Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

Multi-voices in the novel genre

Selected classical literary theory relevant to the novel genre


Mimesis--Greek for "imitation" or "representation" (compare "mime" or "mimic")

"Art imitates nature" or "art imitates reality" = fundamental theory of art and literature, articulated by classical Greek philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

This formula is pervasive, even universal in western and non-western art and literature, though all three terms (art, imitation, nature or reality) and their relations are continually questioned.

Shakespeare: In act 3, scene 2 of Hamlet, the title character urges the visiting theatrical troupe:

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this
special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature:
for any thing so o'erdone is from the purpose of playing [i.e., theater or acting], whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature . . . .


A subsequent question: How does literature imitate human action in the world?

Plato's Republic identifies two types of literary representation, identified with voice, that may appear either separately or in a mixed genre

The novel and its historical antecedents (the epic, the prose romance) are the foremost examples of the mixing of the two types of representation.

1.     Narrator or “Single Voice,” in which one speaker or voice speaks directly to the audience.  Examples: lyric poems, songs, sermons, lectures, stand-up comic monologues, news reports, or any other situation where a speaker directly addresses an audience, camera, or microphone.

2.     Drama or Dialogue, in which two or more characters speak directly with each other, which the audience overhears.  Examples: most plays, most movies, most fictional television shows such as sit-coms or police dramas.

3.     Narrator + Dialogue, in which two or more characters speak with each other while a narrator speaks directly to the audience.  Examples: novels; the epic; “film noir” movies; TV shows like The Wonder Years where an older narrator speaks to the audience while a younger self speaks with other characters.


Source: from Plato, The Republic. c. 373 BCE. Benjamin Jowett, translator.  The Dialogues of Plato, 4th ed. (Oxford, Eng.: Clarendon, 1953); reprinted in Hazard Adams, ed.  Critical Theory since Plato (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971): 19-40.

[Brackets represent editorial changes or additions made by the instructor.  Bold highlights have been added by the instructor.]

God [or reality] is always to be represented as he truly is, whatever be the sort of poetry, epic, lyric, or tragic, in which the representation is given. . . .

[N]arration may be either simple narration, or imitation, or a union of the two. . . .

[S]ome poetry and mythology are wholly imitative ( . . . I mean tragedy and comedy); there is likewise the opposite style, in which the poet is the only speaker--of this the dithyramb [or lyric] affords the best example; and the combination of both is found in epic [or, now, the novel] . . . .

(In other words, Plato says that drama [tragedy & comedy] is "imitation" or "wholly imitative"--that is, when you watch a play or film, the dialogue is like an imitation or representation of people speaking and acting in real life, only more selective and intense.
Example: Shakespeare, Hamlet

(But Plato also allows another type of voice: "simple narration" or story-telling, where a single speaker tells what happened next, etc.
Example: Longfellow, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere

(The novel is both . . .
Example: Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter)


Why this matters:

As a genre of multicultural literature, the novel's mixing of voices is the first formal fact of the its unique "multivocality." For more on this, see the notes from novel-theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, also on the Research Links page.

These aspects of the novel's formal structure remain remarkably identifiable, though always variable and arguable.

Different novels may emphasize either narration or dialogue, with different effects.

Or narrative and dialogue may involve different parts of the reality being represented.

This last possibility can be helpful for understanding how literature processes the cross-cultural exchanges that constitute colonial and postcolonial literature.

Course Objective 2. To theorize the novel as the defining genre of modernity, both for early-modern imperial culture and for late-modern postcolonial culture.

2a. By definition, the genre of the novel combines fundamental representational modes of narrative and dialogue. These modes respectively control and decenter storytelling.

  • Alternately, narrative and dialogue respectively foreground literate and spoken voices. Especially in postcolonial literature the narrator may be a “literate” voice, while characters’ voices represent unwritten, spoken, or oral traditions—another intertextuality.

  • How may literary fiction instruct or deepen students’ knowledge of world history and international relations compared to history, political science, anthropology, etc.?


Two more classical theories relevant to this last bullet:

Horace (Roman poet, 65-8 BCE):

Purpose of literature is to "entertain and inform"

or "engage and educate"; to please and uplift . . . .


Aristotle, Poetics:

IV.  Poetry [i. e., literature] in general seems to have sprung from two causes, each of them lying deep in our nature.  First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in humanity from childhood, one difference between people and other animals being that humans are the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation they learn their earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated . . . .  The cause of this again is, that to learn gives the liveliest pleasure, not only to philosophers but to [humans] in general