View More View Less
  • 1 Institute for Literary Studies Hungarian Academy of Sciences H-1118 Budapest Ménesi út 11-13 Hungary H-1118 Budapest Ménesi út 11-13 Hungary
Restricted access


Unity is so usual a requirement in criticism of the novel that it rarely seems to need any justification or foundation. On the other hand, the ideal interpretation seems to be an interpretation that is able to account for every part of a piece of literature in its relation to every other part and to the whole, i.e., one which can demonstrate the perfect unity of the work. Theoreticians usually admit that due to the resistance of the literary text such ideal interpretation is practically impossible. The first theoretical explanation of the requirement for unity appeared in Aristotle's Poetics, where it discussed the unity of the plot. In nineteenth-century criticism of the novel the Aristotelian heritage had two derivatives, the dramatic unity of the plot and a thematic unity of a philosophical teaching. Unity may be considered as the western reader's projection rather than an intrinsic value of the text. The reader, who has learned his reading strategies from a critical system based on Aristotle's approach to the drama, wants to receive a complete and coherent worldview, and thus he reads a literary text with the presupposition that it constitutes a unitary whole. Wolfgang Iser's theory of reading may also support this hypothesis. In his concept, however, perfect understanding, or the understanding of a work as a unity, is impossible because what makes the reading of a piece of fiction an aesthetic experience is that it is theoretically impossible to form a total consistency. On the basis of the insight that readers can develop only partial consistency, different critiques offer various ways of approaching the problem: (1) totalizing the partial consistency by eliminating or disregarding all the inconvenient elements; (2) abandoning our quest for unity and enjoying our mental strength in facing nothingness; (3) realising the possibility that texts do contain several incompatible unifying patterns. Although I think the time has come to say goodbye to the requirement of unity, at the end of the paper I will raise the question of whether a dialogic approach to literature is able to manage a model based on the co-existence of several incompatible entities within a non-unitary text?