The role of the reader

WutheringHeights1939

Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff and Merle Oberon as Cathy in the 1939 film of ‘Wuthering Heights’

i) Introductory

In this final chapter I wish to focus entirely on the reader and the reader’s role in relation to the various levels of discourse existing in a text.  The factors affecting the reader’s understanding of the text can be roughly organised into three categories as follows.  Firstly, the organisation of the text or its physical form, that is, the words and sentences on the page and the way in which these sentences are punctuated and arranged.  I took a brief look at punctuation in chapter two and syntactic arrangement in chapter three; in this chapter I take a closer look at lexical choice.  The second factor affecting a reader’s understanding is that of her empirical knowledge of the world.  The reader brings to the text a vast store of background knowledge which enables her to give shape and meaning to the words on the page.  The final factor is that of education: readers are distinguished by their varying levels of literary competence.  In order to answer the question of how a reader makes sense of a text, I shall be exploring the following four areas in turn: a) individual word meaning, in which I hope to demonstrate that a reader’s understanding of lexical items constitutes far more than a simple dictionary definition; b) schemata, frames and scripts show how a reader applies her knowledge of the world to the texts she reads; c) literary competence adds the more specific dimension of the reader’s knowledge of other texts, of which d) literary allusion is an even more specialised instance.  Categories c) and d) carry important implications for the questions proposed in this thesis.  The extent to which linguistics can be of service to the literary critic is compromised by the necessity of a high degree of literary competence in order to fully appreciate and understand a literary text; but it was never my intention to assert that linguistics alone is sufficient to achieve such an understanding.  The specialised knowledge of the critic comes into play where it is vital, for instance, to be able to accurately identify a literary allusion or to be able to situate a text within a particular genre; I will be investigating these questions in more detail, pertaining to problematic allusions in Brontë’s Wuthering Heights – allusions which arguably contain the key to a fuller understanding of the text.  As for the question of form and content, I stand by my conviction that they are inseparable but I concede that once the reader is taken into account the definition of ‘content’ becomes more complicated; however, I feel that the arguments presented here add weight to the assertion that literary language functions differently rather than detracting from the proposition that form and content are one and the same.

Before addressing the question of how a reader makes sense of a text, I intend to take a brief overview of the development of reader-response criticism and to comment further on the roles of author and reader as respective producer and consumer of texts.

In 1959 Michael Riffaterre wrote a paper entitled ‘Criteria for Style Analysis’ in which he suggests that since we cannot know the author’s intentions, it is better to focus on the response of the reader.[1]  Riffaterre recognised early on the displaced interaction that distinguishes the literary text from other types of text, and he writes that the author has a more difficult task than the speaker due to the absence of extra-linguistic means of expression: the author has limited graphological means at his disposal – for instance, the examples from Pratchett’s work in chapter two – but these means are a poor substitute for the expressive capabilities of tone, gesture, volume, pitch, et cetera.  The author, writes Riffaterre, is therefore more conscious of the message, and he introduces unpredictable elements, or stylistic devices, into his work in order to ensure that the message is decoded as he intended.  These stylistic devices, according to Riffaterre, can be identified by the average reader (AR); however, Riffaterre reserves the right to correct that which the AR finds and he classifies typical AR errors as faults of omission or addition.

Stanley Fish also deplores the exclusion of the reader in literary history, but he parts company with Riffaterre in that he does not believe it possible to divide a text up into utterances that may or may not have a literary effect.  Fish has made several important contributions to reader-response criticism through the formulation of his ‘affective stylistics’.  He argues that meaning cannot be extracted from a literary work, but is to be found in the reader’s experience of reading it: he writes that the experience of an utterance is its meaning.[2]  Fish’s method involves ‘an analysis of the developing responses of the reader in relation to the words as they succeed one another in time’,[3] and this basic premise means that at times his arguments come dangerously close to the idea of form enacting content; nevertheless, the value of Fish’s work should not be underestimated.  Fish’s method compels the critic to ask what a certain text or part of a text does, rather than what it means, a question that reflects Fish’s focus on experience rather than extraction; in addition, Fish draws attention to the temporality of the reading experience, in that the reader responds to a temporal flow in a left to right direction, at least in texts written in English.[4]  The effect of this reading experience is lost in the activity of criticism, writes Fish, and he states that it is criticism, not reading, that loses sight of the text.  The temporal model posited by Fish among others has at least one ramification for the form/content argument: if content is produced by the reader’s experience of reading in a temporal framework, then some content is inevitably lost if the reader does decide what the text ‘is about’; the clues, false trails and red herrings, are, for Fish, part of the meaning of the text in that they constitute part of the reading experience.  Carole Berger writes in support of this argument in her paper on Jane Austen’s villains:

although the spatial metaphor of recent decades has produced much useful criticism, it has obscured the fact that form also has a temporal dimension, manifest in the reader’s sequential experience of a work.  My analysis depends on the assumption that meaning is generated not only by the interpretation of a character’s qualities and development in relation to the work as a whole, but also through the process of apprehending a character as we read.[5]

Berger adds a useful footnote: ‘to the extent that the effects described depend on the reader’s ignorance of future developments, they obviously apply only to a first reading.  Subsequent readings yield different pleasures’.[6]  One is only fooled by Willoughby and Frank Churchill once!

