The Polyphonic “Voice of Society”: A Stylistic Analysis of Our Mutual Friend
Type of DegreeThesis
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My study of Our Mutual Friend is restricted to seven chapters, each with the same short list of characters, which introduce or conclude the four books of the novel. Society is the label under which these chapters come, and Dickens probes the meaning of society within them. Society is also important as a key concept for interpretation of the novel because of the frequency of the term’s use. But the structural perspective on society, which is based on the order and the content of chapters, is more stable than the society that emerges from the characters’ or narrator’s use of the term. Society figures (the characters within the seven chapters) interact by conversing; their manner of expression, which is better described as their style because their dialogue exists only in written text, is what unites them with or distinguishes them from other society figures or other characters in the novel overall. However, being dominated by the narrator’s own bias against society figures or envisioning the narrator as the mouthpiece of Dickens himself restricts the stylistic evaluation of the language of society. Critics who conflate the narrator and the author of Our Mutual Friend are unable to recognize similarities in style between the narrator and society figures. The repeated sharing of stylistic traits between particular society figures and the narrator and the recurrence of particular topics of conversation, such as marriages between persons of unequal class or the acquisition or loss of a fortune, indicate that the society figures form a discourse community which includes the narrator. Society, however, has a polyphonic voice because some society figures develop a counter-accent to the narrator’s description. Mortimer Lightwood shares a social language with the narrator, thus he escapes the narrator’s negative criticism and gains the ability to address the implied audience of the novel. But Lightwood falls silent in society’s final debate; his silence is one type of counter-accent. Mr. Twemlow stands out among the society figures because he is a representative type (gentlemanly behavior), his speech in the novel overall is dynamic, and because his use of a stylistic trait is set in a positive context. Twemlow’s politeness is also a counter-accent to the comments of the narrator which deliberately attack the “face” of society figures. Together Twemlow’s tactful speech, Lightwood’s silence, and many other voices which are all heavily influenced by the narrator represent the fictional society.