Politeness theory and the complicit hearer-reader in Saki’s ‘The Talking-out of Tarrington’

In this essay I use the politeness theory framework as formulated by Brown and Levinson (hereafter B&L) in their 1978 study (reissued in 1987) to explore the interaction between two fictional interlocutors in Saki’s satire of the process of ‘talking-out’ a Parliamentary bill. I describe the progress and outcome of the characters’ conversation in terms of the principal face-threatening act (FTA) which takes place. In the second section of the analysis, I consider how the constructed addressee, or implied reader (Iser, 1974), is manipulated by the narrator-intermediary into complicity with one of the two interlocutors. The discussion of the conversational exchange is informed by B&L’s politeness theory with reference to adjacency pairs, speech act theory and Grice’s conversational maxims; the roles of narrator and reader are considered in terms of speech and thought representation, speech-act verbs, and literary point of view. The description of the exchange demonstrates the means by which one character prevents another from achieving a desired goal, and it is concluded that the speaker-hearer relationship between the two characters is mediated through a parallel speaker-hearer relationship comprising narrator and reader.

This is a long post, so I’ve split the content over 6 pages. Please use the page counter below to access the page following. A full text of the short story discussed appears in the Appendix on page 5. The extract under consideration is labelled and the paragraphs numbered for ease of reference. See page 6 for the list of references.

B&L’s framework hinges on their concept of a Model Person (MP), a ‘rational’ being, displaying ‘consistent modes of reasoning from ends to the means that will achieve those ends’ (1987: 61). Kopytko criticises this kind of traditional pragmatics on the grounds that a means-ends rationalistic approach is too simplistic to deal with the multi-faceted and highly complex nature of human interaction, and he argues instead for a more empirical approach (1995). Grainger lists the problematic areas of former practices in pragmatics as ‘speaker intention’, ‘constructed examples of utterances’, ‘inherent meaning and…universality’ (2013: 29), but as the title of her article suggests, Grainger is keen not to jettison those ‘fundamental, universal insights of language-in-interaction’ (36) formulated in early politeness research. I do not intend to deal with these issues here, however, because this essay is concerned with a fictional conversation. B&L intended their framework for use in the analysis of communication between real-life interactants, but the same framework can be employed in fictional analyses because our understanding of literary dialogue is rooted in what we know of the real world: we make sense of such dialogue, with all its implicatures and inferences, by bringing to the text our knowledge of how people converse in real life. However, there is an added complication: in fictional texts, the idealised speaker/hearer of B&L’s framework is joined by constructs such as the narrator and the implied reader, and these must be accounted for. Simpson’s concern that politeness analysis of dramatic texts should ‘encompass the interaction between writer/playwright and reader/audience’ (1989b: 172) finds its counterpart in Chilton’s suggestion that in the analysis of political speeches, politeness theory should be extended beyond the immediate interlocutors to ‘non-present hearers’ (1990: 214).

The starting-point for the present analysis is B&L’s notion of the MP’s ‘public self-image’ as ‘face’: this face is divided into two, the positive and the negative (1987: 61). The positive face is the personality that the MP wishes to project, and that s/he desires others to approve of; the negative face is concerned with ‘freedom of action and freedom from imposition’ (61). In a community of MPs, every member is aware of both their own ‘face’ and that of others. A face-threatening act (FTA) is an attack which can be targeted at the positive or the negative face: for example, an attempt to damage someone’s self-esteem in the case of the former, or in the latter, preventing someone from going about their business freely. B&L use a mathematical formula involving relations of social distance, power and rank of imposition to express how the extent of an FTA might be calculated (1987: 76).

In the text under consideration, there are two FTAs occurring simultaneously: Tarrington acts against Clovis’ negative face while Clovis retaliates by attacking Tarrington’s positive face. The social distance (D) between the two is heavily marked: if, as B&L claim, D is linked with ‘frequency of interaction’ (1987: 77), then Tarrington is in a bad position. He has lunched once with Clovis and his aunt and is an acquaintance his aunt chooses to avoid. Furthermore, in Clovis’ use of pronouns in his speech about pet owls, he firmly places himself and his aunt in one camp and Tarrington in another: ‘if one or two of them…leave us in any of the ways that pet owls are prone to, there will be always one or two left to carry on your name’ (¶8, my emphasis). Clovis groups himself and his aunt together, whereas Tarrington is pushed outside the social group – in fact, in giving his name to the owls, Clovis does not even count Tarrington among the same species. The harshness of this treatment is counterpoised by a narratorial emphasis on the severity of the threat Tarrington poses, in which indicators of the characters’ respective social status are juxtaposed via their attendants: the aunt’s entourage comprises a ‘wake’ of pampered lapdogs whereas Tarrington brings with him a bevy of ‘wives and mothers and sisters’. Tarrington’s FTA towards Clovis is thus magnified into an invasion of the lower classes, in the form of a whole tribe of off-stage women – presumably those who have put Tarrington up to this in the first place.

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