Fictional consciousness in comics: Ascribing a mind to Iris Pink-Percy in Rachael Ball’s ‘The Inflatable Woman’: Part 7 of 8


The concept of focalization is central to discussions of fictional consciousness in prose narrative, but as we shall see, its application to the same in comics is problematic without some medium-specific adjustment. In the section to follow, I outline Genette’s theory of focalization and discuss conceptual modifications imported from film scholarship to address the difficulties created by the constantly shifting focalization in visual narrative. Included in the discussion is Branigan’s assertion that several different narrations can run simultaneously in images, and Borkent’s exploration of the concept of embodiment from cognitive linguistics demonstrates how visual modality allows the reader to construct composite viewpoints. 

In a 2008 article which takes for its subject the presentation of minds, Mikkonen concludes that frameworks for the exploration of mind construction current in literary scholarship require some reassessment if they are to be usefully and productively applied to comics. The concept of focalization as it exists in research devoted to prose narratives is one such concept which requires a medium-specific reevaluation if it is to be a helpful tool in the study of fictional consciousness in texts which comprise a visual as well as a verbal track. Gérard Genette’s theory of focalization continues to provide the basis for investigation of fictional consciousness in spite of the many subsequent revisions it has undergone since the publication of Narrative Discourses in 1972 (1980 in English translation), and Ann Miller devotes a chapter of her 2007 book Reading Bande Dessinée to the application of Genette’s theory to French-language comic strips, with some modifications adopted from film scholarship. 

Miller begins by restating that focalization falls under Genette’s ‘mood’, a category which reflects the linguistic concept of modality in that it ‘enables information to be affirmed with greater or lesser degrees of certitude or subjective investment’ (Miller, 2007: 105). Focalization, according to Genette’s model, is displayed in the processes of selection and restriction by which narrative information is conveyed. Genette separates the focalizer (who sees?) from the narrator (who speaks?), and he divides focalization into three types depending on the level of restriction to information, where zero focalization is an entirely unrestricted omniscient point of view, internal focalization presents the view of a particular character, and external focalization is limited to strictly behaviourist accounts with no access to mental processes. 

In zero focalization, the narrator has knowledge of the character’s thoughts. As we have seen, in the comics medium thoughts can be rendered by way of various devices such as thought balloons, dreams, visions and fantasy sequences. In figure 18 below, Iris is seen contemplating her forthcoming mastectomy and how it will affect her fantasy persona; in figure 19, Iris’ dream features a metaphorical pre-echo of her imminent cancer diagnosis in the form of a huge boulder which is heading her way.

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Figure 18 TIW p. 215

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Figure 19 TIW p. 11

In the case of internal focalization, the information rendered is dependent on and coloured by the orientation and perspective of one of the characters. What is narrated is likely incomplete and possibly unreliable, but in representing that particular character’s experience of being in the story world, the narration is endowed with its own epistemological veracity. In terms of purely physical viewpoint, internal focalization can take the form of the restricted field of vision of a particular character; in comics, this means that the panel shows the reader only that which the character can see at that moment. An example from TIW (see figure 20 below) shows Iris in hospital following her mastectomy. The image shows her hands and the rest of her body under the bedcovers, and the reader is positioned in a way which makes it clear that the image represents Iris’ field of vision. Mikkonen notes how it is possible to reveal this subjective viewpoint by the inclusion of body parts which belong to the character doing the seeing at the edges of the image (2017: 161). 

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Figure 20 TIW p. 262-263

Conversely, characters are only seen from the outside in cases of external focalization. This category is exemplified in behaviourist fiction, in which no access is granted to the inner life of the character apart from that which the reader can glean through observing the character’s actions and speech. Figure 21 below shows Iris after having made an appointment with the doctor. Iris herself says nothing, but the reader can deduct from the worried expression created by her frown and lowered brows that Iris is anxious about the outcome of the examination. The constant tapping of Iris’ pencil demonstrates her mental distraction, and the sequence of the panel triad will lead the reader to assume that Iris has been tapping her pencil continuously for an hour; the clock in the first panel reveals the time to be 3pm and Iris’ appointment is at 4pm. Pictorial runes exaggerate the effect of the tapping pencil: the pencil’s movement is shown through repeated versions of its form alongside motion lines, and the volume of the tapping sound is increased by the echoes which shadow the sound effect.

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Figure 21 TIW p. 30

Genette discusses five categories in all: order, duration, frequency, mood and voice. The first three categories are largely concerned with narrative time; as we have seen, the mood category deals with narrative perspective, and the final category of voice ‘addresses the question of who tells the story, and what traces of the narrator’s presence may be discerned in the text’ (Miller, 2007: 105). Heterodiegetic narrators are external to the storyworld and can utilise all three types of focalization; by contrast, homodiegetic narrators exist within the storyworld and cannot logically use zero focalization (with, as always, the exception of experimental texts). 

