The role of the reader

Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff and Merle Oberon as Cathy in the 1939 film of ‘Wuthering Heights’

i) Introductory

In this final chapter I wish to focus entirely on the reader and the reader’s role in relation to the various levels of discourse existing in a text.  The factors affecting the reader’s understanding of the text can be roughly organised into three categories as follows.  Firstly, the organisation of the text or its physical form, that is, the words and sentences on the page and the way in which these sentences are punctuated and arranged.  I took a brief look at punctuation in chapter two and syntactic arrangement in chapter three; in this chapter I take a closer look at lexical choice.  The second factor affecting a reader’s understanding is that of her empirical knowledge of the world.  The reader brings to the text a vast store of background knowledge which enables her to give shape and meaning to the words on the page.  The final factor is that of education: readers are distinguished by their varying levels of literary competence.  In order to answer the question of how a reader makes sense of a text, I shall be exploring the following four areas in turn: a) individual word meaning, in which I hope to demonstrate that a reader’s understanding of lexical items constitutes far more than a simple dictionary definition; b) schemata, frames and scripts show how a reader applies her knowledge of the world to the texts she reads; c) literary competence adds the more specific dimension of the reader’s knowledge of other texts, of which d) literary allusion is an even more specialised instance.  Categories c) and d) carry important implications for the questions proposed in this thesis.  The extent to which linguistics can be of service to the literary critic is compromised by the necessity of a high degree of literary competence in order to fully appreciate and understand a literary text; but it was never my intention to assert that linguistics alone is sufficient to achieve such an understanding.  The specialised knowledge of the critic comes into play where it is vital, for instance, to be able to accurately identify a literary allusion or to be able to situate a text within a particular genre; I will be investigating these questions in more detail, pertaining to problematic allusions in Brontë’s Wuthering Heights – allusions which arguably contain the key to a fuller understanding of the text.  As for the question of form and content, I stand by my conviction that they are inseparable but I concede that once the reader is taken into account the definition of ‘content’ becomes more complicated; however, I feel that the arguments presented here add weight to the assertion that literary language functions differently rather than detracting from the proposition that form and content are one and the same.

Before addressing the question of how a reader makes sense of a text, I intend to take a brief overview of the development of reader-response criticism and to comment further on the roles of author and reader as respective producer and consumer of texts.

In 1959 Michael Riffaterre wrote a paper entitled ‘Criteria for Style Analysis’ in which he suggests that since we cannot know the author’s intentions, it is better to focus on the response of the reader.[1]  Riffaterre recognised early on the displaced interaction that distinguishes the literary text from other types of text, and he writes that the author has a more difficult task than the speaker due to the absence of extra-linguistic means of expression: the author has limited graphological means at his disposal – for instance, the examples from Pratchett’s work in chapter two – but these means are a poor substitute for the expressive capabilities of tone, gesture, volume, pitch, et cetera.  The author, writes Riffaterre, is therefore more conscious of the message, and he introduces unpredictable elements, or stylistic devices, into his work in order to ensure that the message is decoded as he intended.  These stylistic devices, according to Riffaterre, can be identified by the average reader (AR); however, Riffaterre reserves the right to correct that which the AR finds and he classifies typical AR errors as faults of omission or addition.

Stanley Fish also deplores the exclusion of the reader in literary history, but he parts company with Riffaterre in that he does not believe it possible to divide a text up into utterances that may or may not have a literary effect.  Fish has made several important contributions to reader-response criticism through the formulation of his ‘affective stylistics’.  He argues that meaning cannot be extracted from a literary work, but is to be found in the reader’s experience of reading it: he writes that the experience of an utterance is its meaning.[2]  Fish’s method involves ‘an analysis of the developing responses of the reader in relation to the words as they succeed one another in time’,[3] and this basic premise means that at times his arguments come dangerously close to the idea of form enacting content; nevertheless, the value of Fish’s work should not be underestimated.  Fish’s method compels the critic to ask what a certain text or part of a text does, rather than what it means, a question that reflects Fish’s focus on experience rather than extraction; in addition, Fish draws attention to the temporality of the reading experience, in that the reader responds to a temporal flow in a left to right direction, at least in texts written in English.[4]  The effect of this reading experience is lost in the activity of criticism, writes Fish, and he states that it is criticism, not reading, that loses sight of the text.  The temporal model posited by Fish among others has at least one ramification for the form/content argument: if content is produced by the reader’s experience of reading in a temporal framework, then some content is inevitably lost if the reader does decide what the text ‘is about’; the clues, false trails and red herrings, are, for Fish, part of the meaning of the text in that they constitute part of the reading experience.  Carole Berger writes in support of this argument in her paper on Jane Austen’s villains:

although the spatial metaphor of recent decades has produced much useful criticism, it has obscured the fact that form also has a temporal dimension, manifest in the reader’s sequential experience of a work.  My analysis depends on the assumption that meaning is generated not only by the interpretation of a character’s qualities and development in relation to the work as a whole, but also through the process of apprehending a character as we read.[5]

Berger adds a useful footnote: ‘to the extent that the effects described depend on the reader’s ignorance of future developments, they obviously apply only to a first reading.  Subsequent readings yield different pleasures’.[6]  One is only fooled by Willoughby and Frank Churchill once!

Another critic interested in reader response is Steven Mailloux, who provides a useful overview of reader-response criticism in his paper ‘Learning to Read: Interpretation and Reader-Response Criticism’.  Mailloux summarises the work of various critics including Wolfgang Iser and Stephen Booth, and he adds to their arguments his own premise that

every critical approach embodies a set of interpretive conventions used to make sense of literary texts.  Such interpretive conventions are shared procedures for creating meaning, and they consist of interpretive assumptions manifested in specific critical moves.[7]

Indeed, in a separate paper Mailloux demonstrates how critics have made sense of a ‘maimed’ text; the fact that they were able to do so at all indicates how powerful these interpretive conventions can be.[8]  According to Mailloux’s reasoning, the reader/critic is a member of an interpretive community, and the ‘history of literary criticism is a chronicle of the changes in…shared interpretive strategies’.[9]  Furthermore, Mailloux neatly summarises the different roles assigned to the reader: she is in the text as narratee, or she dominates over the text as the creator of meaning, or she produces meaning by interacting with the text.  The reader has also collected an assortment of epithets: she is implied, educated, ideal, informed, et cetera.  The implied reader is a product of the displaced interaction between addresser and addressee, and she is defined by Leech and Short as follows:

because the author can assume knowledge which any particular reader might not necessarily have, we have to conclude that the addressee in literary communication is not the reader, but…the IMPLIED READER; a hypothetical personage who shares with the author not just background knowledge but also a set of presuppositions, sympathies and standards of what is pleasant and unpleasant, good and bad, right and wrong.[10]

Authorial correspondence, drafts, and so on, reveal some authors’ concern that the reader should resemble the implied reader as closely as possible.  One authorial strategy with this aim in mind is to refer directly to the reader – Fielding’s guiding hand in Tom Jones is an oft-quoted example.  The reader shares a relationship not only with the author, but also with the narrator and/or the characters; often the reader is called upon to judge the characters, and by extension, herself.  The technique of encouraging self-judgment is an authorial means for educating the reader, assuming that the role of literature is to edify.  Mailloux’s reader is an active participant, not a passive observer, and Mailloux parts company from Fish and Riffaterre in his refusal to separate reader from critic:

it is true that reader-response criticism claims to approximate closely the content of reading experiences that are always assumed to pre-exist the critical performance.  But what in fact takes place is quite different: the critical performance fills those reading experiences with its own interpretive moves.[11]

Mailloux asserts that it is impossible to separate the two activities of reading and criticism and that one activity necessarily entails the other.

Meaning is created from an elaborate network of integration and cooperation between author, reader, and text.  To ignore the reader would be to place the creation of meaning squarely at the point of production, that is, at the feet of the author.  Alternatively, one could remove both author and reader from the equation as the American New Critics did,[12] and argue instead that meaning is inherent in the text itself.  But to treat the text as aesthetic object instead of discourse is a viewpoint that is currently unfashionable amongst practitioners of stylistics.  Fowler notes that if a text is treated as discourse, this represents a ‘corrective to the…traditional claim in literary criticism that texts are objects rather than interactions…. But ‘literary’ texts…do speak: they participate in society’s world-view and social structure’.[13]  In stylistic analysis, the text has come to be regarded as a message, a communication which passes between author and reader, and bearing in mind the emphasis this kind of analysis places on the text as discourse in both its production and reception, it would seem to be an unpardonable omission to ignore the recipient of the ‘text as message’, the reader himself.  As Wimsatt and Beardsley have noted, the production of a literary work may be private, but its consumption is public: ‘the poem belongs to the public.  It is embodied in language, the peculiar possession of the public’.[14]

The history of the author has been a chequered one: she has been put on a pedestal, only to be later declared irrelevant and finally proclaimed dead.  In a paper entitled ‘Against Theory’, Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels have reinstated –or resuscitated! – the author, but only by simultaneously removing the need to consider authorial intention: ‘once it is seen that the meaning of a text is simply identical to the author’s intended meaning, the project of grounding meaning in intention becomes incoherent’.[15]  Knapp and Michaels suggest that we should believe that the author meant what she wrote – a reasonable enough approach that brings us back to the guiding or manipulative author who steers the reader towards an intended meaning.  Iser bases his theory of reader-response criticism on the premise that the reader fills in the textual gaps left deliberately by this author-guide: the text (or the author through the text) provides instructions for the production of meaning but these instructions are not exhaustively explicit, thus allowing the reader some interpretive freedom – indeed, the plurality of a text, its openness to a number of readings, is one of the possible hallmarks of a literary text – but the reader is not given carte blanche to create meaning at will.  According to Iser, what the text contains is not meaning, but a set of directions for assembling that meaning;[16] my contention in proposing that form and content are inseparable is that a different set of directions leads to a different meaning.

ii) How Does a Reader Make Sense of a Text?

a) Individual Word Meaning: an investigation into the perceived meaning of the words tourist and traveller.

touristn. a person making a visit or tour as a holiday; a traveller, esp. abroad…

travellern. 1 a person who travels or is travelling. 2 a travelling salesman. 3 a Gypsy…[17]

Leech and Short invite their reader to compare two alternative translations of the opening passages of Franz Kafka’s The Trial.[18]  In the first translation by Willa and Edwin Muir, the man who has come to inform Joseph K. of his arrest is likened to, or linked with, a tourist, and in the second translation by Douglas Scott and Chris Waller, he has become a traveller.  A small difference, perhaps, but I decided to conduct a small-scale survey, in order to discover for myself the possible associations of each of these words in the minds of various readers.  The results were quite surprising, and from the data collected I was able to conclude that word meaning is exceptionally fragile, and can alter considerably according to factors such as the age of the respondent, or even the time of year.[19]

A total of 37 people were surveyed from two different age groups, as follows:

Age group of respondents (in years): Number of responses:
13 – 19 24
20 – 60 13


Each respondent was asked to write down the first words or phrases which came to mind on hearing the word tourist; the same exercise was performed with the word traveller.  The responses were anonymous.  To begin with I have summarised the most frequent responses to each word in turn before adding a few words of caution with regard to the overall interpretation of the survey’s results; finally, I have written a general overview of the similarities and differences between the two words as recorded by the respondents surveyed.  Words appearing in italics are those written by the respondents.

The word tourist produced surprisingly few references to holiday: only four were found.  By far the greatest number of references – a total of 16 – were to vehicles in which a tourist might travel, and the increased volume of traffic as a result.  Thirteen references were made to items a tourist might wear or carry, including five references to camera.  Twelve references, 11 of which came from the 13 – 19 age group, were to people of Asian descent; 11 references were made to activities a tourist might undertake, such as bungee jumping; eight references were made to geographical features (for example, waterfall); six references were made to travel or travelling and six references were made to specific places tourists might visit (for example, Germany, Amsterdam, Rotorua); finally, there were four references apiece for holiday and Barmy Army.

The most frequent responses to the word traveller were as follows: a total of 21 respondents wrote the words hitch-hiker, biker or backpacker; 19 references were made to vehicles in which a traveller might travel; 12 references were made to journeys and eight references, seven of which came from the older age group, made mention of the traveller’s occupation, for example salesperson or business suit.

In analysing these results, I found it important to bear in mind the following points.

1)  The respondents were all either staff members or students at Cheviot Area School and they were all native speakers of English with the exception of two, one from each age group: one student from year 12 was bilingual and his first language was Maori; one staff member was a fluent English speaker but her first language was German.

2)  An English woman – myself – asking a group of mostly New Zealanders for a response to these two words in particular inevitably drew some references to Poms!

3)  The survey took place during the Lions’ tour of New Zealand, hence the proliferation of references to the Barmy Army, campervans, slow traffic, et cetera; in addition to this, a recent news report had detailed the death of one woman in a road accident caused by a Lions supporter, which perhaps explains the references to death and accidents.

4)  Some of those surveyed wrote paragraphs instead of individual words and phrases – possibly I had not issued clear instructions – and I may have misrepresented these responses.

5)  I cannot judge the effect of asking for a response to these words in succession; possibly the results would have differed if I had left more time in between each request for a response.  Having been asked for a response to the word tourist, the respondent would already be thinking within and around this particular topic, and the response to traveller may therefore be coloured by the previous response.[20]  The respondents were always given the word tourist first, and there was some overlap of ideas with traveller, particularly among the 13 – 19 age group, who seemed to experience some difficulty in distinguishing between the two.  There were frequent instances of repetition, which were duly noted.

6)  Of particular note was the frequent number of references to the word Asian among the 13 – 19 age group in response to tourist; one respondent even wrote lousy Asians.  Such unabashed racism is difficult to account for, especially in a community with very few Asian residents.  A similar attitude was not in evidence from the responses assembled from the staff of the school.

7)  In collating the results, I was aware that the responses would have been different had I surveyed a group of people from the UK, like myself, instead of from New Zealand.  There would perhaps have been references to ‘Germans’ and ‘towels’ in response to tourist, and the response to traveller would almost certainly have included some very negative comments about nomadic groups previously referred to as gypsies, but now more commonly referred to as travellers.

I would like to begin this overview of perceived similarities and differences by noting those references which appeared in response to both words.  Both lists contained many references to vehicles, so clearly the idea of travelling, or of making a journey (travelling in other countries, overseas or travelling the world), is connected to both words, although as we shall see later on, there were differences perceived in the type of travel undertaken and the method of journeying.  Responses to tourist and traveller both incorporated ideas of equipment needed, notably camera for tourist and water bottle for traveller.  Tourists and travellers alike were referred to as visitors, but only the responses to traveller allowed of visitors being either foreign or fellow countrymen.  Both sets of responses made reference to lots of people and lots of money; references to fun and excitement, Poms and the Barmy Army, carrying a backpack and accidents also appeared frequently in response to both words.  The words tourist and traveller themselves cropped up in definition of each other, as did the idea of holidays, but travellers were seen to travel for reasons other than being on holiday, an idea which was absent from the responses to tourist.