Another critic interested in reader response is Steven Mailloux, who provides a useful overview of reader-response criticism in his paper ‘Learning to Read: Interpretation and Reader-Response Criticism’.  Mailloux summarises the work of various critics including Wolfgang Iser and Stephen Booth, and he adds to their arguments his own premise that

every critical approach embodies a set of interpretive conventions used to make sense of literary texts.  Such interpretive conventions are shared procedures for creating meaning, and they consist of interpretive assumptions manifested in specific critical moves.[7]

Indeed, in a separate paper Mailloux demonstrates how critics have made sense of a ‘maimed’ text; the fact that they were able to do so at all indicates how powerful these interpretive conventions can be.[8]  According to Mailloux’s reasoning, the reader/critic is a member of an interpretive community, and the ‘history of literary criticism is a chronicle of the changes in…shared interpretive strategies’.[9]  Furthermore, Mailloux neatly summarises the different roles assigned to the reader: she is in the text as narratee, or she dominates over the text as the creator of meaning, or she produces meaning by interacting with the text.  The reader has also collected an assortment of epithets: she is implied, educated, ideal, informed, et cetera.  The implied reader is a product of the displaced interaction between addresser and addressee, and she is defined by Leech and Short as follows:

because the author can assume knowledge which any particular reader might not necessarily have, we have to conclude that the addressee in literary communication is not the reader, but…the IMPLIED READER; a hypothetical personage who shares with the author not just background knowledge but also a set of presuppositions, sympathies and standards of what is pleasant and unpleasant, good and bad, right and wrong.[10]

Authorial correspondence, drafts, and so on, reveal some authors’ concern that the reader should resemble the implied reader as closely as possible.  One authorial strategy with this aim in mind is to refer directly to the reader – Fielding’s guiding hand in Tom Jones is an oft-quoted example.  The reader shares a relationship not only with the author, but also with the narrator and/or the characters; often the reader is called upon to judge the characters, and by extension, herself.  The technique of encouraging self-judgment is an authorial means for educating the reader, assuming that the role of literature is to edify.  Mailloux’s reader is an active participant, not a passive observer, and Mailloux parts company from Fish and Riffaterre in his refusal to separate reader from critic:

it is true that reader-response criticism claims to approximate closely the content of reading experiences that are always assumed to pre-exist the critical performance.  But what in fact takes place is quite different: the critical performance fills those reading experiences with its own interpretive moves.[11]

Mailloux asserts that it is impossible to separate the two activities of reading and criticism and that one activity necessarily entails the other.

Meaning is created from an elaborate network of integration and cooperation between author, reader, and text.  To ignore the reader would be to place the creation of meaning squarely at the point of production, that is, at the feet of the author.  Alternatively, one could remove both author and reader from the equation as the American New Critics did,[12] and argue instead that meaning is inherent in the text itself.  But to treat the text as aesthetic object instead of discourse is a viewpoint that is currently unfashionable amongst practitioners of stylistics.  Fowler notes that if a text is treated as discourse, this represents a ‘corrective to the…traditional claim in literary criticism that texts are objects rather than interactions…. But ‘literary’ texts…do speak: they participate in society’s world-view and social structure’.[13]  In stylistic analysis, the text has come to be regarded as a message, a communication which passes between author and reader, and bearing in mind the emphasis this kind of analysis places on the text as discourse in both its production and reception, it would seem to be an unpardonable omission to ignore the recipient of the ‘text as message’, the reader himself.  As Wimsatt and Beardsley have noted, the production of a literary work may be private, but its consumption is public: ‘the poem belongs to the public.  It is embodied in language, the peculiar possession of the public’.[14]

The history of the author has been a chequered one: she has been put on a pedestal, only to be later declared irrelevant and finally proclaimed dead.  In a paper entitled ‘Against Theory’, Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels have reinstated –or resuscitated! – the author, but only by simultaneously removing the need to consider authorial intention: ‘once it is seen that the meaning of a text is simply identical to the author’s intended meaning, the project of grounding meaning in intention becomes incoherent’.[15]  Knapp and Michaels suggest that we should believe that the author meant what she wrote – a reasonable enough approach that brings us back to the guiding or manipulative author who steers the reader towards an intended meaning.  Iser bases his theory of reader-response criticism on the premise that the reader fills in the textual gaps left deliberately by this author-guide: the text (or the author through the text) provides instructions for the production of meaning but these instructions are not exhaustively explicit, thus allowing the reader some interpretive freedom – indeed, the plurality of a text, its openness to a number of readings, is one of the possible hallmarks of a literary text – but the reader is not given carte blanche to create meaning at will.  According to Iser, what the text contains is not meaning, but a set of directions for assembling that meaning;[16] my contention in proposing that form and content are inseparable is that a different set of directions leads to a different meaning.

ii) How Does a Reader Make Sense of a Text?

a) Individual Word Meaning: an investigation into the perceived meaning of the words tourist and traveller.

touristn. a person making a visit or tour as a holiday; a traveller, esp. abroad…

travellern. 1 a person who travels or is travelling. 2 a travelling salesman. 3 a Gypsy…[17]

Leech and Short invite their reader to compare two alternative translations of the opening passages of Franz Kafka’s The Trial.[18]  In the first translation by Willa and Edwin Muir, the man who has come to inform Joseph K. of his arrest is likened to, or linked with, a tourist, and in the second translation by Douglas Scott and Chris Waller, he has become a traveller.  A small difference, perhaps, but I decided to conduct a small-scale survey, in order to discover for myself the possible associations of each of these words in the minds of various readers.  The results were quite surprising, and from the data collected I was able to conclude that word meaning is exceptionally fragile, and can alter considerably according to factors such as the age of the respondent, or even the time of year.[19]

A total of 37 people were surveyed from two different age groups, as follows:

Age group of respondents (in years): Number of responses:
13 – 19 24
20 – 60 13

 

Each respondent was asked to write down the first words or phrases which came to mind on hearing the word tourist; the same exercise was performed with the word traveller.  The responses were anonymous.  To begin with I have summarised the most frequent responses to each word in turn before adding a few words of caution with regard to the overall interpretation of the survey’s results; finally, I have written a general overview of the similarities and differences between the two words as recorded by the respondents surveyed.  Words appearing in italics are those written by the respondents.

The word tourist produced surprisingly few references to holiday: only four were found.  By far the greatest number of references – a total of 16 – were to vehicles in which a tourist might travel, and the increased volume of traffic as a result.  Thirteen references were made to items a tourist might wear or carry, including five references to camera.  Twelve references, 11 of which came from the 13 – 19 age group, were to people of Asian descent; 11 references were made to activities a tourist might undertake, such as bungee jumping; eight references were made to geographical features (for example, waterfall); six references were made to travel or travelling and six references were made to specific places tourists might visit (for example, Germany, Amsterdam, Rotorua); finally, there were four references apiece for holiday and Barmy Army.

