Definition of Voice

Voice in literature is the individual style in which a certain author writes his or her works. Voice includes many different literary devices and stylistic techniques, including syntax, semantics, diction, dialogue, character development, tone, pacing, and even punctuation. Though the definition of voice can feel like a somewhat nebulous concept, voice is integral to appreciating a piece of literature. Authors are generally thought to have a unique voice that appears across their entire oeuvre, even if they change from one genre to another.

Common Examples of Voice

Each of us has a literal voice that is different than anyone else’s. Not only does it sound different; we also use specific speech patterns, vocabulary, inflections, turns of phrase, and so on that makes our voice recognizable and unique. We become accustomed to the regularity and uniqueness of the voices of loved ones and famous people alike. Those who are adept at impressions can pick out the way that a person uses his or her voice in that unique way. Consider the fact that many people, when they read the following lines, think of Martin Luther King’s specific and unique voice delivering these words:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

Significance of Voice in Literature

Though voice sometimes may seem hard to define and distinguish from one author to another, there is a scientific way to research a unique author’s voice. Developed in the late 1800s by Polish philosopher Wincenty Lutosławski, there is a technique called stylometry meant to define the linguistic style of a particular writer. Lutosławski created this method originally to establish a chronology of Plato’s works, but it has been used in many different ways. For example, some literary scholars doubted the provenance of William Shakespeare’s works, wondering if he wrote all of them or if they should be attributed to other writers of his day, such as Christopher Marlowe. A thorough analysis of the voice via the methods of stylometry proved that all of Shakespeare’s works that are attributed to him were indeed written by him; the voice was consistent.

Indeed, just as each human being has a unique voice, so too does each writer have a unique voice in their works of literature. Some of these are more distinct than others; below, you will find some of the most famously unique literary voices in all of history.

Examples of Voice in Literature

Example #1

ROMEO: But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.

(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)

William Shakespeare’s works are characterized by many factors, such as his penchant for iambic pentameter, metaphor, and deep themes of love, envy, greed, and vengeance. Those who applied stylometry methods to Shakespeare’s works found a certain consistency in word usage, sentence length, and the arrangement of words in a line. Though other writers of his time used similar techniques, there is simply no writer like Shakespeare.

Example #2

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”

(“The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe)

Edgar Allen Poe used many macabre, dark, and mysterious elements in his writing. The central plot of his famous poem “The Raven” is a narrator who goes incrementally madder as he thinks on his lost love and contemplates a raven who will not leave him alone. There is often a sense of creepiness that invades his works of literature, but Poe is also amazingly adept with meter and rhyme. His poetry often does not stick to more common meters such as Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter, but instead experiments with more rolling rhythms and differing line lengths.

Example #3

…and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

(Ulysses by James Joyce)

James Joyce’s style varied wildly from one text to another, and yet even as his style evolved, his authorial voice is consistent. The above excerpt is the very final part of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy that ends Joyce’s epic masterpiece Ulysses. Joyce often experimented with stream of consciousness writing, and pushed the bounds of what could be considered a sentence. There is a certain exuberance on display in the above excerpt that makes it a beautiful example of voice.

Example #4

‘Four reales.’ ‘We want two Anis del Toro.’
‘With water?’
‘Do you want it with water?’
‘I don’t know,’ the girl said. ‘Is it good with water?’
‘It’s all right.’
‘You want them with water?’ asked the woman.
‘Yes, with water.’
‘It tastes like liquorice,’ the girl said and put the glass down.
‘That’s the way with everything.’
‘Yes,’ said the girl. ‘Everything tastes of liquorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.’

(“Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway)

Ernest Hemingway has one of the most distinct voice examples in all of literature, though it’s not because of the way he embellished his sentences. Instead, it’s for stripped down way he writes a story, focusing only on the most important details and doing away with most adjectives, adverbs, and even conjunctions. Hemingway’s work often deals in subtext rather than saying everything outright. Though another writer might not choose to highlight the above dialogue, it’s clear that these simple sentences have more weight behind them than Hemingway is willing to show the reader right off.

Example #5

Amaranta felt a mysterious trembling in the lace on her petticoats and she tried to grasp the sheet so that she would not fall down at the instant in which Remedios the Beauty began to rise. Úrsula, almost blind at the time, was the only person who was sufficiently calm to identify the nature of that determined wind and she left the sheets to the mercy of the light as she watched Remedios the Beauty waving goodbye in the midst of the flapping sheets that rose up with her, abandoning with her the environment of beetles and dahlias and passing through the air with her as four o’clock in the afternoon came to an end, and they were lost forever with her in the upper atmosphere where not even the highest-flying birds of memory could reach her.

(One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez)

Gabriel García Márquez is famous for being part of the generation of Latin American writers who worked with magical realism. His style allows for supernatural things to occur without any characters being overly surprised that they’re happening. García Márquez often writes long, beautiful sentences, in contrast to Hemingway’s short, sharp sentences.

Test Your Knowledge of Voice

1. Which of the following statements is the best voice definition?
A. A style in which an author writes a particular book, and which varies greatly depending on the book.
B. The consistent way in which an author writes across his or her entire body of works.
C. The way a narrator presents a plot.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: B is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. Which of the following literary devices is not a part of the author’s voice?
A. Setting
B. Grammar
C. Syntax
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: A is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

3. Consider the following quote:

TRUE!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

Considering the example of voice in this quote, which of the following authors excerpted above do you think wrote it?

A. William Shakespeare
B. Edgar Allen Poe
C. Ernest Hemingway
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: B is the correct answer. This is the opening paragraph of Poe’s macabre story “The Tell Tale Heart.”[/spoiler]