The differences between the responses to these two words can be briefly summarised as follows.  Those surveyed did not consider themselves to be tourists if they were in New Zealand; the prevalent idea was that a traveller can travel abroad or at home, but a New Zealander is not a tourist in New Zealand (and perhaps we can assume that people from other nations would think similarly; I would find it difficult to think of myself as a tourist in England, even if I were doing the things tourists do, such as visiting the Tower of London, and so on).  A tourist, therefore, is someone who has come to your country from abroad; a traveller is usually someone who ventures forth to foreign parts.  The overwhelming feeling gained from reading the resulting lists was that tourists invade, but travellers explore.  The idea of long-distance travel was more prevalent in those responses to traveller than to tourist, and it was interesting to note that while both lists contained references to geographical features, there was a distinct difference between the kinds of features mentioned: tourist elicited the words waterfall and countryside, but traveller elicited desert: the traveller therefore, is connected with a harsh and adventurous terrain, whereas the tourist is placed in comfortable, easy surroundings.  One response worth mentioning – although it is perhaps of limited significance, being only one response – is that the traveller seeks, while the tourist just sees.  It was interesting to discover also that the traveller is defined by age where the tourist is defined by race; there were numerous references to young person for traveller, but nothing similar for tourist; the tourist was identified by where he had come from, for example, Chinese, Pom, Asian and American.  It would not be misleading to say that respondents seemed to have a much clearer idea of what a tourist should look like – race, costume, objects carried, et cetera – but the traveller was not so clearly identifiable.  Where the tourists were seen to come from specific places, the travellers were more generic – anybody could be a traveller.  Travellers were seen to go camping, or to do it on the cheap; in comparison, tourists spent a lot of money.  As previously mentioned, the traveller often had an occupation, such as salesperson, gypsy, or fruit-picker, but the tourist did not.  The tourists undertook many activities (sightseeing, bungee jumping) but the travellers just travelled.  The travellers got to know the country at grass-roots level, compared to the tourists who were just passing through.  Finally, although this summary is by no means exhaustive, the idea of tourist incorporated the idea of planning – the tourist was an idiot with a map who carried a suitcase instead of a rucksack – and the traveller was linked with notions of spontaneity and exploration.  The tourist had an agenda, a plan, whereas the travellers just upped and went whenever the urge took them.

It is quite clear then, even from this very inconclusive survey, that these two words are not interchangeable, and that they each carry a certain set of associations in the mind of the reader.  To link Kafka’s warder with a tourist is to set up a comparison which differs from linking him with a traveller.  To cite a different example, one might respond to Shelley’s famous poem very differently if the first line read ‘I met a tourist from an antique land…’![21]

In conclusion, what has become clear is that readers do not store words in isolation, and that in discussing the meaning of a word it is probably more useful to take the holistic over the localist view.[22]  Words are not stored in the mind in the same way they are stored in a dictionary: words are mentally linked to other words, and one word is capable of invoking a whole host of associations.  Jean Aitchison discusses the importance of the quality of the links that form between words in Words in the Mind.  She notes that ‘the quality of the links in each case is probably more important than the exact location of the various pieces of information’.[23]  Indeed, one of the words currently under discussion provides a very neat example of this point: the word backpack has become so closely linked with the word traveller that when the suffix –er is added to the word backpack, the new word formed – backpacker – is a synonym of traveller.

To all of the above must be added the important factor of context.  It is quite probable that a reader will respond differently to the same word in different contexts, and of course, literary writing is arguably a context in itself.  A word appearing in a poem derives its meaning from many sources other than its dictionary definition: it will gather associations from those words with which it is linked phonologically and syntactically within the poem itself; it will perhaps spark recollections in the reader’s mind of its appearance in other poems which will add yet another meaning dimension.[24]  Within the confines of a single text, a word can gather associations and resonances that do not apply when that word appears elsewhere: for example, in Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat, we learn at the beginning of chapter three that Lise ‘will be found tomorrow morning dead from multiple stab-wounds, her wrists bound with a silk scarf and her ankles bound with a man’s necktie, in the grounds of an empty villa’.[25]  From this point onwards, the reader is exceptionally sensitive to the words ‘silk scarf’ and ‘necktie’ since these items have been implicated in Lise’s murder, and the word ‘villa’ now takes on the additional meaning of ‘scene of the crime’.  The word ‘villa’ appearing in a holiday brochure is unlikely to have the same resonance: it would simply indicate a form of available accommodation.

b) Schemata: Frames and Scripts

Leech and Short provide a clear statement about the shared knowledge between author and reader:

although the author of a novel is in the dark about his reader from many points of view, he can of course assume that he shares with his readers a common fund of knowledge and experience…quite a lot of general background knowledge of the world about us is needed to interpret even the simplest of sentences in a novel.[26]

Every day people are bombarded with vast quantities of information, and the way in which we cope with our experience of the world about us is to organise our observations into little packages, referred to as schemata.  Fowler notes that schemata are mechanisms by which memory is facilitated and ordered: ‘we store our ideas and experiences in terms of what is typical, what we take to be the usual attributes of an event or an idea’.[27]  Schemata are organised into frames and scripts.  Frames are clusters of typical features.  Fowler gives the example of a child’s birthday party: the features of this particular frame include jelly and ice cream, and blowing out the candles on a cake.  Scripts are stories: they have a sequential ordering, either temporal or logical.  When at a wedding, the groom should be in the church before the bride arrives, and the best man has to make an embarrassing speech at the reception that follows, and so on.  Schemata are packages of knowledge shared by members of a community, and this knowledge is acquired through a process of socialisation that begins at birth.  Schemata help us to organise mentally our experience of living in the world, and they also help us to make sense of written texts.  When faced with a text, ‘readers will recognize, through cues, what kind of text it is, and deploy appropriate conventional schemata’.[28]  In the case of literary texts, schemata consist of knowledge of typical story-lines, frames for typical narrative situations and settings, and so on.  Jean Aitchison provides a very nice example from literature:

consider the conversation between Ackroyd and Boothroyd, two characters who visit a ruined abbey in Alan Bennett’s play A Day Out:

Ackroyd:          They were Cistercian monks here…

Boothroyd:      It’s an unnatural life, separating yourself off like that…There wouldn’t be any kids, would there?  And allus getting down on their knees.  It’s no sort of life…

Here, the word monk…has triggered a whole situation, in which Boothroyd imagines silent corridors and monks praying.[29]

It is easy to see how a reader can apply her world knowledge to fictional texts in such instances, but how does the reader cope when the fictional world bears little or no resemblance to the world she inhabits?  Distance between reader and text can manifest itself in various forms: texts can be difficult for the reader to access because they were written hundreds of years ago, or because they depict an alien culture.  Stories written within the fantasy and science fiction genres are often set in a world other than the reader’s own:

most fictional texts create their fictional worlds through a relatively standard use of presupposition, schematic assumption and the like.  But some texts…create special effects by assuming ‘facts’ that are so at odds with our normal assumptions that we cannot ‘take them on’, in the normal way.[30]

Leech and Short make the observation that readers can and do cope with such texts, provided they are consistent: ‘CONSISTENCY is an important aid to credibility: an unfamiliar reality which obeys its own set of laws is more credible than one which does not’.[31]  The world of Peake’s Gormenghast is at first glance bewildering and disorientating, but the reader soon learns how to construct a version of this alternate reality.  Our first glimpse into this strange world lights upon the curator Rottcodd in the Hall of the Bright Carvings, endlessly dusting the beautiful carvings that no one ever sees.  We learn that while he knows it is ‘the eighth day of the eighth month’, he is ‘uncertain about the year’.[32]  The apparent futility of Rottcodd’s existence and his peculiar indifference to the passage of time soon make perfect sense to us once we have immersed ourselves more fully in the eccentric world of Peake’s enormous castle and the lives of its curious inhabitants.

But what of those other texts mentioned previously, those that are distanced from the reader temporally?  Riffaterre argues for an analytical approach that combines synchrony and diachrony: he notes that the message survives as the author –or encoder – intended, but ‘the decoders’ linguistic frame of reference changes with the passing of time; the moment may even come when there is nothing left in common between the code to which the message refers and the code used by its readers’.[33]  Before the reader can decode the message distant from him in time, it is necessary for him to acquire some specialised knowledge.  Short writes that ‘one important aspect of the work of English departments revolves around giving students the requisite schematic knowledge-base for responding sensitively to texts distant from them historically and/or culturally’.[34]  It goes without saying that departments of linguistics can also offer a great deal of knowledge concerning the historical development of languages.

c) Literary Competence

Linguistic competence is what enables the language user both to construct and to understand an infinite number of sentences in his native language, and it is this ability that generative grammar attempts to document.  By contrast, literary competence ‘is schematized knowledge possessed by those people who have had a literary education’.[35]  Linguistic competence will undoubtedly vary from individual to individual, but the variation in literary competence will be much greater.  Those who read English at university will probably attain a far higher level of literary competence than those who leave school at sixteen, for example.  The extent of an individual’s literary competence has a great deal of bearing on what sort of reader he is.  To give a very simple example, the word raven may mean many different things to different readers.  At one end of the scale, the reader may not recognise the word at all and for him, the marks on the page will have no significance – or signified – whatsoever.  A reader a little further up the scale may know that the raven is a big, black bird; another reader may connect the word raven with stories about the Tower of London.  Further still up the scale, the reader may make the connection with Edgar Allan Poe (or at least with that episode of The Simpsons!).  The next reader might recognise the raven as a symbol or omen of death, which will colour his reading of the text.  It is a simple example, but it is plain nevertheless that the reader who recognises the raven in the text as an ill omen will continue reading in a different frame of mind to the reader who thinks of the raven as just a type of crow.

Knowledge related to genre and other texts within that genre is also a feature of literary competence.  It has already been noted that the reader of The Yellow Wall-Paper will, having read the opening paragraphs, be expecting to read a ghost story, once she has been informed of the house’s cheap rent and lack of recent tenants.  Readers of Wuthering Heights who are familiar with the novels of Sir Walter Scott will be expecting that Lockwood, a young man plunged into strange and sinister surroundings, should encounter a ghost during his enforced stay at the Heights, as indeed he does.[36]

To possess literary competence is to be familiar with literary schemata.  The reader with literary competence is knowledgeable about various literary genres, which are stored in the head as frames: ghost stories should have creaking doors, guttering candles, strange noises, and a fatally curious protagonist; westerns should have swinging saloon doors, pistol-duels at dawn, whisky and sawdust, and a drunken or dastardly sheriff.  The reader with literary competence knows what the story should have in it, and roughly how the storyline should run.  A more specialised form of literary competence is the ability in the reader to recognise literary allusion.

d) Literary Allusion

To refer in the wording of one text to the wording or storyline of another text, either directly or indirectly, is to bring to the original text all the associations connected with the other.  Thus when Lockwood refers to the brindled cat Grimalkin[37] on the morning after his tortured night spent at the Heights, the reader familiar with Macbeth will no doubt recall the witches’ chants of Act I scene (i), ‘I come, Graymalkin!’, and Act IV scene (i), ‘Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d’.[38]  Macbeth is a play with more than its fair share of murder, ghosts, witchcraft and death, and the reader alert to these references will continue her reading of Wuthering Heights with all these associations in mind.  The young Catherine has already taunted Joseph with her supposed dabbling in witchcraft; Cathy’s ghost replaces that of Banquo’s, and Heathcliff, like Macbeth, is arguably a murderer.[39]  The notion of ‘content’ is complicated by the authorial use of allusion in that the borrowed phrases carry with them the baggage of the text alluded to – provided, of course, that the reader is able to detect and identify the reference in the first place.  F. W. Bateson and B. Shakevitch write in their essay on Katherine Mansfield’s The Fly:

as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport.  If the victim did not show some spirit, the gods would lose their sport.  (A half-consciousness of Gloucester’s dictum is no doubt expected in the reader.) [40]

The reader who does not pick up on this allusion will perhaps not form as complete a picture of the boss’ character as will a reader who does recognise this reference from Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Allusion, literary or otherwise, has an even greater role to play in allegorical texts such as Pratchett’s Discworld novels, and in this particular case the reader who misses the allusion will often miss the joke.  A reader who is also a banker explained via the monthly electronic Discworld newsletter the reference, already mentioned in chapter two, to the repeated phrase twelve and a half per cent uttered by Reacher Gilt’s parrot.  Other readers wrote in to shed light on the Discworld’s clacks system:

the Discworld’s clacks system has…origins in a system devised by Claude Chappe which spanned 17th century France.  It encountered opposition from peasants who thought that the ‘clacking’ noises were demonic and burned down the towers (think Borogravians in Monstrous Regiment).

the clacks towers were actually based on…well, clacks towers!…  From 1808-1814 during the Napoleonic war, it was used by the Admiralty as a semaphore station.  This was operated by a shutter system and could help relay a message to or from Yarmouth in five minutes.[41]

Another reader was sagacious enough to recognise the following literary reference:

I was re-reading Sourcery recently and I noticed a remarkable similarity between the poetry by Creosote and several verses from Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam….  For example, the first verse of the Rubaiyat begins, ‘Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight.’ and one of Creosote’s poems begins, ‘Get up! For morning in the cup of day, has dropped the spoon that scares the stars away.’[42]

Not being familiar with the Rubaiyat myself, this pleasant joke was completely lost on me until I read the above letter.

Much depends on the reader’s ability in the first instance to accurately identify an allusion: the danger is that an incorrectly identified allusion may lead to a redundant reading of the text.  In order to reach a full understanding of the significance of Lockwood’s first dream in Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, one has to recognise the biblical allusion in Branderham’s sermon.  In 1958, Ruth Adams published an article entitled ‘Wuthering Heights: the Land East of Eden’,[43] in which she identifies the source of the sermon as that of Genesis IV:24: ‘If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold.’  The biblical text Adams supplies refers the reader to the story of Cain, who, following the murder of his brother, moves to a land east of Eden, and whose mark serves as a warning to other men not to kill the slayer of Abel.  Adams notes that the ‘mark of Cain does not identify the condemned murderer.  Rather it is protective’.[44]  Cain’s descendants likewise are not subject to retribution for their crimes and therefore, writes Adams, ‘the race dwelling east of Eden can work its evils in the assurance that no conventional consequence of punishment will follow’.[45]  This, Adams argues, is the world of Wuthering Heights and its inhabitants, and the function of Lockwood’s first dream is to introduce the reader to this world:

Wuthering Heights…is a book without conventional ethics or morality.  Emily Brontë, aware of the adjustment such a pattern demanded of her readers, undertook to assist them from the very beginning.  Thus, with Lockwood’s dream of Banderham’s [sic] sermon, she indicated that readers were to travel east of Eden, in the company of those alienated from God and paradoxically protected by him against the punishing consequences of their deeds.[46]

There is much that is enticing in this reading: Adams’ explanation of the dream’s function is coherent and persuasive.  I noted in chapter one that the two worlds of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange represent, for the reader, the entire reality of the text.  Characters come and go – Heathcliff and Hindley both enjoy an absence of three years – but the reader never leaves the moors.  The inhabitants of these two residences therefore appear to be a law unto themselves, distinct and separate from the world of law, justice and punishment which exists beyond, just as Cain lives free from retribution in the land of Nod.[47]

There are at least two problems with Adams’ reading, leaving aside the claim that Wuthering Heights is ‘a book without conventional ethics or morality’.  Firstly, Edgar Shannon argues that the allusion has been incorrectly identified, and secondly, Adams’ explication of the allusion makes no reference to the fact that Cain is kept alive as a punishment, a fact that would surely have some relevance to her reading.  I shall deal with the second of these objections first, being, as it is, the least consequential of the two.  It is not entirely true that the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights – by whom I suppose Adams to mean Heathcliff and Hindley – commit crimes happily in the knowledge that no punishment will be forthcoming.  Both men suffer cruelly following the deaths of their loved ones.  Hindley survives Frances by six years, and Heathcliff lives through eighteen years of separation from Cathy.  The suffering of these two men is in turn visited upon those around them.  Adams is wrong, I think, to compare the inhabitants of the land of Nod with those of Wuthering Heights and to subsequently neglect this aspect of Cain’s story.  The mark of Cain may be protective, but it is also what is keeping him alive to suffer:

And Cain said unto the Lord, My punishment is greater than I can bear.

Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me.

And the Lord said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.  And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.[48]

Cain is made to wander the earth, a ‘fugitive’ and an outcast; never again is he to be allowed in the presence in the Lord.[49]  His crops will never grow, forcing him to beg for food.[50]  Adams could have compared the suffering of Cain to the suffering of Heathcliff, forced to endure eighteen years in a world without Cathy: ‘The entire world is a dreadful collection of memoranda that she did exist, and that I have lost her!’[51]  But why should Heathcliff be made to suffer as Cain did?  At the time of Cathy’s death, his only crime is his elopement with Isabella, and she is an all-too-willing party to this act.  It makes more sense, especially given the events of Lockwood’s second dream, to equate the figure of Cain with that of Catherine Earnshaw.  In 1959, Edgar Shannon wrote a response to Adams’ article in which he pointed out that Adams had firstly mistaken the allusion, and secondly, that she had made the error of explicating the book in terms of the first nightmare alone; Shannon argues that ‘the two dreams are inextricably linked’.[52]  He considers that Genesis IV:24 has ‘no relevance whatever to Branderham’s pious discourse’,[53] and suggests that the correct source of the allusion is Matthew XVIII:21-22:

Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?

