Some novels which use the demotic (people’s) voice–Part I

Part I–In writing a long and complicated post (which I’ll feature in three parts for easier reading) I’d like to discuss identity issues as they impact first upon some precursory texts of contemporary fiction, and then upon some contemporary fictions themselves.  The literary issue which is involved here is the question of identity in narrative voice, when talking especially about the more contemporary and lately widespread use of the “demotic” voice (or the literary voice “of the people” as opposed to the “mandarin” voice or “high art” voice).  The demotic voice includes not only the speech of characters in dialogue, but especially features “skaz,” or, following Mikhail Bakhtin’s definition, “homodiegetic…narration which takes its cue from oral rather than written discourse.”  For more on “skaz” and “homodiegetic” see note below in Part III*.  (An earlier example of skaz is the narrative voice in Huckleberry Finn.).  Yet another point to be considered when one is determining how fictional voice operates is the issue of romance (in the technical literary sense) versus realism.  I would like to credit the valuable discussion of mandarin and demotic voices in fiction in Jeremy Scott’s book The Demotic Voice in Contemporary British Fiction.  Though he discusses a number of authors whom I am not going to mention here, his entire thesis is useful for understanding the questions relating to voice in fiction.

Taking the precursors to contemporary fiction first in order to say how they are related, I need to remark that they were particularizers and in-depth analyzers of the life and culture of certain communities, and often chose demotic speakers or humbler dialogues in the construction of their pictures of societies.  There are no doubt many precursors:  I’m only going to discuss three.  These precursors left a legacy behind them, which contemporary practitioners of the demotic novel in general have followed, been inspired by, or perhaps coincidentally (and intertextually) come after, changing a mandarin (or high literary) ethos for a more demotic one, inspired by the voice of whomever they took “the people” to be.  Scott remarks in his book that probably the first novel to imitate a character’s dialect and style of locution in the narration is Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent:  An Hibernian Tale.  In this book, a supposedly native Irish speaker gives his views on the aristocracy for whom he works.  The effects of “hearing” Thady Quirk (the native speaker) are broadly burlesque; he is clearly a folk narrator made up by someone with a rather distant relationship with the real Irish.  He’s funny, but he’s also made fun of, in addition to being the source of comedy aimed at others.  The opinions he has of his employers, however, ring true enough, though they are exaggerated for comic effect.

Another precursor is the American Sarah Orne Jewett in some of her novels and stories.  While she says there is “a likeness to be traced” to some particular town in her work, she also says the “sketches” of characters are not usually drawn from that town.  She is different from Edgeworth because, having only colorful local humor in one of her books such as Deephaven, she does not burlesque her characters, but treats them with a very careful attitude of respect.  Her two main characters in Deephaven follow and illustrate the staid morality of New England, though there are a few remarks which seem to suggest the subject of a “Boston marriage.”  In one such remark, for example, the speaker compares the two young ladies, herself and her friend, to the “ladies of Llangollen” (a “Boston marriage” was at the time a term for close emotional, personal friendship between two women, who would probably identity themselves as gay today).  The two ladies operate as an audience for the characters of the town, who are “characters” in more than one sense.  There are a few occasions when Jewett is particularly broad, and she is at those times reminiscent of Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn, though again she is not as sly and satirical by half as Twain (who is give a nod by Scott as a writer of demotic fiction).  By way of contrast with Deephaven, in Jewett’s A Country Doctor, there is less of a demotic voice, mainly because there are fewer humble characters who speak a naturally simpler language.  There is also a strong plot line concerned more with a single character (a young woman who wants to become a doctor) rather than with a whole culture.  In The Country of the Pointed Firs as well, there is more “hybrid” characterization and subject matter than in Deephaven, which is a set piece of dialect examination without much of a plot or story to it.  (Scott also makes use of the term “hybrid” in several different ways, to indicate the duality or mixture of story line, voice, and characterization).

A final major precursor (though there are undoubtedly many more which could be discussed) is Edith Wharton, not at all in her society novels, but in her novel of the New England countryside, Ethan Frome.  In her “Introduction,” the characters are compared to “granite outcroppings.”  They are said to be seen through the limited understanding of two “chroniclers.”  It is in fact the most external narrator who purports to understand them and who details the rhythms of speech and occasional grammatical lapses or “picturesque” language.  The starkness of the surroundings is both natural and societal.  The narrator, who is said to be more complex and sophisticated in understanding in this “Introduction,” empathizes near the end with the “hard compulsions of the poor,” this hardness bodied forth in the unsympathetic landscape.  Had Scott commented on Wharton, he might have noticed the frequency with which she does as he says Thomas Hardy does, and “often seek[s] to dramatise the internal lives of [his] characters…by displacing character ‘sensibility’ onto the landscape.”  This tendency also relates to the picturesque and romance traditions, to be taken up in more detail later, in Part II.

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