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The Poetics of (In)visibility:A Stylistic Analysis of Caryl Phillips’s Foreigners: Three English Lives

Daria Tunca


Caryl Phillips’s multi-voiced texts have often been studied through the lens of Bakhtinian polyphony. In this essay, I focus on the volume of fictionalized biographies Foreigners: Three English Lives (2007) to demonstrate that the polyphonic nature of Phillips’s work resides not only in the structural confrontation of characters’ and narrators’ voices but also in the inscription of the writer’s own subjectivity within these individual discourses. Borrowing methods from the discipline of stylistics, I first focus on the use of adjectives and modality in the opening section of Foreigners, “Dr. Johnson’s Watch,” to establish how the first-person narrator’s gradual transition from tentativeness to self-confidence constitutes a way for the implied author, on the one hand, to expose the thwarted logic of the colonially-tinted discourse of his eighteenth-century narrator and, on the other, to offer larger reflections on the process of ideological encoding inherent in the writing of historiography. Such an investigation based on modality furthers allow me to challenge the critical consensus according to which the second section of the book, “Made in Wales,” is a straightforward factual account. Indeed, I suggest that the story of the rise and fall of mixed-race boxer Randolph Turpin is in fact a highly polyphonic narrative featuring increasingly marked clashes in modality and point of view. These, I argue, may draw attention precisely to the problematic construction of historiographical discourse deceptively made to appear so commonsense by the narrator of “Dr. Johnson’s Watch.”


Caryl Phillips, Foreigners, Bakhtin, polyphony, modality

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The Johns Hopkins University Press

ISSN: 1920-1222

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