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Hugo Blumenthal © 2006

Writing In Tongues:
The Function of Heteroglossia in Fielding’s Tom Jones

by Hugo Blumenthal

In his seminal essay ‘Discourse in the Novel’ (1934-1935), Mikhail Bakhtin included
Henry Fielding among the classic representatives of the English comic novel that made
available ‘a form for appropriating and organizing heteroglossia’ (from the Greek hetero,
‘other’, and glot, ‘tongue’ or ‘voice’; or the capacity of any utterance, discourse or language
to contain within it different ‘voices,’ discourses, languages).1 Half a century later, John
Richetti, in his The English Novel in History 1700-1780, has come to question the presence
and function of heteroglossia in Tom Jones, considering the novel completely under the
constraint of the narrator’s centripetal force; that is, in opposition to the centrifugal force, or
‘liberating principle,’ of heteroglossia. According to Richetti (who quotes Bakhtin),
Fielding’s fiction seems to resist the liberating principle that Bakhtin proposes
as the secret of the novel’s achievement, that “it is precisely the diversity of
speech, and not the unity of a normative shared language, that is the ground of
style.” […] In Tom Jones, at least, Fielding tries to contain by comic
patterning [such] diversity of speech and to uphold his version of a “normative
shared language.”2

Certainly, if we are going to compare Tom Jones to an apparently ‘neutral’ narration,


such as Richardson’s Clarissa, where no narrator seems to be present, where the reader
seems able to get an immediate access to the own words of a diversity of characters, the
marked presence of the narrator in Tom Jones could seem quite intrusive. In part that is
because, as Robert Alter points out, Fielding seems to have assumed that the narrator is
always speaking, ‘[…] so there is no more than a technical difference if the character
speaks for himself in first person or if the narrator speaks for him in third person’ (though
that was a very common practice in the Eighteenth Century); to the point that the dialogues
in Fielding’s novels seem ‘pervasively stylised.’3
But, could there be a narrative without the centripetal presence of a narrator? Does not a
narrator (or an author) always ‘speak’ through every novel, imposing some order to the

1 M. M. Bakhtin, ‘Discourse in the Novel’, in The Dialogic Imagination, trans. By Caryl Emerson and
Michael Holquist, ed. by Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 301. See also
Graham Allen, Intertextuality (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 21; and Katie Wales, ‘heteroglossia’, A
Dictionary of Stylistics, 2nd ed (Harlow: Longman, 2001), pp. 186-187.
2 John J. Richetti, ‘Fielding: System and Satire’, The English Novel in History 1700-1780 (London:
Routledge, 1999), pp. 133, 160n.
3 Robert Alter, ‘The Uses of Style’, Fielding and the Nature of the Novel (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard
University Press, 1968), p. 52.

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almost endless (and chaotic) possibilities of heteroglossia? What most so-called objective
novels do is to conceal the figure of the narrator through a narration in the third person,
creating the illusion that a narrator doesn’t exist, that the actions or dialogues that the novel
seems to represent come unmediated, as if slices taken from real life (concealing or
negating the process of creation, of writing). However, as Gerard Genette has pointed out,
‘every narrative is, explicitly or not, “in the first person” since at any moment its narrator
may use that pronoun to designate himself.’4 In any case, every narrative has a narrator.
Other types of text, though they could also be are under the constraint of centripetal forces
(which, after all, are the guarantee of some degree of coherence, of an overall meaning), as
for example a mere transcription of a conversation, could hardly be denominated narratives.
As for what could be denominated ‘non-narrated’ novels, like Richardson’s Clarissa and
some other epistolary novels, the ‘voice’ of each character-writer (who usually also plays
the role of a narrator within particular letters) comes almost inevitably permeated by other
‘voices’ (heteroglossia), among them an ‘authorial voice’ (representing what we here have
been calling a centripetal force) that makes objects of them (for characterization,
development of a narrative, etc.), subjecting them to a certain organization.5

Having pointed out the structural necessity of the centripetal force that the figure of the
narrator embodies, it’s also important to understand that the presence of a narrator’s voice
does not imply monologism, in opposition to heteroglossia. After all, according to Bakhtin,
‘every utterance participates in the ‘unitary language’ (in its centripetal forces and
tendencies) and at the same time partakes of social and historical heteroglossia (the
centrifugal, stratifying forces).’6 A monologic novel, if such a thing exists (let’s remember
that for Bakhtin the novel was in essence dialogic), would be basically a narrative discourse
in a predominantly homogeneous style that expresses a single worldview.7
One of the first pieces of evidence against the possible charge of Tom Jones being an
‘unitary language,’ or employing a homogeneous style, is that the narrator’s ‘discourse’ is
markedly composed of two completely different discourses: a narrative discourse, as in
Book XVIII, after the narrator has stated in Chapter 1 that he will continue from that point
on in ‘plain narrative only’ (p. 813);8 and a commentarial discourse (to use another of

