Focalisation in Chaucer and Swift

In the following exercise, I’ve made use of a focalisation framework to examine passages from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. The passages are reproduced in full below.

Text 1: Geoffrey Chaucer The Canterbury Tales

General Prologue lines 309-330: The Sergeant of the Law

309 A Sergeant of the Lawe, war and wys,

310 That often hadde been at the Parvys,

311 Ther was also, ful riche of excellence.

312 Discreet he was and of greet reverence –

313 He semed swich, his wordes were so wise.

314 Justice he was ful often in assise,

315 By patente and by pleyn commissioun.

316 For his science and for his heigh renoun,

317 Of fees and robes hadde he many oon.

318 So greet a purchasour was nowher noon:

319 Al was fee symple to hym in effect;

320 His purchasyng myghte nat been infect.

321 Nowher so bisy a man as he ther nas,

322 And yet he semed bisier than he was.

323 In termes hadde he caas and doomes alle

324 That from the tyme of kyng William were falle.

325 Therto he koude endite and make a thyng,

326 Ther koude no wight pynche at his writyng;

327 And every statut koude he pleyn by rote.

328 He rood but hoomly in a medlee cote,

329 Girt with a ceint of silk, with barres smale;

330 Of his array telle I no lenger tale.

Chaucer’s portrait of the lawyer is traditionally viewed as satirical. The editor of The Riverside Chaucer notes one or two exceptions to this trend (Benson, 1988: 811), but my personal inclination is towards the less favourable picture of this particular pilgrim.

On first reading this passage, I divided up the description into four sections as follows: 1) the lawyer’s wisdom and professional reputation; 2) his activities as a buyer of land; 3) how his learning enables and facilitates his land-buying activities; 4) his relatively humble attire. I considered also the placing of the lawyer in between the Clerk (or university student) and the Franklin. The Clerk has devoted his life to study and possesses very little; the Franklin is a landowner and an Epicurean. The lawyer shares traits with both these characters: he is learned, like the Clerk, but he uses his learning to facilitate the purchase of land thereby consolidating his wealth and position. The lawyer is a landowner like the Franklin, but while the Franklin enjoys a reputation as a bon viveur, the lawyer appears avaricious and miserly in his ‘medlee cote’. The lawyer’s reputation is that of a ‘greet…purchasour’ (land-buyer), contrasted with the Franklin who is known as a ‘worthy vavasour’ (feudal landholder).

Lawyers had equal status to knights in Chaucer’s time (Benson, 1988: 811) and the Sergeant of the Law’s position is entrenched by his knowledge of existing legislation and precedence dating back to the days of King William, approximately 350 years before The Canterbury Tales appeared. The lawyer represents a societal stratum which reinforces and perpetuates the status quo out of self-interest, and he acquires land apparently without restraint: ‘Al was fee symple to hym in effect’. His belt with its stripes (‘barres’) serves as a metaphor for the system the lawyer serves, a system that is impregnable, unimpeachable, which both debars those not learned from entry and protects those it encompasses.

manoflawbigIn considering the presence of irony in this passage, I came to the following conclusions. It seems unlikely that the lawyer would have presented his land-buying activities in this way and it is not clear how the narrator has gained his knowledge, unless it be by former acquaintance with the lawyer and his reputation (‘So greet a purchasour was nowher noon’). A conversation between the narrator and the lawyer could be imagined, but the reporting of the lawyer’s character and the conclusions drawn would seem to belong entirely to the narrator. There is a throwaway observation in ‘And yet he semed bisier than he was’ which undermines and corrodes the portrait painted so far, as does the reference to the lawyer’s ‘purchasyng’ which interrupts the description of his work as a ‘Justice’. The statements made in relation to the lawyer’s land-buying activities are unproven and could be based purely on hypothetical imaginings on the narrator’s part, but the reader takes it on trust that these statements are true. A pilgrimage is evidently a democratic activity, but the lawyer does not represent a democratic order and the ironic tone of the narrator perhaps highlights this. The lawyer’s words are reported as ‘wise’, but the reader is not allowed to hear the lawyer speak in the passage under consideration. His story, when he tells it, is one of justice being meted out by the gods and, given the evidence in the narrator’s portrait, the reader may be inclined to wonder whether this is how the lawyer imagines his own position in society. The use of irony or satire means taking a stance in relation to the character and it does seem that the narrator is setting himself up as a moral judge. The pilgrims of The Canterbury Tales represent sections of Chaucer’s society and they all come under the scrutiny of a narrator who is a long way from being impartial.