The most frequent responses to the word traveller were as follows: a total of 21 respondents wrote the words hitch-hiker, biker or backpacker; 19 references were made to vehicles in which a traveller might travel; 12 references were made to journeys and eight references, seven of which came from the older age group, made mention of the traveller’s occupation, for example salesperson or business suit.

In analysing these results, I found it important to bear in mind the following points.

1)  The respondents were all either staff members or students at Cheviot Area School and they were all native speakers of English with the exception of two, one from each age group: one student from year 12 was bilingual and his first language was Maori; one staff member was a fluent English speaker but her first language was German.

2)  An English woman – myself – asking a group of mostly New Zealanders for a response to these two words in particular inevitably drew some references to Poms!

3)  The survey took place during the Lions’ tour of New Zealand, hence the proliferation of references to the Barmy Army, campervans, slow traffic, et cetera; in addition to this, a recent news report had detailed the death of one woman in a road accident caused by a Lions supporter, which perhaps explains the references to death and accidents.

4)  Some of those surveyed wrote paragraphs instead of individual words and phrases – possibly I had not issued clear instructions – and I may have misrepresented these responses.

5)  I cannot judge the effect of asking for a response to these words in succession; possibly the results would have differed if I had left more time in between each request for a response.  Having been asked for a response to the word tourist, the respondent would already be thinking within and around this particular topic, and the response to traveller may therefore be coloured by the previous response.[20]  The respondents were always given the word tourist first, and there was some overlap of ideas with traveller, particularly among the 13 – 19 age group, who seemed to experience some difficulty in distinguishing between the two.  There were frequent instances of repetition, which were duly noted.

6)  Of particular note was the frequent number of references to the word Asian among the 13 – 19 age group in response to tourist; one respondent even wrote lousy Asians.  Such unabashed racism is difficult to account for, especially in a community with very few Asian residents.  A similar attitude was not in evidence from the responses assembled from the staff of the school.

7)  In collating the results, I was aware that the responses would have been different had I surveyed a group of people from the UK, like myself, instead of from New Zealand.  There would perhaps have been references to ‘Germans’ and ‘towels’ in response to tourist, and the response to traveller would almost certainly have included some very negative comments about nomadic groups previously referred to as gypsies, but now more commonly referred to as travellers.

I would like to begin this overview of perceived similarities and differences by noting those references which appeared in response to both words.  Both lists contained many references to vehicles, so clearly the idea of travelling, or of making a journey (travelling in other countries, overseas or travelling the world), is connected to both words, although as we shall see later on, there were differences perceived in the type of travel undertaken and the method of journeying.  Responses to tourist and traveller both incorporated ideas of equipment needed, notably camera for tourist and water bottle for traveller.  Tourists and travellers alike were referred to as visitors, but only the responses to traveller allowed of visitors being either foreign or fellow countrymen.  Both sets of responses made reference to lots of people and lots of money; references to fun and excitement, Poms and the Barmy Army, carrying a backpack and accidents also appeared frequently in response to both words.  The words tourist and traveller themselves cropped up in definition of each other, as did the idea of holidays, but travellers were seen to travel for reasons other than being on holiday, an idea which was absent from the responses to tourist.

The differences between the responses to these two words can be briefly summarised as follows.  Those surveyed did not consider themselves to be tourists if they were in New Zealand; the prevalent idea was that a traveller can travel abroad or at home, but a New Zealander is not a tourist in New Zealand (and perhaps we can assume that people from other nations would think similarly; I would find it difficult to think of myself as a tourist in England, even if I were doing the things tourists do, such as visiting the Tower of London, and so on).  A tourist, therefore, is someone who has come to your country from abroad; a traveller is usually someone who ventures forth to foreign parts.  The overwhelming feeling gained from reading the resulting lists was that tourists invade, but travellers explore.  The idea of long-distance travel was more prevalent in those responses to traveller than to tourist, and it was interesting to note that while both lists contained references to geographical features, there was a distinct difference between the kinds of features mentioned: tourist elicited the words waterfall and countryside, but traveller elicited desert: the traveller therefore, is connected with a harsh and adventurous terrain, whereas the tourist is placed in comfortable, easy surroundings.  One response worth mentioning – although it is perhaps of limited significance, being only one response – is that the traveller seeks, while the tourist just sees.  It was interesting to discover also that the traveller is defined by age where the tourist is defined by race; there were numerous references to young person for traveller, but nothing similar for tourist; the tourist was identified by where he had come from, for example, Chinese, Pom, Asian and American.  It would not be misleading to say that respondents seemed to have a much clearer idea of what a tourist should look like – race, costume, objects carried, et cetera – but the traveller was not so clearly identifiable.  Where the tourists were seen to come from specific places, the travellers were more generic – anybody could be a traveller.  Travellers were seen to go camping, or to do it on the cheap; in comparison, tourists spent a lot of money.  As previously mentioned, the traveller often had an occupation, such as salesperson, gypsy, or fruit-picker, but the tourist did not.  The tourists undertook many activities (sightseeing, bungee jumping) but the travellers just travelled.  The travellers got to know the country at grass-roots level, compared to the tourists who were just passing through.  Finally, although this summary is by no means exhaustive, the idea of tourist incorporated the idea of planning – the tourist was an idiot with a map who carried a suitcase instead of a rucksack – and the traveller was linked with notions of spontaneity and exploration.  The tourist had an agenda, a plan, whereas the travellers just upped and went whenever the urge took them.

It is quite clear then, even from this very inconclusive survey, that these two words are not interchangeable, and that they each carry a certain set of associations in the mind of the reader.  To link Kafka’s warder with a tourist is to set up a comparison which differs from linking him with a traveller.  To cite a different example, one might respond to Shelley’s famous poem very differently if the first line read ‘I met a tourist from an antique land…’![21]

In conclusion, what has become clear is that readers do not store words in isolation, and that in discussing the meaning of a word it is probably more useful to take the holistic over the localist view.[22]  Words are not stored in the mind in the same way they are stored in a dictionary: words are mentally linked to other words, and one word is capable of invoking a whole host of associations.  Jean Aitchison discusses the importance of the quality of the links that form between words in Words in the Mind.  She notes that ‘the quality of the links in each case is probably more important than the exact location of the various pieces of information’.[23]  Indeed, one of the words currently under discussion provides a very neat example of this point: the word backpack has become so closely linked with the word traveller that when the suffix –er is added to the word backpack, the new word formed – backpacker – is a synonym of traveller.

