Speech within Speech, or the Literary “Inception” in Dostoevsky’s “The Adolescent”

 – A Blog Post by Veronika Sizova

While encoding Dostoevsky’s novel The Adolescent using XML and TEI, I came across a particular issue: almost all internal monologues of the novel’s protagonists include imagined speech from the past or future, sometimes turning into complex imaginary dialogues which are extremely difficult to code because the temporality fluctuates as well as the identity of the speaker(s).

“Why does this matter at all?” you will ask me. Well, Dostoevsky was not only an excellent writer when it came to plot twists and building suspense; he was also a master of what we could, in tribute to Christopher Nolan’s film, call “inception,” or building worlds within worlds – not physical but psychological realms existing only in the minds of the multitudinous characters. This is a particularly tricky task when tagging the imaginary speech and personas, as well as transforming the results into a map of interactions between the characters. Should we code the imaginary conversation between the Adolescent (Arkady Dolgoruky) and his mother the same way as any other conversation, thus adding one more interaction to the novel’s digital map, or should we come up with an entirely different approach—another dimension of the tagged reality that would show the transcendental power of the imagination? This and many other questions left our research team in awe of the many possibilities TEI-encoding offers for microscopic close-reading of the complex literary worlds.

At first, I doubted the very nature of this meticulous investigation, for why would anyone pay such excruciatingly precise attention to every single mention of a person’s name and title, the various locations, and every instance of speech, as well as every personified object? As I got into the heart of the work, however, the task that seemed tedious on the outside turned out to be the most transformative experience of my academic journey. Not only did I end up thoroughly tagging several chapters of the incredibly dense novel, but I also found patterns and universal tags relating to the symbols, people, and places that appeared in several of Dostoevsky’s texts. The use of TEI-encoding within the field of Digital Humanities welcomes interdisciplinary researchers into a unique space where Computer Science meets the Humanities, drawing parallels between mathematically-driven programming and artful literary analysis. It is important to note that our team has been encoding the original Russian works in XML-TEI, which are anglophone coding systems. For instance, this is how we code Arkady’s full name:

You can see how the contrast between the use of Russian and English languages creates another parallel between the two splendidly different worlds. While I could go on about the beauty of this and many other aspects of the project forever, this blog post aims to show how I tagged The Adolescent’s copious stream of consciousness to represent imaginary speech.

In order to tag Arkady’s internal monologues correctly, I came up with distinct XML IDs for the imagined reader and the imagined interlocutor. These IDs solve the problem of the imaginary realm by turning the void that Arkady addresses with such passion into an actual (yet ghostly and transient) presence, morphing into the shape of the novel’s many-faced reader. The “imagined interlocutor” ID is even more mysterious, with the unnamed speaker(s) appearing for a brief moment, solely in the character’s imagination, never to be heard again. Here is an example:

“I already knew her face from an astonishing portrait that hung in the prince’s office, I had studied that portrait all month. In her presence, I spent some three minutes in the office and not for one second did I tear my eyes from her face. But if I hadn’t known the portrait, and had been asked, after those three minutes, “What is she like?” – I would not have been able to answer because everything clouded in me.”

(Translation of the passage by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)

In this passage, Arkady meets Katerina Nikolaevna Akhmakova and addresses the reader with another internal monologue where he envisions a hypothetical situation when an imagined interlocutor asks him, “What is she like?” Of course, this conversation with an unknown stranger only happens in Arkady’s mind, so I tagged both “said aloud” and “direct” attributes as “false.” It is also essential to make a distinction between the imagined reader (“#imreadp” XML ID) and the imagined interlocutor (“#imintp” XML ID) since, in the first case, the hero addresses the audience, or us, readers, while the latter instance occurs when the addressee of the speech is unknown to the character and the readers alike.

“Why would anyone bother to do that?” you may inquire again, and I will answer simply that even these phantom presences play a significant role in the novel’s grand scheme, adding, through their evanescent appearances, more intricacy to the inner life of each hero and heroine. Arkady exercises his power to summon these spirits more than anyone else in The Adolescent, thus giving his audience the key to his consciousness. It is vital to record these patterns in order to learn how much access the readers have to the hidden worlds of each person in the novel; the things the characters imagine tell the readers much more than their spoken words and actions alone.

