Transitivity patterns in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116: ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds’

What follows is my answer to an exercise on transitivity patterns for the MA Literary Linguistics programme on which I’m enrolled. This post is probably not going to be particularly readable unless you’re familiar with transitivity patterns – however, I’ve uploaded a pdf of a mindmap I made which may help. You might have to zoom in on the pdf to make parts of it legible. If you’d like to browse some original sources, you’ll need to look up Michael Halliday and read his work.

Transitivity mindmap pdf below. The examples of each process are taken from John Braine’s Room at the Top, but these are examples I’ve picked out myself, so please be wary: I’m not altogether sure I’ve really understood the difference between an attributive and an identifying process, so best treat the examples with caution.

Action mindmap

I’ve reproduced below Sonnet 116 in full…and you might remember Marianne (Kate Winslet) reciting part of it after she’s been heartlessly dumped by Willoughby (Greg Wise) in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments; love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove.

O no, it is an ever-fixèd mark,

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wand’ring bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come;

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Which type of process is dominant in the poem, or does the poem mix different types? 

The poem consists of a mixture of different transitivity types.

There is a speaking voice in the sonnet, an ‘I’ or a ‘me’, whose presence is most noticeable in lines 1-2, 5 (‘O no’), and 13-14; on a discourse level, therefore, the sonnet in its entirety could be understood as a mental externalised process in which the SAYER is the I/me of the poem, the VERBIAGE is the text of the sonnet, and the TARGET is the reader/audience (Simpson, 1993: 90). Simpson’s PROCESS is absent but understood, owing to considerations of form. There is no novelistic reporting clause such as ‘said the poet’.

The other processes involved are material action processes of both intention and supervention; relational processes and a mental internalised perception process (‘That looks on tempests’).

Labelling the processes is a difficult exercise in this case because much of the poem’s transitivity involves a metaphorical blend in which a personified abstract concept takes on the role of animate ACTOR, and in addition, much of the ‘action’ of the poem is actually inaction. Moreover, the poem contains many expressions of negativity (not, never, no, nor…ever), which complicates matters further.

Who is the main actor or agent in the poem? 

The ACTORs are:

•’I/me’ (the speaker of the poem);

•‘love’ as abstract concept until the third quatrain when it appears as a personification;

•‘not love’;

•possibly no man in the final line, but there is ambiguity here. The words ‘nor no man ever loved’ could be taken to mean ‘I have never loved a man’ as well as ‘no man has ever been in love’. This depends on whether we understand ‘no man’ to be the ACTOR, or whether we consider the subject to be ‘I’ still, carried over from ‘I never writ’: it could be argued that the subject of the following phrase has been removed, but that ‘I’ is understood.

‘Love’ is the CARRIER of the poem’s attributive processes, and the IDENTIFIED of its identifying processes.

Who or what receives all the action? 

The action is distributed between the ACTORs, but it should be noted that perhaps as many as two-thirds of the material action intention processes actually refer to an action not being performed. Love as an abstract noun or personification is associated with that which is fixed, permanent and immovable. Any action attributed to Love is that of inaction, and movements such as altering and bending are associated with Love’s antithesis, ‘not love’. This call to inaction reflects the desire expressed in the first line of the sonnet that the poet should not ‘admit impediments’ to ‘the marriage of true minds’: namely, that the poet wishes to do nothing to hinder true love.

Is there a pattern for processes and participants in main clauses, compared with the pattern in subordinate clauses? 

Main clauses tend to feature relational processes, and the claim made by way of this process is explored further in the subordinate clauses through material action processes, either intention or supervention.

How can your annotated analysis help to support your sense of the meaning of the poem?  

In the opening lines of the sonnet, the speaker exhorts someone to prevent him or herself from embarking on a certain course of action. The remark could, of course, be self-directed – a ‘note to self’ not to act as described. It is the equivalent of a theatrical soliloquy, in which an actor shares his or her thoughts with the audience. The speaker expresses his/her desire not to act, or not to behave in a certain way, and one can see that throughout the rest of the poem the transitivity patterns support this call to inaction. Love is something fixed, immovable and enduring, whilst its antithesis (‘not love’) ‘alters’ and ‘bends’ when provoked to do so.

Having begun the sonnet with this exhortation, the speaker makes an abrupt switch in line 2 to an exploration of what love is not (and, by implication, what it is):

…; love is not love 

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove. 

