What is literature?

Literature, s. learning, skill in letters.

Dr Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary

This definition of ‘literature’ provided by Dr Johnson was penned in the middle of the eighteenth century. Here he is as played by Robbie Coltrane in the third Blackadder series:

This is such a clever episode, and it’s one of my favourites. The line which makes me laugh every time is Prince George’s response to Dr Johnson’s explanation of the purpose of his famous dictionary:

DR JOHNSON: It is a book, sir, that tells you what English words mean!

PRINCE GEORGE: I know what English words mean! You must be a bit of a thickie.

Dr Johnson was not, of course, thick, and his definition of ‘literature’ was perfectly adequate for the middle of the eighteenth century, when the novel was in its infancy. As Jonathan Culler notes in his Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, ‘[p]rior to 1800, literature and analogous terms in other European languages meant “writings” or “book knowledge”‘ (1997:21). But the literary world has grown exponentially since then in terms of production, reception, criticism and theory, and Johnson’s definition now looks to be sadly lacking. So, if we were going to define ‘literature’ for the twenty-first century, where would we start?

What is literature?

Some of my initial thoughts were as follows.

  1. Literature can be anything written down, or any kind of text consisting of words and/or images.
  2. Literature is a crafted piece of work, such as a novel, play or poem etc., consisting of words and/or images in which the form and the content of the work are arguably inseparable, or alternatively, a text in which the aesthetic function is privileged over the communicative.
  3. Literature is both a response to and a product of its socio-historical and cultural context.

These ideas are perhaps drawing a little closer to a more contemporary definition of ‘literature’,  but to my mind, they still do not provide a clear picture of what ‘literature’ really is. I had a look at how literature is defined in a couple of modern dictionaries, and this is what I found:

Chambers Dictionary

literature n.

1 The art of composition in prose and verse

2 The whole body of literary composition universally, or in any language, or on a given subject, etc.

3 Literary matter

4 Printed matter

5 Humane learning

6 Literary culture or knowledge

…and here’s the second definition:

Shorter Oxford English Dictionary

literature, n.

[(French littérature from) Latin lit(t)ratura, from lit(t)era LETTER noun: see -URE.]

1 Acquaintance with books; polite or humane learning; literary culture. Now arch. rare. LME

2 Literary work or production; the realm of letters. L18

3a Literary productions as a whole; the body of writings produced in a particular country or period. Now also spec., that kind of written composition valued on account of its qualities of form or emotional effect. E19

-b The body of books and writings that treat of a particular subject. M19

-c Printed matter of any kind. colloq. L19.

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (hereafter SOED) is of course a much larger work than the Chambers Dictionary (hereafter CD), and its entries include etymological details and examples of usage, which the CD doesn’t. Hence we have in the SOED a history of the word ‘literature’, including the sense used by Dr Johnson (number 1) marked here as ‘arch. rare. LME’. By the late eighteenth century (number 2), the sense of ‘literature’ has expanded to acknowledge the works themselves, rather than serving as some kind of pseudo-adjective to describe a particular attribute of those who read books and letters. Sense 2 is less centred on the human reader of texts and more focused on literary output, although this output is still very much connected with ‘the realm of letters’. (This makes sense, of course, when put into historical context.) Sense 3 seems to be a more current definition of ‘literature’ accepted by the SOED, and this sense is divided into three parts which reflect the expansion of the term’s usage over the nineteenth century. It’s worth noting, however, that sense 3c, ‘Printed matter of any kind’ is still labelled colloq., as if it is in some way inferior to the other senses.

The CD entry for ‘literature’ is set out differently. There is no etymological or historical information, and no concrete examples are provided. The entry is split into six senses, which seem to be listed in order of decreasing relevance, with 1 being the most commonly used sense and 6 being the least. We can see then, that CD senses 5 and 6 more or less reflect the SOED’s sense 1 in that they are historical meanings no longer or rarely used. ‘Printed matter’ appears at CD sense 4, because it is used more often than 5 or 6, but less often than 1, 2 or 3 (and note there is no ‘colloq.’ value judgement here!). CD sense 3 is too vague for me – I honestly don’t really know what might be meant by ‘literary matter’. Sense 2 describes the existing body of work and the top sense – CD sense 1 – refers to its production.

I’d like to note two things of interest in the comparison of these two definitions. First, the SOED attempts to define why a work might be considered ‘literature’ in sense 3a: literature is ‘that kind of written composition valued on account of its qualities of form or emotional effect’. This, of course, raises heaps of questions: what sort of qualities are valued? Who decides what qualities are valuable? How does a reader recognise these qualities? What sort of emotional effect are we talking about here? – and so on – but it is not a dictionary’s job to answer these questions. The CD, however, perhaps wisely makes no attempt at all to comment on form or effect and sticks to a definition that is unquestionably true, but limited in scope: ‘literature’ is ‘[t]he art of composition in prose and verse’. The other point I wish to mention is the use of the word ‘humane’, which appears in both entries. Dictionary definitions inevitably lead to the search for other definitions, and CD lists the following as one of the senses of ‘humane’: ‘humanising as humane letters, classical, elegant, polite’. I think, then, that this sense is a reflection of the eighteenth century zeitgeist and its obsessive love affair with classical form, rather than any attempt to suggest that reading makes us all better human beings.

Well, dictionary definitions are all well and good, but they are designed for a very specific purpose and are perhaps not the best way to explore this question. Moreover, dictionaries do not define usage, they merely reflect it. A dictionary definition is not timeless or fixed, nor does it represent some kind of untouchable truth. So let’s set about this a different way, and try to provide answers to some fairly open questions.

1. If we want to think about literature as writing, then does the term apply to all written texts, or only to a specific kind?

I’m always very keen to include comics (graphic novels if you must) under the heading of ‘literature’, which I’m aware others are not. For me, they are dense and rewarding texts: the words and images are read in conjunction and work together to create meaning, even when one is apparently undermining the other. But no doubt different people would include all sorts of different works when asked what they would classify as ‘literature’: for example, there have been many voices in favour of the inclusion of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld oeuvre. The fantasy genre, whose readers do tend to put the ‘fan’ in fanatical, throws up an interesting question. If we classify The Lord of the Rings as literature – and we do – why not Game of Thrones (for example)? Is it because the author of the former was a much-lauded Anglo-Saxon scholar and a professor of English? Or does Tolkien’s novel genuinely present properties that are lacking in Martin’s work? (And if so, what are these properties?)