Although Genette’s work remains a popular starting-point for further enquiry, it has been subject to numerous revisions and refinements by narratologists and interested parties from other disciplines. Genette himself reformulated ‘who sees?’ as ‘who perceives?’ in his 1988 revision of Narrative Discourse; Mikkonen notes that this was an attempt to capture not only what is seen, but to represent the ‘affective, perceptive, and conceptual centre orienting the narrative’ (Mikkonen, 2017: 151). In other words, this was a revision which represents a movement away from the purely visual aspect of focalization implied by earlier formulations. Mieke Bal, one of Genette’s earliest revisionists, preferred to jettison external focalization altogether, and redefined this category in terms of the relation between the seer and the seen. Bal’s modifications to Genette’s framework have been well-documented, and others have debated what should be understood and encompassed by the term focalization: Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan (2002) argues in favour of the inclusion of mental processes and ideological orientation alongside the purely perceptual facet of focalization, a position that is opposed by first-generation narratologist Seymour Chatman (1978). Achim Hescher (2016) would discard focalization entirely in the case of comics, but this position is certainly opposed by Mikkonen (2017) and Baetens and Frey (2015), who argue that while existing narratological theories are obviously unsuited in their present form for wholesale transferral to the study of comics, they contain much that is useful nevertheless, provided medium-specific adjustments and additions are implemented. 

By way of adapting Genette’s work to render it more suitable for application to comics, Miller supplements Genette’s framework with the work André Gaudreault and Francis Jost, who argue that Genette’s three categories of focalization refer to knowledge, whereas ‘ocularization’ represents the visual perspective of a character, thus separating what a character knows from what they see. Furthermore, Gaudreault and Jost identify a subcategory of ocularized shots which ‘bear traces of the subjectivity of a character through deformation’ (Miller, 2007: 106), as can be seen in figure 22 below. As Iris succumbs to the anaesthetic, the sides of the frame gradually encroach across the panel until an entirely black panel indicates that Iris is now unconscious. The numbers of the surgeon’s countdown also become increasingly wobbly and malformed as the surgeon’s voice become fainter and more indistinguishable for Iris.

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Figure 22 TIW p. 242-243

Subjective traces ‘may be further extended through images which represent purely mental processes such as dreams’ (Miller, 2007: 106). Gaudreault and Jost argue that the status of these images is made clear by modalization operators such as a foregrounded change in the panel’s shape to indicate a dream sequence, but if these operators are not present, the reader has to distinguish between what is real in the storyworld and what is real to the character: internal focalization presents character perception as fact. Iris’ second dream in chapter 8 features a deliberately misleading opening sequence which shows Iris waking on the morning of her scheduled mastectomy. The dream-status of the following episode is uncertain for perhaps twenty panels. Iris’ encounter with the paper dolls in chapter 5 is even more puzzling: Iris is intoxicated, of course, and this sequence could be written off as a drunken nightmare if it were not for the continued presence of the paper doll bearing the personal ad which leads Iris into communication with Henry. The doll can be seen pinned to the wall above Iris’ computer from this point onwards, and it is Iris’ action of discarding and burying the doll in chapter 16 which marks the end of her fantasy-romance. The doll’s sudden appearance in an unfamiliar location at this crucial juncture in the narrative imbues it with metonymic significance: the doll is a stand-in for Henry and the fantasy world Iris formerly cherished. Nevertheless, the question of the doll’s physical existence in the storyworld remains unclear. 

It would be useful at this point to summarise that which has been discussed so far. Graphic storytelling allows for zero, internal and external focalization in heterodiegetic narration. Panels that are externally focalized naturally do not include subjective imagery or a point-of-view shot which would suggest the filtering consciousness of a character. Characters are depicted from an external viewpoint and thought balloons do not feature in externally focalized images because this device allows access to a character’s mental activity. At the other extreme, zero focalization implies omniscience and access is given to the characters’ inner life, although it is rare that all characters are treated equally in this regard (Miller, 2007: 110). It is more common that one or two characters will be selected for such privileged access. In TIW the reader has access to Iris’ thoughts and feelings, and very occasionally those of Maud, although in the case of the latter access is usually restricted to a thought balloon containing a question mark to indicate Maud’s confusion or her frustrated attempts to understand Iris’ behaviour. 

