Bill Hughes



Dialogue dominated the cultural life of eighteenth-century Britain. It embodied what Jürgen Habermas describes as “communicative reason” and, as a literary genre in its own right, it played an important role in the evolution of the English novel. The formal dialogue appears as an embedded genre within many novels of the period. Romantic-period novels often take this armature but complicate it.

In Sydney Owenson’s The Missionary, two voices confront each other through the characters Hilarion and Luxima, a Western missionary and an Indian woman and seer. Formal dialogues do appear as means of communicating their faiths to each other but there is also that sense of dialogue where opposing perspectives become reconciled as the lovers themselves overcome cultural barriers. The novel also performs an implicit examination of dialogue by its concentration on the uses of persuasive language.

This essay explores how multiple oppositions of reason/sensibility, East/West, male/female, Christianity/Hinduism move towards their sublation through formal dialogues and a wider Bakhtinian dialogism that pervades the novel. Despite elevating “rational” Christianity over “superstition,” the narrative also portrays “feminine,” sensual passion as preferable to “reason.” The dominant strain of rationality is perhaps dialogically undermined by this other, which dwells in the realm of fantasy rather than utilitarian fact.

I demonstrate how the novel stresses dialogism itself as a virtue, contrasted with practices of coercion. This fuels a partial critique of both colonialism and masculine values. Owenson’s critics frequently drew attention to the “luxuriant redundancies” of her style. But this fantastic subversion of novelistic facticity is a crucial part of her staging of antinomies and multiple voicing.


KEYWORDS: dialogue, communicative reason, colonialism, utopianism, India, Ireland


DOI: 10.30395/WSR.202312_17(1).0006