Here a main clause contains two subordinate clauses, both relative, the second a reduced relative clause because ’which’ has been removed, but is understood. The transitivity of the main clause is that of a relational process, incorporating two material action intention processes in the subordinate clauses, where these latter processes are in themselves a metaphorical blend involving an inanimate abstract concept as ACTOR.

The relational process of the main clause is set against the material action intention processes in the subordinate clauses, where the ACTOR ‘not love’ intentionally alters or bends according to circumstances. Put bluntly, action is bad, inaction is good: a ‘still’ process encloses two action processes in which the participants behave in a way that would suggest this is not ‘a marriage of true minds’.

The morphological variations of the action-words enact the changes they describe: ‘alters’ (verb) becomes ‘alteration’ (noun); ‘the remover’ (determiner + noun) becomes ‘to remove’ (verb in infinitive). The change expressed in these two lines (‘alters’, ’bends’) is reflected on a different textual level in the changing word-formations.

In the second quatrain (lines 5-8), the poet moves the discussion on from what love is not, to what love is, and love as an abstract concept is explored through metaphors related to shipping. Once again, the action expressed in the material action intention processes is in fact inaction, and the abstract concept as ACTOR provides a metaphorical blend. Love, expressed as a ‘ever-fixèd mark’, is immobile in the face of a raging sea-storm and immovable regardless of the storm’s violence.

The nautical metaphor continues into the second half of the second quatrain, and love is now a ‘star’, most likely the ‘northern star’ or ‘Pole Star’ (Duncan-Jones, 1997: 342). The star, like the ‘ever-fixèd mark’, serves as a guide to those who are lost (the ‘wandering bark’). The transitivity of line 8 is an attributive process, where the CARRIER is love (personified and metaphorically expressed), and the ATTRIBUTE is ‘of unknown worth’, in other words, invaluable or priceless. This same line balances that which cannot be measured (‘Whose worth’s unknown’) against that which can (‘although his height be taken’). The latter phrase extends the metaphorical references to shipping and navigation: ‘ “take height” was a regular term in navigation and astronomy’ (Duncan-Jones, 1997: 342).

A star is fixed just as the ‘mark’ is fixed, and neither mark nor star can move. In addition, the measurement of the star’s height presumably represents a straight line, which is in contrast to the bending manifested by the ‘not love’ ACTOR and by Time’s sickle in the third quatrain.

The word ‘bends’ from line 4 reappears in one of its lemma forms as ‘bending’, and again, this word is associated with that which is not permanent and which is not love. The transitivity process here is a material action supervention process describing the appearance and action of Time’s scythe scooping up the ‘rosy lips and cheeks’ that are associated with youth and transience, and which serve metonymically here for the whole person. The word ‘compass’ will recall the shipping metaphor of the previous quatrain even though the sense is different here; nevertheless, ‘compass’ shares the same semantic field with the ‘star’ and the ‘wandering bark’.

In lines 11-12, Love as personification is involved in two material action intention processes in a metaphorical blend with a personified ACTOR, as follows:

ACTOR = Love (in personified form)

PROCESSES = 1) alters not, 2) bears it out.

When Love is finally involved in a transitivity process involving action, that action is to stay the same and to do nothing.

The sonnet ends with a rhetorical trick expressed as a hypothetical question which allows no disagreement. The reader has just read the sonnet written by the poet, so ‘I never writ’ is nonsensical in context, and given that this half of the line is untrue, then the second half (‘nor no man ever loved’) is also assumed to be untrue. The transitivity processes may well be those of material action intention process, but as seen several times before, the action referred to represents inaction – in this instance, not writing and not loving. However, because both statements are untrue, the action becomes a positive event: the poet did write the sonnet, people have loved each other, and therefore love must exist as the poet has described it.

List of references

Duncan-Jones, K. (Ed.) (1997) Shakespeare’s Sonnets. London: The Arden Shakespeare.

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

Hamlet at The Barbican: ‘A slaughterhouse – eight corpses all told’

Hamlet at the wedding feastIt’s a wet and dreary August bank holiday, and if this weren’t depressing enough, I’m having a fit of the miseries because I’ve been to see Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet. I bought tickets about a whole entire year ago and now it’s all over and I have nothing to do but sit here limply on the sofa and think about maybe going out to buy some crisps. There’s a big Hamlet-sized hole in my life and I’m not sure even salt and vinegar Hula Hoops can help me out with this one.