Internal focalization provides access to one particular character’s mind. However, ‘it is rare that images are restricted to the ocular viewpoint of that character’ (Miller, 2007: 109), although examples can be found. In figure 23 below, the reader sees Maud from Iris’ perspective, indicated by Maud’s gaze and her placement in the frame, and the tails of Iris’ speech balloons which point to the speaker at a position somewhere outside of the panel’s frame. Film theorist Edward Branigan, whose work I shall turn to shortly, contends that the point-of-view shot is composed of two shots (Branigan, 1984: 103). Following Branigan’s analysis, Iris’ presence at the window is established as a point in space in the panel on page 296. In the next panel, her glance is directed towards an ‘off-camera’ object, in this case, Maud. The ‘camera’ is located from Iris’ position in the panels on pages 298 and 299 and focuses on Maud-as-object. Maud’s thought balloon on page 299 indicates her puzzlement that Iris could have forgotten her hospital appointment. (In fact, the presence of this thought balloon in an ocularized image means that the reader is presented with two inner lives simultaneously: Iris’ field of vision and Maud’s mental confusion.)

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Figure 23 TIW p. 298-299

Ocularized views such as the example discussed above are possible in localised instances, but while it is a relatively simple matter to sustain one particular fictional consciousness in prose texts, it is impractical, difficult, and arguably undesirable to do so in comics (Mikkonen, 2008: 316). Focalization in comics is constantly shifting and as a result of this perpetual movement, Miller states that graphic storytelling ‘tends to exhibit a certain permeability between inner and outer worlds’ (2007: 119). Film scholars have noted a similar phenomenon with respect to their own medium, and Branigan cites the example of Robert Montgomery’s 1946 film Lady in the Lake, which sustains the point of view of the investigating detective, Philip Marlowe, throughout its duration (Branigan, 1992: 142-160). Montgomery as Marlowe is visible onscreen only in reflections or when his hands come into the frame, and the camera renders as accurately as possible this character’s ocularized view. However, cinema audiences quickly wearied of the experiment and found the viewing experience to be frustrating. A far more successful experiment with first-person consciousness can be found in Channel 4’s sitcom Peep Show, which features ocularized shots simultaneously with voice-overs, so the viewer sees what the character can see and hears what the character is thinking. This inner access is restricted entirely to the two main characters, Jeremy and Mark, played by Robert Webb and David Mitchell respectively. The popularity of this show attests to its success, unlike the now infamous failure of Montgomery’s film. Peep Show’s appeal rests on the fact that internal focalization is often deployed to set the visual and verbal tracks against each other for comic effect, and the shifting viewpoint between the two leads allows the audience to witness Jeremy and Mark from external as well as internal positions. 

The work of film scholar Edward Branigan has already been briefly touched upon, but I wish to consider in more detail now his argument that several different narrations can operate simultaneously. Branigan defines the character as an agent who provides information by simply living in their world and talking to other characters who inhabit the same world, and focalization depends upon that character experiencing something. Branigan draws a distinction between looking/listening, which is intersubjective and can be reported by a narrator, and seeing/hearing, which is a personal experience and can only be recounted through means of internal or external focalization. 

Character experiences can be rendered internally through point of view shots and dream sequences, or externally through close-ups and eyeline matches. As well as seeing and hearing, Branigan notes that focalization extends to ‘thinking, remembering, interpreting, wondering, fearing, believing, desiring, understanding, feeling guilt’ (Branigan, 1992: 101).

On the question of different narrations running concurrently, Branigan quotes fellow film scholar Stephen Heath, who argues that there is no real dichotomy between a subjective point of view shot and an objective non-point of view shot. The latter can be the basis over which the former runs, and an external shot can be overlaid with consciousness. This line of reasoning has enormous consequences for the interpretation of visual narrative in that it removes the onus to positively identify a single focalizing source for each panel, and it becomes possible to describe an image in terms of numerous levels of focalization. As previously stated, visual narratives feature numerous transitions from panel to panel and cannot sustain the depiction of a single consciousness without contrivance. Heath’s argument suggests there is ground for claiming that fictional consciousness in visual narrative could be sustained over extended passages if it is transposed over a basis of externally rendered images. 

To exemplify this point, the image from TIW below (figure 24) presents an apparently objective narratorial third-person perspective because Iris is not present and there is nothing to suggest that this is an ocularized image based on her field of vision. Nevertheless, traces of Iris’ subjectivity are present and her mental preoccupations are clearly reflected in the symmetry of the image which is neatly divided into two. Her computer takes centre-stage, with Henry’s kiss forming the focal point of the entire panel. The paper doll seen to the left of the computer represents the fantasy world of Iris’ online romance, but the letter from the hospital which is pinned above the computer on the right-hand side provides a stark reminder of the reality of Iris’ cancer and her imminent mastectomy. The panel following (figure 25) shows continuity of spatial arrangement in that the computer screen is still visible, thus indicating to the reader that the location is identical to the previous panel but the ‘camera’ has moved closer to the letter so that its text is fully legible. This refocusing of the reader’s attention on Iris’ real situation is a narratorial move to underline the escapist nature of her fantasy.