Jesus said unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.

Shannon argues that this allusion is more likely to be the one Brontë had in mind for two reasons.  Firstly, Branderham’s sermon consists of four hundred and ninety parts, which is ‘the product of seventy times seven’.[54]  Secondly, Shannon notes that Lockwood specifically refers to ‘the hypothetical brother of Peter’s question’:[55] ‘it seemed necessary the brother should sin different sins on every occasion’.[56]  I mentioned in chapter one Cathy’s bemusement at being admonished for making herself comfortable when she hides in the dresser with Heathcliff.  To name four hundred and ninety separate sins, one would have to see small sins everywhere, including the sin of making oneself comfortable on a Sunday.  If, as I have suggested, Lockwood has changed places with Cathy during this first dream-sequence, then the reader sees that he, like Cathy, is bemused by both the number and nature of the sins, and, again like Cathy, he is finally punished for being bored by the ‘good book’.

Shannon writes that the correct interpretation of the sermon ‘advances the idea of an unpardonable sin beyond the ordinary scale of human wrongs’.[57]  Cathy is the one who has apparently committed such an offence, and in Lockwood’s second dream, the reader sees the consequences of her actions: Cathy is the Wandering Jew, the Cain-like figure, condemned to wander the earth for twenty years.[58]  But what is the nature of her offence?  Shannon suggests that the atmosphere of Gothic tradition in conjunction with a second biblical allusion in Lockwood’s first dream identifies the crime as adultery.  He writes that Branderham’s words to Lockwood, “Thou art the man! ”, are ‘the words of Nathan the prophet when he delivers God’s rebuke to David for appropriating Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.’[59]  If Lockwood has taken Cathy’s place in this dream, then the charge of adultery is laid at Cathy’s feet: she had been given Heathcliff but she took Edgar Linton instead.  One may argue at this point that Heathcliff and Cathy do not actually commit adultery; but, says Shannon, Cathy’s ‘sin is marrying Edgar Linton, when she loves Heathcliff with a love that springs from a natural and elemental affinity between them’.[60]

To sum up: Lockwood’s dreams contain two allusions that must be considered jointly if they are to be fully understood.  The first allusion refers to a story in the New Testament in which the virtue of forgiveness for crimes committed is extolled and the second allusion identifies the crime as that of adultery.  Cathy, having changed places with Lockwood in his dream, is charged with having committed adultery in abandoning the man she truly loved to marry another.

Lockwood’s dreams are recounted at the beginning of the book but chronologically speaking the events related take place near the very end of Heathcliff’s story.  The key to understanding his story lies perhaps in the interpretation one places on the allusions in these dreams.  It seems entirely possible that Shannon has correctly identified the two allusions.  However, it is arguable that Adams’ mistake is not entirely baseless: the fact that the wording does recall the Old Testament story of Cain may have some significance.  In the text identified by Shannon, Jesus makes the point that forgiveness is better than vengeance and the reader is perhaps intended to recall the vengeance of Cain and his punishment for being unable to forgive his brother Abel.  At the end of Wuthering Heights, it is Heathcliff who finally forgives Cathy, abandoning his plans of vengeance directed at her remaining family, and his reward is to join her in death.  In this reading, both Heathcliff and Cathy are likened to the figure of Cain: both are excluded from the world or sphere they wish to inhabit until Heathcliff can learn forgiveness and abandon his plans for vengeance.

iii)     Conclusions

In my brief overview of reader-response criticism it was noted that Fish places a great deal of emphasis on the role of the reader in his affective stylistics.  Fish advocates the study of the reader’s experience of reading rather than any attempt to extract meaning from the text, and he claims that it is imperative that one take into account the temporal left to right flow of the reading experience.  Mailloux presents an argument that focuses on the reader less as an individual and more as a member of a reading community.  He differs from Fish in his assertion that one cannot be a reader without also being a critic and that textual interpretation is the product of shared meaning-producing strategies.

It was seen that the displaced interaction between the encoder of the message, the author, and its decoder, the reader, is arguably one of the hallmarks of the literary text, as is the text’s potential for supporting a plurality of interpretations.  This potential is not limitless, however; the author takes pains to ensure that her message is decoded more or less as she intended, and to this end she acts as a guide for the reader.  This argument is not incompatible with Iser’s contention that the reader fills in textual gaps: this is indeed what happens, but the reader is not allowed to fill the gaps at random and is provided instead with hints and clues.  Knapp and Michaels suggest that textual meaning and authorial meaning are one and the same and that it does not make sense to search for any additional meaning with reference to the author’s biography or personal psychology: it suffices to believe that the author wrote what she meant!  This argument can, I think, be cited in support of the claim that form and content are inseparable.

My investigation into the factors affecting reader response to individual word meaning also supports the claim that form = content in that it was demonstrated that words are not simply interchangeable.  At first glance, it may appear that there is little difference between the words ‘tourist’ and ‘traveller’, but my small survey showed otherwise.  Lexical choice is therefore as important in determining meaning as other textual factors such as syntactic arrangement and punctuation.  A paraphrase of a literary work involves changes to these factors, resulting in an undesirable loss of the original’s meaning.  Furthermore, I hope to have demonstrated that psycholinguistic study into the meaning of individual words can prove very useful to the student of literature.  I discovered that the following factors have some bearing on word meaning: the reader’s age, gender, nationality and attitudes; the time of year; current events; priming; the meaning of other, related words; the distance in time between the original encoding and the subsequent decoding – material for a diachronic study; and finally, the context in which the word appears.

The boundaries of what is understood by the ‘content’ of a literary text are stretched when it comes to a consideration of literary competence.  It has been seen that specialised literary knowledge such as knowledge of literary schemata, genre, storylines, frames, and other texts is occasionally required to bridge the distance between the reader and the text.  Linguistic research can help the student of literature in the study of the historical development of a language, which may sometimes be necessary to pinpoint the most likely meaning of a word or phrase at the time of writing, but leaving diachronic study aside, this is the area where the literary critic comes into his own.  It must be concluded therefore, that the stylistic study of literary texts has to incorporate literary as well as linguistic analysis.  For a full understanding of the text, linguistic analysis must be supported by specialised literary knowledge.

[1] Michael Riffaterre, ‘Criteria for Style Analysis’ in Word (1959), pp. 154-174.

[2] Stanley Fish, ‘Literature in the Reader: Affective Stylistics’ in New Literary History (1970), p. 131.

[3] Ibid., pp. 126-127.

[4] The fact that a reader responds to a left to right temporal flow has some very interesting implications for graphic novels and comic books in particular; indeed, in Tintin: The Complete Companion, Michael Farr notes that ‘when…Tintin bursts into the cabin to find Bobby Smiles already gone on page 18 of the colour edition, he logically rushes out to the right; in the black and white version he had dashed out to the left, disrupting the natural flow of left to right dictated by the reader’s eye’ (p. 36).  I also think it important that the effects of peripheral vision should not be overlooked – I remember as a child covering up the last paragraph of the ghost stories I used to read, so that I wouldn’t glimpse the spooky ending before I wanted to!

[5] Carole Berger, ‘The Rake and the Reader in Jane Austen’s Novels’ in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 (1975), p. 544.

[6] Ibid., footnote.

[7] Steven Mailloux, ‘Learning to Read: Interpretation and Reader-Response Criticism’ in Studies in the Literary Imagination (1979), p. 93.

[8] Steven Mailloux, ‘ “The Red Badge of Courage” and Interpretive Conventions: Critical Response to a Maimed Text’ in Studies in the Novel (1978), pp. 48-63.  A bowdlerised version of Stephen Crane’s book was published by Appleton & Co. in 1895, and its critics fell into three camps: those who used existing interpretive conventions relating to that particular genre at that particular time and who arrived at a misreading; those who dismissed the text as incoherent; and finally those who, because of a greater sensitivity to those conventions, arrived at a reading which reflected more accurately the text in its completed state.  Mailloux concludes that this critical activity demonstrates ‘how traditional literary conventions function as interpretive conventions – shared strategies for making sense of texts’ (p. 49).  It is noteworthy that most critics fell into the first camp, and that they were those who simply ignored the conflicting evidence of the expurgated text, while the more sensitive critics in the third camp did not.

[9] Steven Mailloux, ‘Learning to Read: Interpretation and Reader-Response Criticism’ in Studies in the Literary Imagination (1979), p. 93.  Mailloux’s paper, written in 1979, reflects the contemporary reaction against the intentional and affective fallacies of Wimsatt and Beardsley.

[10] G. Leech and M. Short, Style in Fiction (1981), p. 259.

[11] Steven Mailloux, ‘Learning to Read: Interpretation and Reader-Response Criticism’ in Studies in the Literary Imagination (1979), p. 107.

[12] In their influential essay, ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ (1954), Wimsatt and Beardsley argue that authorial intention should not be the standard by which a literary work is measured, and that even if the author can and does give a straight answer as to her intended meaning, this answer still has little to do with the actual work.  Wimsatt and Beardsley do not go so far as to place the reader at the forefront of critical attention, however – indeed, their companion essay to the essay mentioned above, ‘The Affective Fallacy’ (1954), hotly denies such a position in its firm assertion of the supremacy of the text.  Wimsatt and Beardsley appear anxious to prove that the exegesis of a poem cannot be arrived at via an examination of emotions evoked in the reader of that poem: ‘the report of some readers…that a poem or story induces in them vivid images, intense feelings, or heightened consciousness, is neither anything which can be refuted nor anything which it is possible for the objective critic to take into account’ (ibid., p. 32).  This is true, but does not, I think, adequately address or explore the suggestion that the reader gives meaning to the text: the reader’s emotional response to a literary work is only a small part of the equation.  The authors are keen to argue that meaning resides solely in the text, concluding as they do that ‘though cultures have changed and will change, poems remain and explain’ (ibid., p. 39).  This last conclusion seems to me to be overly-optimistic: it is hardly difficult to find instances of texts – certain passages in Shakespeare, for example – which make little sense to modern readers owing to changes in the code itself over the passage of time, and it is in these instances that a diachronic knowledge of the code is invaluable.

[13] R. Fowler, Linguistic Criticism (1996), p. 130.

[14] W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley, The Intentional Fallacy in The Verbal Icon (1954), p. 5.

[15] S. Knapp and W. B. Michaels, ‘Against Theory’ in Critical Inquiry (1982), p. 724.

[16] Iser’s arguments are summarised and discussed in Stanley Fish, ‘Who’s Afraid of Wolfgang Iser?’ in Diacritics (1981), pp. 2-13.

[17] The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, 8th edition (1990).

[18] G. Leech and M. Short, Style in Fiction (1981), pp. 352-354.

[19] Undoubtedly the gender of the reader also creates differences in the perceived meaning of words, but I cannot comment on this particular issue in relation to my survey because the respondents were not asked to identify themselves as male or female.  I can, however, quote a personal instance in which I disagreed with a male reader over the interpretation of the phrase ‘well-developed’.  Angua from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is described as such, and while I, a female reader, imagined the character to have large breasts, my male friend insisted that the phrase meant she was muscular.  I have to say there is a great deal of other textual evidence to support my own interpretation!

[20] This constitutes an instance of priming: ‘preactivating a listener’s attention…is known as “priming”, the assumption being that if a word “primes” another (facilitates the processing of another), the two are likely to be closely connected.’  J. Aitchison, Words in the Mind (2003), p. 25.

[21] P. B. Shelley, Ozymandias (1818).

[22] In chapter five of Meaning in Language (2000), Alan Cruse describes the localist and holistic views of word meaning as follows: the localist view is that the meaning of a word can be finitely specified, in isolation from the meanings of other words in the language, whereas the holistic approach holds that the meaning of a word cannot be known without taking into account the meanings of all the other words in a language.

[23] J. Aitchison, Words in the Mind (2003), p. 245.

[24] In addition, literary texts are rife with invented words – the many and various neologisms of Gerard Manley Hopkins, for instance – and yet the reader can still make sense of these words simply by drawing on what he knows of other words, and how the separate components of lexical items function in the grammar of his native language.  The creation of new words is the subject of chapter 15 of Jean Aitchison’s book, in which she discusses ‘four types of word-formation process which are common in English: compounding, conversion, affixation and re-analysis.’  Words in the Mind (2003), p. 186.

[25] Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat (1970), Penguin Modern Classics edition, p. 25.

[26] G. Leech and M. Short, Style in Fiction (1981), p. 259.

[27] R. Fowler, Linguistic Criticism (1996), p. 239.

[28] Ibid., p. 241.

[29] J. Aitchison, Words in the Mind (2003), p. 72.

[30] M. Short, Exploring the Language of Poems, Plays and Prose (1996), p. 234.

[31] G. Leech and M. Short, Style in Fiction (1981), p. 158.

[32] M. Peake, Titus Groan (1946) in The Gormenghast Novels (1995), p. 14.

[33] M. Riffaterre, ‘Criteria for Style Analysis’ (1959), p. 159.

[34] M. Short, Exploring the Language of Poems, Plays and Prose (1996), p. 234.

[35] R. Fowler, Linguistic Criticism (1996), p. 241.

[36] I am indebted to Rose Lovell-Smith for this point.

[37] E. Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847), Penguin Classics edition (1995), p. 29.

[38] W. Shakespeare, Macbeth, The Arden Shakespeare, ed. Kenneth Muir, pp. 4 and 105 respectively.

[39] John Sutherland argues that Heathcliff is Hindley’s murderer in an essay entitled ‘Is Heathcliff a Murderer?’ (1996) published in his book of the same name, pp. 53-58.

[40] F. W. Bateson and B. Shakevitch, ‘Katherine Mansfield’s “The Fly”: A Critical Exercise’ in Essays in Criticism (1962), pp. 50-51.

[41] Readers’ letters posted in Discworld Monthly, Issue 109, May 2006.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ruth M. Adams, ‘Wuthering Heights: the Land East of Eden’ in Nineteenth-Century Fiction (1958), pp. 58-62.

[44] Ibid., p. 59.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid., p. 62.

[47] Although this outer world does occasionally show its face from time to time: Heathcliff prevents Edgar from changing his will, and the lawyers can do nothing to help Hareton following Hindley’s death, to cite just two examples.

[48] Genesis IV:13-15.

[49] To be excluded forever from the presence of God having once been welcomed into His presence is Mephostophilis’ definition of hell in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus: ‘Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it./Think’st thou that I that saw the face of God/And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,/Am not tormented with ten thousand hells/In being deprived of everlasting bliss?’ Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, Act I, scene (iii), Penguin Classics edition (1969), p. 275.

[50] Genesis IV:12: ‘When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength’.

[51] Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847), Penguin Classics edition (1995), p. 324.

[52] Edgar F. Shannon, ‘Lockwood’s Dreams and the Exegesis of “Wuthering Heights”’ (1959), p. 95.

[53] Ibid., p. 96.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847), Penguin Classics edition (1995), p. 23.

[57] Edgar F. Shannon, ‘Lockwood’s Dreams and the Exegesis of “Wuthering Heights”’ (1959), p. 99.

[58] In Volume I, chapter 9, Cathy tells Nelly of her dream in which the angels, angry because Cathy is unhappy in heaven, fling her back to earth.  It seems here that Cathy chooses to be an outcast, and in view of later events her dream can perhaps be read as a premonition: Cathy wishes to be back on earth because Heathcliff is there.

[59] Edgar F. Shannon, ‘Lockwood’s Dreams and the Exegesis of “Wuthering Heights”’ (1959), p. 100.

[60] Ibid.

