Parsipur's polyphonic novel
By Khatereh Sheibani
September 3, 2003
In 'Discourse in the Novel' Mikhail Bakhtin asserts that the novel
can be defined as a diversity of social speech types, languages, and even individual
voices that are artistically organized. Being a social, historical, and cultural
product, the novel has the advantage of using language in various forms, and
thus providing an appropriate background to reveal the stratification of language
and " the totality of the world of objects and ideas depicted and expressed
in it, by means of the social diversity of speech types [raznorecie] as well
as the different individual voices that flourish under such conditions" (32).
This fact leads the novel to the area of double-voicedness, the seminal notion
in the Bakhtinian theory.
"The novel is, for Bakhtin, the crowing achievement of prose..." (Todorov,
65), as it is the only genre, as opposed to the epic for instance, that has the
advantage of employing language in its various forms, in the situation similar
to every day life. In 'Discourse in the Novel', Bakhtin affirmed
that the "stratification present in every language of its historical existence
is the indispensable prerequisite for the novel as a genre" (32). Moreover,
in Bakhtin's theory, language is the only access that one has to the novel--as
the author's discourse--and "nothing permits [the author] to see it as a
territory free of any verbal trace" (Todorov, 31). In this sense, analyzing
a novel without linguistic methodologies is impossible.
The translinguistic theory of Bakhtin examines the
literary work in its full communicative settings, in contrast to
Sausurean linguistics that considers the
sentences in the static situation, isolated from the social context. The classical
microscopic linguistics or "abstract objectivism" as Todorov calls
it (33), that extends from general grammars to Saussure, is not capable to analyze
a novel as a whole as "this form of linguistics wants to know only the abstract
form of language and casts out speech (parole) from its object of inquiry, alleging
that it is individual and therefore infinitely variable" (33). Bakhtin,
conversely, does not regard language as an individualistic matter. In Marxism
and the Philosophy of Language, he proclaims:
Thus the speaking subject, taken from the inside,
so to speak, turns out to be wholly the product of social interrelations.
Not only external expression but
also internal experience falls within social territory. Therefore, the road
which links the internal experience (the "expressible")
to its external objectification (the "utterance") lies
entirely in social territory (107, qtd in Todorov, 33).
linguistics observes the textual body as well as the related
context in which the novel makes sense, and consequently examines
the novel as an utterance
that has a particular meaning in its particular circumstances. Therefore,
the reception of meaning is as important as the production of meaning.
In the light of Bakhtinian theory, this paper is
Without Men, a novel by the contemporary female
Persian writer, Shahrnush Parsipur. As the
author of a "novel of ideas" (Davaran, 116), Parsipur has created her
characters to elucidate the Iranian women's social problems in a patriarchal
society. The dialogic atmosphere of the novel permits the author to represent
the oppressive condition of women and makes it a suitable topic of investigation
for the social critics as well as the novel's Persian readership.
Before launching into the main analysis, I will provide
a brief overview of the novel that will serve as a frame of reference
in the ensuing discussion. Women Without Men is a novel composed of thirteen interrelated stories, all about
women who come from different social and economic backgrounds.
The gender issues are
explored through a multi-vioced narration that deals with the notion of womanhood
and " ...[the] gender relations in the context of a challenge to traditional
notions about virginity... The dialogues root the women's voices in their social
space and successfully illustrate the normative sexual morality that surrounds
female virginity" (Talattof, x).
The five female characters of Women Without
who have each experienced some kind of predicament in society,
get together in a garden in Karaj, a city
Tehran that is famous for its gardens, rivers, and moderate climate. Mahdokht,
a teacher who has become disappointed in a society upholding traditional
beliefs, has witnessed a sexual assault during which a young maid
loses her virginity.
