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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mansfield in 1914

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

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

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

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

List of references

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘My little stories like birds bred in cages’: The Letters and Journals of Katherine Mansfield

KM writing sample
Katherine Mansfield’s notoriously indecipherable handwriting

I’ve recently written an essay on Katherine Mansfield’s short story The Man Without A Temperament, and because the details of the story bear so close a resemblance to Mansfield’s own illness and exile to warmer climes in order to escape the damp chill of an English winter, I felt I ought to look at some biographical material to see if I could work out what Mansfield really intended when she created the character of Robert Salesby. I couldn’t, of course, and it was foolish to try, but if nothing else came of this, I’m glad I looked into Mansfield’s journals and letters because they are a delight.

I’ve since invested in a nicer edition of the journal along with a copy of the notebooks edited by Margaret Scott. The latter is a big heavy book of about 700 pages, because Mansfield was a prolific writer in spite of her frequent comments about not being able to work. Her letters alone run to five volumes. But when I was composing my essay, the only biographical material I had to hand was a copy of the Penguin Letters and Journals edited by C K Stead. It’s okay. Stead has picked out plenty of good bits and explained the procedure for doing so in the book’s Introduction. The material is organised by location and date, so the Contents page provides at a glance a record of Mansfield’s movements between frosty England and various warm riviera-type places before she underwent treatment for her tuberculosis in Switzerland and finally died of a pulmonary haemorrhage at the age of 34 in Fontainebleau. Given the extent of Mansfield’s written output, Stead’s volume is a slim one, and although the various sections are held together with biographical notes (printed in italics, which is unnecessary and annoying), it’s sometimes quite hard to follow who’s who and what’s going on. A few more footnotes definitely wouldn’t have gone amiss, or even a list of ‘characters’ at the front and their relation to Mansfield. In general, readers don’t like having to stop every three minutes in order to flick back through the pages to find out who such-and-such is, or to verify that a particular passage comes from a journal entry and not a letter to John Middleton Murry. Nevertheless, it’s a book worth having, especially when one considers that I only paid £1.99 for it in a charity shop.


km10Obviously one of the chief pleasures in reading a book like this is finding a tart description of another writer. It’s like coming across a character you think you already know and then finding out that you don’t after all. Virginia Woolf, for example, was jealous of Mansfield’s writing – apparently the only writing Woolf was ever jealous of – but although the two women were on very friendly terms, Mansfield didn’t always return Woolf’s admiration. She reviewed Night and Day in 1919, and wrote to Murry:

…I am reviewing Virginia to send tomorrow. It’s devilish hard. Talk about intellectual snobbery – her book reeks of it. (But I can’t say so.) You would dislike it. You’d never read it. It’s so long and so tāhsōme…

Letter to J M Murry, 13 November 1919

Mansfield had travelled through wartime France early in 1918 and saw at first hand the devastation caused by years of conflict. She felt that Woolf’s book was ‘a lie in the soul…the novel can’t just leave the war out’. In a letter to Murry dated 10 November 1919, she wrote that ‘I feel in the profoundest sense that nothing can ever be the same – that, as artists, we are traitors if we feel otherwise: we have to take [the war] into account and find new expressions, new moulds for our new thoughts and feelings’.



Mansfield and Murry were also friends with D H Lawrence and his wife Frieda, although the relationship was not always harmonious. Mansfield did not like Frieda at all: ‘F. is such a liar… To my face she is all sweetness. She used to bring me in flowers, tell me how “exquisite” I was’. Lawrence himself was extremely difficult owing to his volatile temper, and in a letter to S S Koteliansky written in May 1916, from which the quotation above is taken, Mansfield describes a physical fight between Lawrence and Frieda that left Mansfield feeling ‘furiously angry’.

[Lawrence] is so completely in her power and yet I am sure that in his heart he loathes his slavery. She is not even a good natured person really; she is evil hearted and her mind is simply riddled with what she calls ‘sexual symbols’.

The friendship between the two couples broke down completely when Lawrence wrote to Mansfield in February 1920 as follows: ‘I loathe you. You revolt me stewing in your consumption’. Mansfield’s response was to write directly to Murry, beseeching him never again to defend Lawrence or to publish good reviews of Lawrence’s work in Murry’s paper, The Athenaeum.

Mansfield read everything she could get her hands on, and she offers a comment on Thomas Hardy’s The Well-Beloved, which I make no excuse for quoting at length here: I found it amusing, chiefly because I’m no fan of Hardy’s work myself.

It really is appallingly bad, simply rotten – withered, bony and pretentious… The style is so PREPOSTEROUS, too. I’ve noticed that before in Hardy occasionally – a pretentious, snobbish, schoolmaster vein…, an ‘all about Berkeley Squareishness,’ too… I hope to God he’s ashamed of it now at any rate.

Letter to J M Murry, 5 June 1918

But my favourite has to be Mansfield’s judgement on poor old E M Forster, who, in her opinion,

never gets any further than warming the teapot. He’s a rare fine hand at that. Feel this teapot. Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain’t going to be no tea.

Journal, May 1917

I’ll leave it there for this post, which is a tad unfair to Mansfield because I realise I’ve made it look as if her journal and personal correspondence amounts to nothing more than a catalogue of catty comments about other authors, but there is so much more to her writing than that. She was living in ‘interesting times’ and fighting a losing battle with consumption. She faced death alone, separated from her husband and in exile from both her native land (New Zealand) and her adopted homeland (England). She battled every day with intense bodily suffering and died while still in her early thirties, but she left behind eighty-eight marvellous short stories as well as her journal and a voluminous output of letters and literary reviews. She had an enormous thirst for life and chastised herself for being afraid when her illness intervened to prevent her from embracing life as she felt she ought. Using a metaphor for life usually reserved for the journey into death, she wrote to Murry in October 1920:

We resist, we are terribly frightened. The little boat enters the dark fearful gulf and our only cry is to escape – ‘put me on land again’. But it’s useless. Nobody listens. The shadowy figure rows on. One ought to sit still and uncover one’s eyes.

Mansfield died a little over two years later, in January 1923, depriving the literary world of one of its most talented voices, and one which doubtless had much more to say…but her short time had run out.

KM portrait
Portrait of Katherine Mansfield by Estelle Rice in the National Gallery, Wellington, New Zealand