I reconsidered the same passage using a focalisation/point of view framework and some interesting points emerged. There is a conflict between the narrator’s position as pilgrim and the extent of knowledge possessed about his fellow travellers, as is clearly demonstrated in the passage describing the lawyer. I understood the focaliser to be the voice of Chaucer’s pilgrim, and the narrator to be the voice who presents all the information not available to the focaliser. This is one and the same voice, however: what is presented here is an internal focaliser with the attributes of an external focaliser who can penetrate the consciousness of the focalised. The pilgrim is one of the characters and therefore should be limited to external observations and restricted knowledge of the other characters, but this is not the case. The focalised is both internal and external which means that Chaucer’s pilgrim can provide the reader with the same kind of information that would be available to an omniscient narrator. Rimmon-Kenan notes that focalisation and narration are separate in first-person retrospective narratives (2002: 74), which could account for the stance presented here if the time of narration could be confidently asserted, but The Canterbury Tales remains unfinished and without an ending, the reader cannot know whether or not the relation of this pilgrimage is synchronous with events as they unfold.

In the pilgrim’s description of the lawyer it is possible that what is presented is two separate views of the lawyer’s reputation, because there certainly seems to be the expression of a collective voice in line 318: ‘So greet a purchasour was nowher noon’. Lines 309-317 show the lawyer as a professional man and a wise judge, whereas lines 318-327 paint a different picture – the lawyer as land-grabbing opportunist who makes use of his legal knowledge to ensure that no protest against his large-scale purchase of land is possible. If this view were accepted, it may be possible to argue for two different focalisers: an internal focaliser for lines 309-317 and an external focaliser for lines 318-327. The portrait ends with an external focaliser who describes the details of the lawyer’s dress in lines 328-330, but this placing of such a description is calculated. It does not come at the beginning of the portrait as one might have expected, but appears after the reader has learned of the lawyer’s acquisition of land through his legal know-how, and in the light of this knowledge, the reader may feel inclined to consider this modest dress as a disguise or a mask rather than a mark of humility on the lawyer’s part; as previously stated, the lawyer’s silk belt decorated with stripes functions symbolically as the bars which exclude others not of the same status from an impenetrable ‘club’. It is strange that the narrating pilgrim should so decidedly clam up over the lawyer’s appearance (‘Of his array telle I no lenger tale’) when he has previously made some very pointed insinuations about his methods of buying land. It is notable also that the lawyer does not wear his purse on his belt as many of the other pilgrims do; his wealth does not lie in coinage, but in the knowledge of legal cases and judicial decisions that allows him to manipulate the law for his own purposes.

The voice of the focaliser intrudes into this short portrait at three points: in lines 313, 322 and 330. The use of ‘semed’ in lines 313 and 322 suggests that the inner state of the focalised is implicit by external behaviour (Rimmon-Kenan, 2002: 82), and the modality of these two lines casts doubt on the portrait painted: the lawyer only seems to be wise and his apparent busyness is flatly contradicted. In sum, there is a very clear ideological stance from which the lawyer is assessed. The modality of the pilgrim’s interjections suggests that there is reason to doubt the lawyer’s integrity, and the structure of the portrait places the lawyer’s professional work in direct juxtaposition with his activities as a ‘purchasour’; these activities fall no doubt within the law, but it is clearly intimated in the assertion that no man would stand a chance of questioning these land-purchases that there is something distasteful or perhaps immoral about the way in which the transactions are performed. The focalisation/point of view framework was very useful in that its application threw up a great number of questions, not all of which could be answered confidently. The spatiotemporal orientation is fairly easy to pinpoint – that of Chaucer’s pilgrim – but the source of the psychological and ideological orientation is much more complicated. In recognising this, however, the reader becomes more attuned to the satire of The Canterbury Tales and is far less likely to take the text at face value without question.

Text 2: Jonathan Swift Gulliver’s Travels (excerpt)

I lay down on the Grass, which was very short and soft, where I slept sounder than ever I remember to have done in my Life, and as I reckoned, above nine Hours; for when I awaked, it was just Day-light. I attempted to rise, but was not able to stir: For as I happen’d to lye on my Back, I found my Arms and Legs were strongly fastened on each side to the Ground; and my Hair, which was long and thick, tied down in the same manner. I likewise felt several slender Ligatures across my Body, from my Armpits to my Thighs. I could only look upwards, the Sun began to grow hot, and the Light offended mine Eyes. I heard a confused Noise about me, but in the Posture I lay, could see nothing except the Sky. In a little Time I felt something alive moving on my left Leg, which advancing gently forward over my Breast, came almost up to my Chin; when bending mine Eyes downwards as much as I could, I perceived it to be a human Creature not six Inches high, with a Bow and Arrow in his Hands, and a Quiver at his Back. In the mean time, I felt at least forty more of the same kind (as I conjectured) following the first. I was in the utmost Astonishment, and roared so loud, that they all ran back in a Fright; and some of them, as I was afterwards told, were hurt with the Falls they got by leaping from my Sides upon the Ground.