To all of the above must be added the important factor of context.  It is quite probable that a reader will respond differently to the same word in different contexts, and of course, literary writing is arguably a context in itself.  A word appearing in a poem derives its meaning from many sources other than its dictionary definition: it will gather associations from those words with which it is linked phonologically and syntactically within the poem itself; it will perhaps spark recollections in the reader’s mind of its appearance in other poems which will add yet another meaning dimension.[24]  Within the confines of a single text, a word can gather associations and resonances that do not apply when that word appears elsewhere: for example, in Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat, we learn at the beginning of chapter three that Lise ‘will be found tomorrow morning dead from multiple stab-wounds, her wrists bound with a silk scarf and her ankles bound with a man’s necktie, in the grounds of an empty villa’.[25]  From this point onwards, the reader is exceptionally sensitive to the words ‘silk scarf’ and ‘necktie’ since these items have been implicated in Lise’s murder, and the word ‘villa’ now takes on the additional meaning of ‘scene of the crime’.  The word ‘villa’ appearing in a holiday brochure is unlikely to have the same resonance: it would simply indicate a form of available accommodation.

b) Schemata: Frames and Scripts

Leech and Short provide a clear statement about the shared knowledge between author and reader:

although the author of a novel is in the dark about his reader from many points of view, he can of course assume that he shares with his readers a common fund of knowledge and experience…quite a lot of general background knowledge of the world about us is needed to interpret even the simplest of sentences in a novel.[26]

Every day people are bombarded with vast quantities of information, and the way in which we cope with our experience of the world about us is to organise our observations into little packages, referred to as schemata.  Fowler notes that schemata are mechanisms by which memory is facilitated and ordered: ‘we store our ideas and experiences in terms of what is typical, what we take to be the usual attributes of an event or an idea’.[27]  Schemata are organised into frames and scripts.  Frames are clusters of typical features.  Fowler gives the example of a child’s birthday party: the features of this particular frame include jelly and ice cream, and blowing out the candles on a cake.  Scripts are stories: they have a sequential ordering, either temporal or logical.  When at a wedding, the groom should be in the church before the bride arrives, and the best man has to make an embarrassing speech at the reception that follows, and so on.  Schemata are packages of knowledge shared by members of a community, and this knowledge is acquired through a process of socialisation that begins at birth.  Schemata help us to organise mentally our experience of living in the world, and they also help us to make sense of written texts.  When faced with a text, ‘readers will recognize, through cues, what kind of text it is, and deploy appropriate conventional schemata’.[28]  In the case of literary texts, schemata consist of knowledge of typical story-lines, frames for typical narrative situations and settings, and so on.  Jean Aitchison provides a very nice example from literature:

consider the conversation between Ackroyd and Boothroyd, two characters who visit a ruined abbey in Alan Bennett’s play A Day Out:

Ackroyd:          They were Cistercian monks here…

Boothroyd:      It’s an unnatural life, separating yourself off like that…There wouldn’t be any kids, would there?  And allus getting down on their knees.  It’s no sort of life…

Here, the word monk…has triggered a whole situation, in which Boothroyd imagines silent corridors and monks praying.[29]

It is easy to see how a reader can apply her world knowledge to fictional texts in such instances, but how does the reader cope when the fictional world bears little or no resemblance to the world she inhabits?  Distance between reader and text can manifest itself in various forms: texts can be difficult for the reader to access because they were written hundreds of years ago, or because they depict an alien culture.  Stories written within the fantasy and science fiction genres are often set in a world other than the reader’s own:

most fictional texts create their fictional worlds through a relatively standard use of presupposition, schematic assumption and the like.  But some texts…create special effects by assuming ‘facts’ that are so at odds with our normal assumptions that we cannot ‘take them on’, in the normal way.[30]

Leech and Short make the observation that readers can and do cope with such texts, provided they are consistent: ‘CONSISTENCY is an important aid to credibility: an unfamiliar reality which obeys its own set of laws is more credible than one which does not’.[31]  The world of Peake’s Gormenghast is at first glance bewildering and disorientating, but the reader soon learns how to construct a version of this alternate reality.  Our first glimpse into this strange world lights upon the curator Rottcodd in the Hall of the Bright Carvings, endlessly dusting the beautiful carvings that no one ever sees.  We learn that while he knows it is ‘the eighth day of the eighth month’, he is ‘uncertain about the year’.[32]  The apparent futility of Rottcodd’s existence and his peculiar indifference to the passage of time soon make perfect sense to us once we have immersed ourselves more fully in the eccentric world of Peake’s enormous castle and the lives of its curious inhabitants.

But what of those other texts mentioned previously, those that are distanced from the reader temporally?  Riffaterre argues for an analytical approach that combines synchrony and diachrony: he notes that the message survives as the author –or encoder – intended, but ‘the decoders’ linguistic frame of reference changes with the passing of time; the moment may even come when there is nothing left in common between the code to which the message refers and the code used by its readers’.[33]  Before the reader can decode the message distant from him in time, it is necessary for him to acquire some specialised knowledge.  Short writes that ‘one important aspect of the work of English departments revolves around giving students the requisite schematic knowledge-base for responding sensitively to texts distant from them historically and/or culturally’.[34]  It goes without saying that departments of linguistics can also offer a great deal of knowledge concerning the historical development of languages.

c) Literary Competence

Linguistic competence is what enables the language user both to construct and to understand an infinite number of sentences in his native language, and it is this ability that generative grammar attempts to document.  By contrast, literary competence ‘is schematized knowledge possessed by those people who have had a literary education’.[35]  Linguistic competence will undoubtedly vary from individual to individual, but the variation in literary competence will be much greater.  Those who read English at university will probably attain a far higher level of literary competence than those who leave school at sixteen, for example.  The extent of an individual’s literary competence has a great deal of bearing on what sort of reader he is.  To give a very simple example, the word raven may mean many different things to different readers.  At one end of the scale, the reader may not recognise the word at all and for him, the marks on the page will have no significance – or signified – whatsoever.  A reader a little further up the scale may know that the raven is a big, black bird; another reader may connect the word raven with stories about the Tower of London.  Further still up the scale, the reader may make the connection with Edgar Allan Poe (or at least with that episode of The Simpsons!).  The next reader might recognise the raven as a symbol or omen of death, which will colour his reading of the text.  It is a simple example, but it is plain nevertheless that the reader who recognises the raven in the text as an ill omen will continue reading in a different frame of mind to the reader who thinks of the raven as just a type of crow.