In fact, I’m not sure I have enough money left for Hula Hoops in any case, because when all’s told, this was an extremely expensive evening: Barbican Red Membership plus the cost of the tickets, train and taxi fares, food, interval wine, theatre programme…once all that’s totted up, there wasn’t much change out of three hundred and fifty quid. But I’d do it all again, because mixed reviews and mild rumpus over unauthorised filming notwithstanding, this was an absolutely cracking evening.

BC as Hamlet 2

Alright, so lots of critics don’t like it. The Guardian’s Michael Billington wrote a very snippy review (although I have to agree with his comments about the clumsily-handled play scene); Wendy Bradley sounds off against The Barbican for its handling of ticket sales (she has a point here) and the schoolmarmish treatment of theatre-goers wielding mobile phones and cameras. Okay, so perhaps the proliferation of signs and warnings was a little over-enthusiastic, but all this policing of electronic gadgetry is being carried out in response to some truly oafish and ill-mannered behaviour from those who thought it was perfectly acceptable to distract both the actors and fellow audience-members so they could film the performance instead of actually just sitting there and enjoying it. The lovely Mr Cumberbatch himself made a plea for this to stop. So I didn’t really mind all the fuss about phones. (I was, however, peeved about how much they charged me for the programme, but never mind. I didn’t have to buy one, after all.)


Churlish whinging aside, I’m going to write about what I did like. I’ve included some photos, all of which have been pilfered from The Guardian’s website: follow this link to view the entire gallery. There are pics of the characters here, but you can only glean a rough idea of the fantastic set. The sumptuous palace of the first half is covered in black rubble for the second – a visual metaphor for the disorder that has fallen on Denmark which Billington thought heavy-handed, but it’s undeniably effective because not only does the rubble bring about a dramatic colour change, but the actors have to fight against it. Gertrude enters bare-footed, and I think Ophelia does too, so both women are scrabbling against a thorny surface. The rubble has to be negotiated: it has to be swept aside or clambered over, and this all makes for a telling reminder that the characters have lost control over their environment. The natural order of things has been disrupted and the characters have to struggle to stay upright. Poor mad Ophelia’s exit over this mess was, for me, the most moving part of the performance:

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 21.37.55

I enjoyed Siân Brooke as Ophelia, and Anastasia Hille’s sympathetic Gertrude, and I thought Ciarán Hinds exuded a wonderful air of menace as Claudius: he really did seem like a very dangerous man indeed. (I couldn’t always catch what Hinds was saying, however: my hearing is poor and I have to wear hearing aids, which may account for the difficulty, but I didn’t have the same problem with anyone else.)

Ciaran Hinds as Claudius

I liked very much Jim Norton’s Polonius, who made us laugh many times. This, I felt, was a shrewd move on the part of the director, because Polonius’ death when it came was felt as the truly sad turn of events that it is, and the chaos which ensues was all the more understandable. Rosencrantz (Matthew Steer) and Guildenstern (Rudi Dharmalingam) were nicely under-played – another shrewd directorial move, because ever since the appearance of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, this pair can easily upstage everyone else. As my companion pointed out, for an actor to land either one of these roles now must be a woo-hoo! moment, because even though these are only bit-parts, everyone is looking out for you – it’s like instant fame but without the hassle of having to memorise over 4000 lines. Under Lyndsey Turner’s direction, Voltemand (Morag Siller) was (or felt like) the larger role – in fact, I don’t think the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were even reported at the end, but I may be wrong there. I was facing a pile of corpses by that stage and felt heartily wrung out.

Hamlet and Gertrude

And what can we say about Benedict Cumberbatch? Well, look, I’m obviously not going to be able to give an impartial account here, but let me just say that he is mesmerising. As my companion said, when the soliloquies don’t feel like soliloquies, you know you’re in good hands. Astonishing stuff. I would go on, but then everyone might think that I massively fancy him or something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Medusas: Carol Ann Duffy and Robert Olen Butler

Mark Brown Medusa

Medusa at the Chelsea Flower Show 2015

Photograph by Mark Brown

There are various different versions of Medusa’s origins and history, as is often the case with the dramatis personae of the Greek myths. Her story exists in at least two forms. In the first, Medusa was once a very beautiful young woman whose hair was her crowning glory, but in setting her beauty against that of the gods, she commits the crime of hubris and is subsequently punished by Athena (or Minerva): all Medusa’s luxurious ringlets are turned into snakes. The second version of the story is rather more prevalent: Medusa is raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple, and the goddess, furious that her temple has been defiled, turns Medusa into a monster. This is how Medusa appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses:

Her beauty was far-famed, the jealous hope

Of many a suitor, and of all her charms

Her hair was loveliest; …

…She, it’s said,

Was violated in Minerva’s shrine

By Ocean’s lord. Jove’s daughter turned away

And covered with her shield her virgin’s eyes,

And then for fitting punishment transformed

The Gorgon’s lovely hair to loathsome snakes.