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Figure 24 TIW p. 140

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Figure 25 TIW p. 141

To demonstrate composite viewpoints over a more extended sequence, I refer below to pages 131-139 in TIW, which depicts a messaging conversation between Iris (balletgirl42) and Henry (sailorbuoy-39). The reader is aware that Iris has misrepresented herself to Henry, and she is writing as balletgirl42, a persona she has invented as a distraction from her diagnosis. What is unapparent to the reader on a first reading, however, is that Henry’s persona, sailorbuoy-39, is also a fiction: he too, is not what he claims to be. The voices of the two characters – or at least, their personae – appear onscreen in the form of messages, and the messages are depicted as panels within the wider surrounding panel. As such, the frame of each message operates in the same way as a speech balloon. The frame of the panel on page 132 (figure 26) takes the form of the computer screen and water drips from the bottom, leaking out of the frame’s dimensions. The frame’s contents have also switched, and now include an image of the lighthouse Henry is describing.

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Figure 26 TIW p. 132

 Horstkotte and Pedri would likely label this a shift in visual vocabulary (2011), and this shift marks the movement into Iris’ consciousness and her fantasy of Henry. (Of course, it is also true that these images represent Henry’s own fantasy version of himself.) The reader reads Henry’s words and witnesses Iris’ fantasy simultaneously (figure 27).

Figure 27 TIW p. 135-136

On another narrative level, the reader knows that Iris has been diagnosed with cancer and is shortly to undergo a mastectomy; this narrative level is still present throughout Iris and Henry’s conversation, and resurfaces in the image of the letter from the hospital.

In a 2017 article published in the journal Cognitive Linguistics, Mike Borkent considers how viewpoints are constructed from ‘multiple modalities’ (2017: 539) and he brings more recent cognitive theories to the study of focalization. He argues that theories of ‘embodiment, domains, mental simulation, and mental space blending’ (2017: 539) can provide a framework for the analysis of multimodal viewpoint construction in comics. Borkent considers carefully the communicative and expressive possibilities of the comics medium and notes that the range of signs through which comics relay their narratives (referred to previously in the discussion of Peirce’s classifications) have their own ‘viewpoint prompting features and conventions’ (2017: 541). Images communicate through iconicity and on the surface seem to do little more than point to the storyworld existence of an object through the depiction of something resembling that object, but even in this case, Borkent maintains that the ‘variable formal features’ of such images ‘can significantly reconstrue content’ (2017: 540). Iconic signs in comics interact with other signs in turn to construct viewpoints that are multimodal and multilayered. 

Borkent uses the cognitive linguistic concept of embodiment to explain how comics readers ‘activate lived experiences – from basic sensorimotor schemas up to cultural knowledge – to flesh out and interpret limited communicative cues’ (2017: 542). This is to say that readers’ gap-filling activities extend far beyond mentally completing the spaces, or gutters, between panels. Real-world knowledge is drawn upon to complete the information given in the panel. Borkent notes that the panel itself ‘acts as a window of attention’ (544; cf. Cohn 2013, Bridgeman, 2005, and Jahn, 1996) presenting a view into the storyworld that is not unfiltered: the composition of the panel and its style of presentation can be mobilised to influence the reader’s inference processes. Such processes might include completing a half-shown image, filling in a blank background, and importing ‘cues from prior panels to contextualise the action’ (Borkent, 2017: 544), all of which is reminiscent of Catherine Emmott’s work on contextual frame theory which focuses on how readers build mental frames of reference in relation to characters, settings, and so on, to create, maintain and update a storyworld (1997). An artist does not have to produce endless replications of one panel because the reader will assume that information not shown is still present; furthermore, this kind of ellipsis enables the foregrounding of communicative signs which contain salient narrative information. In addition, readers interpret signs with the aid of domain networks. The concept of ‘domains’ originates from research in semantics, and refers to pockets of stored information which people activate whenever that particular domain is encountered. In the example from TIW discussed in this section, the domain is ‘online dating’, activated by the images of the personal ad on pages 125 and 126 (see figure 28 below). The reader is able to make inferences connected with this domain, concerning roles, values, interactions and ideology. Given that Iris and Henry are both less than honest about their true identities, the sub-domain of catfishing is also activated for those readers who are aware of such things.

Figure 28 TIW p. 125-126

Read Part 1 here: Introduction and Summary of story.

Read Part 2 here: Context.

Read Part 3 here: Current Debates.

Read Part 4 here: Face and Body.

Read Part 5 here: Speech and Thought Representation.

Read Part 6 here: Pictorial Metaphor. 

Continued in Part 8: Conclusions and List of references. 



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


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 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.

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.


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.