You can easily see how encoding becomes more and more complex when fictional characters invent characters themselves, thus creating literary inception — speech within speech — layers upon layers of interactions not only between themselves but also within their own minds. The encoding process becomes even more intriguing as the protagonist transports between the past, present, and future in a matter of seconds, accompanied by his speech. At one point, I encountered Arkady’s (imaginary) words that could be said in the future (yet remained unspoken):

“I was sorry for my mother, but–“either him or me,” that was the choice I meant to offer her and my sister.”

(Translation of the passage by Constance Garnett)

Here Arkady is thinking about a situation that could happen but hasn’t happened yet (talking to his mother and sister about choosing between him or Versilov, “either him or me”). We know that he quotes his future speech, so I marked it as direct, and we also know the recipients, even though they are not physically present at the moment this speech is being imagined. This situation is hypothetical, so I kept the “said aloud” attribute as “false.” Since a lot of dialogues in this novel happen only in Arkady’s mind, tagging speech has been one of the most intellectually stimulating endeavours: it was often hard to tell how material or “real” the speaker and the addressee actually are, as well as what part of the conversation is being imagined.

The following conversation is an example where the speech imagined by Arkady could happen in the present because he and the speaker were participating in an active dialogue. Here, Arkady is talking to an official, and, at one point, the Adolescent begins to speculate about what the official will say next (plot twist: the official never actually says it).

I thought that on my answering, he would add: “What for?”

(Translation of the passage by Constance Garnett)

While the protagonist ponders, “I thought <…> he would add, What for?” The official responds differently, of course, but the quotation is still direct because not only is it presented as part of the dialogue, but, if you look at the Russian text, it also has the characteristic “-c” that the official adds to almost every response during the conversation with Arkady.

By living so much in his head and engaging in imaginary dialogues, Dostoevsky’s protagonist evokes a sense of familiarity. It is hard to find a reader who would not relate to picturing conversations with others only to prove one’s point, even if just in an imaginary speech battle. Thinking about our past mistakes and how we could have said things differently is another issue that worries Dostoevsky’s heroes, hence the difficulties in encoding the variations in time and space. The encoder has to perform a lot of mental gymnastics to detect these patterns and turn them into a coherent picture of the character’s consciousness: when Arkady imagines the conversation, should the addressee, whom we had otherwise known as his family, be tagged as a mere figment of his imagination instead? Many questions are left unanswered, but the encoding team found that, where computations can give no definitive solution, the talent for interpretation solves all.

As in this case, where Arkady is replying to Kudryumov (at this point mentioned only as “the voice”) but pretends to be responding to Tikhomirov (the teacher), interpretation matters the most because, while the protagonist answers one person’s questions, he willingly addresses these answers to another. This complexity is significant since it turns the dialogue into a mind game with three characters being actively involved, even though one of them remains silent and only performs the role of a sounding board for Arkady’s ideas.

“Re-all-ly?” the same voice which had interrupted Dergachev and shouted at Kraft that he was a German interposed with an ironical drawl. Regarding the speaker as a complete nonentity, I addressed the teacher as though he had called out to me.

“It’s my conviction that I should not dare to judge anyone,” I said, quivering, and conscious that I was going to make a fool of myself.

“Why so mysterious?” cried the voice of the nonentity again.

“Every man has his own idea,” I went on, gazing persistently at the teacher, who, for his part, held his tongue and looked at me with a smile.

(Translation of the passage by Constance Garnett)

By explicitly calling the voice “a complete nonentity” and addressing his arguments to the teacher, Arkady presents the research team with the job that no computer has yet learned to perform: deciding who is the actual addressee of his speech. Despite the teacher being silent, his presence makes Arkady willing to speak, so this encoding decision was made with the psychological choices of the characters in mind. By diminishing the voice to the level of nonentity, Arkady creates an encoding precedent where the speech tags recognize a silent participant as an active, crucial part of the conversation.

There were many more encoding peculiarities I stumbled upon while tagging The Adolescent, but let’s leave them for the future, more enticing and in-depth entries on this blog. For now, enjoy the perplexities of the literary inception and try reading your favourite novels at a microscopic level: you never know what mysteries dwell in the depths of a fictional consciousness!

Veronika Sizova is an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto, where she majors in English and Professional Writing & Communication. In May 2022, she began working on the Digital Dostoevsky project as an RA as part of the Jackman Scholars in Residence program.

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