4 Gerard Genette, Narrative Discourse Revisited, trans. by Jane E. Lewing (Ithaca: Cornell University Press,
1988), p. 97.
5 Cf. Seymour Chapman, Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 1983), p. 167. For the presence of an authorial voice in Clarissa, see Laura Hinton,
‘Clarissa through the Epistolary Key-hole’, The Perverse Gaze of Sympathy (New York: State University of
New York, 1999), p. 65.
6 M. M. Bakhtin, ‘Discourse in the Novel’, in Modern Literary Theory, ed. by Philip Rice and Patricia Waugh,
4th ed. (London: Arnold, 2001), p. 259.
7 Cf. David Lodge, ‘After Bakhtin’, After Bakhtin, Essays on Fiction and Criticism (London: Routledge,
1990), p. 90.
8 Unless otherwise stated, all page numbers are from Henry Fielding, Tom Jones, ed. by R. P. C. Mutter
(Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968). To users of other editions, I also include Book and Chapter numbers in
between brackets, when not more explicitly stated.

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Gerard Genette’s terms), as in the first chapter to each Book, where the narrator expresses
his views on different topics.9 Those, however, are examples of such discourses in their
‘purest’ forms, where they are separated most clearly from the other. For most of Tom Jones
the narrator keeps ‘switching’ from narrative discourse to commentarial discourse: the
narration is constantly mixed with the narrator’s comments, and his comments are also
constantly illustrated with narratives (in Book I, Chapter 11, for example, the narrator uses
Miss Bridget’s story as an ‘example’ of his ‘observations’ about love.)
Upon closer examination we can also see that both discourses are not homogeneous in
themselves but continuously traversed by irony, parody (including the so-called mock-
heroic style), and what some critics denominate an ‘Augustan voice,’ among many other
voices, discourses and languages.10 But the most common way for the narrator to
incorporate such heteroglossia is through the use of quotations –a form of ‘stealing’ from
others that the narrator justifies through the simile that ‘we moderns are to the [ancients]
what the poor are to the rich,’ so that
in like manner are the ancients, such as Homer, Virgil, Horace, Cicero, and the
rest, to be esteemed among us writers, as so many wealthy squires, from who
we, the poor of Parnassus, claim an immemorial custom of taking whatever
we can come at. (p. 552 [XII, 1])
Thanks to so many literary, philosophical and rhetorical quotations (which can be
direct, using quotation marks, or indirect as paraphrases), from Latin or other languages,
the origins of which are most of the time explicitly acknowledged or hinted, the reader
experiences then not one but a plurality of voices, discourses and languages. None of them,
however, as we have pointed above, come unmediated but come within what could be
called (as a unifying concept) ‘the narrator’s voice.’ The other voice, language or discourse
is brought through bearing part of its ‘original’ meaning, plus –in what Bakhtin would call
‘double-speech’– any possible extra ‘meanings’ intended by the narrator.
We can see an example of the quotation of a different language (Latin in this case) in
the narrator’s quotation of Horace’s Odes, II, xviii, which the narrator accompanies with a
free translation (or in his words, ‘the sentiment’) (pp. 114-115 [II, 8]). In a more formal
translation, the quoted words stand for: ‘You contract for cutting marble slabs, when you
have a foot on the grave; and, heedless of the tomb, you build mansions.’11 Out of context,
the quoted words seem to be mainly a warning against living in excessive hopes, forgetting
the inevitable death. But by quoting such words in another context, the narrator inevitably
‘perverts’ such meaning, even if his intention is to point out an example of the truth of
Horace’s words. Such ‘perversion’ is evident in the comic effect they produce, thanks to the

9 Gerard Genette, Narrative Discourse Revisited, p. 37n.


10 For an analysis of the Augustan voice in Fielding, see Claude Rawson, Henry Fielding and the Augustan
Ideal Under Stress (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972). For Rawson, the Augustanism represents an
ordering intention, but borrowing the title of his book, it would be possible to show how such Augustan
voice in the narrator of Tom Jones is ‘under the stress’ of heteroglossia.
11 Henry Fielding, Tom Jones, ed. by John Bender and Simon Stern (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998),
p. 95n.