Some texts will not be acceptable as ‘literature’ because the quality of writing is considered too low in standard. But who sets these standards, and what are they? To return to the example of Pratchett’s extremely popular Discworld series, many of these books are formulaic, over-long, and consequently dull – but Monstrous Regiment, Night Watch and Going Postal are really very good. On the other hand again, someone once tried to tell me that Pratchett is on a par with P G Wodehouse, to which my response was a thumping NO HE IS NOT. Pratchett’s comic timing is good, but Wodehouse’s is impeccable: he writes highly sophisticated sentences which turn exquisitely on numerous subordinate clauses to deliver the funny at exactly the right moment. Perhaps in the end it all comes down to a sense of grammar and an excellent ear. I don’t know. But I do know that Wodehouse is better than Pratchett.

I think, in fact, the question is asking for a distinction to be made between texts that are clearly communicative and functional, and texts that are ‘art’. But even here, the line has to be drawn somewhere, and while it is easy to make a distinction between a novel and a shopping list, what do you do if that shopping list has a kind of poetic coherence, or if it makes a poignant comment on the human condition that makes reading it an emotional experience? What then?

2. When does ‘literature’ become ‘Literature’?

I’ve taken the capital L to mean that a work is sanctioned or ratified and can henceforth be considered ‘good’ and ‘worthy of study’.

So, works of literature become ‘Literature’ when:

  • an over-privileged and overbearing white male such as Harold Bloom decides that a work should be included in the literary canon;
  • a work is added to the curriculum and taught in schools, colleges and universities;
  • a work is nominated for a literary prize;
  • a work chimes with the zeitgeist; when its theme, form or execution fits the prevailing cultural preferences.

All of which means that ‘Literature’ can go back to being ‘literature’ as soon as it falls out of favour. It’s not necessarily a one-way street we’re talking about here. Writers who were once lauded can sink into obscurity, but there is the possibility of rescue when a change in the cultural wind makes them fashionable once again.

I don’t think much of ‘Literature’, really. It’s an interesting phenomenon in its own right, especially in the contribution it can make to the study of culture, but I certainly can’t reconcile myself to the idea of a literary canon.

3. If literature possesses a quality that we recognise as ‘literariness’, then how is this recognised?

To answer this question, one would have to consider the notions of ‘foregrounding’ and ‘deviance’ put forward by the Prague School scholars at the beginning of the twentieth century. It’s about language, and when language draws attention to itself in some way, through use of rhyme, metaphor, and all the many many other literary devices. If we are using metalanguage – language about language – to describe what’s going on in the text, then that text has called attention to its FORM and therefore possesses literary qualities (even if it is not considered literature).

4. Is literature best thought of, beginning perhaps from linguistics, as a form of ‘peculiar language’?

This is Prague School territory again, and I think the New Critics could also be brought into this discussion, but essentially, the answer is no. Some literary works include remarkably non-literary language – Hemingway, for example, and see Terry Eagleton’s comments on ‘This is awfully squiggly handwriting!’ in Knut Hamsun’s novel Hunger (from Eagleton’s Literary Theory, p. 6). The context is literary, but arguably not the style – although I think this statement is problematic. For example, Hemingway’s sentences are simple, but this doesn’t mean they’re not carefully crafted to achieve a certain effect.

Perhaps literature, or literary language, is best thought of as being differentiated from other language use in terms of its function rather than its form. What’s it there for? What is it doing? Why should we read it? …which brings me to the next question.

5. What is literature for?

I came up with seven possible responses to this one.

  1. for entertainment, to tell a story;
  2. for edification and instruction;
  3. for the dissemination of an ideology, whether done knowingly or not;
  4. to provoke discussion, to enlighten, to share, to inform, to make readers think, to shock, to awaken in a mental sense;
  5. to form part of a nation’s cultural life; to create and perpetuate a way of thinking and a body of myths and legends;
  6. to bring people together;
  7. to deceive – remember Plato banned the poets!

And the final question:

6. Does literature make anything happen?

Taking point 3 above, yes. Literature can be enormously powerful, for good or for bad. Stories can become myths, and the myths can become ways of thinking and being. Literature can reveal and shatter normalised thinking patterns, but it can also create them.

In addition, if someone powerful disagrees with what you write, you lay yourself open to hostile criticism or even place yourself in physical danger – look at Salman Rushdie’s experience of the fatwa, and consider Timothy Bell’s recommendation that Hilary Mantel be investigated by the police following the publication of her short story The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: 6 August 1983. Literature can create culture and cultural revolutions. One has only to look at the historical – and contemporary – persecution of writers to realise that state governments take very seriously the written output of citizens. English PEN certainly has its work cut out.

I’m not sure I’ve got any closer to answering the question ‘What is literature?’, but there’s some food for further thought here at least.

Focalisation in verbo-visual texts: ‘Treat’ by Stephen Collins

Stephen-Collins-Treat

The text under discussion here is a comic strip, a short ‘verbo-visual’ narrative (Saraceni, 2000) that can either take the form of a self-contained unit such as Collins’ Treat or it can form part of a much larger narrative (Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury). These strips are published daily or weekly in newspapers and their purpose is to amuse, hence their former nickname, ‘the funnies’. Treat is reproduced in full above (Appendix A), and again below (Appendix B) with numbered panels for ease of reference, and a glossary of key terms.

Appendix B for posting

In spite of the centrality of focalisation as a concept in narrative theory, there is dissension amongst scholars as to the scope of this concept and whether or not it should include ‘aspects of cognition’ alongside more traditional considerations of purely visual perspective (Horstkotte and Pedri, 2011: 330). The argument presented here adopts Horstkotte and Pedri’s conception of focalisation as a ‘cognitive operation related to aspectuality [Palmer, 2004: 194-200] that subsumes the narrower optical view’ (2011: 332). In other words, focalisation, or the filter through which the storyworld is presented, comprises processes of perception and cognition that are inseparable: an object or event is not merely placed before the reader as a fact, it is perceived in a way that is peculiar to the perceiving consciousness. The concerns expressed by Horstkotte and Pedri (2011) relating to the dominance of the visual facet of focalisation at the expense of the cognitive are compounded when the text contains both visual and verbal elements, in which case the need is even greater for a more flexible approach. The perceptual facet of comics, or graphic narratives, obviously cannot be dismissed, but to restrict the analysis of focalisation in these texts to a description of ‘camera’ angles alone is to do them an injustice. In this essay, I argue that focalisation is realised in Collins’ comic strip in three different ways. First, the vectors created by line of gaze describe a transitivity which places the boy wearing the devil-horns in subject position. This transitivity is also demonstrated through a variation of shot/reverse-shot editing, a filmic technique which aligns the object observed with the observer’s visual perspective. Second, the reader is primed to accept the boy as focaliser by means of the reader’s knowledge of the conventions of the fairy-tale genre which is established early on as a parallel secondary narrative. Finally, the boy is identified as focaliser in the second tier through repeated instances of a particular panel representing a narratively significant ‘pregnant moment’ (Kukkonen, 2013a: 48-50).

