Now to look at how polyphony has been used literature. Mikhail Bakhtin described Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov as the first truly polyphonic novel. Bakhtin outlines his argument in his book Problems with Dostoevsky’s Poetics.
This note will highlight some key points, which will help us to understand how a novel can be polyphonic.
In Dostoevsky one gets the sense that each character is excluded from the whole. As events unfold, they only have a limited and restricted view. The reader gets a better picture, but still not a perfect one. The author is not even in a better position. To achieve polyphony he must relinquish control. His perspective is levelled out to become equal with his characters. He becomes a mediator, providing access to the individual characters’ ideas.
Distinct personalities are created. They are designed to be independent and develop autonomously. As a result of which, each character becomes incarcerated by their ethical position, and the conflict it causes with others.
A key aspect of literary polyphony is the co-existence of diverse and varying material. This is conveyed through multiple styles of writing, multiple accents or tones of the characters voices and of course many different beliefs. Bakhtin suggests that in Dostoevsky this is presented in several fields of vision as opposed to the traditional single view of the author.
The newspaper provides a good analogy for the idea of simultaneity. Imagine the front cover; disparate stories exist on it, not connected in subject or theme but by their simultaneous occurrence. Detached from one another they all exist within the unified whole of the Newspaper.
In the polyphonic novel, there is no resolution, no one has the final say because no one knows the truth of events. The truth is consists of conflicting ideas. It is expressed by voices that are all equal. Even the author’s voice is equal and consequentially not even Dostoevsky himself knows the truth of events.
Bakhtin, Mikhail- Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, University of Minnesota Press 1984