior psychic space in constant dialogue with self and otherness, with inner and outer world, with speechlessness and utterance. Clarissa’s apparent serenity betrays a chaotic consciousness. Where Clarissa, through nervous strain, mental effort and socialising rituals, manages to stitch together and control, so to speak, her own divided persona–i.e., her private self retiring in a kind of ‘sanctuary,’ and her public self yearning for ritualistic parties, Septimus Warren Smith, her negative counterpart, conversely sinks deeper and deeper in his muted, incoherent inner speech and finally commits suicide, opting thus for eternal silence.

James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man dramatises Stephen Dedalus’s experience of coming of age and of embracing Art. Stephen’s disquieting interior monologue tries to un-riddle the complexities of pleasure and pain, of sin and redemption, of reality and imagination. The narrative represents an alienating / emancipating dialogic relation between the protagonist’s muted artistic / philosophical sensibility (private experience) and the frustrating political / historical debate (public involvement) about “nationality, language, [and] religion” (184). In other words, we have here a inner debate between the artist’s impatient soul yearning for self-liberation, on the one hand, and the Irish occupied soil, as it were, that needs to be liberated and that seems to hold back the artist’s flight. Stephen ultimately relinquishes the deafening debate about his country, his religion and his language, all of which he calls “nets flung” (184) at his soul to imprison and silence it.

D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, like Woolf’s and Joyce’s novels, addresses the problematic use of language regarding how to communicate the incommunicable as far as subjective experience is concerned. The representation of silence, in this respect, seems to stem from the necessity of making sense where language fails to communicate the unsaid or the ineffable experience. Most of the narrative grapples with the issue of dialogic rapport between self and otherness, between male and female, between art and reality, between inner perception and normative ideology, between silence and speech. For example Gudrun, answering Ursula’s question about her homecoming, says in the opening parts of the novel, “I think my coming back home was just reculer pour mieux sauter” (10), allowing herself to have some silent, meditative introspection about her young lived experience. Similarly, Ursula’s solipsistic retreat, so to speak, takes place on the level of being: “She lived a good deal by herself, to herself, working, passing on from day to day, and always thinking, trying to lay hold on life, to grasp it in her own understanding. Her active life was suspended, but underneath in the darkness, something was coming to pass” (9).

Rupert Birkin, being dissatisfied with his attitude towards Ursula and “critical of his relation to language, associating it with a kind of death” (Fiona Becket 60), says to himself “I was becoming quite dead-alive, nothing but a word-bag” (Women in Love 195-196). Commenting on the dialogic and multi-vocal aspects of Women in Love, Avrom Fleishman writes in his Bakhtinian discourse analysis of Lawrence novel:

“What makes it polyphonic is that all its discourses are double-voiced: the characters talk not only about people and ideas but about words, they quote those words when making their own responses, other speakers chime in with their own rhetorics – and so on, so as to constitute a world of words” (“Lawrence and Bakhtin” 113).

Fleishman’s insightful comment may just as well in this respect apply to Woolf’s and Joyce’s novels.

So much so for Bakhtin’s dialogism and for the genesis of novelistic discourse. Now examining the topic of “silence” from a psychoanalytical perspective, I will look into the “unsaid” parts of novelistic discourse and into the fissures of the different streams of consciousness. In her book called Sens et non-sens de la révolution, Julia Kristeva, a Lacanian writer and critic, says that ‘Freud’s account is that of inadequacy, of imbalance between the sexual and the verbal. What the speaking subject says,’ she adds, ‘doesn’t subsume sexuality. Sexuality cannot be said, or at any rate, it cannot be said entirely … Sexual desire is after all asymptotic to language and to intelligence’ (51/52). Speech acts relating to sexual drives, repressed desire and fantasy seem to be full of gaps and misunderstandings. Many modern characters seem to labour under such linguistic and infra-linguistic hardships, and inadequacies between desire and reality, between the said and the unsaid, between the conscious and the unconscious. Jacques Lacan assumes that, for psychoanalysis to be regarded as the science of the unconscious, “it is convenient to proceed from the fact that the unconscious is structured like a language”[1] (227).


[1] Jacques Lacan. Les quatre concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse. Paris : Seuil, (1973), 1990. Translation mine : Si la psychanalyse doit se constituer comme science de l’inconscient, il convient de partir de ce que l’inconscient est structuré comme un langage (227).

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Problematic Silence and Sense in Modern Narrative Fiction
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Mansour Khelifa (Author), 2009, Problematic Silence and Sense in Modern Narrative Fiction, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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