Point of view, transitivity and modality in ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’

yellow wallpaperi) Introductory

In this chapter I provide an overview of recent developments in the stylistic approach to the study of fictional point of view.  I have explored in turn the four basic linguistic categories relating to point of view: these are spatial, temporal, psychological and ideological.  In discussing temporal point of view, I have made extensive reference to Gérard Genette’s categorisations of fictional time.  Linguistic methods can be useful to the critic because linguistic studies have provided criteria which allow for the positive identification of fictional point of view, notably Paul Simpson’s models of transitivity and modality following the work of Boris Uspensky and Roger Fowler.  I have also mentioned M.A.K. Halliday’s work on transitivity and Stanley Fish’s important objections to this work.  The main body of the chapter consists of an extended analysis of transitivity and modality in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wall-Paper following Simpson’s frameworks.  While the transitivity patterns of a text have much to communicate, a naïve reading may lead to a false conclusion.  It is imperative therefore that transitivity data be considered both in context, and in relation to other data, in this case the modality of Gilman’s text, which expresses the increasing estrangement of the narrator as she heads towards a mental breakdown.  Any alteration of the form which ignores the textual patterns of transitivity and modality is inevitably to alter the way in which the reader responds to and interprets the text, thereby occasioning an alteration to the text’s content.

In examining point of view, there are many different kinds of relationship to be explored: the relationships existing between author, reader, narrator, narratee, the fiction, and the relationships between characters within the fiction, to say nothing of implied authors, implied readers, and so on.  These levels of discourse are often collapsible: in a first-person narrative, for example, the narrator is also a character within the fiction, and in some cases can represent a manifestation of the implied author or even the author himself;[1] a third-person narrator is often a merger of the implied author and the narrator, which creates an omniscient narrator.  Alternatively, the levels can be extended: although not necessarily directly participating in the fiction, a third-person narrator can still take part as an intrusive narratorial voice, commenting on and judging the characters of the fictional world; thus the narrator develops a persona and a viewpoint of his own, a viewpoint which does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the author.[2]

As previously stated, the four basic linguistic categories relating to point of view, following the work of Simpson and Fowler, are spatial, temporal, psychological and ideological.  Spatial and temporal categories explore the position adopted by the narrator:

spatio-temporal point of view allows access to the ‘fictional reality’ which unfolds in the course of a story.  The linguistic co-ordinates of space and time serve to anchor the fictional speaker in his or her fictional world, which, in turn, provides a window and vantage point for readers.[3]

Spatial viewpoint is indicated through deictic adverbs (here/there), demonstrative pronouns (this/that), deictic verbs (bring/take), and locative expressions, defined by Simpson as ‘phrases which are governed by prepositions denoting place and direction and which function to identify the positioning of people and objects relative to the speaker and addressee’.[4]

Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy provides a wealth of material for the study of point of view; Peake dips in and out of the consciousness of his characters, and is tricksy and playful even when in the role of third-person narrator, deliberately pretending to a limited knowledge of his own fictional world.  For the moment, however, I wish to consider the use of spatial deixis in a passage from Titus Groan.  The passage is too long to be quoted in full: I refer to the opening four paragraphs of the chapter entitled ‘Tallow and Birdseed’,[5] in which the reader is introduced to the massive Countess of Groan, resting in her room after having given birth to Titus.

The description of the Countess’ room begins nine feet above the floor, with its focus on the candelabrum, ‘Like a vast spider suspended by a metal chord [sic]’.[6]  From this lofty position, the reader’s gaze is led down the ‘long stalactites of wax’ that have dripped from the candelabrum to a ‘cone of tallow’ collecting on the corner of a ‘rough table’.[7]  The narratorial ‘camera’ then draws back to comment on the room’s general appearance: ‘The room was untidy to the extent of being a shambles’.  The focus now zooms in again to examine the bed, ‘at an angle, slanting away from the wall’; from here, the narrator comments upon the shadows cast by the guttering candles – the shadows of four birds and the enormous head of Gertrude, the Countess of Groan.  From the Countess herself, the narratorial viewpoint takes in the birds which rest on her shoulders and arms, and finally we move upwards once more, to look at the ivy-choked window through which the birds penetrate the Countess’ room.  The reader is given more than just a detailed examination of the room’s contents: the visual sweep downwards from ceiling to bed and up again to window gives us indeed a bird’s eye view, an impression of flight around the room.  The unkempt appearance of the room reflects the Countess’ negligence of everything but her birds and her cats, an impression that is borne out by her curt dismissal of Nannie Slagg and the new-born Titus.

The second category is that of temporal point of view.  Fowler writes that this can be broadly summarised as ‘the impression which a reader gains of events moving rapidly or slowly, in a continuous chain or isolated segments’.[8]  Once again, deixis is important: the deictic adverbs ‘now’ (proximal) and ‘then’ (distal) can ground a reader in the textual time frame; tense itself has a temporal-deictic function, but as Simpson points out, ‘the relationship of tense deixis to actual time is complex’,[9] as linguists have long acknowledged.[10]

Narrative time is not the same thing as real time: in narrative, cause does not necessarily have to precede effect, and so on.  But texts are iconic in that the reader must read a narrative one sentence at a time and one page after another.  Leech and Short refer to the ‘tyranny of succession’: ‘a reader…must decode in a fixed order’.[11]  Reading in this sense is a linear activity, just as life is lived from one moment to the next.  On the other hand, texts are not iconic because the author has the liberty to play around with the fictional representation of narrative time.

Gérard Genette has contributed a great deal to the study of the fictional representation of time, and his work is helpfully summarised in chapter three of Michael Toolan’s Narrative: A Critical Linguistic Introduction.  Toolan outlines Genette’s classifications of the temporal options available to authors as follows.[12]  The first category is that of order: the actual sequence of events compared to their textual representation.  Genette refers to textual ‘anachronies’ of time, which can be classified as ‘analepses’ (flashbacks) and ‘prolepses’ (flashforwards).  Most of the events of Wuthering Heights are told in flashback, of course, and examples of both techniques can be found in Peake’s Titus Groan.  The first eight chapters detail events immediately succeeding the birth of the heir of Gormenghast, but in the ninth chapter the reader is taken back to a period shortly before Titus’ birth, when the loquacious Doctor Prunesquallor informs Nannie Slagg that he is shortly to deliver the Countess of a child.  In chapter ten, the reader is thrust once again into the present for a brief summary of the events so far.  Peake then embarks on a prolepsis for a single paragraph before continuing with the story and Nannie Slagg’s quest for a wet nurse:

For his first few years of life, Titus was to be left to the care of Nannie Slagg….  During the first half of this early period only two major ceremonies befell the child and of these Titus was happily unaware, namely the christening, which took place twelve days after his birth, and a ceremonial breakfast on his first birthday.[13]

Peake’s manipulation of fictional time has also been commented upon elsewhere: Manlove refers to Peake’s ‘mode of narration, in which the order of events is frequently reversed’.[14]  In this way, Peake’s chosen form can be seen to highlight one of the major themes of the novel, that of timelessness and lack of change.

Genette’s second category is that of duration, or the amount of text time granted to events in the story.  A period of five seconds could be described in as many pages, or a period of twenty years summarised in a sentence.  There are various techniques available to the author for achieving such effects.  An ellipsis gives no text space at all to an event, and at the other end of the continuum, an event can be stretched so that its duration is significantly elongated.  Between these two points exist the descriptive pause, in which the text is of a descriptive nature and has no story duration, the summary, in which the time frame is compressed so that only the main features of a scene are in evidence, and the scene itself, in which the duration of the story event is more or less equal to its duration in the text.  In order to explore further these techniques, I wish to consider another example from a different narrative text: the scene from Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence in which the Newland Archers give a farewell dinner for the Countess Ellen Olenska.  Madame Olenska is shortly to leave New York for Europe, and Newland, who has fallen in love with her, is frantic at the thought of her departure.  Time is therefore an important factor in this scene, because Newland is aware that every passing moment brings them closer to the moment when they must part.  He passes the evening in a daze, only dimly aware of what is going on around him.  Chunks of time are summarily skipped, punctuated by moments of direct speech, when summary becomes scene as Newland focuses on what is being said around him.  The rapid progression of the evening’s events is marked in phrases such as the following: ‘after an interval’; ‘had been engaged for some time’; ‘at this point’; ‘they presently joined the ladies’; ‘At length he saw that’; ‘in a moment she would be gone’;  and ‘A moment later’.[15]  And then she is gone.

Genette’s third and final category is that of frequency, concerning the number of times an event is related: an event that happens many times – a journey to work, for example – might be related in the narrative only once, whereas a single event might be related many times, perhaps by different characters in order to provide a variety of viewpoints.  This latter technique is a favourite among writers of detective fiction: it allows the author to explore the criminal act from the vantage point of each of the participants.  Kate Atkinson uses this technique in Case Histories: A Novel, in which the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Laura, Olivia and Keith are retold from various perspectives as the reader follows private detective Jackson Brodie in making his enquiries.

A great deal has been written on the psychological and ideological categories of fictional point of view by linguists and literary critics alike.  There is some inevitable blurring between the psychological and ideological categories, but I shall attempt to deal with them separately.

Simpson defines the psychological point of view as ‘the ways in which narrative events are mediated through the consciousness of the “teller” of the story’.[16]  It is important to note that, even if the ‘teller’ of the story is not palpably in evidence, a narrator is always present, an intrusive voice – like the narrators of George Eliot and Henry Fielding – or an invisible presence.[17]  The fabula/syuzhet distinction is perhaps nowhere more in evidence than in the author’s choice of narratorial voice.[18]

Genette also made a contribution to this particular aspect of point of view with his work on focalization.  He identifies three types: zero, internal and external.  Uspensky identifies four planes of point of view,[19] and Fowler refined Uspensky’s work with his narratorial Types A to D.[20]  Simpson revised the Fowler-Uspensky categorisations, but he retains the broad distinction between first- and third-person narrator as a starting point.  More recently, Toolan has adopted Simpson’s work, with only one or two minor glosses.[21]

The choice of first- or third-person narrator forms the basis for Simpson’s two Categories A and B.  Category A is a first-person, homodiegetic narrator.  Category B is a third-person, heterodiegetic narrator, and B is split again into two more categories, narratorial and reflector mode.  The narratorial mode consists of a third-person narrator with varying degrees of omniscience, and the reflector mode constitutes a narrative written in the third person but situated within the consciousness of a participating character;[22] this character interacts with the events of the text at varying levels of distance, from active to passive involvement.  It is not the case, of course, that the fictional point of view exhibited in any one text is solely fixed in one category or another: point of view can shift between chapters, paragraphs, or even sentences.

Transitivity and modality are important factors in the identification of the ideology behind a text, and together with pragmatics these three concepts go a long way towards providing a comprehensive picture of a text’s ideological point of view.  As any practitioner of critical linguistics would be quick to point out, no text is completely neutral, and every text has its ideology.[23]  Exponents of critical linguistics have taken up the idea of transitivity as detailed by Halliday in his influential paper on Golding’s The Inheritors.[24]  Deirdre Burton makes use of the transitivity model to provide a feminist reading of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, following the work of Halliday and Berry, a reading which effectively demonstrates the powerlessness of the female narrator, and her inability to take control of her surroundings.[25]

Halliday’s work has not been without its critics, however: Stanley Fish launched an attack on Halliday’s article in his paper, ‘What Is Stylistics and Why Are They Saying Such Terrible Things About It?’  Fish dismisses Halliday’s conclusions as ‘arbitrary’, arguing that ‘Halliday’s interpretation precedes his gathering and evaluating of the data, and it, rather than any ability of the syntax to embody a conceptual orientation, is responsible for the way in which the data are read’.[26]  Simpson acknowledges that Fish’s objection is ‘too serious to ignore’,[27] but he demonstrates that although texts can exhibit similar patterns of transitivity – and Simpson uses Golding’s Pincher Martin as an example to compare against The Inheritors – these texts must be interpreted differently.  He notes that

where the problem of interpretative positivism arises is where a direct connection is made between the world-view expounded by a text and its linguistic structure.  Amongst other things, this step will commit an analyst to the untenable hypothesis that a particular linguistic feature, irrespective of its context of use, will always generate a particular meaning … equating a language form directly with a particular mind-style is problematic, especially when the same linguistic feature is used by the same author to develop a completely different fictive world.[28]

Simpson acknowledges that it ‘would be difficult, indeed, to exorcize interpretative positivism completely from stylistic analysis’,[29] but he points out that the model of transitivity is just ‘one means of analysing a text’s meaning’, and that ‘it would be hard…to imagine what an exhaustive account of the meaning of a text would look like if it ignored patterns of transitivity.’[30]  He concludes finally that ‘a particular linguistic form may have a number of functions, depending on its context of use’.[31]  Transitivity patterns should not therefore, be interpreted in isolation, but should be analysed in context and in conjunction with other data.

In the following section I conduct my own analysis of the transitivity patterns in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wall-Paper.

ii) Transitivity in The Yellow Wall-Paper [32]

I shall begin by examining the text in terms of the transitivity model discussed above: this model is reproduced in Appendix D, and is explained in full in chapter four of Paul Simpson’s book Language, Ideology and Point of View and in an article by the same author entitled ‘The Transitivity Model’.[33]  The model consists of four processes – material, verbalization, mental, and relational – which I shall examine in turn.  Considerations of space have rendered it impossible that I comment in detail on the entire story; I have therefore restricted my observations to two extracts, one from the beginning of the story and one from near the end.  I wish to emphasise the nature of the changes in the transitivity patterns that accompany the narrator’s worsening mental condition and to this end, I have also provided some brief comments on the patterns that appear at the very end of the story.  My conclusion is that the transitivity patterns considered in isolation would produce a misreading of Gilman’s text.

Gilman’s story is based on her personal experience with mental illness.  Her nameless narrator is prescribed rest by her physician husband John, and she is not allowed to write in case it tires her.  The narrator, deprived of stimulating company and activity, becomes obsessed with the pattern on the wall-paper in her room; this obsession eventually leads her into madness.

Extract 1  (page 4: sentences numbered for ease of reference)

(1)  I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes.  (2)  I’m sure I never used to be so sensitive.  (3)  I think it is due to this nervous condition.

(4)  But John says if I feel so, I shall neglect proper self-control; so I take pains to control myself – before him, at least, and that makes me very tired.[34]

(5)  I don’t like our room a bit.  (6)  I wanted one downstairs that opened on the piazza and had roses all over the window, and such pretty old-fashioned chintz hangings! (7) but John would not hear of it.

(8)  He said there was only one window and not room for two beds, and no near room for him if he took another.

(9)  He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction.

(10)  I have a schedule prescription for each hour in the day; he takes all care from me, and so I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more.

(11)  He said we came here solely on my account, that I was to have perfect rest and all the air I could get.  (12)  ‘Your exercise depends on your strength, my dear,’ said he, ‘and your food somewhat on your appetite; but air you can absorb all the time.’  (13)  So we took the nursery at the top of the house.

There are six material processes (processes of ‘doing’) in this passage, five of intention and one of supervention.[35]  Sentences 7, 9 and 10 contain clauses in which John is the actor of a material – action – intention process; in sentence 13, both John and his wife are the actors of the same process, but the extent to which his wife is involved in this ‘joint’ decision is negligible, as will be demonstrated below.

In a story which is so obviously about female repression, it is not surprising that John should be seen as ‘doing’ things; he is the ‘actor’ and the ‘sayer’ in this passage, whereas the narrator, his wife, is the ‘senser’, the subject of mental processes.  John is seen to overrule his wife on every occasion.  The passage is structured roughly as follows:

I get unreasonably angry…/But John says…

I don’t like our room a bit…/but John would not hear of it.

He said…

He…hardly lets me stir…

he takes all care from me…

He said…

said he…/So we…

The use of the conjunctions ‘but’ and ‘so’ is interesting: every time the narrator attempts to express herself, she is cut short by John’s intervention – constructions beginning ‘I think’ or ‘I said’ are often followed by ‘but John…’.  The word ‘so’ indicates that a course of action is undertaken as a result of John’s wishes: ‘So we took the nursery’.  Sentences 5 and 6 demonstrate quite clearly the narrator’s desire to take a different room, so the decision to take the nursery is yet another example of her acquiescence to her husband’s wishes – and the decision proves to be a fateful one.