Shocked and traumatized, she wishes to become a tree, that to her is symbolic
of a fertile virgin. Her wish comes true and she turns into a "human-tree"
that eventually transforms into seeds that are gone all over the world by
Mrs. Farrokhlaqa Sadrodivan Golchehreh, a Tehrani
lady from the upper middle class, is the owner of the garden who
desires to provide a utopian situation
for some single women. Never been loved by her husband, she had murdered
him by accident but without any remorse. Afterwards, she exchanged her
Tehran with the garden in Karaj, in which Mahdokht has already planted
hopes to establish a literary and intellectual center in the garden that
would be located out of the 'center' i.e. the traditional society.
Zarrinkolah is a young prostitute who has started
to view the world around her from a different perspective. She
feels that she is not able to continue
career in a brothel as one morning when getting ready to serve a man,
she found out that she did not see the head of the man. From that
customers as headless. She leaves the brothel, takes a shower in a public
bathroom in the city, goes to a mosque to pray, and starts her journey
to Karaj during
which, she meets a man with a head. Although they live in different times
and places, all women eventually reach the same garden.
Munis and Faizeh are two old virgin maidens who
constantly think about the notions of virginity and chastity. As
a child, Munis has been taught
a curtain that a girl should take care of as God would not forgive
the girls who lose their virginity. This matter was her internalized
years until one-day Faizeh informs her that--as she had read somewhere--virginity
is not a curtain but a hole. This discussion becomes the onset of breaking
old beliefs about gender and sex in their minds. The convictions that
Munis' mind for a lifetime were ruined; as a result, she begins to
disobey her brother who used to be the god of the house.
comes home late, her brother beats her to death and then buries her
in the yard.
she revives with the ability to read every body's mind. (Like the story
of the human-tree, this is an example of an incarnation in the novel).
The coincidence of Munis' new perspective in life and her brother's
reaction result in the construction of new ideas in her life. Ultimately,
everything behind to go and find new lives and jobs in Karaj. On the
road to Karaj, two men, a driver of a truck and his assistant, approach
rape the two poor girls who tragically lose their virginity they had
guarded for the
night of their marriage. Nevertheless, they reach the same place as
the other characters.
Although the garden in Karaj appears like a utopian
place for these women, none of them achieves a 'real' life without
men. They either
the male-dominated society to live with men or choose the unreal
life and transform into non-human entities.
As opposed to many other linguistic theories in
the 20th century that devote the priority to either form or content
of a language,
there is a balance between the two notions and neither of the two
supersedes the other. This theory considers the formalistic as
well as the ideological
aspects of a literary work. Bakhtin emphasizes this subject in
'Discourse in the
The guiding idea of this work is that the study
of verbal art can and must overcome the breach between the abstract
abstract "ideological" approach (32).
In addition to the equal consideration
of the form and the content, the Bakhtinian dialogism links these
concepts that leads to the
idea of enunciation:
Between the generality of the meaning of words,
such as we find them in the dictionary, and that of the rules of
uniqueness of the
acoustic event that occurs when an utterance is proffered, there
takes place a process that permits the linkage of the two, which
enunciation. This process does not suppose the simple existence
of two physical bodies,
of the sender and the receiver, but the presence of two (or more)
social entities, that translate the voice of the sender and the
and space in which enunciation occurs also aren't purely physical
categories, but a historical time and a social space (Todorov,
Since Bakhtinian theory is focused upon "[the] language
in common practical usage, rather than in isolated theoretical
the subject of investigation is 'utterance', which is objective
in contrast to 'sentence' that is a neutral component, and does
not need a context. Regarding the significance of meaning and content,
the definition of utterance is not merely based on its linguistic
material, it is rather
defined as "the basic unit of speech communication"(Danow, 13),
to the sentence which is the unit of language. In other words,
Linguistic matter constitutes only a part of the
utterance; there exists another part that is nonverbal, which
corresponds to the
the enunciation. The existence of such a context has not been
had always been looked upon as external to the utterance, whereas
Bakhtin asserts that it is an integral part of it (Todorov, 41).