Focalisation as a concept grew out of the need to differentiate between various competing narrative voices in purely linguistic texts (see Genette, 1980), and given the relative importance of focalisation in narrative theory, there is justification for exploring how this concept might operate in graphic narratives. The relatively recent boost in academic interest in comics coincides with an accelerated proliferation of multimodal texts to the point where the co-existence of the verbal and the visual is arguably creating ‘a new semiotic landscape’ (Saraceni, 2000: 5; see also McCloud, 1993: 58-59; and Goodman, 2007: 113-146). Kukkonen claims that comics provide a useful test case for the new transmedial narratology, or ‘the project of investigating how particular media constrain as well as enable storytelling practices’ (2011: 34), and Ewert’s sensitive analysis of the combined effect of the visual and the verbal in Art Spiegelman’s Maus showcases the contributory potential of such work to narratological studies. Ewert’s essay makes an eloquent case in favour of ‘a poetics of the graphic narrative’ (2004: 191), a framework which, though currently lacking, would greatly facilitate and enhance scholarly discussion. Practitioners such as McCloud and particularly Eisner laid solid foundations for future research in their own seminal publications, both of which, for example, discuss the different types of word/picture relationships occurring in graphic narratives (McCloud, 1993: 153-155; Eisner, 1985: 122-138). Saraceni adds ‘semiotic blend’ to this discussion, a word/picture combination in which verbal and pictorial elements acquire each other’s characteristics (Saraceni, 2000:43), exemplified in Treat by the moon in panel 1 which doubles as a full stop. Other occasional instances of semiotic blend in this text occur against a background of ‘mirroring, when the verbal and visual texts reinforce each other and can operate independently to tell the story’ (Saraceni, 2000: 43). I shall return to this point later in the discussion of focalisation and genre.

The first part of the analysis presented here focuses on the perceptual facet of focalisation and how this can be realised in a verbo-visual text. Kress and van Leeuwen apply Halliday’s work on ideational transitivity to the relation of objects in images (Halliday, 1994: 106-175), and they suggest that the interaction between objects can be ‘visually realized by vectors’ (Kress and van Leeuwen, 2006: 42). For example, the tail of a speech balloon in verbo-visual texts forms a vector between the character speaking and what was said, and the transitivity pattern in this case is that of the mental externalised process with a speaker and an utterance. In the second tier of Treat, a vector is formed by the boy’s eyeline as he looks at the head: the boy’s gaze and the direction of the vector travel left to right in accordance with the reading experience. Although the stylised depiction of the boy renders his expression enigmatic, the direction of his gaze is not in doubt because the physical position of the dot which represents his eye changes as he looks up and down. When he looks up at the old woman, his eye-dot shifts up and to the right (compare panels 15 and 16). The transitivity pattern here is a mental internalised perception process (or ‘reactional’ in Kress and van Leeuwen’s terms), with the boy as ‘senser’ (or ‘reacter’) and the head as ‘phenomenon’ (Kress and van Leeuwen, 2006: 67). The eyeline vectors establish the boy’s act of looking as the event of silent panels 13, 15 and 20. If a vector is a visual realisation of an action verb (Kress and van Leeuwen, 2006: 46), then the boy is the subject of that verb, and because the verb denotes an act of perception, the boy can be identified as the perceptual focaliser at this stage of the narrative.

As previously stated, this transitivity of senser and phenomenon is also signalled by a shot/reverse-shot sequence played out over panels 13 to 21 as the ‘camera’ switches back and forth between focaliser in mid-shot and focalised in close-up. Kukkonen notes that in shot/reverse-shot editing ‘readers can identify the middle image as being perceived from the perspective of the character’ (2013a: 49; see also Saraceni, 2000: 200 and Mikkonen 2008: 312). A shot/reverse-shot sequence usually incorporates the focaliser’s emotional reaction to the focalised and certainly the reader is invited to imagine the boy’s response to the gift offered. I shall argue in the sections to follow that the boy’s reaction is spread over a sequence of eight successive panels, thus requiring the reader to participate in this extended moment of indecision.

Before I discuss the playing-out of the boy’s reaction, however, it is necessary to introduce some genre-related considerations, which have already been briefly touched on. Genre schemas can be evoked through textual clues (Kukkonen, 2013a: 69), and in this particular case, the fairy-tale genre is activated in the witch-like imagery (the pointed hat, an old woman giving sweets to children) and, most importantly, in the traditional structure-of-three. There are three trick-or-treaters, each of whom is offered a ‘treat’. The first two are offered ‘Nice’ biscuits and the pattern is broken with the third child who is offered ‘a lovely life-destroying cursed head in a jar’. The convention of the structure-of-three dictates that the reader will be expecting this change and will no doubt have already seen panel 12 before commencing a more detailed reading: after all, the whole strip is viewable at a glance (see Eisner, 1985: 40-41). Nevertheless, the positioning of the head at the end of the first tier creates a pause between the offering of the gift and the boy’s reaction to it in panel 13 on the second tier, almost as if the tiers could be read like lines of poetry. The importance of the boy’s reaction is therefore structurally marked both in this pause and in the anticipated break in the pattern as dictated by genre. Narrative progression can be partly guessed at once the fairy-tale genre is active, and this brings the argument back to the word/picture combination of ‘mirroring’ mentioned earlier. Both the visual and verbal components of Treat seem sufficient on their own to tell the story; however, one must ask what is lost if, for example, the words are removed from the pictures. Speech and thought representation is an important facet of focalisation and the verbal component is vital ‘in constructing the sense of a mind’ (Mikkonen, 2008: 312). Here, the boy’s voice works in postmodern contradiction to expectations aroused by genre. Kukkonen notes that ‘[p]ostmodern fairy tales [can]…subvert readers’ expectations…by not following the narrative probabilities and modes of verisimilitude that genre decorum prescribes’ (2013a: 80). The subversion of expectations in Treat is twofold: first, in the boy’s obvious reluctance to accept the offered gift, and second, in his vocalisation of this reluctance. In traditional fairy tales, the narrator is usually the dominant narrative voice and fairy-tale characters are rarely allowed to speak for themselves. When they do speak, they express themselves only in bland or ritualised utterances and this convention no doubt stems from the oral origins of fairy tales which feature numerous formulaic and therefore memorable speeches. In Treat, the boy voices his disappointment that his gift is not also a biscuit both indirectly to the old woman and directly to his peers in the final panel. To summarise, the evocation of the fairy-tale genre primes the reader to anticipate that the third gift-offering will break the established pattern, and the third child will emerge as protagonist. The protagonist is not necessarily the focaliser, however: what singles the boy out as focaliser is his vocalised response to the ‘treat’ offered and the slow playing-out of his reaction in the panels of the second tier.