Raped by a god and punished for this by a prim virgin of a goddess. Nice. But there is another way to look at this, if you choose to. Athena could not, presumably, take on Poseidon – at least not without massively annoying Zeus – so she turns Medusa into a weapon by granting her the power to destroy. Medusa herself can avenge her violation on every man who crosses her path. This fits nicely with the end of the story: Perseus gives Medusa’s severed head to Athena, who fixes it in the centre of her shield for use as a weapon: ‘Minerva still, to strike her foes with dread, / Upon her breastplate wears the snakes she made’ (Ovid). And this way, it becomes a story about female vengeance directed towards men, rather than each other.

So, what is generally agreed about Medusa? That she has snakes for hair, obviously. Those who look at her are turned to stone, and even after she is decapitated by Perseus, her severed head retains this power. She can only safely be viewed as a reflection, at one remove from reality, and Perseus defeats her by using his shield as a mirror to view her movements without having to look directly at her.


“Perseus (Benvenuto Cellini) 2013 February” by Morio – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

It starts getting fuzzy after this. Medusa is usually an archer, carrying a bow and a quiver of arrows. She is often depicted as half woman-half snake, like a sort of evil version of a mermaid (as in the picture above at the top), but even this is not necessarily a given (the statue in the picture directly above shows a foot). In some versions, Medusa’s blood is also poisonous and various monsters are engendered from the drops that fall on the floor. In Ovid, it is the flying horse Pegasus that springs from the body after her death: ‘and from their mother’s blood / Swift-flying Pegasus and his brother sprang’.

What we can only guess at, and where the myth opens itself up for creative re-workings and re-imaginings, is how much of her former self is left following the transformation. Is she also a monster in her mind, does she kill for pleasure or vengeance? Or – much worse – is her mind left untainted by her physical transformation so that she is horribly aware of her own hideousness and of her isolation from every living thing? She is exiled to a deserted island, but nothing can live in proximity to her in any case – she will forever turn to stone those she gazes upon. She is utterly alone. Those who venture near her island are the would-be-heroes who seek to destroy her for their own glory. Her lair is littered with stone statues, the grisly remains of the men who tried to kill her. Her very name has become synonymous with the monster, as is evident in the frequent use of the definite article when reference is made to her: the Medusa.

To get some idea of how Medusa features in a twenty-first century consciousness, you could do worse than start with a Google images search. Clearly, the Medusa still appeals to many. There are imaginative attempts to appropriate this figure and situate her within various discourses, but this inevitably entails some changes to the existing myth: the most obvious alteration is that the majority of Medusa-images thrown up by a search retain her trademark snakes but do away with the hideous visage. My guess is that Medusa’s power is attractive but her monster-face is not, so in the spirit having one’s cake and eating it, many of the images feature a beautiful face topped with glossy snakes that have somehow settled into an attractive hair-do. It’s a watered-down Medusa to suit those who want to be powerful and pretty.

The sadness of a lonely Medusa can also be found in images here and there:

Sad Medusa

(Artist is ‘Mattchew’. Visit the thread for a detailed blow-by-blow discussion of how the picture was created – it’s really interesting!)

And I’m afraid a very, very large number of Medusa images are quite simply pornographic. I’m guessing these are pictures produced by men, but this isn’t entirely fair because after all, Rhianna must have agreed to those distressingly tasteless photographs for GQ. I’m not posting any of those images here. If you want to see them, look them up yourself, because I’m afraid this sort of thing really gets my back up. Medusa is a killer, a slayer of men, a potent though possibly not entirely uncomplicated symbol of female power: to reimagine her in a pornographic light is quite simply to drag her back into the realms of male fantasy and the discourse of woman-as-sexual-object. Boooooooooring.