Knowledge related to genre and other texts within that genre is also a feature of literary competence.  It has already been noted that the reader of The Yellow Wall-Paper will, having read the opening paragraphs, be expecting to read a ghost story, once she has been informed of the house’s cheap rent and lack of recent tenants.  Readers of Wuthering Heights who are familiar with the novels of Sir Walter Scott will be expecting that Lockwood, a young man plunged into strange and sinister surroundings, should encounter a ghost during his enforced stay at the Heights, as indeed he does.[36]

To possess literary competence is to be familiar with literary schemata.  The reader with literary competence is knowledgeable about various literary genres, which are stored in the head as frames: ghost stories should have creaking doors, guttering candles, strange noises, and a fatally curious protagonist; westerns should have swinging saloon doors, pistol-duels at dawn, whisky and sawdust, and a drunken or dastardly sheriff.  The reader with literary competence knows what the story should have in it, and roughly how the storyline should run.  A more specialised form of literary competence is the ability in the reader to recognise literary allusion.

d) Literary Allusion

To refer in the wording of one text to the wording or storyline of another text, either directly or indirectly, is to bring to the original text all the associations connected with the other.  Thus when Lockwood refers to the brindled cat Grimalkin[37] on the morning after his tortured night spent at the Heights, the reader familiar with Macbeth will no doubt recall the witches’ chants of Act I scene (i), ‘I come, Graymalkin!’, and Act IV scene (i), ‘Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d’.[38]  Macbeth is a play with more than its fair share of murder, ghosts, witchcraft and death, and the reader alert to these references will continue her reading of Wuthering Heights with all these associations in mind.  The young Catherine has already taunted Joseph with her supposed dabbling in witchcraft; Cathy’s ghost replaces that of Banquo’s, and Heathcliff, like Macbeth, is arguably a murderer.[39]  The notion of ‘content’ is complicated by the authorial use of allusion in that the borrowed phrases carry with them the baggage of the text alluded to – provided, of course, that the reader is able to detect and identify the reference in the first place.  F. W. Bateson and B. Shakevitch write in their essay on Katherine Mansfield’s The Fly:

as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport.  If the victim did not show some spirit, the gods would lose their sport.  (A half-consciousness of Gloucester’s dictum is no doubt expected in the reader.) [40]

The reader who does not pick up on this allusion will perhaps not form as complete a picture of the boss’ character as will a reader who does recognise this reference from Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Allusion, literary or otherwise, has an even greater role to play in allegorical texts such as Pratchett’s Discworld novels, and in this particular case the reader who misses the allusion will often miss the joke.  A reader who is also a banker explained via the monthly electronic Discworld newsletter the reference, already mentioned in chapter two, to the repeated phrase twelve and a half per cent uttered by Reacher Gilt’s parrot.  Other readers wrote in to shed light on the Discworld’s clacks system:

the Discworld’s clacks system has…origins in a system devised by Claude Chappe which spanned 17th century France.  It encountered opposition from peasants who thought that the ‘clacking’ noises were demonic and burned down the towers (think Borogravians in Monstrous Regiment).

the clacks towers were actually based on…well, clacks towers!…  From 1808-1814 during the Napoleonic war, it was used by the Admiralty as a semaphore station.  This was operated by a shutter system and could help relay a message to or from Yarmouth in five minutes.[41]

Another reader was sagacious enough to recognise the following literary reference:

I was re-reading Sourcery recently and I noticed a remarkable similarity between the poetry by Creosote and several verses from Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam….  For example, the first verse of the Rubaiyat begins, ‘Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight.’ and one of Creosote’s poems begins, ‘Get up! For morning in the cup of day, has dropped the spoon that scares the stars away.’[42]

Not being familiar with the Rubaiyat myself, this pleasant joke was completely lost on me until I read the above letter.

Much depends on the reader’s ability in the first instance to accurately identify an allusion: the danger is that an incorrectly identified allusion may lead to a redundant reading of the text.  In order to reach a full understanding of the significance of Lockwood’s first dream in Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, one has to recognise the biblical allusion in Branderham’s sermon.  In 1958, Ruth Adams published an article entitled ‘Wuthering Heights: the Land East of Eden’,[43] in which she identifies the source of the sermon as that of Genesis IV:24: ‘If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold.’  The biblical text Adams supplies refers the reader to the story of Cain, who, following the murder of his brother, moves to a land east of Eden, and whose mark serves as a warning to other men not to kill the slayer of Abel.  Adams notes that the ‘mark of Cain does not identify the condemned murderer.  Rather it is protective’.[44]  Cain’s descendants likewise are not subject to retribution for their crimes and therefore, writes Adams, ‘the race dwelling east of Eden can work its evils in the assurance that no conventional consequence of punishment will follow’.[45]  This, Adams argues, is the world of Wuthering Heights and its inhabitants, and the function of Lockwood’s first dream is to introduce the reader to this world:

Wuthering Heights…is a book without conventional ethics or morality.  Emily Brontë, aware of the adjustment such a pattern demanded of her readers, undertook to assist them from the very beginning.  Thus, with Lockwood’s dream of Banderham’s [sic] sermon, she indicated that readers were to travel east of Eden, in the company of those alienated from God and paradoxically protected by him against the punishing consequences of their deeds.[46]