Both Eisner and McCloud devote entire chapters to the panel (Eisner, 1985: 38-99; McCloud, 1993: 94-117). The panel is ‘a portion…of the narrative, where something actually takes place and time’ (Saraceni, 2003: 7) and ‘panel arrangements…are used to imply temporal sequence’ (Kukkonen, 2011: 35). Each panel marks an indeterminate time-span which is dependent on variables both internal and external to that particular panel, including narrative context and reader input. For example, there is no dialogue to provide any indication of time-span in panels 13, 15 and 20, and the reader can determine for herself how much time passes. Panel shape and size adds another dimension to the illusion of narrative temporality and the removal of the panel’s border altogether can create the impression of unlimited space or infinite time (McCloud, 1993: 102), as seen here in panel 12 with the introduction of the cursed head. Panel shapes in Treat are clearly divided into groups, and these groupings reflect semantically-linked narrative moments: for example, the proffering and acceptance of the biscuits is rendered in panels 6 to 11, comprising two groups of three duplicated frames. Panels 1 and 22 are the same shape and size, thus inviting comparison, and the content of these panels reflects the major narrative change, that is, the boy’s acquisition of the head. In panel 1, the scene is an urban one, depicting human habitations picked out by street-lamps and lit from within. The street is lined with carefully-spaced trees and neatly-parked cars, and the trick-or-treaters stand on the doorstep, about to knock at the old woman’s door. In the final panel, the houses and cars are nowhere to be seen, but the visually dominant trees tower over the silhouetted figures of the children in what has become a horror-story setting.

Equally important to the structure of graphic narratives is the space between the panels, known as the gutter, and it is always present even if the panels are adjacent (Saraceni, 2003: 9). If each panel is the grammatical equivalent of a sentence (Eisner, 1985: 28), then the gutter is the space between one sentence and the next, and it is a space in which the reader infers all that is missing from the narrative: ‘just as you step across the gutter, your mind creates connections between the individual panels, by drawing inferences about how the action in the one can relate to the other’ (Kukkonen, 2013b: 10). As is the case with purely linguistic texts, the reader infers that which the narrative does not tell. In fact, Collins’ strip demonstrates unity of time in all but three places (between panels 1-2, 5-6 and 21-22), and it is here the reader uses real-world knowledge to fill the gaps. Nevertheless, the reader of Treat is required to perform only a minimal amount of inferencing to construct a coherent, meaningful narrative, for two reasons. First, the strip features a high level of visual repetition from one panel to the next, rendering it an enormously cohesive text: the repetition functions as an explicit marker of ‘relatedness’ (Saraceni, 2000: 101). Second, the movement between panels for much of the strip is what McCloud describes as a moment-to-moment transition, noticeably in the second tier when the boy’s indecision is played out in detail (1993: 70).

It is at this stage that the function of panels 7 and 10 becomes clear. If they were to be removed from the strip, the moment-to-moment transition of panels 6 to 8 and 9 to 11 would become action-to-action transitions depicting the offering of the biscuit and its acceptance, and the loss of panels 7 and 10 would not occasion any confusion on the part of the reader. However, far from being redundant, the function of these two panels is to emphasise the moment between the proffering and acceptance of the old woman’s gift, so that this moment can be extended over panels 13-20. The extension of this moment and the hesitation it depicts on the part of the boy clearly marks him as the text’s internal focaliser. Mikkonen notes that in ‘visual narratives we often see the mind in action from a focalised perspective’ (2008: 316, emphasis in original) and that is precisely the case here. As previously stated, the boy’s reluctance to accept the gift is played out over eight panels and this is a significant proportion in a text of only 22 panels: the moment between proffering and acceptance in this instance comprises just over a third of the whole strip (36%). This example of a ‘sustained continuing-consciousness frame’ (Mikkonen, 2008: 316) is a relatively straightforward feat for a short verbo-visual narrative such as the comic strip, but medium-specific constraints can curtail attempts to prolong internal focalisation over longer stretches of text.

In this essay, I have claimed that the boy wearing the devil-horns can be identified as the internal focaliser of the events of the second tier of Treat, and that this identification is made possible through a combination of factors. The perceptual facet of focalisation was explored in a discussion of the transitivity of the text created by eyeline-vectors, and a shot/reverse-shot sequence which coincides with the boy’s viewpoint. Saraceni notes that the perspective through which the relationships between characters and objects are conveyed has an equivalent function to deixis (2000: 203), and deixis is defined by Simpson in relation to linguistic texts as ‘features of language which function to locate utterances in relation to speakers’ viewpoints’ (1993: 13). The textual features discussed here locate the viewpoint as that of the boy. However, I argued earlier that the perceptual facet should be combined with the cognitive in order to fully encompass all that is implied by the concept of focalisation. Saraceni makes a case for a merger of the perceptual with the psychological because access is needed to a character’s mind in order to see what they see (2000: 172). The psychological facet is realised here in the playing-out of the boy’s reluctance to accept the gift offered in a drawn-out moment of narrative significance. Finally, I have coupled the perceptual and psychological facets of focalisation as evidenced in the text with the contribution brought to the narrative by the reader: that of the recognition of a secondary genre which informs the text and allows the reader to infer that the third child will receive a different gift. The reader can therefore anticipate in advance the boy’s role as focaliser.

List of references

Collins, S. Treat. Published in The Guardian on 26 October 2012. Available at http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/cartoon/2012/oct/26/2. Accessed 18 February 2016 at 18:22.

Eisner, W. (1985) Comics and Sequential Art. Paramus: Poorhouse Press.

Ewert, J. (2004) Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’ and the Graphic Narrative. In Narrative Across Media: The Languages of Storytelling. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 178–193.

Genette, G. (1980) Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Goodman, S. (2007) Visual English. In Redesigning English. Abingdon: Routledge, 113–159.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1994) An Introduction to Functional Grammar. (2nd ed.) London: Edward Arnold.

Horstkotte, S. & Pedri, N. (2011) Focalisation in Graphic Narrative. Narrative 19(3): 330–357.