Let’s move on to take a look at how Medusa features in films. In the original Clash of the Titans (1981), a stop-motion Medusa is hideous and deadly:

I saw this in the cinema several times when it first appeared and I can still remember how my heart thudded through these scenes. The finale is unbearably tense: the quiet stillness of the hero; his face gradually becoming beaded with sweat; the focus on his hand as he tightens his grip on the sword; the slithering sound and warning rattle that accompany Medusa’s slow progress – all of this made my ten-year-old palms sweat, and it’s a far more effective climactic battle than that of the noisy 2010 remake:

Yawn. Noise, running around, slow-motion leaping, endless CGI, more noise, more impossible movement – it’s all very macho and very silly. It even has a rather pointless noble sacrifice. It’s all straight out of Churn-‘Em-Out Scripts ‘R Us. The Medusa herself is ugly/beautiful by turns (mostly beautiful). Daft. But nowhere near as daft as the Medusa in Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (also 2010):

This is just awful. I couldn’t bear to watch any more than this tiny clip, even though Uma Thurman is beautiful enough to take your breath away. This Medusa is beautiful all the time, and what’s more, she has retained her female form – no slithering along the floor for Uma. But no matter how much the hero tries to appear scared, watching him running around a garden centre just isn’t going to make my palms sweat. And in this version, the Medusa’s victims have been reconfigured as naff garden ornaments. No no no. Nope.

But what is different here is that Medusa has a voice. She’s not supposed to, of course – she’s supposed to have a forked tongue following her transformation – but she talks here. In 1981, she couldn’t say a word, she just rattled and hissed. In 2010, she either does a lot of laughing and screaming or she engages in a bit of psychological warfare by taunting her intended victim. This brings me to the title of this post, because both Carol Ann Duffy and Robert Olen Butler have given the Medusa a voice and I’d like to briefly discuss here the differences in those voices.

Medusa with fingers

(Artist: Giovanni Mazzi)

The texts under consideration are taken from Duffy’s The World’s Wife and Butler’s Severance. Duffy’s text is a poem which forms part of a series of poems imagined to have been written by the wives of various biblical, mythical or fictional males (for example, Queen Herod, Mrs Tiresias, Mrs Faust), but there are one or two real wives in there as well: Mrs Darwin, Anne Hathaway (Shakespeare’s wife). You can read the whole text here.

Duffy’s poem is structured thematically into two groups of three six-line stanzas, followed by a final stanza and then one line on its own. The first group of three deals with her transformation, and everything is heavily metaphorical: here she is not the Medusa of myth, but the bride of a philandering husband. The snakes are her jealous suspicions: ‘my thoughts / hissed and spat on my scalp’. The transformation is wrought by herself in something akin to self-harm, a physical manifestation of her mental anguish, and she projects her tortured psyche onto the landscape when she begins to turn things to stone.

The second group of three shows us her growing power through a series of repetitive shifts: ‘I glanced at / I looked at / I stared at’. Glances become looks become stares. The looks which destroy become longer and more deliberate: a glance can be performed almost unintentionally, but not so a stare. Her victims, too, become larger and larger in size as her power grows: bee—bird—cat—pig—dragon. And in the last six-line stanza, we meet her next (final?) victim: ‘And here you come’ (my emphasis). The last line of the poem, the line that stands alone, has both a declarative and an imperative function, with a different meaning for each: ‘Look at me now.’ In a declarative sense, the presupposed meaning in context is that she is asking her husband to compare her present ugliness with her former beauty. As an imperative, she is ordering the man to look at her so she can turn him to stone. As a riff on the theme of female vengeance, it’s pretty good.


(Artist: Ubbo Enninga)

Butler’s text is a prose poem from his book Severance, the premise of which is as follows. Apparently a head remains conscious for 90 seconds after decapitation, and, given that we can speak at 160 words per minute when sufficiently excited, a severed head should be able to produce 240 words before death is absolute. Butler has written sixty-two prose poems, all imagined to have been the words produced by the decapitated heads of sixty-two persons, the last of which is Butler himself. So far, so good: Butler and Duffy have done the same thing – putting words into the mouths (dead or alive) of various mythical / historical / fictional figures. Butler’s gruesome set-up is intriguing for a while, but I’m afraid it palls very quickly, not least because of the secondary fixation with 240 words delivered in 90 seconds: this means that all the prose poems are rapid stream-of-consciousness affairs with very little punctuation so after a while you feel as if you’re reading the same breathless monologue over and over, especially when most of them seem to run along a theme of How Much I Liked Sex When I Was Alive. Here’s the whole thing:

dreaming, surely I dream now: I can still shake my hair down long and billowing like waves upon the sea, how tender I am how fair I can see in the reflection of water and shield and a man’s eyes, and this softer hair makes no difference I still turn a man to stone who looks at me, the part of him that snakes inside me, a clefting of stone, and my body weeps the sea, pours forth the thickest sea for my god-man Poseidon who smells of brine and the great swimming creatures who attend him scaled and heavy wet limbs about me and that bitch Athena thinks her temple defiled but it was he who came to me and leaned his trident upon her marble face and dripped upon her floor, she tries to hurt me but I love my living hair these serpents whisper when men come close each strand with a split tongue hissing my desire for them I shake my dear children my tresses down and they curl back up their black eyes flashing and the man cries out at my beauty and then his tongue and face and chest and arms and thighs and his toad-headed serpent all turn hard forever the clearing before my cave is thronged with them my admirers, but my children are my true loves rooted in my brain and gathered sleeping against my face muttering sibilant dreams of love