There is much that is enticing in this reading: Adams’ explanation of the dream’s function is coherent and persuasive.  I noted in chapter one that the two worlds of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange represent, for the reader, the entire reality of the text.  Characters come and go – Heathcliff and Hindley both enjoy an absence of three years – but the reader never leaves the moors.  The inhabitants of these two residences therefore appear to be a law unto themselves, distinct and separate from the world of law, justice and punishment which exists beyond, just as Cain lives free from retribution in the land of Nod.[47]

There are at least two problems with Adams’ reading, leaving aside the claim that Wuthering Heights is ‘a book without conventional ethics or morality’.  Firstly, Edgar Shannon argues that the allusion has been incorrectly identified, and secondly, Adams’ explication of the allusion makes no reference to the fact that Cain is kept alive as a punishment, a fact that would surely have some relevance to her reading.  I shall deal with the second of these objections first, being, as it is, the least consequential of the two.  It is not entirely true that the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights – by whom I suppose Adams to mean Heathcliff and Hindley – commit crimes happily in the knowledge that no punishment will be forthcoming.  Both men suffer cruelly following the deaths of their loved ones.  Hindley survives Frances by six years, and Heathcliff lives through eighteen years of separation from Cathy.  The suffering of these two men is in turn visited upon those around them.  Adams is wrong, I think, to compare the inhabitants of the land of Nod with those of Wuthering Heights and to subsequently neglect this aspect of Cain’s story.  The mark of Cain may be protective, but it is also what is keeping him alive to suffer:

And Cain said unto the Lord, My punishment is greater than I can bear.

Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me.

And the Lord said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.  And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.[48]

Cain is made to wander the earth, a ‘fugitive’ and an outcast; never again is he to be allowed in the presence in the Lord.[49]  His crops will never grow, forcing him to beg for food.[50]  Adams could have compared the suffering of Cain to the suffering of Heathcliff, forced to endure eighteen years in a world without Cathy: ‘The entire world is a dreadful collection of memoranda that she did exist, and that I have lost her!’[51]  But why should Heathcliff be made to suffer as Cain did?  At the time of Cathy’s death, his only crime is his elopement with Isabella, and she is an all-too-willing party to this act.  It makes more sense, especially given the events of Lockwood’s second dream, to equate the figure of Cain with that of Catherine Earnshaw.  In 1959, Edgar Shannon wrote a response to Adams’ article in which he pointed out that Adams had firstly mistaken the allusion, and secondly, that she had made the error of explicating the book in terms of the first nightmare alone; Shannon argues that ‘the two dreams are inextricably linked’.[52]  He considers that Genesis IV:24 has ‘no relevance whatever to Branderham’s pious discourse’,[53] and suggests that the correct source of the allusion is Matthew XVIII:21-22:

Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?

Jesus said unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.

Shannon argues that this allusion is more likely to be the one Brontë had in mind for two reasons.  Firstly, Branderham’s sermon consists of four hundred and ninety parts, which is ‘the product of seventy times seven’.[54]  Secondly, Shannon notes that Lockwood specifically refers to ‘the hypothetical brother of Peter’s question’:[55] ‘it seemed necessary the brother should sin different sins on every occasion’.[56]  I mentioned in chapter one Cathy’s bemusement at being admonished for making herself comfortable when she hides in the dresser with Heathcliff.  To name four hundred and ninety separate sins, one would have to see small sins everywhere, including the sin of making oneself comfortable on a Sunday.  If, as I have suggested, Lockwood has changed places with Cathy during this first dream-sequence, then the reader sees that he, like Cathy, is bemused by both the number and nature of the sins, and, again like Cathy, he is finally punished for being bored by the ‘good book’.

Shannon writes that the correct interpretation of the sermon ‘advances the idea of an unpardonable sin beyond the ordinary scale of human wrongs’.[57]  Cathy is the one who has apparently committed such an offence, and in Lockwood’s second dream, the reader sees the consequences of her actions: Cathy is the Wandering Jew, the Cain-like figure, condemned to wander the earth for twenty years.[58]  But what is the nature of her offence?  Shannon suggests that the atmosphere of Gothic tradition in conjunction with a second biblical allusion in Lockwood’s first dream identifies the crime as adultery.  He writes that Branderham’s words to Lockwood, “Thou art the man! ”, are ‘the words of Nathan the prophet when he delivers God’s rebuke to David for appropriating Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.’[59]  If Lockwood has taken Cathy’s place in this dream, then the charge of adultery is laid at Cathy’s feet: she had been given Heathcliff but she took Edgar Linton instead.  One may argue at this point that Heathcliff and Cathy do not actually commit adultery; but, says Shannon, Cathy’s ‘sin is marrying Edgar Linton, when she loves Heathcliff with a love that springs from a natural and elemental affinity between them’.[60]

To sum up: Lockwood’s dreams contain two allusions that must be considered jointly if they are to be fully understood.  The first allusion refers to a story in the New Testament in which the virtue of forgiveness for crimes committed is extolled and the second allusion identifies the crime as that of adultery.  Cathy, having changed places with Lockwood in his dream, is charged with having committed adultery in abandoning the man she truly loved to marry another.

Lockwood’s dreams are recounted at the beginning of the book but chronologically speaking the events related take place near the very end of Heathcliff’s story.  The key to understanding his story lies perhaps in the interpretation one places on the allusions in these dreams.  It seems entirely possible that Shannon has correctly identified the two allusions.  However, it is arguable that Adams’ mistake is not entirely baseless: the fact that the wording does recall the Old Testament story of Cain may have some significance.  In the text identified by Shannon, Jesus makes the point that forgiveness is better than vengeance and the reader is perhaps intended to recall the vengeance of Cain and his punishment for being unable to forgive his brother Abel.  At the end of Wuthering Heights, it is Heathcliff who finally forgives Cathy, abandoning his plans of vengeance directed at her remaining family, and his reward is to join her in death.  In this reading, both Heathcliff and Cathy are likened to the figure of Cain: both are excluded from the world or sphere they wish to inhabit until Heathcliff can learn forgiveness and abandon his plans for vengeance.

iii)     Conclusions

In my brief overview of reader-response criticism it was noted that Fish places a great deal of emphasis on the role of the reader in his affective stylistics.  Fish advocates the study of the reader’s experience of reading rather than any attempt to extract meaning from the text, and he claims that it is imperative that one take into account the temporal left to right flow of the reading experience.  Mailloux presents an argument that focuses on the reader less as an individual and more as a member of a reading community.  He differs from Fish in his assertion that one cannot be a reader without also being a critic and that textual interpretation is the product of shared meaning-producing strategies.