Kress, G. & van Leeuwen, T. (2006) Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. (2nd ed.) London: Routledge.

Kukkonen, K. (2011) Comics as a Test Case for Transmedial Narratology. SubStance 40(1): 34–52.

—-2013a. Contemporary Comics Storytelling. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

—-2013b. Studying Comics and Graphic Novels. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

McCloud, S. (1993) Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins.

Mikkonen, K. (2008) Presenting Minds in Graphic Narratives. Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas 6(2): 301–321.

Palmer, A. (2004) Fictional Minds. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Saraceni, M. (2000) Language beyond language: Comics as verbo-visual texts. PhD thesis. University of Nottingham.

—- (2003) The Language of Comics. London: Routledge.

Simpson, P. (1993) Language, Ideology and Point of View. London: Routledge.

Elizabeth Bennet reads Mr Darcy’s letter

The account of his [Wickham’s] connection with the Pemberley family, was exactly what he had related himself; and the kindness of the late Mr. Darcy, though she had not before known its extent, agreed equally well with his own words. So far each recital confirmed the other: but when she came to the will, the difference was great. What Wickham had said of the living was fresh in her memory, and as she recalled his very words, it was impossible not to feel that there was gross duplicity on one side or the other; and, for a few moments, she flattered herself that her wishes did not err. But when she read, and re-read with the closest attention, the particulars immediately following of Wickham’s resigning all pretensions to the living, of his receiving in lieu, so considerable a sum as three thousand pounds, again was she forced to hesitate. She put down the letter, weighed every circumstance with what she meant to be impartiality – deliberated on the probability of each statement – but with little success. On both sides it was only assertion. Again she read on. But every line proved more clearly that the affair, which she had believed it impossible that any contrivance could so represent, as to render Mr. Darcy’s conduct in it less than infamous, was capable of a turn which must make him entirely blameless throughout the whole.

Jane Austen ‘Pride and Prejudice’ Oxford World’s Classics edition (1990) p. 182

firth and ehle

This passage represents a turning point in the narrative: first Darcy and then Elizabeth are forced to reassess their own embedded narratives (Palmer, 2004) in order to incorporate that of the other. Darcy has spent much of the night writing an explanatory letter to Elizabeth after she has given her reasons for refusing his proposal of marriage, and the excerpt under discussion shows Elizabeth’s reaction on reading this letter and learning a different sort of truth to the one she has previously upheld. The world-view of each character alters dramatically, and this change is reflected also in the situation of the reader, who is forced to revisit and reassess the novel’s events up to this point at the same time Elizabeth does so, and is therefore subject to the same reading experience as Elizabeth. Many of Elizabeth’s memories will tally with the reader’s recollection of events, and the reader, alongside Elizabeth, will revise formerly-created contextual frames (Emmott, 1997). It is now that the reader will realise that many of these memories were not, in fact, impartially formed, but were coloured by Elizabeth’s perception of events. She is the novel’s focaliser, and at this point she is also the focalised while she examines her recollections and even her conscience: this passage occurs shortly before Elizabeth famously cries out: ‘Till this moment, I never knew myself’ (185). It is at this moment in the novel that the difference between the narrator and focaliser is apparent, and once this difference is recognised, the reader is also cognisant of the extent to which the two were previously confused. The narrator has encouraged the deception of the reader through discreet use of the focaliser-character’s world-view to distort the creation of memory as the novel’s events occurred, thus enabling the narrator to administer a salutary corrective to both Elizabeth and the reader when Darcy’s letter is read and the ugly truth about Wickham’s character known.

The narrator states that Elizabeth has to collect herself before re-reading the letter, an activity described as a ‘mortifying perusal of all that related to Wickham’ (182). Although Darcy is not yet exonerated for his part in Bingley’s rejection of Jane, the narrator indicates here that he is in no way to be held accountable for Wickham’s misfortunes, and that Elizabeth knows this to be the case even before she embarks upon reading the letter for a second time. In writing the letter, Darcy has provided his own defence against Wickham’s aspersions, and Elizabeth is to judge between the two narratives. The passage under consideration shows Elizabeth weighing the evidence before passing judgement. Sections of Darcy’s letter reappear in paraphrase: for example, ‘Wickham’s resigning all pretensions to the living, of his receiving in lieu, so considerable a sum as three thousand pounds’; thus the reader receives the same information twice in quick succession having read Darcy’s letter in the chapter preceding, and these reiterations now serve as a makeshift summing-up. In addition, these paraphrases are iconic of Elizabeth’s own experience of re-reading Darcy’s words, as she also repeatedly encounters the same information in her several attempts to digest the contents of the letter.

The written form of the chosen passage also mirrors the meaning in a more immediate sense. Vocabulary choices reflect both language of a legal character, and the act of comparing two differing accounts of the same events and weighing or measuring one account against the other: exactly, equally, confirmed, difference, on one side or the other, read and re-read, put down, weighed, deliberated, probability, each statement, both, assertion, every line proved, impossible, represent, entirely, the whole. On a syntactical level, Elizabeth’s mental gymnastics are encapsulated in the way in which her initial thoughts are each time balanced against another statement introduced with the co-ordinating conjunction ‘but’, which appears four times in this short excerpt. The ‘written’ nature of the passage reveals to the reader the presence of a narrator beyond Elizabeth’s consciousness, and if this were not enough, the narrator’s voice actively intrudes three times to make it clear to the reader that Elizabeth is mentally fighting against the information newly-received, and in the process is doing her best to retain her former mind-set: ‘for a few moments, she flattered herself that her wishes did not err’; ‘weighed every circumstance with what she meant to be impartiality’; and thirdly, the twisty final line of the passage contains a subordinate clause which comprises 23 words – exactly the same number as the main clause. Darcy is found to be ‘blameless’ in the more important main clause, but the lengthy subordinate clause represents the depth and rigidity of the opinion Elizabeth had willingly formed beforehand. She finds her previous opinion difficult to relinquish, as demonstrated here in the syntax of subordinate clause (former beliefs) versus main clause (new beliefs). While Elizabeth struggles hard to exonerate Wickham, in the end she cannot do so, and is therefore confronted not only with the downfall and disgrace of her former favourite, but also the humiliating knowledge that she herself has judged wrongly and has allowed her prejudice to blind her to the reality of the situation: ‘Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned’ (185). Elizabeth now joins the narrator in balancing her words: pleased/offended; preference/neglect; ignorance/reason.