Gulliver’s Travels is another satirical work, but by way of contrast, the narrator-focaliser is very much internal. In fact, this text is perhaps one of those for which ‘it is debatable whether we need to posit a focaliser position distinct from the narratorial one’ (Toolan, 2001: 63). Gulliver’s point of view is represented throughout, and the satirical intent of the work is therefore displaced up a level – the satirist is Swift, the author, not Gulliver, the narrator-focaliser. The focaliser is internal, and the focalised external. Everything is rendered from Gulliver’s viewpoint as and when he encounters each new event, and as such, he is the spatiotemporal ‘zero point’. In terms of Rimmon-Kennan’s analysis, the perceptual facets of space and time are both internal (limited and synchronous); the cognitive element of the psychological facet is internal (restricted); and the emotive element of the psychological facet is also internal (subjective and involved). The ideological facet is more complicated: the text functions as a satire on another text (Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe) and as a blistering attack on humankind in general. Gulliver’s Travels is not to be read in the same way as Robinson Crusoe, because the story related could not possibly be true. Defoe’s novel stretches credibility, but it is not the fantasy that Swift’s work represents. For Swift, Gulliver’s voyages are a way of exploring the true subject: the shortcomings of human beings and human society.

In analysing this short passage from Swift’s novel, I found Emmott’s contextual frame theory to be rather more profitable than the analysis based on focalisation and point of view, and Emmott’s theory threw up a very intriguing question in relation to a proleptic statement which I shall discuss shortly.

gulliver

As is the case in Robinson Crusoe, the distance travelled by the hero and the time taken to do so are carefully documented, thereby suggesting a kind of map and a hint that the reader may be able to mimic the journey undertaken if inclined to do so. When Gulliver awakes after the shipwreck, he is quite literally bound into the frame. He can only see the sky, but the reader can see him and the ‘Ligatures’ that bind him to the ground. (Gulliver’s hair is also tied down, and according to Emmott’s framework, the statement that Gulliver’s hair is long and thick is the only piece of non-episodic information throughout the passage; the remainder is specific to the frame in question and is therefore episodic in nature.) At this point, and consistent with the internal narrator-focaliser, the contents of the frame are limited entirely to what Gulliver himself can see, feel and hear. The Lilliputian who first climbs onto Gulliver’s left leg is bound into the frame when Gulliver becomes aware of him, but because Gulliver cannot see the Lilliputian, the reader’s first assumption may well be that the small man is some kind of insect. When the other Lilliputians follow, the reader accepts Gulliver’s conjecture that these beings are more of the same and binds them into the frame accordingly. Gulliver does the only thing he can do and shouts aloud, which startles the Lilliputians and causes them to jump off. This leads to a proleptic moment in the text: ‘and some of them, as I was afterwards told, were hurt with the Falls they got by leaping from my Sides upon the Ground’ (my emphasis). In the context of Emmott’s framework, this prolepsis is extremely interesting. The reader will create a frame, but personal expectations will dictate what frame is created. Clearly Gulliver survives the current episode, but what does the reader imagine will happen next? If Gulliver is being reprimanded for hurting the Lilliputians who fell, is he still in danger? Is he still in shackles? The ‘telling’ of ‘as I was afterwards told’ is reported in the passive voice, so the reader does not know who is doing the telling and in what context. This allows for many imaginative possibilities. Any frame that the reader forms of Gulliver’s future at this point must be integral to that particular reader’s narrative expectations and perhaps also their hopes concerning the character of Lemuel Gulliver.

List of references

Chaucer, G. (1988) The Riverside Chaucer. L. Benson. Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Emmott, C. (1997) Narrative Comprehension: A Discourse Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rimmon-Kenan, S. (2002) Narrative Fiction. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

Swift, J. (1967, 1726) Gulliver’s Travels. J. Chalker & P. Dixon. Eds. London: Penguin.

Toolan, M. (2001) Narrative: A Critical Linguistic Introduction. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

 

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