From Woolf to Hemingway: The Transformation of Literary Dialogue
Out of all the narrative genres, it’s the novel — the fictional account of human experience — that most regularly employs dialogue as a central device. Dialogue has typically been understood as expressing and developing character, but Professor Elizabeth Alsop (CUNY School of Professional Studies) believes there’s something bigger at play — something literary theory has continually overlooked.
Her new book Making Conversation in Modernist Fiction attempts to address that gap. “This book grants dialogue a greater capacity for signification than it has typically been afforded in the scholarly literature,” Alsop writes.
Alsop focuses her analysis on Anglo-American modernist fiction — particularly works by William Faulkner, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Ernest Hemingway, among others. She argues that a notable shift occurred as the novel entered the 20th century. During that period, “dialogue’s expressive potential came radically to the fore,” and authors began experimenting with discursive possibilities in ways that challenged their predecessors.
Over close readings that pair authors with one another, Alsop examines four types of dialogue: “the consensual voice,” “the paradoxical voice,” “the choral voice,” and “the exceptional voice.” With the latter, for example, she explains how Joyce and Faulkner used dialogue to establish subjectivity. “Joyce’s and Faulkner’s speakers go out of their way not to talk like, or even to, each other,” she writes. As such, their characters “delineate and differentiate their own voices, and … consolidate their intellectual as well as verbal autonomy.”
In giving dialogue its due, Alsop adds to the growing conversation about its role in the novel and asserts its narrative importance. Making Conversation in Modernist Fiction ideally “highlights the necessity of reappraising the stories we tell about modernist style and of questioning whether early twentieth-century authors most regularly celebrated for their experiments in thought representation are due similar credit for refurbishing the novelistic presentation of speech.”
Alsop holds a Ph.D. from The Graduate Center, CUNY.