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.


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.

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

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.