It was seen that the displaced interaction between the encoder of the message, the author, and its decoder, the reader, is arguably one of the hallmarks of the literary text, as is the text’s potential for supporting a plurality of interpretations.  This potential is not limitless, however; the author takes pains to ensure that her message is decoded more or less as she intended, and to this end she acts as a guide for the reader.  This argument is not incompatible with Iser’s contention that the reader fills in textual gaps: this is indeed what happens, but the reader is not allowed to fill the gaps at random and is provided instead with hints and clues.  Knapp and Michaels suggest that textual meaning and authorial meaning are one and the same and that it does not make sense to search for any additional meaning with reference to the author’s biography or personal psychology: it suffices to believe that the author wrote what she meant!  This argument can, I think, be cited in support of the claim that form and content are inseparable.

My investigation into the factors affecting reader response to individual word meaning also supports the claim that form = content in that it was demonstrated that words are not simply interchangeable.  At first glance, it may appear that there is little difference between the words ‘tourist’ and ‘traveller’, but my small survey showed otherwise.  Lexical choice is therefore as important in determining meaning as other textual factors such as syntactic arrangement and punctuation.  A paraphrase of a literary work involves changes to these factors, resulting in an undesirable loss of the original’s meaning.  Furthermore, I hope to have demonstrated that psycholinguistic study into the meaning of individual words can prove very useful to the student of literature.  I discovered that the following factors have some bearing on word meaning: the reader’s age, gender, nationality and attitudes; the time of year; current events; priming; the meaning of other, related words; the distance in time between the original encoding and the subsequent decoding – material for a diachronic study; and finally, the context in which the word appears.

The boundaries of what is understood by the ‘content’ of a literary text are stretched when it comes to a consideration of literary competence.  It has been seen that specialised literary knowledge such as knowledge of literary schemata, genre, storylines, frames, and other texts is occasionally required to bridge the distance between the reader and the text.  Linguistic research can help the student of literature in the study of the historical development of a language, which may sometimes be necessary to pinpoint the most likely meaning of a word or phrase at the time of writing, but leaving diachronic study aside, this is the area where the literary critic comes into his own.  It must be concluded therefore, that the stylistic study of literary texts has to incorporate literary as well as linguistic analysis.  For a full understanding of the text, linguistic analysis must be supported by specialised literary knowledge.


[1] Michael Riffaterre, ‘Criteria for Style Analysis’ in Word (1959), pp. 154-174.

[2] Stanley Fish, ‘Literature in the Reader: Affective Stylistics’ in New Literary History (1970), p. 131.

[3] Ibid., pp. 126-127.

[4] The fact that a reader responds to a left to right temporal flow has some very interesting implications for graphic novels and comic books in particular; indeed, in Tintin: The Complete Companion, Michael Farr notes that ‘when…Tintin bursts into the cabin to find Bobby Smiles already gone on page 18 of the colour edition, he logically rushes out to the right; in the black and white version he had dashed out to the left, disrupting the natural flow of left to right dictated by the reader’s eye’ (p. 36).  I also think it important that the effects of peripheral vision should not be overlooked – I remember as a child covering up the last paragraph of the ghost stories I used to read, so that I wouldn’t glimpse the spooky ending before I wanted to!

[5] Carole Berger, ‘The Rake and the Reader in Jane Austen’s Novels’ in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 (1975), p. 544.

[6] Ibid., footnote.

[7] Steven Mailloux, ‘Learning to Read: Interpretation and Reader-Response Criticism’ in Studies in the Literary Imagination (1979), p. 93.

[8] Steven Mailloux, ‘ “The Red Badge of Courage” and Interpretive Conventions: Critical Response to a Maimed Text’ in Studies in the Novel (1978), pp. 48-63.  A bowdlerised version of Stephen Crane’s book was published by Appleton & Co. in 1895, and its critics fell into three camps: those who used existing interpretive conventions relating to that particular genre at that particular time and who arrived at a misreading; those who dismissed the text as incoherent; and finally those who, because of a greater sensitivity to those conventions, arrived at a reading which reflected more accurately the text in its completed state.  Mailloux concludes that this critical activity demonstrates ‘how traditional literary conventions function as interpretive conventions – shared strategies for making sense of texts’ (p. 49).  It is noteworthy that most critics fell into the first camp, and that they were those who simply ignored the conflicting evidence of the expurgated text, while the more sensitive critics in the third camp did not.

[9] Steven Mailloux, ‘Learning to Read: Interpretation and Reader-Response Criticism’ in Studies in the Literary Imagination (1979), p. 93.  Mailloux’s paper, written in 1979, reflects the contemporary reaction against the intentional and affective fallacies of Wimsatt and Beardsley.

[10] G. Leech and M. Short, Style in Fiction (1981), p. 259.

[11] Steven Mailloux, ‘Learning to Read: Interpretation and Reader-Response Criticism’ in Studies in the Literary Imagination (1979), p. 107.

[12] In their influential essay, ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ (1954), Wimsatt and Beardsley argue that authorial intention should not be the standard by which a literary work is measured, and that even if the author can and does give a straight answer as to her intended meaning, this answer still has little to do with the actual work.  Wimsatt and Beardsley do not go so far as to place the reader at the forefront of critical attention, however – indeed, their companion essay to the essay mentioned above, ‘The Affective Fallacy’ (1954), hotly denies such a position in its firm assertion of the supremacy of the text.  Wimsatt and Beardsley appear anxious to prove that the exegesis of a poem cannot be arrived at via an examination of emotions evoked in the reader of that poem: ‘the report of some readers…that a poem or story induces in them vivid images, intense feelings, or heightened consciousness, is neither anything which can be refuted nor anything which it is possible for the objective critic to take into account’ (ibid., p. 32).  This is true, but does not, I think, adequately address or explore the suggestion that the reader gives meaning to the text: the reader’s emotional response to a literary work is only a small part of the equation.  The authors are keen to argue that meaning resides solely in the text, concluding as they do that ‘though cultures have changed and will change, poems remain and explain’ (ibid., p. 39).  This last conclusion seems to me to be overly-optimistic: it is hardly difficult to find instances of texts – certain passages in Shakespeare, for example – which make little sense to modern readers owing to changes in the code itself over the passage of time, and it is in these instances that a diachronic knowledge of the code is invaluable.