Until this moment, the narrator has colluded with the focaliser-character to mislead the reader, and now the narrator takes a step back to uncover the deception. Elizabeth’s desire for Wickham to be innocent is clearly acknowledged by the narrator, tied as this circumstance is to Elizabeth’s self-respect, and her partiality is revealed. In staying close to Elizabeth, the narrator has before this moment presented her views as if they were the objective truth, but in retrospect, both the reader and Elizabeth can see that her emotional response at the time of previous meetings with the two men was instrumental in the formation of her memory of each event (Wiltshire, 2014). Darcy’s revelations force Elizabeth to confront the folly of her behaviour and she says in conversation with Jane: ‘ “the misfortune of speaking with bitterness, is a most natural consequence of the prejudices I had been encouraging” ’ (200). In accepting without question Elizabeth’s view of Darcy and Wickham before Darcy writes his letter, the reader has also been hoodwinked and is complicit in Elizabeth’s shame. Austen’s narrator is one who deceives in order to instruct, a very different approach to the didactic satirical method adopted by Swift in Gulliver’s Travels. Austen chooses to involve the reader instead of actively preaching and the linear character of the reading experience is very much taken into account by Austen’s wily narrator. Austen is well-known as an accomplished exponent of free indirect discourse, and it is through liberal use of such that voices of narrator, focaliser and character become intermingled and indistinguishable; thus when the rebuke comes for Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse, the reader feels it just as keenly. Re-reading Austen is a very different experience to an initial reading of her novels because one can only be fooled by the likes of George Wickham and Frank Churchill once. The pleasure in re-reading is in retracing exactly how the deception was carried out.

In terms of the story, this is a moment when nothing is happening. Elizabeth is merely reading and re-reading Darcy’s letter while remembering and reassessing former events. Genette would refer to this as a pause in the story (1980), but this is not to say that the same is true of the narrative: in actual fact, there is an enormous amount of mental activity happening at this point which will determine how future events play themselves out. It is, as previously stated, a pivotal moment in the narrative. Elizabeth is made aware of her error and from this point onwards she begins to fall in love with Darcy. In Proppian terms, this is the moment when the hero is recognised and the false hero or villain exposed (Toolan, 2001: 19-20).

It is notable also that Elizabeth’s mental activity at this crucial juncture is linked to one of the much wider themes of the novel. Wiltshire argues that Pride and Prejudice is a novel about memory and how memories are created (2014: 51-71), and the whole of chapter thirteen of Austen’s novel, from which this extract is taken, is given over to Elizabeth’s musings on reading the letter. Elizabeth examines her memory of events and makes several corrections in the light of what she now knows. The reader is not strictly witnessing flashbacks, but the narrator actively points the reader to previous episodes where Elizabeth interprets events according to the background context entertained at the time, which leads to the creation of a memory coloured by an emotional response: the relevant parts of the text are ‘was exactly what he had related himself’; and ‘agreed equally well with his own words’; but then the vital difference emerges in relation to Darcy’s father’s will and ‘What Wickham had said of the living’.

List of references:

Austen, J. (1990 [1813]) Pride and Prejudice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

Genette, G. (1980) Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Palmer, A. (2004) Fictional Minds. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

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.

Wiltshire, J. (2014) The Hidden Jane Austen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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.

 

Schema theory, universal minds and the impossibility of the characterless character: a study of Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The Man Without A Temperament’

hulton20460Storyworlds are necessarily incomplete and work in recent years has investigated how the reader manages to plug the gaps. Schema theory (Culpeper, 2001; Schneider, 2001; Semino, 1997) and Palmer’s twelve-point universal minds checklist (2007) complement one another in that both describe the reader’s gap-filling activities in the creation of mental models which make up the fictional world of the text. Schemata are knowledge clusters formed from the reader’s experience of the real world. They are activated by textual cues and trigger a set of default values, thereby enabling the reader to assume a great deal of information not explicitly stated. Once activated, schemata allow the reader to make inferences and predictions. Schemata are by no means static, however: they can be revised, expanded or rejected when new information is received. In a similar vein, Palmer’s work focuses on how readers ascribe states of mind to characters in a story and he explores how readers use their experience of real people to create and maintain the fictional minds of characters across large stretches of text.

This essay uses these two theories to examine the presentation of the eponymous character of a short story by Katherine Mansfield. The circumstances of the story’s production are briefly described before the discussion turns to a consideration of the main character’s status as actant balanced against the view that emerges when Palmer’s thought-action continuum is applied to a short scene. The investigation that follows explores how schemata are activated in relation to the characters and setting and how an ostensibly third-person narrative provides both aspectuality – the storyworld as experienced by a character – and access to a character’s thought processes. The essay concludes with an examination of how metaphors associated with the characters operate within schema theory.

MansfieldstampMansfield suffered a pulmonary haemorrhage in February 1918 and in October of the following year she relocated to the Italian Riviera. Her husband, John Middleton Murry, remained behind (Mansfield, 1977: 138). For Mansfield, this was a desolate and lonely time and it was during this period that she wrote The Man Without A Temperament (165). This story of a man in exile abroad with his sick wife is told ‘from the husband’s perspective’, and Hanson and Gurr suggest that Mansfield’s portrayal of Robert Salesby was an ‘attempt at empathy’ (Hanson and Gurr, 1981: 71) and a ‘form of apology’ (74) for her previous attack on Murry in a poem composed in December (Mansfield, 1977: 158). According to Hanson and Gurr, the story, originally entitled The Exile, was intended to counter-balance the poem’s attack in that it represented an ‘objective assessment’ (1981: 74), Mansfield’s ‘generous…attempt at identifying what [Murry’s] life in exile with her would be for him’ (75). The final title reflects the story’s focus on ‘a man without a self…with no life and therefore no temperament of his own’ (72). What follows is essentially an investigation into how this lifeless character has been created and if he is indeed the automaton suggested in Hanson and Gurr’s description, or whether the reader is permitted to breathe some life into him.