The transitivity of sentence 4 shows the narrator as the actor of an intention and a supervention process: the action she undertakes is to control herself in front of her husband, the result of which (the supervention clause) is that she becomes very tired.  In the clause ‘I take pains to control myself’, the actor and the goal are one and the same; the circumstances are ‘before him, at least’.  Thus even when the narrator is the actor of a material – action – intention process, the action undertaken is to control her actions, and to behave as her husband would wish her to behave.

When John is the actor of an intention process – sentences 7, 9 and 10 – his is a more forceful role.  John is shown to be controlling and domineering.  Sentence 9 is particularly telling: the narrator tells us that John is ‘very careful and loving’, but the phrase which follows would be more suited to a description of a jailer guarding his prisoner than a careful and loving husband.  Indeed, a closer examination of the text reveals many references to prisons and captives.  The narrator’s enraptured description of the house contains references to ‘hedges and walls and gates that lock, and lots of separate little houses for the gardeners and people’ (p. 4).  One is left with the impression of lots of little compartments and divisions, with the inhabitants slotted neatly into their correct cells.  This impression is sustained in the narrator’s description of the garden, ‘full of box-bordered paths, and lined with long grape-covered arbors’ (p. 4).  Everything is sectioned off or covered over.  The nursery itself is no better: ‘the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls’ (p. 5).  One has only to remove the phrase ‘for little children’, and what is left could be a description of a torture chamber.[36]  Later on, of course, the narrator is to imagine bars in the wallpaper as well: ‘At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars!  The outside pattern I mean…’  (p. 13).  Even the passages describing the narrator’s view through the nursery’s large windows read, in context, like a prisoner gazing longingly at the outside world.

There are four verbalization processes in this extract (processes of ‘saying’), and all belong to John.  His utterances are represented in both indirect and direct speech in sentences 4, 8, 11 and 12.  In sentence 4 he cautions his wife to control herself;[37] in 8 he explains his reasons for not wishing to take the room downstairs; in 11 he reminds his wife of how much trouble he has been put to on her account – a remark surely designed to make her feel guilty of ingratitude and to persuade her to acquiesce to his wish to take the nursery; and in 12 he takes control of his wife’s exercise régime, diet, and even her breathing!

John’s reasons for not wishing to take the room downstairs (8) can be compared to his wife’s reasons for preferring it (6).  John’s wife likes the room because it is pleasing to the eye and because it opens onto the veranda, thus giving her access to light, space and the outside world.  John complains that it is too small and not airy enough: these remarks are reasonable, it would seem, but his third objection is not so palatable – there is no other room close enough to enable him to keep his wife under surveillance.  The principle of climax[38] is important here: the third reason is placed last, and is thereby given the most prominence in the sentence.  Once again one is given the impression of a jailer guarding his prisoner.

There are a total of five mental processes (processes of ‘sensing’), three of reaction and two of cognition, and they all belong to the narrator.  The reaction processes are to be found in sentences 1, 5 and 10, and the cognition processes in sentences 3 and 6.  These processes are discussed as follows.

(1)  I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes.

The adverb ‘unreasonably’ is an interesting choice: who exactly thinks she is being unreasonable?  The reader may consider her anger to be perfectly understandable, and one is led to suspect that this is in fact a filtered version of John’s voice that we are hearing here: his point of view and his voice constantly interfere with those of his wife.  This can be seen, perhaps, in the transmutation of her anger into a heightened sensitivity (‘I’m sure I never used to be so sensitive’),[39] and then again into a ‘nervous condition’ (3).  This last phrase in particular, along with ‘temporary nervous depression’ and ‘slight hysterical tendency’ (p. 3) have the ring of a language which is specifically male, a language of vague pseudo-medical terms used for illnesses or conditions traditionally considered to affect only women.  A modern reader would possibly be inclined to identify the narrator’s ailment as post-natal depression, but the narrator herself seems to be anxious to convey the opinion that her illness is caused by her husband’s refusal to let her write.  Her apparent ingratitude referred to in 10, ‘I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more’, is then immediately qualified by her husband’s comment in 11, ‘He said we came here solely on my account’; we are led to infer that he effectively manipulates her feelings of guilt and even encourages her to take the blame for her illness.  In 3, she attributes her anger to her ‘nervous condition’, but it has already been suggested that this idea has been planted in her head by her husband: a righteous anger is watered down to a ‘nervous condition’, and her use of her husband’s phrase exemplifies the extent of his influence over her.

The relational processes (processes of ‘being’) concerning the characters’ reactions to the downstairs room have already been discussed; the remaining processes in this category relate to the narrator’s feelings about her illness and her husband (intensive: 2 and 9 respectively), and her possession of a schedule prepared for her by John (possessive).  It has been shown that the narrator’s assessment of her own condition is unreliable, tempered as it is by her husband’s point of view, and that her assessment of him – ‘very careful and loving’ – is countered by the words that follow in which John is seen to restrict her movements as well as her thought processes.  The fact that she possesses a carefully prepared ‘schedule prescription’ is simply further evidence of her husband’s attempts to dominate her.

Extract 2  (page 15)

(1)  I really have discovered something at last.

(2)  Through watching so much at night, when it changes so, I have finally found out.

(3)  The front pattern does move – and no wonder!  (4)  The woman behind shakes it!

(5)  Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over.

(6)  Then in the very bright spots she keeps still, and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard.

(7)  And she is all the time trying to climb through.  (8)  But nobody could climb through that pattern – it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads.

(9)  They get through, and then the pattern strangles them off and turns them upside down, and makes their eyes white!

At this stage of the story, the narrator’s mental condition has significantly deteriorated, and she has convinced herself that the convoluted pattern on the wall-paper in the nursery is holding a woman, or a number of women, prisoner.  As a result, the transitivity patterns in this passage are markedly different from those of the first.

The number of material processes is significantly higher: 17 compared to six, three of which are supervention processes, and the remainder, processes of intention.  It is still not the narrator who is the actor of the majority of these processes, however: the actors in this passage are the wall-paper (2), the pattern (9),[40] the woman in the paper (6), and the heads that break through the paper (9).  Of course, what is immediately striking is that two of these actors are inanimate and the other two are non-existent.  The way in which the world is perceived by the narrator is now markedly different from the reader’s view of reality.

The other processes in this passage are two mental processes of cognition with the narrator as senser (5) and a relational – possessive process with the wall-paper as carrier (8).  The narrator’s grasp of reality is rapidly deteriorating.  From the opening words of her narrative, the narrator presents herself as a highly imaginative person.  In the early stages of the story, the narrator imagines the paper to be alive: ‘This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had!’ (p. 7), but when coupled with the following descriptions of the ‘kindly wink’ of the knobs of the bureau, and the chair regarded as a ‘strong friend’, the reader is led to interpret the rather unbalanced observation about the wall-paper as simply another example of this narrator’s particular foible, a habit of treating everything as if it were alive.  At this stage, then, the reader is not encouraged to take these remarks too seriously.  The observation that: ‘There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down’ (p. 7) is likely to be understood as a game similar to that of seeing pictures in clouds, or faces in the knots of a tree’s bark.  But in extract two, events have taken a rather more sinister turn: the narrator now considers the upside-down eyes to be the eyes in the heads of all the women who have tried to escape from the paper prison, and who have been strangled in the attempt.  The broken necks and bulbous staring eyes are now positively chilling.[41]

By the end of the story, events have taken another turn.  The narrator now identifies herself with the woman, or women, trapped inside the wall-paper, and this is reflected in the number of material – action – intention processes with the narrator now finally as actor: for example, ‘I peeled off all the paper I could reach’/ ‘I wonder if they all come out of that wall-paper as I did’/ ‘here I can creep smoothly on the floor’/ ‘I kept on creeping just the same’/ ‘I’ve got out’/ ‘I’ve pulled off most of the paper…’ (pp. 18-19).  However, her actions are irrational at best.  She has removed the wall-paper, in the belief that she will now be free; nevertheless, she expresses a desire to stay inside the house in a mental – reaction process: ‘I don’t want to go outside.  I won’t…’ (p. 18).  Now the narrator wishes simply to remain in the nursery, where she can ‘creep’.  It is difficult to know how this verb is to be understood: what exactly is she doing?  Contextual evidence suggests that she is constantly moving in a circle around the room, with her shoulder pressed against the wall: this explains the marks on her clothes found by Jennie, and the ‘streak that runs around the room’, except behind the bed which is nailed down and the narrator cannot move it – she even bites off a piece of the bed’s corner in her frustration.  The narrator remarks that ‘my shoulder just fits in that long smooch around the wall, so I cannot lose my way’ (p. 18).  The narrator has taken over the position of actor and she seems to have shaken herself free of John’s influence, but at the expense of her sanity.  Her actions relate to her destruction of the paper, her imagined escape from its confines, and her ‘creeping’: even when her husband faints at the sight of her, her reaction is to continue her ‘creeping’ and simply to climb over his inert body every time she completes a circuit of the room.  In a clause expressing a relational – intensive process the narrator tells us that she has actually tied herself with a rope: ‘I am securely fastened now by my well-hidden rope…’ (p. 18), a rope that only a few sentences previously had been reserved for use on the woman trapped in the paper: ‘I’ve got a rope up here that even Jennie did not find.  If that woman does get out, and tries to get away, I can tie her!’ (p. 18).  The narrator also imagines that she will have to return to her position behind the pattern once night falls, and the reader can see how closely she now identifies herself with the prisoner in the paper.

To conclude: when the story commences, John’s role is the dominant one.  He is the ‘doer’ and ‘sayer’ of the material and verbalization processes.  His wife’s actions at this point are of acquiescence and self-control.  She is also denied a voice with which to protest: only John speaks, and he also takes steps to prevent his wife from expressing herself in writing.  The narrator has only her thoughts, being as she is the ‘senser’ of the mental processes, but even here John’s influence is felt and his voice constantly interferes with hers.  As the narrator’s mental condition deteriorates, the transitivity patterns alter.  The number of material processes almost triples, with a corresponding increase in the ratio of intention: supervention processes.[42]  But the actors of these processes are largely inanimate or non-existent, reflecting the narrator’s altered view of reality – a world-view that the reader can no longer share.  It is only at the very end of the story that the narrator finally becomes the actor of the material – intention processes, but this reading is deceptive.  She may be the actor, but her actions are irrational and cannot be read as any kind of empowerment.  The narrator has, of course, invented her own madness and escaped her shackles by retreating into insanity.  The apparent empowerment gleaned from a reading of transitivity patterns alone is therefore an illusion: Gilman’s narrator may be free, but only because she is utterly lost.

iii)     Modality in The Yellow Wall-Paper

Simpson devised his modal grammar with the aim of improving upon the system for identifying fictional point of view put forward by Fowler in Linguistic Criticism.  Simpson found anomalies in Fowler’s system having put it into practise in the classroom; it was discovered that certain points of view were not adequately represented and that the criteria for identifying point of view led to occasional contradictions.  Following Simpson’s modal grammar, I identified the fictional point of view in Gilman’s story as Category A negative.[43]  This category is characterised by the presence of epistemic and perception systems, or in other words, modal expressions of knowledge, belief and cognition or perception.[44]  Of the modal expressions I identified in Gilman’s narrative, over half – 56% – were epistemic or perceptive, 24% were boulomaic (expressions of desire) and 20% were deontic (expressions of obligation, duty and commitment).[45]  Epistemic expressions can be identified through the presence of epistemic modal auxiliaries (relevant wording in bold), ‘they must have had perseverance as well as hatred’ (p. 8), modal adverbs, ‘Perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster’ (p. 3) and ‘I’m getting really fond of the room in spite of the wallpaper.  Perhaps because of the wallpaper’  (p. 9), modal lexical verbs and perception adverbs.  Modal lexical verbs (I think/I suppose/I believe) account for 44% of identified epistemic constructions in Gilman’s story.[46]  It is fitting, of course, that a narrative such as this, one that is almost wholly concerned with the mental state of its narrator, should contain so many constructions relating to cognitive processes.  Simpson also notes that modal systems of the A negative category often feature ‘comparative structures which have some basis in human perception’[47] such as looked/seemed/appeared.[48]  These structures contribute to the sense of estrangement because the narrator is expressing her uncertainty about the nature of the world around her.

Evaluative adjectives constitute part of the perception system which is a subset of the epistemic system.  Gilman’s narrator makes considerable use of evaluative adjectives in the portrayal and description of herself and other characters, for example: ‘mere ordinary people like John and myself’ (p. 3).  Many of these adjectives take on different connotations when placed in context, however.  John, for example, is described as follows: ‘John is practical in the extreme’, ‘a physician of high standing’, ‘He is very careful and loving’ (pp. 3 and 4).  These assessments seem positive at first glance, but when one digs beneath the surface certain tensions appear.  Husband and wife are in fact shown to be mismatched from the very beginning.  The opening of the narrative evinces a narrator with an overly-romanticised view of the world, demonstrated in the way in which she describes the house: ‘ancestral halls’, a ‘colonial mansion’, an ‘hereditary estate’, a ‘haunted house’.  The character/narrator freely acknowledges that her vision is ‘romantic’, but she writes nevertheless: ‘Still I will proudly declare that there is something queer about it.  Else, why should it be let so cheaply?  And why have stood so long untenanted?’ (p. 3).  The questions invite the reader to share the narrator’s point of view.[49]  The reader, no doubt, believes that he is about to read a ghost story, for how many hundreds of ghost stories have begun exactly like this?  Immediately following this introduction, the reader learns that John laughs at the narrator, that he ‘has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures’ (p. 3).  This description has serious implications for the husband-wife relationship: not only will John laugh at her romantic sensibilities, he is unlikely to listen to her views regarding her illness.  This is made evident when the narrator tentatively suggests that perhaps John’s status as ‘a physician of high standing’ – on the surface, an attribute – is the reason she does not make progress towards recovery.

The distancing effect established through the modality of the text is enhanced by Gilman’s use of names.  The significantly nameless narrator refers to other people by name, as if the reader is already familiar with the characters of the story: ‘Mary is so good with the baby.  Such a dear baby!’ (p. 6).  Mary is presumably a maid, or a nurse, hired to provide the young mother with assistance.  The baby, like the narrator, is nameless, but we are told that he is male: ‘I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous’ (p. 6).  The baby plays no part in the narrative, however, except that of being lauded and then avoided by his mother.  Other characters in the text include ‘mother and Nellie and the children’ (p. 8), about whom no information is provided, and ‘Cousin Henry and Julia’ (p. 7), who are described as ‘those stimulating people’.  The word ‘stimulating’ arguably constitutes an instance of Free Indirect Discourse in that it is unclear whose voice is represented here.  If part of John’s utterance, then the word clearly has negative connotations: John does not wish his wife to come into contact with anyone who might disturb her peace; if part of his wife’s utterance, then the word is a positive one: she longs to visit Henry and Julia because she finds it ‘discouraging not to have any advice and companionship about [her] work’ (p. 7).

One character about whom we do know a little more is Jennie.  The reader infers that Jennie is John’s sister, and the narrator’s descriptions of her are equally ambivalent: ‘Such a dear girl as she is, and so careful of me!  I must not let her find me writing’ (p. 8), and ‘She is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession’ (p. 8).  In the first example, Jennie’s worth as ‘a dear girl’ is immediately qualified by her role as spy for her brother; the narrator diplomatically describes Jennie’s snooping and interference as her being ‘careful’ of her patient.  The phrase ‘hopes for no better profession’ seems to be a double-edged one: is Jennie being criticised for wishing to remain an old maid, waiting and spying on the young couple?  Is the narrator resentful of Jennie because Jennie has proved herself efficient where the young wife is ineffectual?  The deontic modality of the sentence beginning, ‘I must not let her…’, reveals the narrator’s mistrust of her husband’s sister.  This mistrust stretches to John, and later as far as the narratee/reader: ‘I have found out another funny thing, but I shan’t tell it this time!  It does not do to trust people too much’ (p. 16).[50]  By the time the narrator’s judgments of the other characters alter, the reader has come to understand that the change is not in the other characters but is within the narrator herself.  John and Jennie are understood to be more cautious with their patient, now that she has begun to behave so strangely.  There are two discourses occurring simultaneously, as before: the reader interprets the story on two levels, firstly through the mind style of the narrator, and secondly via the fictional reality as perceived by John and Jennie, indicated through their speech and actions.[51]  However, by the end of the story the reader identifies with John and Jennie more than he does with the narrator; this is an odd chain of events for a first-person narrative, in which the reader is usually led to identify and sympathise with the narrator, almost regardless of what that narrator says and does.  At this stage of the story, the narrator considers that ‘John is so queer now’ (p. 16), ‘Jennie wanted to sleep with me – the sly thing!’ (p. 17), and ‘That was clever [of me], for really I wasn’t alone a bit!’ (p. 17).  The narrator notes a change in John’s behaviour; Jennie is described as ‘sly’; the narrator comments that she herself has been very ‘clever’ in fooling Jennie into thinking that she would rather sleep alone.  The reality is, of course, that she is alone – there is no woman behind the paper.

