During a speech like a sermon or a presidential address, the audience hears a single speaker and a single point of view. Fictional prose can work differently, with many characters all offering different perspectives. This distinction, called "polyphony," underpins literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin's dialogic criticism approach to interpreting literature. Dialogic criticism is a method of understanding literature that draws meaning from the interplay of several disparate voices.
Dialogic Criticism in Practice
At the heart of Bakhtin's approach is the idea that no one perspective or voice holds a monopoly on truth. Developing a rich sense of meaning in a text requires understanding several different characters' views. In Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment," for example, the main character, Raskolnikov, and his sister have different perspectives on the same events. In dialogic analysis, neither is correct nor incorrect. Instead, both offer important and equally valid ways of understanding the world. The dialogic critic derives the meaning of the text from the interplay of the competing voices.
Dialogic Criticism and Heterglossia
Dialogic criticism is intertwined with the concept of heteroglossia, the idea that any text or artistic work contains multiple viewpoints. Bakhtin's criticism disputes the monological interpretation of a novel as the voice of an author. Instead, he argues that novels contain many voices or perspectives. The author's job, he argues, is to assemble divergent points of view into a single narrative. The perspectives are not original creations, but the combination into a story is a unique artistic statement. Dialogic criticism focuses on analyzing the interplay of these many voices.
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