Fontane's Unwiederbringlich: A Bakhtinian Reading

By Bowman, Peter James | German Quarterly, April 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Fontane's Unwiederbringlich: A Bakhtinian Reading


Bowman, Peter James, German Quarterly


It is often said that the speech of characters in Theodor Fontane's novels is pervaded by his own distinctive voice-urbane, amused, expansive, and tolerant. Thomas Mann's well-known quip that Fontane submits all of God's creation to his Fontane-Ton (13) is echoed, in less memorable terms, by Glogauer (30), Manthey (118), and Nurnberger (11-12), to name but three. Others, however, find great variety in Fontane's fictional dialogues: Mecklenburg hears a plurality of voices and dismisses the notion of an ever-present authorial tone (84), while Martini asserts that, beginning with Cecile (1887), Fontane succeeds in tailoring speech to speaker (768). A third group, including Mommsen (332), Meyer (184), andPaulsen (192), takes the middle position: that Fontane's characters all have a peculiar idiom, but that in each case it is blended with the author's own.

Different again is Brinkmann's view that Fontane's novels exhibit a number of Grundhaltungen which take shape in depicted speech but can be expressed by more than one character (147). Similarly, Preisendanz writes of a recurring repertoire of "disponible Idiolekt-Rollen, die in wechselnder Besetzung konkretisiert werden" (481). Both critics make their observations as parts of larger discussions and without giving textual examples, but the interpretive possibilities of what they say here merit further consideration. To this end, I shall use Mikhail Bakhtin's idea of the novel as a representation of social discourses embodied in the speech of characters to analyze Fontane's Unwiederbringlich (1891). I shall describe the discourses animating the novel's characters, chart the interaction of these discourses, delineate the author's implicit presence in the text as it emerges from this interaction,* and ask whether this presence embodies the values of the so-called Fontane-Ton.

Bakhtin postulates a basic distinction between the way the human subject becomes aware of his own consciousness and the way he cognizes other subjects: "I, as once-occurrent, issue or come forth from within myself, whereas all others I find on hand, I come upon them" (Philosophy of the Act 74). However, his very ontological uniqueness obliges the subject to invest himself with an identity in relation to his human environment, and as this self-realization cannot come from within it must be gained through the prism provided by the words of others: "I realize myself initially through others: from them I receive words, forms, and tonalities for the formation of my initial idea of myself" (Speech Genres [SG] 138). Bakhtin is thinking here not of the self-enclosed system of a language, but of the medley of discourses contained within it. Any language system, he says, "is heteroglot from top to bottom: it represents the co-existence of socio-ideological contradictions between the present and the past, between differing epochs of the past, between different socio-ideological groups in the present, between tendencies, schools, circles and so forth, all given a bodily form" (Dialogic Imagination [DI] 291). Importantly, the subject's assimilation of this verbal-ideological material is not passive, but active. For while any given discourse has always already existed in other people's contexts and served other people's purposes, in making it his own the subject renews or "re-accentuates" it (SG 89). Hence, identity is founded on the interaction, or "dialogue," between the basic categories of self and other. And this "dialogism" applies equally to language itself: as the subject re-accentuates discourses, so his speech contributes to the endless ideological reworking of language, becoming "an active participant in social dialogue" (DI 276).

For Bakhtin, the novel is the only literary genre capable of representing this dialogic reality: "The novel can be defined as a diversity of social speech types (sometimes even diversity of languages) and a diversity of individual voices, artistically organized" (DI 262). …

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