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The Classic Short Story, 1870-1925

Florence Goyet

Part III: Reader, Character and Author

12. Conclusion to Part III: Are Dostoevsky’s Short Stories Polyphonic?

Texte intégral

  • 1 Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, ed. and trans. by Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis, M (...)

1We have seen in Part III that the classic short story is a resolutely monologic genre, in which only the author-reader group has a fully-fledged “voice” of its own. Every possible rhetorical technique is used to distance the characters from the reader. The primary focus is on the characters’ difference, their exotic strangeness, and the result is that the reader judges their voice even before it has been heard. To conclude this section we should, then, return to Mikhail Bakhtin in order to justify the use I have made of the notion of polyphony. Actually, I find that I have gone in a direction not explicitly foreseen by Bakhtin: when he developed the concept, it was for the purpose of contrasting Dostoevsky with all other writers, and the difference between novels and short stories was not one of his concerns.1 However, it seems to me that we can and should pursue the analysis of Bakhtin in the terms that he himself set. If we are attentive to the development of his arguments in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics it is clear that he talks of Dostoevsky’s short works and novels quite differently. This should lead us to make a distinction that is as important as it is seldom made, between polyphony and dialogism.

  • 2 Ibid, p. 267, note 16. See also p. 220: “But these voices [in The Double] have not yet become full (...)

2First of all let us note that Bakhtin explicitly states the difference between novels and short stories: “Other autonomous consciousnesses appear only in the longer novels”.2 The movement towards polyphony, characteristic of Dostoevsky, is not fully realised in the short stories: the “other” is not seen as having a full and autonomous status. Since Bakhtin’s goal is not to distinguish the different facets of his author, but to indicate his true place in world literature, the fact that he does not make a point of developing this distinction between the genres is not surprising. That he happened to remark on this, however, is because all the analyses he gives of short stories pointed to it. The difference between the novels and the short stories can be said as a difference between polyphony and dialogism.

  • 3 Ibid, pp. 5-6.
  • 4 See ibid, pp. 255-26.
  • 5 Ibid, respectively p. 6 and p. 7.

3Polyphony, as put to light by Bakhtin in Dostoevsky’s novels, is when the relationships between all the “voices” are based on equality.3 To take a classic example, in The Brothers Karamazov, when Alyosha says to Ivan Karamazov: “You are not the one who killed our father”, Alyosha’s voice has the same status as the voice of the Devil who persuades Ivan that he is guilty. Alyosha makes this assertion to balance that of Satan, and the whole construction by Dostoevsky of the character of Alyosha makes this equilibrium valid.4 Similarly, in The Idiot, it is impossible to despise Rogozhin, because of his rival Myshkin’s attitude towards him. As the characters interact with one another, all the “typifying” traits given at the beginning of the book are steadily deconstructed — as are the reader’s prejudices, which would lead him to think of Sonya in Crime and Punishment as a “prostitute”. Everything in these novels makes it impossible for the reader to pass a judgement on the characters. Renouncing this means to renounce social prejudices: to renounce taking a position of superiority toward “other” social categories, genders or races. This is polyphony, “a plurality of consciousnesses, with equal rights”, where the character’s “word about himself and his world […] sounds, as it were, alongside the author’s word and in a special way combines both with it and with the full and equally valid voices of other characters”.5

  • 6 Ibid, p. 196.

4Now, dialogism in Dostoevsky’s short stories is quite distinct from this. Bakhtin similarly puts to light two voices, but here he is not talking about the symmetry or variety of voices of equivalent status. It is “dialogism” because the relationship between narrator and character is a direct one, a dialogue. Here too Dostoevsky’s heroes are “consciousnesses”, fully and constantly aware of everything that can be said of them, of every comment or judgement that could be developed about them. Their major trait could even be said to be this “sideward glance” by which they are always in search of the other characters’ assessment of them — both materially and ethically.6 The characters are in a relationship of dialogue with the narrator, who does not have the last word on them: the narrator cannot give a definite picture of them from an exterior perspective. But this is not polyphony because there is, in fact, a hierarchy between two totally dissimilar partners in the communication process, with one of them — the character — being discredited. Bakhtin continues to speak of two voices, but they are in no way equal.