[13] R. Fowler, Linguistic Criticism (1996), p. 130.

[14] W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley, The Intentional Fallacy in The Verbal Icon (1954), p. 5.

[15] S. Knapp and W. B. Michaels, ‘Against Theory’ in Critical Inquiry (1982), p. 724.

[16] Iser’s arguments are summarised and discussed in Stanley Fish, ‘Who’s Afraid of Wolfgang Iser?’ in Diacritics (1981), pp. 2-13.

[17] The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, 8th edition (1990).

[18] G. Leech and M. Short, Style in Fiction (1981), pp. 352-354.

[19] Undoubtedly the gender of the reader also creates differences in the perceived meaning of words, but I cannot comment on this particular issue in relation to my survey because the respondents were not asked to identify themselves as male or female.  I can, however, quote a personal instance in which I disagreed with a male reader over the interpretation of the phrase ‘well-developed’.  Angua from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is described as such, and while I, a female reader, imagined the character to have large breasts, my male friend insisted that the phrase meant she was muscular.  I have to say there is a great deal of other textual evidence to support my own interpretation!

[20] This constitutes an instance of priming: ‘preactivating a listener’s attention…is known as “priming”, the assumption being that if a word “primes” another (facilitates the processing of another), the two are likely to be closely connected.’  J. Aitchison, Words in the Mind (2003), p. 25.

[21] P. B. Shelley, Ozymandias (1818).

[22] In chapter five of Meaning in Language (2000), Alan Cruse describes the localist and holistic views of word meaning as follows: the localist view is that the meaning of a word can be finitely specified, in isolation from the meanings of other words in the language, whereas the holistic approach holds that the meaning of a word cannot be known without taking into account the meanings of all the other words in a language.

[23] J. Aitchison, Words in the Mind (2003), p. 245.

[24] In addition, literary texts are rife with invented words – the many and various neologisms of Gerard Manley Hopkins, for instance – and yet the reader can still make sense of these words simply by drawing on what he knows of other words, and how the separate components of lexical items function in the grammar of his native language.  The creation of new words is the subject of chapter 15 of Jean Aitchison’s book, in which she discusses ‘four types of word-formation process which are common in English: compounding, conversion, affixation and re-analysis.’  Words in the Mind (2003), p. 186.

[25] Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat (1970), Penguin Modern Classics edition, p. 25.

[26] G. Leech and M. Short, Style in Fiction (1981), p. 259.

[27] R. Fowler, Linguistic Criticism (1996), p. 239.

[28] Ibid., p. 241.

[29] J. Aitchison, Words in the Mind (2003), p. 72.

[30] M. Short, Exploring the Language of Poems, Plays and Prose (1996), p. 234.

[31] G. Leech and M. Short, Style in Fiction (1981), p. 158.

[32] M. Peake, Titus Groan (1946) in The Gormenghast Novels (1995), p. 14.

[33] M. Riffaterre, ‘Criteria for Style Analysis’ (1959), p. 159.

[34] M. Short, Exploring the Language of Poems, Plays and Prose (1996), p. 234.

[35] R. Fowler, Linguistic Criticism (1996), p. 241.

[36] I am indebted to Rose Lovell-Smith for this point.

[37] E. Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847), Penguin Classics edition (1995), p. 29.

[38] W. Shakespeare, Macbeth, The Arden Shakespeare, ed. Kenneth Muir, pp. 4 and 105 respectively.

[39] John Sutherland argues that Heathcliff is Hindley’s murderer in an essay entitled ‘Is Heathcliff a Murderer?’ (1996) published in his book of the same name, pp. 53-58.

[40] F. W. Bateson and B. Shakevitch, ‘Katherine Mansfield’s “The Fly”: A Critical Exercise’ in Essays in Criticism (1962), pp. 50-51.

[41] Readers’ letters posted in Discworld Monthly, Issue 109, May 2006.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ruth M. Adams, ‘Wuthering Heights: the Land East of Eden’ in Nineteenth-Century Fiction (1958), pp. 58-62.

[44] Ibid., p. 59.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid., p. 62.

[47] Although this outer world does occasionally show its face from time to time: Heathcliff prevents Edgar from changing his will, and the lawyers can do nothing to help Hareton following Hindley’s death, to cite just two examples.

[48] Genesis IV:13-15.

[49] To be excluded forever from the presence of God having once been welcomed into His presence is Mephostophilis’ definition of hell in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus: ‘Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it./Think’st thou that I that saw the face of God/And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,/Am not tormented with ten thousand hells/In being deprived of everlasting bliss?’ Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, Act I, scene (iii), Penguin Classics edition (1969), p. 275.

[50] Genesis IV:12: ‘When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength’.

[51] Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847), Penguin Classics edition (1995), p. 324.

[52] Edgar F. Shannon, ‘Lockwood’s Dreams and the Exegesis of “Wuthering Heights”’ (1959), p. 95.

[53] Ibid., p. 96.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847), Penguin Classics edition (1995), p. 23.

[57] Edgar F. Shannon, ‘Lockwood’s Dreams and the Exegesis of “Wuthering Heights”’ (1959), p. 99.

[58] In Volume I, chapter 9, Cathy tells Nelly of her dream in which the angels, angry because Cathy is unhappy in heaven, fling her back to earth.  It seems here that Cathy chooses to be an outcast, and in view of later events her dream can perhaps be read as a premonition: Cathy wishes to be back on earth because Heathcliff is there.

[59] Edgar F. Shannon, ‘Lockwood’s Dreams and the Exegesis of “Wuthering Heights”’ (1959), p. 100.

[60] Ibid.

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