To sum up: the modality of Gilman’s story falls into Simpson’s A-negative category, and, not surprisingly for a short text, remains consistently within this category.  The majority of the modal constructions in the story express the narrator’s desires, thoughts and beliefs; expressions of obligation, duty and commitment – deontic modality – are reserved almost exclusively for John.  The sense of estrangement that is characteristic of the A-negative category is a perfect vehicle for the fictional rendering of the psychological distance that separates the narrator from first her husband and finally the reader.  This distancing effect is achieved through the use of verbs (looked/seemed/appeared), evaluative adjectives, names, and the narrator’s final refusal to co-operate with the reader.  These modal patterns read in conjunction with the transitivity patterns discussed in the previous section reveal that the only way in which the beleaguered wife can take control of her life is to invent a new reality for herself, a reality which is beyond the comprehension of the other characters in the story and, ultimately, the reader.

iv) Final Word

The linguistic categories of transitivity and modality have proved themselves to be of enormous use to the critical linguist whose aim it is to uncover the ideology behind any given text; however, I hope to have demonstrated that these concepts also have a place in literary criticism.

Previously, when linguists were engaged in advocating the deep/surface structure model, modality was part of the deep, not the surface, structure; in expressing as it does an attitude toward the subject matter, modality is an essential and indispensable component of meaning.  In ‘Freudianism: A Critical Sketch’ Vološinov/Bakhtin writes ‘all elements of the style of a poetic work are permeated with the author’s evaluative attitude toward content and express his basic social position.’[52]  Gilman’s use of deontic modality in the portrayal of John’s character, for example, expresses clearly the author’s contempt for the young physician’s treatment of his wife.  Transitivity likewise is about more than simple power relations.  It expresses a world-view, as seen in Gilman’s narrator’s belief that inanimate objects are alive, for example; this is what allows those objects to be the actors in material – intention processes.  If the transitivity patterns and modality of Gilman’s story were to be lost in a paraphrase, one would be left with a very different story.  I think therefore that these considerations can be added to the argument that form = content.

Furthermore, it has been seen once again how linguistic methods can be beneficial to the student of literature.  The linguistic concept of deixis proves very useful in describing spatial and temporal point of view, and with regard to the latter I suspect that linguists probably have something to teach critics about grammatical tense and its relationship to time!  But the most important point is that once again, as already seen in chapters one and two, it is linguistic criteria that are proving their worth in literary criticism, providing useful and practical models for the study of foregrounding, speech and thought representation, and fictional point of view.


Appendix_E: Simpson’s Transitivity Model

Appendix F: Simpson’s ‘Relations Between Modal Categories’

[1] Charles Dickens’ semi-autobiographical novel David Copperfield is often cited as an example of this ‘collapsing’ of discoursal levels.

[2] It has been noted that this is a favoured technique of George Eliot.  For example, in The Mill on the Floss (1860), Eliot’s narrator intervenes on Maggie’s behalf at the moment when Maggie is tempted to elope with Stephen Guest: ‘When Maggie first read this letter she felt as if her real temptation had only just begun.  At the entrance of the chill dark cavern, we turn with unworn courage from the warm light: but how, when we have trodden far in the damp darkness, and have begun to be faint and weary – how, if there is a sudden opening above us, and we are invited back again to the life-nourishing day?’  (Penguin edition, 1979, p. 647).  The words of Eliot’s narrator are clearly designed to exonerate Maggie in the reader’s eyes; in the end, however, Eliot the author does not let Maggie fall, but drowns her in the final flood.

[3] P. Simpson, Language, Ideology and Point of View (1993), p. 15.

[4] Ibid., pp. 13-14.  Simpson also refers to Uspensky’s ‘sequential survey’ (p. 19), in which the narratorial viewpoint moves from character to character and from detail to detail, requiring the reader to piece all the information together.

[5] M. Peake, Titus Groan (1946) in The Gormenghast Novels (1995), pp. 40-43.

[6] Ibid., p. 41.  It is possible that ‘chord’ is a misspelling for ‘cord’ overlooked by the editor; Peake’s spelling was apparently not one of his strengths.  However, given Peake’s idiosyncratic way with words, it is equally possible that the spelling of ‘chord’ was intentional and that the reader is invited to think of a spider suspended by a musical note.

[7] One of the themes of Peake’s trilogy is reinforced by spatial deixis in that the reader’s eye view is drawn down one of the waxen towers described as ‘stalactites’, highlighting the length of time it has taken for these streams of wax to accumulate; this of course adds to the picture we have already formed of the castle as a place of timeless stasis and torpor.

[8] R. Fowler, Linguistic Criticism (1996), p. 127.

[9] P. Simpson, Language, Ideology and Point of View (1993), p. 15.

[10] In a rejoinder to Peter Barry, Francis Austin notes that ‘confusion of tense with time has been studiously avoided by linguists for years, centuries even’.  F. Austin, ‘Making Sense of Syntax: A Reply to Peter Barry’, English Studies (1985) p. 167.

[11] G. Leech and M. Short, Style in Fiction (1981), p. 211.

[12] M. Toolan, Narrative: A Critical Linguistic Introduction (2001), pp. 42-3.

[13] M. Peake, Titus Groan (1946) in The Gormenghast Novels (1995), p. 66.

[14] C. N. Manlove, Modern Fantasy: Five Studies (1975), p. 226.

[15] E. Wharton, The Age of Innocence, Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics, 1996.  Quotations are taken from pages 275-280.

[16] P. Simpson, Language, Ideology and Point of View (1993), p. 11.

[17] Mieke Bal writes that ‘as soon as there is language, there is a speaker who utters it; as soon as those linguistic utterances constitute a narrative text, there is a narrator, a narrating subject.’  M. Bal, Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative (1997), p. 22.

[18] The distinction between fabula and syuzhet is that between the story itself and the way in which the story is told.  This distinction was first drawn by the Russian Formalists and later adopted by the French Structuralists as l’histoire and discours.

[19] These planes are: i) ideological; ii) phraseological (which includes discussions of characters’ names and the representation of their speech); iii) a) spatial, and b) temporal; iv) psychological, which corresponds to Genette’s focalization.  Uspensky’s work is summarised in chapter nine of Fowler’s Linguistic Criticism.

[20] R. Fowler, Linguistic Criticism (1996), chapter nine.

[21] M. Toolan, Narrative: A Critical Linguistic Introduction (2001), pp. 68-76.

[22] J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are a good example of this category: the fiction is viewed predominantly, although not always, through Harry’s eyes.

[23] Fowler’s celebrated mind style – a world view constituted by ideational structure – is based on Halliday’s ideational function of language, and corresponds to Uspensky’s ideological plane.

[24] M. A. K. Halliday, ‘Linguistic Function and Literary Style: An Inquiry into the Language of William Golding’s “The Inheritors” ’, Literary Style: A Symposium (1971), S. Chatman (editor), pp. 330-368.

[25] D. Burton, ‘Through Glass Darkly: Through Dark Glasses’, Language and Literature: An Introductory Reader in Stylistics (1982), R. Carter (editor), pp. 195-214.  Simpson notes that the transitivity patterns of Plath’s text would remain the same even if it were a male protagonist undergoing electric shock therapy, which undermines Burton’s theory that the transitivity patterns reflect the ideology of a patriarchal society.  However, I am tempted to suggest that if the protagonist had been male to begin with, the entire text would have been written differently.  Perhaps a comparison with Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), in which a male protagonist undergoes a similar treatment, would reveal some differences in transitivity patterns.  Unfortunately, I have no room for such an investigation here.

[26] S. Fish, ‘What Is Stylistics and Why Are They Saying Such Terrible Things About It?’, Approaches to Poetics (1973), S. Chatman (editor), pp. 109-152.

[27] P. Simpson, Language, Ideology and Point of View (1993), p. 111.

[28] Ibid., p. 113.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid., p. 116.

[31] Ibid., p. 117.

[32] C. P. Gilman, The Yellow Wall-Paper (1890), The Yellow Wall-Paper and Other Stories (1995), R. Shulman (editor), World’s Classics edition, pp. 3-19.  Page references are included in the main body of the text.

[33] P. Simpson, ‘The Transitivity Model’, Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 5 (2), 1988, pp. 166-72.

[34] Compare this to: ‘I did write for a while in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good deal – having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition’ (pp. 3-4).  It is the necessity of having to conceal her writing that tires the narrator, and not the act of writing itself; in (4) above, it is the pretence of putting on a brave face in front of her husband that makes her tired.

[35] P. Simpson, Language, Ideology and Point of View (1993), p. 89: ‘Action processes may…be…subdivided into intention processes (where the actor performs the act voluntarily) and supervention processes (where the process just happens)’.

[36] This has been noted elsewhere.  Loralee MacPike writes that ‘the nursery’s windows are barred, making the setting not only a retreat into childhood but a prison’ (‘Environment as Psychopathological Symbolism in “The Yellow Wallpaper” ’ (1975), The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1992), p. 138), and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar note that ‘the “rings and things”, although reminiscent of children’s gymnastic equipment, are really the paraphernalia of confinement, like the gate at the head of the stairs, instruments that definitively indicate her imprisonment’ (The Madwoman in the Attic (1984), p. 90).

[37] Note the use of the generic present tense here (‘says’); it suggests that this is an oft-repeated or habitual utterance on John’s part.

[38] Leech and Short define the principle of climax as follows: ‘in a sequence of interrelated tone units, the final position tends to be the major focus of information’.  G. Leech and M. Short, Style in Fiction (1981), pp. 222-223.

[39] It is worth pausing perhaps to consider what (unspecified) time frame the narrator has in mind.  Was she less sensitive before she had the baby, or before she married John, or before they took up residency in the house, or two days ago, or some time in the distant past?  The time at which this perceived change came about is surely important considering the nature of the narrator’s distemper.

[40] Both these examples arguably constitute an event process because the actor is inanimate, but this line of reasoning is problematic because the narrator believes these things to be animate.

[41] Gilman’s narrator imagines many inanimate things to be possessed of a life of their own.  She personifies not only the wallpaper and items of furniture as we have seen, but also the paper’s smell: ‘I find it hovering in the dining-room, skulking in the parlor, hiding in the hall, lying in wait for me on the stairs’ (p. 14), and the moonlight, ‘I hate to see [the moonlight] sometimes, it creeps so slowly, and always comes in by one window or another’ (p. 11).

[42] The figures are as follows:

1st extract 2nd extract
Number of material processes 6 17
Ratio of  intention: supervention processes 5:1 14:3


[43] I have reproduced Simpson’s system of modality in full in Appendix E.  Gilman’s story has a first-person narrator, placing the narrative in the A category; the negative shading provides a distancing effect creating a less co-operative narrator.  Negative shading is characterised by the foregrounding of epistemic and perception systems, and words of estrangement.

[44] P. Simpson, Language, Ideology and Point of View (1993), p. 51.

[45] Much of the deontic modality of this text belongs to John; he is seen to be continually reminding his wife of her ‘duty’ in utterances such as, ‘He says…I must use my will and self-control and not let any silly fancies run away with me’ (p. 10).

[46] Examples are as follows: ‘It was nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium, I should judge…’ (p. 5); ‘I suppose when this was used as a playroom they had to take the nursery things out…’ (p. 7); ‘I verily believe she thinks it is the writing which has made me sick!’ (p. 8); ‘I lie here on this great immovable bed – it is nailed down, I believe – and follow that pattern about by the hour’ (p. 9); ‘I think that woman gets out in the daytime!’ (p. 15).  Relevant wording in bold.

[47] P. Simpson, Language, Ideology and Point of View (1993), p. 58.

[48] Again, examples from Gilman’s text are as follows: ‘This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had!’ (p. 7); ‘There was one chair that always seemed like a strong friend’ (p. 7); ‘He seems very queer sometimes, and even Jennie has an inexplicable look’ (p. 13); ‘He…said I seemed to be flourishing in spite of my wallpaper’ (p. 14).  Relevant wording in bold.

[49] Generic sentences also invite the reader to share the narrator’s point of view, and there are two in Gilman’s narrative that are worth commenting upon: ‘John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage’ (p. 3).  The irony of this statement is unmistakable, and it arises from a mismatch of contrasting values between the narrator’s words and the reader’s beliefs.  A writer can appeal to shared values, ‘in spite of the differences in the standards of different ages, groups, and individuals’ (G. Leech and M. Short, Style in Fiction (1981), p. 276), and I like to think – I hope! – that those values do not include the expectation that a marriage partner should be ignored and ridiculed.  There is arguably a difference here between the values of the narrator and those of the author – Gilman’s choice of theme and subject matter should make that evident – but the irony arises nevertheless in the gap between the values of narrator and reader.  The second generic statement is as follows: ‘I never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before, and we all know how much expression they have!’ (p. 7).  This comment can be considered in the light of comments made previously regarding the narrator’s tendency to personify inanimate objects.  The ability of the reader to share the narrator’s point of view obviously becomes progressively more difficult as the narrator sinks further and further into madness.


[50] There are two other points to be made concerning names in this narrative.  The following table details the ways in which the narrator and John refer to one another, in the order in which they appear in Gilman’s narrative.  The points of note are the patronising nature of John’s endearments, and the final entry in the narrator’s column – ‘that man’ – which indicates that she no longer recognises her husband.


Narrator of John John of the narrator
one’s own husband my dear
a physician of high standing dear
John (predominates in the text) blessed little goose (patronising)
he his darling (centred on him and his needs)
Dear John! his comfort (centred on him and his needs)
dear John little girl (patronising)
young man darling
John dear bless her little heart (patronising, and …)
that man (no longer recognises her own husband) she (… talks to her in the 3rd person, as one would to an animal or a child)
my darling (before a reprimand)
my darling (a persuasive tone)


The second point centres around the narrator’s comment in direct speech close to the end of her narrative: ‘I’ve got out at last,’ said I, ‘in spite of you and Jane?…’ (p. 19)  Now, who is ‘Jane’?  Is this an editor’s error for ‘Jennie’?  (And what is the purpose of the question mark?)  Is it possible that Jane is the narrator?  If so, she not only fails to recognise her husband, but she no longer knows herself.  Elaine R. Hedges notes that ‘there has been no previous reference to a ‘Jane’ in the story, and so one must speculate as to the reference.  It could conceivably be a printer’s error, since there are both a Julia and a Jennie in the story….  On the other hand, it could be that Gilman is referring here to the narrator herself, to the narrator’s sense that she has gotten [sic] free of both her husband and her ‘Jane’ self: free, that is, of herself as defined by marriage and society’.  E. R. Hedges, ‘Afterword to “The Yellow Wall-Paper” ’ (1973), The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’ (1992), footnote, p. 136).