For Butler, Medusa’s snakes are not vindictive thoughts, but penises. Of course. It’s taken me this long to get around to mentioning the phallic qualities of the snake, although I could have mentioned it when I was discussing the pornographic Medusas earlier. Butler’s Medusa is surrounded by stone admirers who are permanently hard for her. Poseidon is now a former lover rather than a rapist, and Medusa’s voice is not an angry one: she believes herself still beautiful and she is full of love for her children, the snakes. I could be generous and say this poem is a celebration of female sexuality, but frankly, it reads more like a love-affair with the penis that a male writer would imagine women to have. Poseidon even has a (phallic) trident that he leans against Athena’s marble face in the temple – but I must admit, I quite liked that bit.

So, Duffy’s Medusa is a woman rendered hideous and vindictive by long-standing neglect and ill-treatment, and Butler’s Medusa is in love with men’s trouser-snakes. Medusa was always a figure that was going to divide the sexes, and we have a perfect example of it here. For me, I will always cherish the terrifying monster of 1981, because let’s not forget, in that film Medusa’s severed head destroys the Kraken – thus saving the lovely Andromeda. Hooray!

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Butler, Robert Olen (2008). Severance. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Duffy, Carol Ann (1999). The World’s Wife. London: Picador.

Ovid. Metamorphoses. Translated by A. D. Melville (1986). World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [Roman names in Ovid, Greek names used in this post.]

“It’s SOMEONE’S fucking fault”: social responsibility in J K Rowling’s ‘The Casual Vacancy’

casual_vacancy_dvd_600I’d planned to publish a post on The Casual Vacancy following the recent screening of the BBC adaptation of Rowling’s novel, but didn’t find the time. It seems appropriate to pick this up again now, following a general election in which many voted out of greed and self-interest, thus securing the re-election of the Tories and another five years of austerity, a financial policy which is only serving to widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. And I see the Tories have already swung into action: there is talk of the resurrection of the Snoopers’ Charter, lifting the ban on fox-hunting (for fuck’s sake!) and doing away with long-term leases on council houses. It’s hateful. Never have I been so ashamed to be English. I feel bound to trot out the much-quoted aphorism that a society is judged by how it deals with its weaker and more vulnerable members, and I’d say we’re scoring pretty fucking low at that. The day after the election, a friend posted on Facebook: ‘Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite’ (Joseph de Maistre), to which I replied ‘Ain’t that the truth’. We deserve everything we get now, and unless those of us who are unhappy with the status quo continue to fight and to protest against the cuts which do nothing but benefit the rich, what we will get is the demise of the welfare state and the NHS. The poor, the sick, the disabled, and everyone else who isn’t a rich white healthy able-bodied cis-gender heterosexual male is screwed. (Guess what? That’s MOST OF US!)

Rowling herself is an avid and outspoken supporter of the Labour party and The Casual Vacancy is a novel about what happens when the support needed by the most vulnerable members of society is taken away. I’m going to be discussing both the novel and its television adaptation here, so please note there will be spoilers.

The Casual Vacancy (hereafter TCV) was Rowling’s first novel for the adult market, but on reading it I couldn’t help feeling that she hadn’t quite shaken off the mantle of ‘children’s author’. First, it is undoubtedly a heavily moralistic book. A great deal of children’s literature is moralistic or didactic in tone because it’s supposed to be edifying and educational. Second, a non-adult narrative viewpoint is an important feature of YA fiction/children’s literature and TCV features a number of teenage characters with whom we spend a great deal of time. The liberal use of free indirect discourse (FID) gives the reader access to the thought processes of most of the characters, adults and children alike. Third, the novel dishes up for a younger audience the sort of stuff that those readers like best, namely, ‘a bunch of kids teach the stupid adults the error of their ways’. Three of the novel’s teenage characters enter into open battle with the adults, posing online as the Ghost of Barry Fairbrother to admonish their parents: first Andrew, then Sukhvinder, then Fats. So far, so Harry Potter.