  • 7 As did Myshkin’s voice in The Idiot, when he forcefully affirms to Nastassia Filipovna: “‘Aren’t y (...)
  • 8 Ibid, pp. 205 and 193.

5In the short stories’ dialogism, the first voice is that of the hero’s self-justification. But — and Bakhtin insists on this — it has no real autonomy, nor any “ontological weight”. Neither the “heroes of the underground”, nor the hero of Dvoinik (The Double), nor of Krotkaya (The Meek One) will be able to persuade the other or themselves that they are right and that the outside world is wrong. And never will some other voice speak about them a truth that would balance the condemnation they are passing on themselves.7 If we try to adhere strictly to Bakhtin’s terms, we are forced to conclude — as he himself usually does — that ultimately it is the other’s truth which dominates, crushing that of the hero. The “heroes of the underground” can never make their own voice seem valid, even to their own ears. In other words, the monologue wins out over the dialogue and the character admits defeat. Even for Dostoevsky, an author who puts polyphony at the foundation of his fictional universe, the short stories are incapable of giving the hero a separate voice that would be equal to that of the narrator. Although in Dostoevsky’s stories too there is “intense anticipation of another’s words” through the process of dialogism, this theoretical “orientation towards another’s discourse” is not exploited so as to give him a full narrative and ontological status.8

6The short story, admittedly, is not alone in this respect. To illustrate my thesis, I propose to imagine an axis. At one end are Dostoevsky’s novels, which allow each of his characters a totally valid voice. Here there is a radical absence of judgement, no value wins out definitively and a priori over the others; Dostoevsky favours proximity with the character, even if he is debauched, impious or murderous. He allows us to see him a novo, in a light freed from all prejudices. At the other extreme of the axis is the classic short story, which refuses to enter to any degree into the logic of its characters; which almost always discredits their vision of the world, and always favours the external viewpoint; which increases distance, even in those rare cases when it is used to extol the merits of a “great man”. Between the two extremes are both the other novels of western literature and “short fiction”.

  • 9 At the end of his life, Bakhtin abandoned the idea that Dostoevsky is the only representative of p (...)

7These other novels of the western tradition, according to Bakhtin, are not polyphonic. But although they usually define a non-polyphonic hierarchy, with a hero whose voice has fuller status than that of his protagonists, this hero is not himself systematically distanced from the reader as he is in the classic short story.9 For example, the secondary characters in Maupassant’s novel Une vie (A Life) are treated as caricatures. The heroine’s parents, her husband, the priest, the elderly aunt, could all be short story characters (as is in effect the case with the aunt in Clair de lune [In The Moonlight], and the priest in Le Saut du berger [The Shepherd’s Leap]). But the heroine Jeanne herself is not. The lack of distance from Jeanne is all the more remarkable because the portraits of women and the treatment of love in Maupassant’s short stories are so deeply lacking nuance; here, Maupassant achieved for this heroine something he never did for his short stories characters.

8Another “intermediary” form between the novel and the classic short story is “short fiction” — from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tales to the “modern”, non-narrative story. Short fiction is epiphanic and suggestive. Renouncing the anecdote, it moves beyond the narrowly prescribed outlook on society and characters that make the classic short story monologic, and it is much nearer on the axis to Dostoevsky’s novels. As an epilogue to this study, I will briefly look at how the genre moved from one end of the axis to the other.


1 Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, ed. and trans. by Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).

2 Ibid, p. 267, note 16. See also p. 220: “But these voices [in The Double] have not yet become fully independent real voices, they are not yet three autonomous consciousnesses. This occurs only in Dostoevsky’s longer novels”.

3 Ibid, pp. 5-6.

4 See ibid, pp. 255-26.

5 Ibid, respectively p. 6 and p. 7.

6 Ibid, p. 196.

7 As did Myshkin’s voice in The Idiot, when he forcefully affirms to Nastassia Filipovna: “‘Aren’t you ashamed? Surely you are not what you are pretending to be now? it isn’t possible!’”; to which she replies “‘I really am not like this, he is right’”. Quoted in ibid, p. 242.

8 Ibid, pp. 205 and 193.

9 At the end of his life, Bakhtin abandoned the idea that Dostoevsky is the only representative of polyphony in a western novel that is totally monological; and he does allow for gradations.


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