[51] It is not difficult to find examples of authors who have used a similar technique: for example, in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2004), the narrator is Christopher, a fifteen-year-old boy who is both autistic and an extremely gifted mathematician.  The reader, unlike the story’s narrator, is more than capable of interpreting the speeches and body language of the other characters, faithfully recorded by Christopher in his notebook.  There are therefore two discourses occurring simultaneously, as is the case in Gilman’s The Yellow Wall-Paper, but the difference between the two narratives is that Christopher’s perpetually puzzled interpretations of the world about him are finally contagious, which is obviously not the case with Gilman’s narrator.  By the time the reader arrives at the end of Christopher’s narrative, he will have had occasion to question the behaviour of ‘normal’ human beings, and to find them wanting when compared to the logical and practical outlook of the story’s autistic narrator.

[52] V. Vološinov/ M. Bakhtin, ‘Freudianism: A Critical Sketch’, The Bakhtin Reader (1994), P. Morris (editor), p. 170.

What is stylistics?


i) What is stylistics?

Modern stylistics has existed in one form or another since Charles Bally coined the term stylistique in 1909, but its roots arguably lie ‘in the elocutio of Aristotelian rhetorical studies’.[1]  In spite of its longevity, however, stylistics as a discipline continues to resist definition, owing perhaps to its restless absorption of the newest linguistic models and theories, and its chameleonic adaptation to the prevailing linguistic Zeitgeist.  A corollary of this particular characteristic is that stylistics has collected many different names along the way: literary stylistics, literary linguistics, linguistic stylistics, linguistic criticism, the new stylistics, practical stylistics, and so forth.  At its most basic level, stylistics is the study of literary style, and its proponents base their analyses of literary texts in predominantly, although not necessarily exclusively, linguistic analysis.  Paul Simpson, a practitioner in this field, writes that ‘what…sets stylistics apart from other types of critical practice is its emphasis, first and foremost, on the language of the text…what captures the essence of the stylistic method is the primacy which it assigns to language’.[2]

In recent years two disciplines closely related to stylistics have grown rapidly: first that of cognitive linguistics, ‘where language, thought, and conceptualization are seen to be embodied’,[3] a field of inquiry with which I am not concerned in this thesis, and second, that of critical linguistics.  The scope of critical linguistics extends far beyond texts perceived as literary, and its motivating principle is ‘to explore the value systems and sets of beliefs which reside in texts; to explore, in other words, ideology in language’.[4]  It is perhaps this attention to ‘the social function of linguistic structures in literature’[5] which has prompted David Robey to write that ‘stylistics has…begun to converge with aspects of Marxist criticism’,[6] a statement that is more properly true of critical linguistics.  However, the two disciplines of stylistics and critical linguistics do often overlap – in the study of transitivity, for example, to which I shall return in chapter three.

To fully grasp the aims and objectives of stylistics, it is useful to have some idea of what was perceived as deficient in the pre-existing critical status quo.  The twentieth century witnessed a great deal of critical activity and the emergence of numerous critical approaches ranging from Russian Formalism to deconstruction and semiotics to psychoanalytic theory.  And yet for all this activity, when critic Ian Watt was asked in 1960 to write a paper on the style of Henry James, he described himself as ‘virtually helpless…as far as any fully developed and acceptable technique of explicating prose is concerned’.[7]  The ‘acceptable technique’ was still conspicuous by its absence in 1964 when Richard Ohmann wrote ‘the most serviceable studies of style continue to proceed from the critic’s naked intuition, fortified against the winds of ignorance only by literary sophistication and the tattered garments of traditional grammar’.[8]  And more recently still, Michael Toolan has written that

reading and writing about complex texts are skills, and…literary linguistics can be an invaluable crutch or catalyst….  There remain many graduate teachers of English…who lack the procedures – and procedural confidence – even to get started on their own communicable assessment of a Stevens poem or a Heaney sonnet.[9]

There are now some excellent stylistics textbooks available, such as those by H. G. Widdowson, Rob Pope, and Paul Simpson,[10] not to mention Geoffrey Leech and Mick Short’s seminal Style in Fiction, designed to help both teachers and students of literature negotiate the arguably uncharted terrain of literary style.  Katie Wales, the author of A Dictionary of Stylistics, notes that stylistics ‘also helps students to be more independent in their judgments, by forming their own interpretations of literary texts based on close readings and to be more confident in articulating them’.[11]  The confident articulation of literary judgments has been facilitated by the precise and rigorous vocabulary of linguistic analysis that has been imported into stylistic studies.  Keith Green writes that:

stylistics arose partly because of the need in literary criticism to work with a set of agreed-upon and defined terms for the analysis and description of a particular kind of language, the language of literature.  Such a language…would be built upon modern linguistic analysis.[12]

Relatively speaking, linguistic terms have well-established and inflexible meanings; there is a large core terminology and set of concepts that most linguistic models draw on, but it is also the case that alternative theories and/or models tend to be accompanied by new technical terms.[13]  Nevertheless, it is still true to say that there is more agreement over the precise meaning of linguistic terms than there is over some of the terms routinely used in literary criticism – ‘style’ itself being a case in point, a term much-used and perhaps little understood.[14]  And it is important that people who have essentially the same goal in view should understand one another.  Vague and flabby terms simply add to the general confusion.

Hence the discipline of stylistics has grown considerably in response to the various demands of students, teachers, and critics: a demand in the first instance for a workable technique of literary analysis applicable in particular to prose texts.  Stylistics furnishes the student of literature with a starting-point.  A preliminary linguistic analysis based, for example, on the checklist provided by Leech and Short in chapter three of their Style in Fiction[15] provides a way of collecting data to be analysed.

My final point in this brief survey is that in grounding the analysis in the text itself, stylistics avoids the pitfall of bending the text to fit the theory.  In a spectacular swing away from the text-centred theories that dominated the first half of the twentieth century, critical approaches to literature from roughly the 1960s onwards grew increasingly alienated from the text, prompting Wolfgang Iser to write in 1974:

all too often literary critics tend to produce their theories on the basis of an esthetics that is predominantly abstract, derived from and conditioned by philosophy rather than by literature – with the regrettable result that they reduce texts to the proportions of their theories, instead of adapting their theories to fit in with the texts.[16]

By way of contrast, Keith Green notes that ‘stylistics in its anglicized form has tended to eschew the philosophical complexities and self-reflexive obsessions of literary theory.’[17]  For some, stylistics answers the need to return to the words on the page, with the advantage of having discarded the inhibiting notion of ‘literariness’ championed by the Russian Formalists and having also shed the somewhat whimsical concept of verbal iconicity advocated by the Anglo-American New Critics.

There are, it would seem, many benefits to be reaped from a close working partnership between the two separate disciplines of linguistics and literary criticism.  Critics gain a methodology and a vocabulary with which to formulate and support their literary hypotheses, and linguists acquire a fertile testing ground – literary texts – on which to try out their latest theories: ‘linguistic models offer a “way in” to a text, while the text itself allows for a challenging application for those models’.[18]  But in spite of the mutual advantages to be gained from such a partnership, there exists a long and well-documented history of antagonism between linguists and literary critics, with, it appears, much blinkered obstinacy and wilful misunderstanding on both sides of the fence.[19]

Literary hackles were early raised by the strident and aggressive war-cries of linguists who made far-reaching claims for their subject,[20] and linguists were in their turn infuriated by the critics’ ignorance of basic linguistic concepts, their lack of familiarity with the range of published material, and their assumption that linguists were simply mentally ill-equipped to deal with literary texts.  It is the fate of the stylistician to have been caught in the No Man’s Land between the two camps, linguistic and critical.  A more detailed understanding of the peculiar position occupied by the stylistician can be partially achieved by a brief consideration of some of the objections raised against stylistics and a look at how – or if – these objections have been countered.

One criticism of stylistics frequently voiced is that there is little, if any, difference between a textual analysis purporting to be linguistic and the literary critic’s activity of close reading.  For the linguists at least this is not considered a problem.  In 1966 Fowler wrote that ‘modern descriptive linguistics is a natural companion to modern criticism because both are text-centred: both involve analysis, close reading, and both set a premium on accuracy and usefulness of description’.[21]  But some critics apparently do not want such a companion and feel affronted by those linguists who presume to encroach upon their territory – hankering after ‘literary forbidden fruit’, as Helen Vendler puts it.[22]  In ‘The Limitations of Stylistics’, Peter Barry comments upon Fowler’s essay ‘Language and the Reader: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73’[23] as follows: ‘nothing in this interpretation of the poem’s imagery would be beyond the scope of conventional close-reading – indeed, it seems precisely the kind of observation which close-reading fosters’.[24]  Barry also observes that presenting an insight ‘in linguistic dress…does not convert it into something intrinsically linguistic’.[25]  The frustration felt by the literary critics would be entirely understandable were it not for the fact that there is an important difference between a stylistic analysis and a close reading, as explained by Short:

there is some considerable overlap between stylistic analysis and the more detailed forms of practical criticism.[26]  The difference is, in part, one of degree rather than kind.  Practical critics use evidence from the text, and therefore sometimes the language of the text, to support what they say.  But the evidence tends to be much more selective than that which a stylistician would want to bring to bear.  In that sense, stylistics is the logical extension of practical criticism.  In order to avoid as much as possible the dangers of partiality, stylisticians…try to make their descriptions and analyses as detailed, as systematic and as thorough as possible.[27]

This summary of the stylistician’s analytical approach may be somewhat idealistic, but Short’s words do at least highlight the distance between a comprehensive stylistic analysis and close reading – the difference is in the levels of selectivity and partiality.  But whether or not a stylistician can really lay claim to a complete absence of selectivity in his analyses brings me to the second criticism often levelled at stylistics as a discipline – that its claim to objectivity is spurious.

In Exploring the Language of Poems, Plays and Prose, Short writes that ‘an enduring problem in literary criticism is that critics sometimes come to partial conclusions by concentrating on some aspects of a text to the exclusion of others’.[28]  But, critics argue, the same is true of stylisticians.  If stylistics is to lay claim to a scientific objectivity, then each and every stylistic analysis of a text should be utterly exhaustive – otherwise the stylistician, like the critic, lays himself open to the charge of focusing only on those areas of the text which actively support his original hypothesis.  But can there be such a thing as a truly exhaustive description of a literary text?  Such a description, even of a short poem, would be of considerable length;[29] exhaustive descriptions have been attempted in the past, only to be vilified for their tedium and their ultimate failure to shed any new light on the text in question.[30]  Any reasonably exhaustive analysis of a poem is bound to throw up a great deal of information which is of little or no interest to a literary critic[31] – and an exhaustive analysis of a novel would take years, possibly decades, to complete, and is therefore quite impractical.  So one must concede that the stylistician is indeed selective when it comes to choosing areas of a text on which to focus.  Opponents of stylistics have not failed to point this out and stylisticians themselves have not attempted to deny this: ‘any attempt to write a complete grammar of the poem would be gratuitous and would obscure the object of the analysis, for “one doesn’t want to know every syntactic fact about a poem; one wants to know the significant ones”.’[32]

But in fact stylisticians do not make their claim to objectivity on the basis of whether or not their analyses are exhaustive.  The stylistician’s objectivity is allegedly centred in his methods and the uses to which the data gathered is put.  He revolves around linguistic data and literary hypothesis in a circular movement first described by linguist-critic Leo Spitzer, and summarised here by Katie Wales:

[Spitzer’s] concept of the philological circle…is characteristic of the stylistician’s procedure still today: constantly and delicately moving between hypothesis, linguistic analysis of data, and critical explanation and aesthetic response, with a revised hypothesis if necessary.[33]

The deficiency of practical criticism as it stands is that the movement from intuition to text is not balanced by any movement back towards the original hypothesis.  The critic’s first intuitive interpretation is allowed to stand unchallenged.  It may even be the case that words and phrases that are unhelpful, or that actively contradict the critic’s hypothesis, are simply ignored.  Spitzer’s method of constantly oscillating between text and interpretation should, in theory, remove all, or at least part, of the danger of selecting only those details which usefully support an initial arbitrary reading.

Other stylisticians have voiced their opinions in the objectivity debate.  Short argues that if a stylistician formulates an interpretation of a literary text before conducting a linguistic analysis, he is not being any less objective:

objectivity comes not from the order in which you do things, but in being systematic and careful in your argument, not overlooking unhelpful facts, and, in more general terms, constructing a clear and detailed relationship between your interpretative hypothesis on the one hand and your analysis on the other.[34]

As with the previous examples, it is the close relationship between linguistic data and literary interpretation that is highlighted.  Simpson takes a different tack in playing down any original claim to objectivity that the stylistician may or may not have made.  He describes what he believes to be a common misconception:

the analyst stands by disinterestedly while the linguistic machine squeezes out of a text whatever meanings have been put there by the writer.  Yet few stylisticians claim such objectivity.  They prefer to recognise instead that all interpretations are in some sense context-bound and are contingent on the position of the analyst relative to the text.[35]

In recognising that interpretation and criticism do not take place in isolation – that these activities are communal rather than individual – Simpson brings stylistics into the realm of literary pragmatics, a field of inquiry that ‘is concerned with the user’s role in the societal production and consumption of texts’.[36]

To recap the arguments so far, then.  The literary critics accuse the stylisticians of doing nothing more than producing close readings of literary texts and passing them off as linguistic analyses.  The stylisticians reply that there is a certain amount of truth in this, but that their readings differ from those of the critics because a stylistic reading is supposedly more comprehensive, more meta-theoretical and more self-aware.  But while stylisticians gather more extensive linguistic data, there is always an element of selectivity involved.  So is stylistics therefore just a more technical version of practical criticism?  Apparently not, because the stylistician’s claim to objectivity derives from his working methods and meta-methods.

However – and here we come to the most serious charge levelled at stylistics and those who practise it – critics have claimed, with some justification, that these working methods are very far from being infallible; it has been suggested that the link between the linguistic data gathered and the interpretation finally offered is frequently tenuous, with the result that in the end a stylistic interpretation of a given text is equally as arbitrary in nature as the exegesis supplied by a literary critic relying solely on his critical perception and intuition.  Stanley Fish is one such critic who has put forward this argument.  In response to Ohmann’s work on transformational grammar, Fish has written that ‘a stylistician will interpose a formidable apparatus between his descriptive and interpretive acts, thus obscuring the absence of any connection between them’.[37]  John Russell earlier voiced a similar concern: in what is a measured and tactful response to Ohmann’s article ‘Literature as Sentences’, Russell comments on the effort involved in sifting through the linguistic apparatus necessary to Ohmann’s way of proceeding.  While conceding that Ohmann’s work seems ‘just what is needed in one way for alerting critics brought up under traditional grammar and rhetoric’,[38] Russell notes that he is ‘led to wonder, since meaning is the final goal of the analyst, whether the yield is worth the effort if so much that is intuitional must be worked over first’,[39] and he concludes that ‘a traditional rhetorical analysis…would take one further and faster toward the same goal’.[40]  The charge, then, is that stylisticians inevitably produce the same or similar interpretations as critics intuitively produce, but a stylistician needs more time to arrive at the same destination because he takes a lengthy detour down twisting linguistic byways.  In addition, this detour is an unnecessary one, because the end result is the same: a critical reading based on intuition instead of empirical facts in spite of the stylistician’s claims to the contrary.

How is one to answer this charge?  There is certainly a grain of truth in the critics’ claims.  It is easy enough to find examples of linguistic readings of literary texts that either describe the grammatical structure of the text without contributing anything to a discussion of its meaning,[41] or there are those readings whose comments on the meaning of the text are only loosely linked to the accompanying linguistic analysis; I have already cited Barry’s criticisms of Fowler’s work as an example of the latter.  However, it is equally possible to find instances of linguistic – or stylistic – readings that do make sensitive and perceptive comments on literary texts, and whose comments are grounded in linguistic analysis: for example, Fowler’s discussion concerning point of view in Hemingway’s ‘The Killers’,[42] and Leech and Short’s astute and discerning textual interpretations in chapter three of Style in Fiction.[43]  I would argue that one also has to ask what was expected at the outset – is stylistics supposed to provide the reader with a foolproof method of determining the ‘meaning’ of a literary work?  The idea of the stylistician and the literary critic reaching the same destination contains an implicit assumption that there is a single ‘meaning’ to be found, which is unlikely to be the case.  George Dillon writes with refreshing frankness on this subject:

what sort of knowledge, then, can linguistic analysis provide the student of literature…?  It cannot be a discovery procedure for finding interpretations, nor can it be a proof or validation of an interpretation…  One engages in formal analysis to specify and articulate one’s own response and perhaps to share it with others.  It seems as though we are providing the grounds of our response, and from grounds to causes is but a short step, but in fact we may only be working out the consequences and ramifications of our response, according to rather loose and flexible canons governing how responses can be grounded in texts and with ample scope left for the ingenuity of the critic in formulating the poem’s ‘fashion of speaking’.[44]

With these words, Dillon sits contentedly in a comfortable middle-ground.  Linguistic analysis does not claim to provide or validate the ‘answers’, nor does it dictate the method by which these answers should be derived.  The claims of those who advocate a stylistic approach are arguably far more modest: that linguistic analysis provides both a way of engaging with the text and the means of articulating and supporting a critical response, a response which does not pretend to be definitive, but which is firmly based in the language of the text.  It might be objected at this point that we are back to practical criticism again, but the advanced form of close reading offered by stylistic study is not the only tool available in the stylistician’s kit.