However, the novel’s Wikipedia page suggests that Rowling would respond unfavourably to the idea of TCV being a YA novel in disguise, noting that at the time of publication, ‘[c]ritics questioned whether younger Harry Potter fans might be drawn into wanting to read the book…Rowling responded saying, “There is no part of me that feels that I represented myself as your children’s babysitter or their teacher. I was always, I think, completely honest. I’m a writer, and I will write what I want to write”.’ So let us take Rowling at her word and assume that at least as far as authorial intention is concerned, the moral lesson of the book is aimed at adult readers. (Incidentally, you know you’re in the hands of a moralist when one of the characters is called ‘Fairbrother’. George Eliot did the same in Middlemarch with Camden Farebrother.)

Barry Fairbrother

Rowling has in fact made no secret of the fact that this is a book intended to remind its readership of the responsibilities that come with living in a community made up of other people. In an interview for The New Yorker she comments, “[t]his is a book about responsibility. In the minor sense—how responsible we are for our own personal happiness, and where we find ourselves in life—but in the macro sense also, of course: how responsible we are for the poor, the disadvantaged, other people’s misery”.’ So how does the moral message of the book manifest itself? I’ve mentioned a couple of things already: the novel’s avenging ‘ghost’ and the use of FID which allows us to see into the minds of the characters. And as well as being able to read their minds, the reader can see into the characters’ histories: the narrator provides the kind of background knowledge that promotes an understanding of why the characters behave the way they do. Terri Weedon (played by Keeley Forsyth in the BBC mini-series) is the one that springs to mind. Terri, a drug addict and neglectful parent, inspires little but revulsion until you learn the details of her past, the most shocking part of her backstory being how as a little girl she was happy to be in hospital being treated for the burns inflicted by the man who was supposed to be caring for her, because at least she wasn’t being raped and beaten at home. No wonder she turned to heroin for comfort.

Terri Weedon

The television audience was spared these details as it was also spared the ending of the novel, the original being considered ‘too grim’ for a Sunday night audience. Adaptations of novels for film and television tend to suffer problems of compression when the screenplay tries to cover everything and obviously a great deal of the novel had to be cut in order to squeeze it all into three hours’ worth of telly, but I do think it rather prissy of Auntie Beeb to skirt around the real tragedy of the book: the death of the innocent, Robbie Weedon, already unadoptable as a toddler. In the TV adaptation, Robbie is spotted wandering unattended by Vikram Jawanda while out on his morning run, this routine of his established early on in the series so as to render Robbie’s rescue credible. In the book, Robbie drowns in the river – and the real tragedy is that there are three people who saw him, and who could have saved him, but who did nothing.

One of these three is Shirley Mollison, wife of Parish Councillor Howard Mollison and mother of Miles, contender for Barry’s seat on the council (the eponymous casual vacancy), played with a beautifully pitched line in hard icy cruelty by Julia McKenzie for the mini-series. Shirley is spiteful and small-minded, desperate to cultivate an air of gentility because her mother had a reputation for promiscuous behaviour and the young Shirley was bullied because of this. In spite of this mitigating factor, we do not like Shirley: she bullies her daughter-in-law, sucks up to the appalling local gentry, scores points off her friends wherever possible and alienates her gay daughter. Shirley learns nothing from the events that play themselves out, and her part in them. The following exchange is very revealing:

‘[T]he boy was right by the river when I saw him. A couple of steps and he’d have been in.’

Something in Maureen’s expression stung her.

‘I was hurrying,’ said Shirley with asperity, ‘because Howard had said he was feeling poorly and I was worried sick. I didn’t want to go out at all…I was absolutely distracted, and all I could think was, I must get back to Howard…’

These excuses will not bring Robbie back from the grave, and Shirley is not telling the truth in any case: in actual fact, the reason she was so distracted at that point was her discovery of Howard and Maureen’s affair. She had intended to murder Howard – but she lies to herself about this, as well. Shirley is punished with public shame and the certain knowledge of her husband’s infidelity.

Howard and Shirley Mollison

Gavin Hughes also sees Robbie wandering alone by the river. Gavin is the boyfriend of social worker Kay, although his character does not appear in the mini-series. In the novel, he is the reason for Kay’s relocation to Pagford (much to the chagrin of Kay’s daughter Gaia), but he doesn’t love Kay and treats her with a disdain that stems from his essential cravenness. He pursues Mary Fairbrother instead, the widow of his best friend Barry. Gavin’s self-absorption is so complete that he cannot even remember seeing Robbie. He is punished with solitude: his best friend is dead, and he is rejected by Mary and eventually Kay.