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application of these words to ‘the captain’s’ death, a character whom the reader can’t but
despise because of his falseness. Thus, rather than recoiling at Horace’s solemn warning,
Fielding’s readers rejoice at this ironical divine justice.
Something similar could be said of Partridge’s ‘scraps of Latin,’ for Fielding shows him
constantly quoting from classical philosophers –or to be more precise, from a standard
Latin grammar book of the Eighteenth Century. In his case, however, the comic effect is
greater because of the greater differences between what he intends to say and the (more
likely) original meaning. For example, when he quotes Ovid’s ‘Tempus edax rerum’ (‘Time,
consumer of things’) (Metamorphoses, xv, 234) (p. 379, [VIII, 5]) to say, in relation to
Sophia, how quickly the time goes, because he still remembers when Mr Western was only
a boy, Horace’s words are closer to connotations of death and the end of memory. The
double-speech here then goes to a second degree (or to a ‘third’ if we consider Partridge’s
Latin grammar book), with the narrator ‘quoting’ Partridge ‘quoting’ someone else’s words,
characterizing Partridge as an ignorant pedant.

However, it is in the speech of the characters where heteroglossia can be more clearly
perceived, mainly because of the rich variety of contrasting voices and discourses that
distinguish the characters in Tom Jones. Among those, we can find the ‘occupational’
discourses of parsons (Thwackum) and philosophers (Square) (see p. 129 [III, 3]), lawyers
(see p. 161 [IV, 4]) and doctors (see pp. 371-372 [VIII, 3]); as well as dialects or jargons
(for an example of Mr Western’s ‘jargon of turneps and Hanover rats,’ see p. 297 [VI, 14]).
Such diversity is also available in terms of voices. Mrs Western’s aristocratic voice, for
instance, is her more distinctive feature (see p. 450 [IX, 4]). But a character could also play
with a range of voices depending on the occasion, almost to the point of becoming
somebody different: Mrs Honour, for example, though mainly characterized through a
‘popular’ voice, could also assume an aristocratic voice among ‘lower’ classes, becoming
‘Mrs Abigail’ –generic name for a servant, ironically used by the narrator to designate her
then– at the Inn at Upton (see [X, 4]).

As for the presentation of a single worldview, the narrator certainly has one and
‘argues’ throughout the novels in its favour. But it is important to consider, as David Lodge
points out, that
it is Bakhtin’s point that the variety of discourses in the novel prevents the
novelist from imposing a single world-view upon his readers even if he
wanted to. […] As soon as you allow a variety of discourses into a textual
space –vulgar discourses as well as polite ones, vernacular as well as literary,
oral as well as written– you establish a resistance […] to the dominance of any
one discourse.12
And the same could be said for the narrator, the surrogate author of Tom Jones, since none
of the characters in Tom Jones shares entirely the narrator’s worldview; the narrator doesn’t

12 David Lodge, ‘The Novel Now. Theories and Practices’, After Bakhtin, Essays on Fiction and Criticism
(London: Routledge, 1990), p. 22.

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seem entirely satisfied with any of them. However, the narrator respects the differences of
his characters, not only by leaving them to speak for themselves (reproducing their own
modes of speech and words) but also refusing to emit judgment about many of their
opinions and actions. See, for example, the dialogue between the Old Man of the Hill and
Tom Jones in pp. 432-434 [VIII, 15]; or between Partridge and Tom Jones in pp. 560-561
[XII, 3], where the reader could find himself sharing some of the opinions of the Old Man
of the Hill or Partridge. The narrator, then, though inevitably located in a position of power,
by ‘sharing’ his voice with others in the end places himself as a worldview among others,
for the reader’s consideration or judgment.

In conclusion, though Tom Jones could hardly be counted as an example of what, much
later on, Julia Kristeva –taking Bakhtin’s theories a step further– would call the polyphonic
novel (of which Philippe Soller’s H is one of her most extreme examples), it certainly
contains an extensive use of heteroglossia.13 Thanks to such heteroglossia, Tom Jones could
be seen as operating a resistance against any subject that could pretend to be master of his
‘own’ discourse (a narrator, an author, a reader); a resistance that rather than promoting a
possible synthesis of differences, allows us to sustain and think ‘the other’ in its particular
differences.14 In that sense, then, heteroglossia matters less as a concept that could help us
to distinguish between monologic or dialogic, as if between ‘bad’ and ‘good’ literature, but
as a form to appreciate the heterogeneity that constitutes a text so rich as Tom Jones.

Hugo Blumenthal
London, 2006

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