Therefore, the utterance indicates a signification
that is only known to those who belong to the same social horizon.
Another important conception about the utterance
is its addressive value as "the utterance is not the business of
the speaker alone,
but the result
her interaction with a listener" (Todorov, 43). From this perspective,
every utterance is part of a dialogue since Bakhtin asserts that
"there is nothing individual in what the individual expresses"
(qtd in Todorov,
43). In Speech Genres and other Late Essays, he stresses that the
quality of an utterance being directed to someone and its addressivity
constraints or partially determining factors that characterize
the utterance, without
the utterance does not and can not exist (95).
As a semiotic construction,
utterance has both an author (addresser) and a reader (addressee),
and the reader also contributes to the work of literature as a
that the utterance is finalized by the intent and will of the speaker,
who presumably is allowed to complete the message before the other
responds; by contrast, a
text that is written by the author is just a grammatical construction
without any orientation. "... The utterance... bears an orientation
that takes into account both the speaker's relations to the message
addressee. An utterance as a whole is thus directed toward the
17), who is the reader and the active participant of the literary
work. In this way, a work of literature that has two participants,
is a dialogue between the
author and the reader.
The idea of dialogism in Bakhtin's thought basically
relies on three constitutional principles which are namely
the relation between
work and the world
(Todorov states that "every utterance is related to previous utterances,
intertextual (or dialogical) relations" (48)); the interaction
of the author and the hero, and the relation of the author and
We will consider the author, the character,
and the receiver, not outside the artistic event, but only
insofar as they enter into
the very perception
the literary work, insofar as they are its necessary constituents...
Similarly we will consider...[the] receiver as the author himself
one with respect to whom the work is oriented, and who, for this
very reason, determines its structure...(qtd in Todorov, 48).
Regarding theses three notions, the word is
not neutral; it rather bears a particular meaning in a particular
context. In The Problems
Bakhtin clarifies this fact:
No member of the verbal community can ever find words in the
language that are neutral, exempt from the aspirations and the
of the other,
by the other's voice. On the contrary, he receives the word by
the other's voice and it remains filled with that voice. He intervenes
in his own
context from another context, already penetrated by the other's
own thought finds a word already lived in (270-271).
Bakhtin's linguistic approach that considers
the linguistic methods not as the end but as a means for analyzing
a literary work is
or metalinguistics as it transcends its purely linguistic borders
to embrace the context of enunciation.
With these criteria in mind, let us now turn
to Woman without Men; that will be discussed in three parts:
the idea in Parsipur's work,
between the heroines and the author, and the relation of the
author and the
The idea in Parsipur's work
In Women Without Men, Parsipur is questioning the
dominant patriarchal speech genres of the Iranian society that
women as the 'other',
or the silence part of the society. Applying Bakhtin's theory,
I want to depict how the author's ideas are represented in the
a novel. As any other work of literature, there are two equal components
in the novel: the verbal part, which is the narration of the lives
of the five
and the nonverbal part that is understood only by the readers with
a shared horizon, who can translate the voice of the author.
these readers the
signification of Parsipur's discourse is more than the reiterative
language. It is a unique theme that results from the encounter
of sentences with
the context of enunciation that in this case is the Iranian society
restrictive attitude toward women. As a result, the theme of the
novel is endowed with the
values that the signification of its language is alien to. These
values are seized upon what Bakhtin calls it intonation:
is always at the boundary between the verbal and the nonverbal,
the said and the unsaid. In intonation, discourse enters
life. And it is in intonation first of all that the speaker enters
in contact with his listeners: intonation is eminently social (qtd
It is obvious that Parsipur does not mean to
simply narrate a story, on the other hand, she intends to go
beyond the story
the realities of
life in Iran.
It is noteworthy that this novel was published a few years after
revolution in Iran, when there existed very strict censorship laws
that forbade the publication of many other works of literature.