In a 1972 article, Chatman explores the Formalist-Structuralist notion that characters are ‘actants or participants’ and can be analysed purely in terms of what they do in place of any ‘outside psychological measure’ (1972: 57). Robert as character is subordinated to the actions he has to perform in caring for Jinnie, and this being the case he is potentially a prototypical example of the theory of character propounded by Formalist-Structuralist scholars such as Propp, Greimas and Todorov (Rimmon-Kenan, 2002: 34-36; Culpeper, 2001: 49-50). Such an extreme and reductive position can nevertheless be accommodated at the dehumanised end of the character scale (Culpeper, 2001: 11), but in practice, it remains the case that ‘a genuinely pure behaviorist novel is very difficult to find’, in part because ‘apparently neutral descriptions of actions often contain references to the mental events behind the actions’ (Palmer, 2007: 219-220). A significant number of verbs denoting Robert’s movements or his manipulation of objects are indeed superordinate and ‘apparently neutral’ in tone: ‘took his tea’, ‘sat down’, ‘turned away’, ‘carried it’, and so on (Mansfield, 1981, all references which follow are to this edition). Very occasionally, a verb or verb phrase seems to contain its own adverb, for example, ‘sauntered over’ (134), but adverbs themselves are few and far between. Robert looks increasingly unfeeling and robotic against the background text-world of Mansfield’s story, in which many inanimate objects are granted an unnatural animacy: the plant that is ‘hungrily watching’ the American Woman (129), the ‘understanding biscuit’, the ‘unclaimed letters climbing the black lattice’ (130). Nevertheless, behind many of Robert’s actions the reader can infer his concern for Jinnie. In the scene where he goes to fetch her shawl (131), Robert’s impatience and irritation is clearly marked in a passage of free indirect discourse (‘Where the devil was the shawl!’) and in the verb-choices, which in this particular instance are far from neutral: ‘He strode across the room, grabbed the grey cobweb and went out, banging the door’ (my emphasis). This verb-pattern is indicative of Robert’s anxiety to keep Jinnie warm. However, there is more: using Palmer’s notion of aspectuality, the reader can detect here the undercurrent of Robert’s sense of humiliation that runs throughout. Palmer reasons that the storyworld ‘is aspectual in the sense that its characters can only ever experience it from a particular perceptual and cognitive aspect at any one time’ (2007: 216). The appearance of the room is described as Robert sees it, and once the reader is thus positioned inside Robert’s version of the storyworld, it is natural to assume that the description of the servant girl’s eyes comes also from Robert, not, as might otherwise be supposed, the narratorial voice: ‘When she saw him her small, impudent eyes snapped’. It is Robert who supplies the adjectives here, Robert who interprets the girl’s glance, and it is Robert who imagines that the room itself is staring at him: ‘His eyes searched the glaring room’ (my emphasis). The reader knows that the shutters have been put back to let the light in, but the use of ‘glaring’ as an adjective to modify ‘room’ in such close proximity to the hostile stare of the girl gives rise to the assumption that Robert feels himself to be scrutinised and ridiculed by his very surroundings. The verb in the reporting clause of the girl’s speech – ‘mocked’ – indicates how Robert interprets her remark, and it is therefore he who imagines her boisterous singing following him as he leaves. From this brief exchange the reader can infer that Robert is aware of how he is judged by others in his present state of servitude and that he feels humiliated and isolated as an exile in this strange land. To return to the original discussion of the actant, Chatman concludes that the understanding of character depends on outside knowledge: ‘The very inferences that are necessary to the recognition of character traits can only be formed by reference to the real world’ (1972: 78). As seen in the example discussed here, the reader’s knowledge of how real people behave can inform how fictional behaviours are to be interpreted.

km1920The application of the reader’s pre-existing knowledge structures to a text is referred to as top-down processing, in contrast with bottom-up processing which involves the reader using textual information to build up a mental model (Schneider, 2001: 611). The construction of these models is always the result of a combination of both processes in which the text and the reader’s background knowledge interact: ‘inferences result from the fact that particular elements in the text trigger the activation of certain schemata (bottom-up), and that activated schemata generate expectations that fill in what is not explicitly mentioned in the text (top-down)’ (Semino, 1997: 125). Textual details encourage the reader to activate an OLD WOMAN schema for the Topknots, in spite of the fact that no age or gender is assigned to them: they act as one unit under the pronoun ‘they’. Their moniker carries with it the image of a particular hairstyle formerly attached to a particular age-group, and the lexical items associated with the Topknots’ ‘decoction’ transfer themselves to the characters: ‘whitish’, ‘greyish’, ‘in glasses’, ‘little husks’, ‘speckled’. A faintly malevolent air is granted them through their ‘two coils of knitting, like two snakes, slumber[ing] beside the tray’ (129). This note of malignancy should not be dismissed because it provides a clue to the way in which the reader should understand the Topknots’ comment: ‘No man is he, but an ox!’ (135, emphasis in original). The way in which the characters regard each other is part of the process of characterisation and the discussion of this metaphor will be taken up again a little later.

The Topknots are singled out by their hairstyle and the American Woman by her nationality. She is a bundle of AMERICAN FEMALE stereotypes and the schema activated has more to do with evaluative beliefs than reality (Culpeper, 73). She is mocked according to her childish play-acting, her one-sided dialogue with the pet Klaymongso, her accent (both in English and French – ‘knoo’ (129) and ‘voo’ (135) respectively), her litigious nature and perceived privileged position as a US citizen. The attributes of her possessions – a ‘torn antique brocade bag’ and ‘grubby handkerchief’ (129) – bestow upon her a faded quality and indicate that she is past her best. (By way of an aside, Semino (1997) following Spiro (1980) notes that the activation of schemata and the ensuing application of default values can sometimes lead readers to ‘confuse what was explicitly mentioned in the text with what they have inferred’ (148). Hanson and Gurr confidently describe the American Woman as a ‘widow’ (1981: 74), but there is no mention of her marital status in Mansfield’s text. This plausible error can in all likelihood be attributed to a schemata-based inference.)

To return to the discussion in hand, the Honeymoon Couple are a different matter entirely. Their function is twofold. First, their presence dispels any idea that the setting is a residential care home or sanatorium and the reader must revise their mental model of the setting in what has been termed a frame repair (Stockwell, 2002: 157) to make possible the presence of a honeymooning couple. A HOTEL schema is a likely candidate. Second, and more obviously, the Honeymoon Couple serve as a cruel reminder of how Robert and Jinnie used to be before Jinnie’s illness. In fact, Jinnie herself is surely the subject of a frame repair when it is confirmed that she is, after all, Robert’s wife, and not his mother or another elderly female relative. However, rejected hypotheses have nevertheless a part to play in the overall meaning of a text. Meaning creation is a dynamic process which begins as soon as the reader starts to read and Perry argues that ‘rejected meanings continue to exist in the story even after their rejection, as a system of “hovering” meanings’ (1979: 49). In this particular case, the idea that the Pension Villa Excelsior could have been a sanatorium or rest home and Jinnie Robert’s mother will remain in the reader’s consciousness and undoubtedly continue to colour their assessment of Robert as a character.