Samantha Mollison is the third character who sees Robbie that day, and she is the only one to internally acknowledge the part she played in Robbie’s death. She is shaken out of her selfish frustration at the loss of her youth and expresses a wish to take part in local politics alongside her husband. Her renewed interest in her previously failing marriage is her reward. (In the mini-series, Samantha is sympathetically portrayed by Keeley Hawes – an actor always worth watching.)

Samantha Mollison

So, to return to the discussion around the novel’s moral content, we can see here a clear pattern of reward and punishment. This extends beyond the three characters discussed above, with perhaps the worst fate meted out to Fats Wall. Objectionable enough in the mini-series, this character is far worse in the novel: he bullies Sukhvinder so viciously that she is induced to self-harm; he treats his adopted father with heartless disdain; he feeds his nut-allergic best friend a disguised peanut just to see what will happen; he snogs the girl he knows his best friend fancies and he uses Krystal Weedon for sex. Fats is punished severely for his burgeoning career as a sociopath which is embodied in his pursuit for ‘authenticity’. Fats is humbled and forced to realise that you simply cannot bludgeon your way through life pretending that other people don’t exist, and he is brought to terms with this in the hardest way imaginable: he is indirectly responsible for the death of Robbie, and also that of Krystal, who commits suicide soon after her brother’s body is dragged from the river.

Fats and Arf

There is no justice, no reward, no possibility of escape for Krystal – not without Barry Fairbrother. She, perhaps, could have dragged herself out of the mire in which she was forced to live, and to have subsequently made a new start for herself with Robbie, but events conspire against her: she is raped by her mother’s drug dealer, the repulsive Obbo (thank goodness the BBC spared us that scene), and she is terrified a similar fate will befall Robbie. The death of her Nana Cath leaves her nowhere to turn and she concocts a plan that will lead inexorably to the final tragic events. Krystal is not spared in the mini-series either: fearlessly depicted by Abigail Lawrie, she drowns after jumping in the river, believing that Robbie has fallen in. Her legs become entangled in the cables of a stolen television, dumped in the river by Andrew’s brutal, violent father.

Krystal and Robbie

I want to finish with reference to what is, for me, the most resonant line of the mini-series, and it belongs to Sukhvinder. Sukhvinder’s role is very much reduced in the adaptation for television. In effect, she is become a Chorus figure: hers is the voice of the narrator, a heterodiegetic voice-over, which, to be honest, is probably quite the most annoying voice-over ever – it’s a load of teenage gabble which is quite difficult for someone my age to follow. Its function is not only to remind the viewer of what has happened previously, but to comment on the action, just as is the case with the Chorus figure from your bog-standard Greek tragedy. It is another Harry Potter touch that an adolescent character was chosen for this role, but it works really well. Sukhvinder herself is almost entirely silent throughout the series (something of a mercy, given the garbled quality of the voice-over) and she is apparently completely isolated from the action: she wears headphones all the time, so she is kept separate and apart, but at the end, you realise that she has been observing closely in spite of her detached air. She has only one homodiegetic line – that is, only one line that is spoken within the narrative itself – and this comes after Krystal’s body has been retrieved from the river and Vikram Jawanda, Sukhvinder’s father, has rescued Robbie. The little boy has been taken into care as a result and Sukhvinder overhears her mother telling Vikram ‘It’s not your fault…anyone would have done the same.’ ‘Whose fault is it then?’ asks Sukhvinder. ‘Because it’s someone’s fucking fault.’

Krystal Weedon

And this is the point. Things don’t just happen. There is no such thing as fate, or destiny, or any such tripe. It is always SOMEONE’S FUCKING FAULT. You can call it karma if you wish, because what goes around certainly comes around. What happens to Krystal and Robbie in the novel is not only the fault of the characters such as Krystal’s rapist, their drug-dependent mother, the three people who saw Robbie and did nothing – no, it is also the fault of those people who routinely put their own concerns first, who think that caring for and about others is someone else’s responsibility, who put their heads in the sand and pretend that other people’s misery doesn’t exist. Which brings me back to the election result and the shocking number of people who voted to increase the misery of others by supporting the Tories and their policy of austerity for all except the rich. My one small crumb of comfort is that judging by the number of petitions and the scale of the outrage I can see on Facebook today, there are quite a lot of people who are not going to take the forthcoming Tory crap lying down. Vive la Revolution!