It is also
remarkable that Women Without Men, a feminist novel,
was published after the imposition
strict dress codes for women in Iran and other measures that
limited and minimized women's
rights. Under these circumstances, of course, there was no chance
to propose liberating ideas in any other form rather than a fantastic
story and the
intonation of the novel makes clear the 'unsaid' of the story,
was not possible to propose. Consequently, it is the intonation
of the work,
rather than its linguistic components that makes it valuable.
As a novel of ideas, the idea is expressed by
the characters and the 'idea' itself (that is the end of the
novel) becomes the 'heroine'
of the work,
which is a reconsideration of the women's situation in the post-revolutionary
Iran. For instance, Mahdokht expresses the desire of a women who
to be seen as a social participant in the society not a sexual
thinks that she can serve the society by knitting for poor children:
Both the government and Mahdokht were worried
about the children. If only Mahdokht had a thousand hands and
could knit five hundred
hands could knit one sweater, so that would make five hundred sweaters
But then she concludes that this matter is not
her responsibility but the government's. Finally, her desire
to function in the society
wishing to be a tree,
a fertile virgin who can produce many creatures like herself:
She would become thousands and thousands of
branches. She would cover the entire world. Americans would
buy her shoots and take
California. They would
call the forest of Mahdokht "the forest of Madokt".
Gradually they would pronounce her name so many times until it
places and Maadok in others. Then four hundred years later the
linguists, with their
veins standing out in their foreheads like twigs, would debate
over her and prove that the two words come from the root Madeek
is of African
the biologists would object that a tree that grows in cold climates
could not grow in Africa (23).
Presenting the characters' ideas
as well as hers, Parsipur destroys her self-enclosed, monologic,
and prototypical ideas and makes
of the great dialog of her novel, where they begin to live a new,
Although she deals with similar ideas in her autobiography--which
about issues such as "sexuality, male-female relationships,
the oppression of women, and the political conditions in which
struggle in order to continue their literary work" (Talattof,
ixx)-- the voice in
the autobiography is an authoritarian, subjective voice that lacks
the dialogic value that is found in Women Without Men.
As a matter of fact, Women Without Men,
is the artistic version of the same ideas proposed in Parsipur's
the author's monology in a liberal
and creative way.
In the novel, one does not encounter the personification of Parsipur,
doctrine terminates her marriage and leads to her imprisonment
for several years. Instead, the reader encounters Faizeh who is
with her isolated
gives up her freedom to challenge with the problems of the society;
Faizeh finally becomes the second wife of the man she used to love
Women Without Men is indissoluably
combined with the images of the five characters and in this
way, the author's ideas are
and finalization. The author's principals that are mingled with
other -- sometimes opposite-- ideas become completely dialogized
of the novel; as a result, Parsipur's art in Women Without Men wins
The author deliberately divides the novel into
several episodes that happen at different times and places
to depict that the social
proposes are not specified to any particular time and era, but
a constant problem
Iranian society. Another technique that is employed by Parsipur
to foreground the social issues is utilizing the "alien word" in
to the "self
word" (Danow, 60). The incarnation of Mahdokht to a tree or the
transformation of Zarrinkolah to light have the shock value for
the Iranian reader.
Parsipur who was already familiar with Chinese culture through
her studies on Chinese
language and literature in Paris, employs the notion of incarnation
--although not literally but artistically--, which is considered
'the other' culture
in Persian literature, to make the Iranian reader think about 'the
Danow paraphrases Bakhtin's idea as "the other is
formative of the self in the sense that one is not able to know
presence of the other" (60). In this way, the author dialogically
uses the other's ideology in her language to make the reader think
self as well as the other's notions and concludes that the self's
word or "Iranian culture, which justifies violence against women
and maintains a sympathetic view toward the violator" (Talattof,
as bizarre as
the transformation of a human to light or a tree. In this manner,
artistic expression of the problem and the fulfillment of aesthetic
purpose, Parsipur puts the self and the other as two ideologies
in her innovative
double-voiced dialog that represent her concern on the issue.
and the author in Women Without Men
The heroines do not fascinate Parsipur as manifestations of reality.
