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).
Bakhtin's 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 analyzing Women 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 Men, who have each experienced some kind of predicament in society, get together in a garden in Karaj, a city near 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 water.
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 house in Tehran with the garden in Karaj, in which Mahdokht has already planted herself. She 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 her 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 moment, she sees the 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 that virginity is 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 belief for thirty-eight 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 have governed 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.
One night, when she comes home late, her brother beats her to death and then buries her in the yard. Miraculously, 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, Munis and Faizeh leave 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 them. They 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 return to 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, in Bakhtin's theory, 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 Novel':
The guiding idea of this work is that the study of verbal art can and must overcome the breach between the abstract “formal” approach and an equally 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 grammar, and, on the other hand, the 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 we call enunciation. This process does not suppose the simple existence of two physical bodies, those of the sender and the receiver, but the presence of two (or more) social entities, that translate the voice of the sender and the horizon of the receiver. The time and space in which enunciation occurs also aren't purely physical categories, but a historical time and a social space (Todorov, 40).
Since Bakhtinian theory is focused upon “[the] language in common practical usage, rather than in isolated theoretical possibility” (Danow, 15) the subject of investigation is 'utterance', which is objective and social, 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), as opposed 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 context of the enunciation. The existence of such a context has not been unknown before Bakhtin, but it 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 of his or 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 are constraints or partially determining factors that characterize the utterance, without which the utterance does not and can not exist (95).
As a semiotic construction, each utterance has both an author (addresser) and a reader (addressee), and the reader also contributes to the work of literature as a speech genre. It seems likely 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 and to the addressee. An utterance as a whole is thus directed toward the other…” (Danow, 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 the work and the world (Todorov states that “every utterance is related to previous utterances, thus creating intertextual (or dialogical) relations” (48)); the interaction of the author and the hero, and the relation of the author and the reader. In Bakhtin's own words:
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 of the literary work, insofar as they are its necessary constituents… Similarly we will consider…[the] receiver as the author himself considers, the 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 of Dostoevski's Poetics, 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 evaluations of the other, uninhabited 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 intentions. His 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 called translinguistics 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, the relation between the heroines and the author, and the relation of the author and the reader.
The idea in Parsipur's work In Women Without Men, Parsipur is questioning the dominant patriarchal speech genres of the Iranian society that perceive 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 aesthetic form of 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 women, and the nonverbal part that is understood only by the readers with a shared horizon, who can translate the voice of the author.
For these readers the signification of Parsipur's discourse is more than the reiterative signification of its 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 and its 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:
Intonation is always at the boundary between the verbal and the nonverbal, the said and the unsaid. In intonation, discourse enters in immediate contact with life. And it is in intonation first of all that the speaker enters in contact with his listeners: intonation is eminently social (qtd in Todorov, 46).
It is obvious that Parsipur does not mean to simply narrate a story, on the other hand, she intends to go beyond the story and touch the realities of life in Iran. It is noteworthy that this novel was published a few years after the Islamic 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 of 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, or simply what 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 wants to be seen as a social participant in the society not a sexual object. First she 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 sweaters a week. Every two hands could knit one sweater, so that would make five hundred sweaters (Parsipur, 5).
But then she concludes that this matter is not her responsibility but the government's. Finally, her desire to function in the society makes her 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 them to California. They would call the forest of Mahdokht “the forest of Madokt”. Gradually they would pronounce her name so many times until it would become Madok in some 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 which is of African origin. Then 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 them part of the great dialog of her novel, where they begin to live a new, artistic life. Although she deals with similar ideas in her autobiography–which is a keen observation about issues such as “sexuality, male-female relationships, the oppression of women, and the political conditions in which Iranian writers must 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 autobiography, which decentralizes the author's monology in a liberal and creative way. In the novel, one does not encounter the personification of Parsipur, whose feminist doctrine terminates her marriage and leads to her imprisonment for several years. Instead, the reader encounters Faizeh who is fed up with her isolated life and 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 before.
Women Without Men is indissoluably combined with the images of the five characters and in this way, the author's ideas are freed from the monological isolation and finalization. The author's principals that are mingled with other — sometimes opposite– ideas become completely dialogized in the great dialog of the novel; as a result, Parsipur's art in Women Without Men wins her ideology.
The author deliberately divides the novel into several episodes that happen at different times and places to depict that the social issues that she proposes are not specified to any particular time and era, but a constant problem of the Iranian society. Another technique that is employed by Parsipur to foreground the social issues is utilizing the “alien word” in contrast 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 self' culture.
Danow paraphrases Bakhtin's idea as “the other is formative of the self in the sense that one is not able to know oneself without the interacting presence of the other” (60). In this way, the author dialogically uses the other's ideology in her language to make the reader think about the 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, xi) is as bizarre as the transformation of a human to light or a tree. In this manner, through the 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.
The heroines 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 “…specific, fixed social-typical and individual-characterological traits” (Bakhtin, 1973, 38). Parsipur's heroines are not constructed as specific figures with unambiguous and objective features; contrariwise, they are made out of ideas and point of views that can change and challenge the world outside and inside them. It is 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 questioned 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, thinks and perceives within the boundaries of his image defined as reality; he cannot stop being himself, i.e. he cannot exceed the boudoirs of his character, his typicality and his temperament 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 world, 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 defines and portrays the 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 narration, Parsipur has created her heroines as self-conscious characters. They are quite aware of their act as free characters since they should not follow the author's fixed ideology/ 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, instead, they remain in the background. The heroines in Women Without Men achieve the creative characteristics that allow them to deviate the author's intention as well as their own personalities. Zarrinkolah decides to become light, and in this way, gives birth to herself:
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 woman gives 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 of the heroine is created by the author, she is free to develop her own world, as there is no authority over the heroines' world. Therefore, Parsipur's heroines are quite far from the finalized, second-hand hero/heroines of the monological novels.
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 in unreality are as 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.
On the other hand, the characters' voices show a variety of speech genres ranged from the aristocrat language of Farrokhlaqa to the rural idiolect of Zarrinkolah (the translation of this book fails to depict this artistic quality of the novel). In this way, the novel is enriched with variety of utterances that are oriented toward different social horizons composed of different semantic and evaluative 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: raznojazycie, heteroglossia or diversity of languages and naznogolosie, heterophony or diversity of (individual) voices” (Todorov, 56). In this sense, this novel is a heterological novel that employs diversity 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 instance of the desire to weaken the centrality is the minimal presence of the male characters who happen to be “morally 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 novel. 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 language.
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 these levels 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 known or unknown). The understanding 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 of evaluation in understanding and the degree of its depths and its universality (361, qtd in Todorov, 51).
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; so this novel as a heteroglot novel–in contrast to monologic novels–is reader-oriented. In this sense, Women Without Men could 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.
The censor, because of different reasons 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 stops at the level of language (or in Bakhtin's words, in the level if reiterative signification). S/he is merely trying to find the sexual scenes, or in general any violation of the Islamic restrictions in the syntactic level of novel. Because for the censor the fictional world does not correspond reality, the novel is unproblematic, therefore, the novel gets the permission to be published and just after the publication of some critical works on the novel, 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 and it is only the addressee of 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 (outside and inside the novel). 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 and novel artistic 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 the social structures 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 the authorial will of their creator/author. Their plurality of independent and unemerged voices makes the novel a polyphonic multi-voiced work of literature that discusses different points of view.
In Women Without Men the indirect voice of the author foregrounds other perspectives that are 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 Men either go back to the 'norms' of the society or vanish in the story-like unreality, the novel as an unfinalized text succeeds to open the issue 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 program.
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