KM1914
Mansfield in 1914

The schemata for the characters of the Topknots and the American Woman are activated through the objects with which they surround themselves, just as Jinnie’s ‘cobweb’ shawl marks her fragility and transiency. Robert’s key possession is – ironically – a signet ring. Such an object functions as a form of identity, but Robert has subsumed his own individual personality to devote himself to the care of his wife. The information one can collect on Robert is limited even under such broad headings as Culpeper’s three social categories: personal (interests and preferences); social (role and function); and group membership (gender, race, age, and so on) (2001: 75-76). Robert is male, married to Jinnie, and doesn’t like spinach (141). His profession is a mystery, but it is perhaps something literary (138). His only goal seems to be to keep Jinnie warm. Beyond this short list, very little can be confidently asserted except his ownership of the ring, an object to which the reader’s attention is repeatedly directed. Robert’s habit of turning the ring is foregrounded through repetition from the very first paragraph. The grammatically circular structure of this opening paragraph captures the shape of the ring and denotes the endless circle of entrapment in which Robert finds himself, which is also in evidence in some of the other fictional backdrops: the glassed-in veranda, the cage of the lift, the presence of mosquito nets in the final scene. The mental event behind Robert’s ring-turning action is frustration and an ever-present awareness of his hopeless situation.

The final twist of the ring is delivered by Jinnie, and Hanson and Gurr read into this the ‘denial of [Robert’s] ego’ (1981: 73). This reading is supported by the sudden shift into the present tense which occurs near the end of the story. The past tense is predominant before this shift into what Kokot refers to as the ‘prasesens historicum’ (2011: 74); prior to this, the present tense features only in the three analeptic episodes as the text pushes and pops into and out of Robert’s consciousness (Stockwell, 2002:47). The rendering of Robert’s memories in the present tense creates an impression that the past is far more real, far more present to him than his current reality, and thus the switch to the present tense in recounting the events of Robert’s life with Jinnie in exile suggests his recognition, if not necessarily acceptance, of his new mode of existence.

To conclude, I turn to a discussion of the role of metaphor in schema theory and its relevance to the reader’s mental model of Robert. Metaphor is the arena in which schemata interact and Semino argues that ‘metaphors vary in their potential for schema refreshment, and…such variability can be captured in terms of a scale, from schema reinforcement at one end to schema refreshment at the other’ (1997: 197). Mansfield’s characters are metaphorically reimagined as various animals throughout the story: the Topknots are snakes, the American Woman a lapdog, the General a crow with his ‘Caw! Caw! Caw!’ (139), and other bird imagery flits between Jinnie, a small garden bird; the Honeymoon Couple, a larger, more robust seabird; and Robert, a ‘broken bird’ struggling to take flight (142). Even in the list of dilapidated bric-a-brac that lines the corridors of the pension does one find an animal metaphor in the umbrella stand shaped like a bear. This bear, given a shade of animacy in its ‘clasp’ of the walking-sticks, umbrellas and sunshades, is a metaphor for Robert: a powerful animal performing a servile function on behalf of those much weaker (130). The metaphors continue as the Topknots liken Robert to an ox (135), and in the final analeptic sequence, Jinnie, in begging Robert to accompany her, refers to him twice in quick succession as ‘bread and wine’ (143). The reader’s real-world knowledge store will provide the information that both the ox and the reference to bread and wine are biblical in origin. The ox is a beast of burden, and in biblical terms, is the most valuable animal one could own. There is the sense of the ox bearing a yoke, of course, but the ox does so with enormous strength and inexorable stamina. Other schematic units are far less flattering: the ox is associated with a particular kind of brute stupidity and is castrated as a bullock. Given the malicious side to their personality evidenced by their metaphorical link with snakes, it is likely the Topknots mean to activate the less flattering units of the OX schema in their listeners. The reader’s mental model will be subject to schematic refreshment upon encountering Jinnie’s words. The OX schema will be recalled and reassessed in the light of this second metaphor, one which directly entails the schema of SACRIFICE. It is indeed possible, as Hanson and Gurr claim, that Mansfield wished to convey to Murry her acknowledgement of the sacrifice involved for him if he travelled to join her, but if this was her intention, the gesture backfired and Murry did not understand: in his next letter to Mansfield, he provided no comment on the story.

From this brief survey then, the following conclusions can be gleaned. A character cannot be just what they do because readers will ascribe mental events to the actions described no matter how neutral the description may appear to be. Although top-down processing is the preferred method of operating, if the reader cannot readily activate schemata then a mental model is constructed instead from what textual information is provided (bottom-up processing). It has been shown here how schemata can be activated from details such as a character’s possessions and surroundings. Schemata can be revised and refreshed, but the original schema, although rejected, remains part of the text’s overall meaning. Schemata can operate through metaphor and the text is thus enriched with a wealth of detail which is never explicitly stated, but which the reader supplies from a store of real-world knowledge – and of course, these knowledge-stores will differ from reader to reader, thus accounting in part for differing textual interpretations. A reader with a literary training will also be able to bring to the text schemata related to existing specialist knowledge (Schneider, 2001: 612). As far as Mansfield and Murry are concerned, however, one could surmise that Murry’s misunderstanding originated somewhere in the activated SACRIFICE schema: Mansfield may have intended Murry to understand that she knew how much she was asking, but Murry could well have interpreted the story of the saintly Robert as a reproof.

List of references

Chatman, S. (1972) On the Formalist-Structuralist Theory of Character. Journal of Literary Semantics 1: 57–79.

Culpeper, J. (2001) Language and Characterisation: People in Plays and Other Texts. Harlow: Longman.

Hanson, C. & Gurr, A. (1981) Katherine Mansfield. London: Macmillan.

Kokot, J. (2011) The Elusiveness of Reality: The Limits of Cognition in Katherine Mansfield’s Short Stories. In J. Wilson, G. Kimber, & S. Reid. (Eds.) Katherine Mansfield and Literary Modernism. London: Continuum, 67–77.

Mansfield, K. (1981) The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield. London: Penguin.

Mansfield, K. (1977) The Letters and Journals of Katherine Mansfield: A Selection. C. K. Stead. (Ed.) Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Palmer, A. (2007) Universal Minds. Semiotica 165: 205–225.

Perry, M. (1979) Literary Dynamics: How the Order of a Text Creates Its Meanings. Poetics Today 1(1-2): 35–64, 311–361.

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

Schneider, R. (2001) Toward a cognitive theory of literary character: The dynamics of mental-model construction. Style 35(4): 607–640.

Semino, E. (1997) Language and World Creation in Poems and Other Texts. London: Routledge.

Spiro, R.J. (1980) Prior Knowledge and Story Processing: Integration, Selection, and Variation. Poetics 9: 313–327.

Stockwell, P. (2002) Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction. London: Routledge.