Like Dostoevski, she is not interested in characters who possess
social-typical and individual-characterological traits" (Bakhtin,
1973, 38). Parsipur's heroines are not constructed as specific figures
and objective features; contrariwise, they are made out of ideas
and point of views that can change and challenge the world outside
not the matter of how the heroines appear to the world but how the
world appears to them.
It is not the act of the characters that is
since the women
in the garden "may live independently or choose to become
whatever [they] want—even a tree. [They] may turn into smoke
to ascend into the skies. [They] may decide to remain on earth
to pursue a 'normal' life" (Talattof,
xiv). Rather, it is the world that is the questionable subject
matter in the novel.
In Problems of Dostoevski's Poetics, Bakhtin
defines the monological
versus the dialogical characters:
In a monological design the hero is closed and
the limits of his meaning are sharply outlined: he acts, experiences,
of his image defined as reality; he cannot stop being himself,
i.e. he cannot exceed the boudoirs of his character, his typicality
without in the process of violating the author's monological design.
Such an image
is constructed in the world of the author, which is objective in
relation to the hero's consciousness; the construction of the author's
with its perspectives and finalizing definitions, requires a firm
external position, a firm authorial field of vision. The hero's
self-consciousness is presented
against the fixed background of the external world and is contained
within the fixed framework of the author's consciousness, which
hero and remains inaccessible to him from within (41-42).
Unlike many other writers who impose the acts
and experiences of the heroines to their characteristics in the
as self-conscious characters. They are quite aware of their act
as free characters since they should not follow the author's fixed
consciousness. This matter results in the breaking of the monological
world of the heroines
in Persian literature.
Women Without Men constructs the
desirable circumstance--free of the authorial word--for the dialog
of ideas between the author and
the characters, and the consciousness of the author are not stressed,
in the background. The heroines in Women Without Men achieve
the creative characteristics that allow them to deviate the author's
well as their own
personalities. Zarrinkolah decides to become light, and in this
way, gives birth
The garden was covered with snow and bathed
in light, as if it were the beginning of the world. Zarrinkolah, who had become crystal clear, was [the] one with
the light... [The gardener says:] "She's giving birth by herself. A real
birth by herself" (Parsipur, 116).
Consequently, by the act
of dematerializing herself, Zarrinkolah turns to be a pure voice
in the novel. Therefore, while the world
by the author, she is free to develop her own world, as there
is no authority over the heroines' world. Therefore, Parsipur's
far from the finalized, second-hand hero/heroines of the monological
Like Dostoevski's novels that are defined by Bakhtin as
dialogs of "conflicting truths" (1973, 62), Parsipur's
dialogic novel is an unfinalized framework
of various possibilities or definitions of the truth, while none
is superior to the other one. The heroines who choose to live
real/truthful as those who accept the society. In Women Without
Men all of the female
characters are considered as the main voice and none is put in
the margin (that is why
this novel has 'five heroines' instead of merely 'one heroine').
The division of the novel to several inter-related short stories
allows the author to focus on every single female character at
the same level.
the characters' voices show a variety of speech genres ranged
from the aristocrat language of Farrokhlaqa to the rural idiolect
Zarrinkolah (the translation of this book fails to depict this
In this way, the novel is enriched with variety of utterances
that are oriented toward different social horizons composed of
elements. This matter reminds us of Bakhtin's notion against
unification that is embodied in the concept of heterology, "a
term that inserts itself between two other parallel coinages:
of languages and naznogolosie, heterophony or diversity of (individual)
voices" (Todorov, 56). In this sense, this novel is a heterological
novel that employs
of utterances as well as variety of voices.
Consequently, the language of Women Without Men deviates
from the subjective centripetal force of single-viocedness in
favor of a centrifugal utterance
that is based on different discourses. This decentralization
happens in the level
of character, as well as the levels of narration and plot which
results in questioning the centrality of the society (another
the desire to weaken the centrality
is the minimal presence of the male characters who happen to
incomplete and insensitive" (Talattof, xi)).
The author and the reader in Women Without Men
Bearing in mind that "no distinct consciousness of the world
is possible outside the word" (Danow, 22), the process of
communicating with the novel should be sought in the level of
language of the
Besides, Women Without Men is not a Jokobsonian 'message'
that comes from the 'sender' to the 'receiver'
through a 'contact'/book by the 'code'/Persian
On the contrary, it is an utterance that its speaker/writer
and listener/reader should have a common horizon that includes
the relative intertextual context.
Therefore, the reader and the author of the novel are in constant
relationship; in fact, it is the understanding of the reader
that makes the work
meaningful. The process of understanding an utterance does not
occur in one level,
rather is a complex task that has four levels. Bakhtin declares
in "Concerning Methodology in Human Sciences" as follows:
(1) The psychophsiological perception of the physical sign
(the word, color, spatial form). (2) Its recognition (as either
of its reiterative (general) signification in the given context
(immediate as well as more remote). (4) Active and dialogical
understanding (debate, agreement). Inclusion in a dialogical
context. The moment
and the degree of its depths and its universality (361, qtd
According to this model, the readers to whom the work
is addressed should
understand the novel not only in the grammatical level
but also in the semantic level;
this novel as a heteroglot novel--in contrast to monologic
novels--is reader-oriented. In this sense, Women Without
have different meaning for different
readers and its dialogical value is not the same for all
readers. This fact can explain
why the critical tone of the novel does not attract the
censor and the book succeeds to get published in Iran.
such as lack
of enough time and knowledge, is not able to comprehend
the deeper layer of a difficult novel such as Women Without Men.
Rather his/her understanding
at the level of language (or in Bakhtin's words, in the
level if reiterative signification). S/he is merely trying to
in general any violation of the Islamic restrictions in
the syntactic level
for the censor the fictional world does not correspond
reality, the novel is unproblematic, therefore, the novel gets
permission to be published
just after the publication of some critical works on the
book is banned
and Parsipur is arrested.
This instance shows that Women Without Men (which
is a critical voice), is the product of a dialogic interaction
is only the
work--who is a particular social collective--that anticipates
and responds to it.
In conclusion, Parsipur does not restrict herself to
the representational and expressive function of discourse,
in other words, her art
is not the art of
recreating utterances and discourses that have happened
in the works of other Iranian female
writers such as Simin Daneshvar. What is remarkable
in her work is the dialogical interaction of utterances
In one hand, her work is a response to similar works
of Persian literature that target the social issues;
therefore, Women Without Men is
a discourse about discourses.
This novel could be considered as an intertextual work
in its related literary sphere, at the same time,
it is a unique
work as it
frees the Persian novel from the male-oriented subjectivity
(Milani, 20). On the
other hand, Women Without Men, is the linguistic
scene of the characters' dialogical debates that
are living in the
linguistic patterns to represent
of the Iranian society.
Nevertheless, these characters
are not voiceless
slaves, bound to the syntactic framework of the
book. They are free linguistic creatures who can refuse
authorial will of their creator/author.
Their plurality of independent and unemerged
voices makes the novel
a polyphonic multi-voiced
of literature that discusses different points
Without Men the indirect voice of the
author foregrounds other perspectives that
represented by the characters and turns it
to a dialogical novel. The novel is heterologic
in terms of its constant struggle between the
centripetal/centralized voices and the centrifugal
/ decentralized ones.
Although the characters in Women Without
go back to the 'norms' of the society or vanish
in the story-like unreality, the novel as an
succeeds to open
for further decoding procedure that will lead
to a new social and cultural understanding.
Khatereh Sheibani is a PhD student
at the university of Alberta, Canada, in comparative literature
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