The collected jumble of means and methods which make up the stylistician’s tool-kit is another easy target for the invective of suspicious literary critics.  The eclectic nature of this tool-kit reflects the eclectic nature of stylistics itself.  In 1972 Fowler wrote that stylistics ‘is a very diffuse and diverse set of interdisciplinary endeavours…no single descriptive practice is being recommended.’[45]  This diffuseness of methods and approaches may be better understood when one considers the variety of activities in which stylisticians have traditionally been employed: pedagogy, pragmatic analysis, critical discourse, technical studies of poetic meter, attempts to classify and describe authorial style, forensic linguistics, and so on.  But there is no denying that stylisticians make use of many theories, linguistic or otherwise; in 1964 Ohmann commented that ‘the attempt to isolate the cues one attends to in identifying styles and in writing stylistic parody has sprawled out into an almost embarrassing profusion of critical methods’,[46] and he proceeds to list twelve different methods of which he personally is aware.

The problem, as perceived by the detractors of stylistics, is precisely this practice of picking and choosing whichever method of analysis happens to be the most convenient or the most fashionable.  Such a facility lends stylistics a disreputable air and denies it status as a methodology into the bargain.  Stylisticians have also been vilified for advocating methods of analysis which have produced non-predictive rules: rules which produce the desired results for one text but which cannot be applied with equal success to another.[47]  What is in fact revealed here is the stylistician’s commitment to theory-building.  When an analytical method yields unsatisfactory results, the inadequacies of the theory are highlighted, thereby providing useful data for the ever-flexible stylistician.  Inflexible approaches to the study of language seem doomed to failure, so perhaps the stylistician is wise to keep his tool-kit so well-stocked.  He also draws on other related fields such as psycholinguistic theory, pragmatics and semantics, to name but a few.  And of course, stylisticians do not discount the writings of critics – quite the opposite.  Short has argued that these writings are themselves part of the stylistician’s tool-kit:

stylistic analysis is just as interested…in established interpretations as in new ones.  This is because we are also profoundly interested in the rules and procedures which we, as readers, intuitively know and apply in order to understand what we read.  Thus, stylisticians try to discover not just what a text means, but also how it comes to mean what it does.[48]

The question of a reader’s intuition is an interesting one and it is a question to which I shall return in a later chapter.  For the present, I wish to conclude this section of the introduction by addressing an issue central to stylistics, that of the supposed existence of a ‘literary’ language, a language that is different from ‘ordinary’ language.

The question of whether or not there is a special kind of literary[49] language is one that cannot be ignored, and it is undoubtedly one that has important ramifications for this thesis.  Simpson points out that it is an axiom of modern stylistics that there is no distinction to be drawn between language in everyday use and the language one finds in works valued as literature.[50]  If a category of language that is specifically literary does not exist, there is no reason why linguistic theories should not be applied to literary texts, and it is certainly true that many linguists have not ventured into reading literary texts except as language data.  Halliday writes that ‘what the linguist does when faced with a literary text is the same as what he does when faced with any text that he is going to describe’.[51]  The literary language debate also has significance for the second question posed in this thesis, whether form is inseparable from content.  Arguably, one of the properties of literary language is its self-referential nature: the language calls attention to itself, and has no practical function beyond this.  If there is no such thing as literary language, then what is said is perhaps more important than how it is said, which leads to the conclusion that any utterance contains a paraphrasable content which is independent of form.  But there are several arguments to be weighed in the balance, and I shall begin with that of linguistic register.

The ability to recognise and reproduce different registers forms part of a language user’s ‘communicative competence’.  Registers are distinctive varieties of language used in different situation types.[52]  Halliday noticed that a single word or phrase is often enough to cue recognition of a register: for example, the word ‘begat’ is recognisable as biblical language, while ‘indemnity’ is a word one associates with insurance documents.[53]  It can be seen, then, that there is an integral link between register and situation type – it is unlikely that one would use the phrase ‘dearly beloved’ outside of a church service, for example – but it takes only a moment’s reflection to realise that this cannot apply to literary texts.  Fowler notes that ‘the literary text’s language is not embedded in a real context of situation…but it creates its own situation, topic, and world for the reader to enter.’[54]  The fictional situation is, after all, fictional, and the author’s use of register is mimetic of language use in everyday reality.  These arguments reflect the ‘sovereign’ nature of the text, to which I shall shortly return.

It is usually not the case that texts exhibit only one register.  Such texts do exist, however, and these texts are described as ‘monosemic’, ‘over-registrated’, or ‘hegemonic’; they are works in which ‘there are no resonances or networks of multiple and expanding meaning’,[55] for instance, legal documents and instruction manuals.  In general, most texts are plural, or polysemic, in that they contain a number of registers.  Mikhail Bakhtin’s term for this phenomenon is ‘heteroglossia’, and literary texts in particular make use of many different registers.  The following example is taken from Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper:

Should I Marry a Foreigner?…You do not say, dear, if he is a man of colour.  Even if it is only a faint tea rose – don’t.  I know what it will mean to you to GIVE HIM UP but funny things happen with colour, it often slips over, and sometimes darkens from year to year and it is so difficult to match up.  White always looks well at weddings and will wash and wear and if you like to write to me again, enclosing a stamped addressed envelope, I will give you the name of a special soap I always use it myself and do not stretch or wring but hang to dry in a cool oven.  My best wishes for your happiness, dear, I think it was very sweet of you to write.[56]

The registers included here are those of a written reply from an agony aunt in a magazine (‘You do not say, dear’, ‘write to me again, enclosing a stamped addressed envelope’), an advertisement for soap powder (‘will wash and wear’), and care instructions for a garment which one might find on the label (‘do not stretch or wring but hang to dry in a cool oven’).  However, the fact that a text is polysemic cannot be taken as an indication that its language is therefore literary; as previously stated, many texts not considered literary are heteroglossic nevertheless.[57]

One could ask whether literary language should itself be considered a register: however, there are problems with this suggestion.  Taken out of context, literary language can appear decidedly un-literary.  Terry Eagleton uses two examples to demonstrate this point.  He writes that

if you…murmur ‘Thou still unravished bride of quietness,’ then I am instantly aware that I am in the presence of the literary.  I know this because the texture, rhythm and resonance of your words are in excess of their abstractable meaning….  Your language draws attention to itself, flaunts its material being.[58]

By way of contrast, Eagleton quotes the following from Knut Hamsun’s novel Hunger: ‘This is awfully squiggly handwriting!’, and points out that

the context tells me that it is literary; but the language itself has no inherent properties or qualities which might distinguish it from other kinds of discourse, and someone might well say this in a pub without being admired for their literary dexterity.[59]

It might be relatively easy to locate lines of poetry in a literary register, but as Eagleton demonstrates, this is more difficult with prose works, especially those that are more transparent than opaque.[60]  An additional difficulty is that the existence of a literary register would be intrinsically linked to a definition of literature itself, and this definition has proved notoriously elusive.  The existence of a canon of works considered to be literature is not sufficient as a criterion because the canon reveals far more about the society which compiled it than it does about those works which constitute it.  Besides, as Ben Burton and Ronald Carter point out, ‘canons are not immutable…tastes change and evaluations shift as part of a process of canon formation’.[61]

Just as anything can be literature, Ronald Carter and Walter Nash have recognised that anything can be literary.  In an article entitled ‘Language and Literariness’, Carter and Nash note that literary works make use of registers that are considered non-literary, but by implication this means that any word can be literary if it is employed in a literary text.  Carter and Nash label this process as ‘reregistration’: a word or phrase connected with one register is transferred to a literary work, and once this happens the original register can no longer be seen to apply because the integral link between register and situation type has been broken.  As Fowler puts it, ‘the external register is therefore in the new text for some purpose other than its original function.  Inevitably it becomes “estranged”.’[62]  Bakhtin analyses this shift in terms of the ‘utterance’.  He divides speech genres into primary (simple) and secondary (complex), novels being an instance of the latter.  Bakhtin writes that ‘primary genres are altered and assume a special character when they enter into complex ones.  They lose their immediate relation to actual reality and to the real utterances of others.’[63]  In the Stevie Smith passage quoted above, the mixture of registers from an advice column, a soap advertisement and a set of care instructions combine to give a humorous picture of a husband who is an accessory that must be made to ‘match up’; he is likened to a garment that will stay as good as new year after year, but only with careful use (and only if he was the ‘right’ colour to begin with!).[64]

In addition to their concept of reregistration, Carter and Nash have also coined the term ‘sovereignty’.  They note that the literary text differs from other texts because it is ‘not “used” for any practical purpose; it teaches its own use; it is sovereign in its own domain of language’.[65]  Sovereignty ‘denotes the self-supporting capacity of the text, its power to generate and develop a pattern of meaning, without reference to externals and without requiring of its readers any prior knowledge other than the common stock of experience’.[66]  In addition, the reader is not required to do anything in a functional sense, as he would be if he were reading a recipe, for example.  Carter and Nash also put forward ‘displaced interaction’ as a possible marker of a literary text:  displaced interaction refers to the interaction of author and reader (Halliday’s tenor, or interpersonal function), and it relates to the distance between addresser and addressee that the text is required to bridge.

It would be useful at this point to summarise and recap the arguments offered so far.  There is considerable doubt over whether such a thing as a language use that is specifically literary actually exists; the reasons for doubting its existence include the lack of a definition of literature itself, and the fact that there is nothing inherently literary in much of the language which appears in a literary context.  Literary language has doubtful status as a register because the lack of formal criteria make it difficult to identify, and in addition to this, literary texts make frequent use of non-literary registers, thus potentially redefining every language use as literary.  This borrowing from other registers occurs in many types of language use, thus polysemy alone cannot be a possible marker of a literary text.  Other possible markers include sovereignty, self-referentiality and displaced interaction: these are among the criteria listed by Burton and Carter, who argue for a functional view of literary language:

literary language is not special or different, in that any formal feature termed ‘literary’ can be found in other discourses.

Yet, literary language is different from other language uses in that it functions differently.  Some of the differences can be demarcated with reference to such criteria as medium dependence, reregistration, semantic density produced by the interaction of linguistic levels, displaced interaction, polysemy, and discourse patterning.  What is prototypically literary will be a text that meets most of the above criteria.[67]

This ‘prototypical’ approach suits those who argue for a cline of literariness rather than an inflexible, problematic ruling about what is and is not literary language.[68]  As far as this thesis is concerned, I feel that this approach serves to endorse the use of linguistic descriptions of language in literary texts, if the criteria listed by Burton and Carter are to be adequately explored and described.  The argument that literary language functions differently is a consideration that will have to be incorporated into the form/content debate, to which I shall turn in the next section of this introduction.

ii) Form = Content?

In embarking on this thesis I decided to set myself the project of answering to my own satisfaction the familiar question, whether form and content in literature are the same thing: is it possible to paraphrase a literary text?  In carrying out my research into stylistic criticism and in preparing my own critical studies of style I have found this question a useful focus.  I intend to argue that for given definitions of form and content, the two are indeed inseparable.

The belief that form and content are inseparable is a tenet of monism, whose advocates include Jan Mukařovský of the Prague School of poetics, New Critics such as John Crowe Ransom and Cleanth Brooks, and more recently, the novelist and critic David Lodge.[69]  To the monist way of thinking, a change in the wording of an utterance provokes an alteration in the meaning, which is to say that it is impossible to paraphrase a literary text.  Brooks published his essay ‘The Heresy of Paraphrase’[70] at a time when critics were engaged in adjusting their focus away from authorial intention and from literature as socio-historical documentation, and were coming to rest their gaze instead on the language of the text, favouring close and attentive reading above historical and biographical research.  Much water has flowed under the bridge since Brooks wrote The Well-Wrought Urn, and he was of course referring specifically to poetry instead of prose, but there is still much that is appealing in the idea that form and content are one and the same thing, particularly when one is confronted with a prose text that does not render itself easily to paraphrase.  The monist position can be an extreme one, however; form and content are seen not only as inseparable but as indistinguishable.  The excesses of monism can be checked by a degree of rationality.  For example, the New Critics’ somewhat immoderate concept of iconicity is one such excess, and Barry refers to this concept as the ‘enactment fallacy’:

to the habit of exclusive concentration on the poem’s verbal envelope the New Critics…added the doctrine of the organic fusion of form and content, making it obligatory to see formal details as intimately connected with content, since they had to enact meaning if they were not to be puritanically condemned as merely decorative.[71]

The notion of the verbal icon fell from favour once it was acknowledged that writers are in fact largely constrained by the language in which they write, and it is simply not possible for formal details to be always enacting content.  There is obviously a difference, however, between the idea that form enacts content, and the supposition that form and content are inseparable: the two positions are not mutually exclusive, and it is possible for the former position to be untenable without greatly disturbing the equilibrium of the latter.  The monist position can also be criticised for its emphasis on the concept of ‘literariness’, as originally devised by the Russian Formalists; if this concept can be placed on a rational footing by using the criteria outlined in the concluding paragraphs of the previous section of this introduction instead of relying on the subjective instincts of the critic, then once again the monist position is rendered more attractive.

In writing about the impossibility of paraphrasing a literary text Brooks was referring to poetry rather than prose, and the monist way of thinking is certainly more in accordance with poetic texts.  One might ask why, considering that I intend to defend the view that form and content are inseparable, I have chosen to explore prose texts instead of poetry; my task would certainly have been easier had I chosen to write about the latter.  Indeed, much of the critical discussion relating to form and content refers largely to poetry – and yet I have chosen prose.  My reasons for doing so are quite simple.  I do not see why the arguments traditionally put forward for suggesting that form and content are indivisible in poetry should not equally apply to prose, whether that prose be transparent or opaque.  I dislike the implication that poetry is intrinsically more ‘literary’: the verbal patterning that exists between the various linguistic levels builds up wider resonances and deeper levels of meaning in both verse and prose.  I believe that prose rhythms can be representational, although I accept that this is more generally a feature of poetic texts.  In addition, I consider it misleading to suppose that language draws attention to itself only in poetic texts: consider, for example, the intricate prose style of Henry James in The Ambassadors, and how delicately the lines are poised.  Indeed, in chapter one, I demonstrate that a passage from Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast [72] can easily be reconstructed as a poem, owing to the unusual density of parallel constructions in a handful of lines.  But my argument is not that some prose should be considered akin to poetry because it has poetic features: on the contrary, even the most sparse prose is the product of authorial decision and every authorial choice has to be weighed in the balance.

To return to the main argument of this section, it is important to clarify that which I wish it to be understood by my use of the terms ‘form’ and ‘content’, because these definitions are central to my argument.  For my purposes, ‘form’ refers to the words on the page, how these words are arranged into sentences and paragraphs, the punctuation of a text, its layout, any additional considerations of graphology or orthography – in short, everything concerning the physical appearance of the text, and everything to which the reader has immediate access.  More importantly, I also understand form to refer to the whole text, which as previously noted, is the only valid unit of study when dealing with literary texts.  If ‘content’ is inseparable from form, then meaning resides in areas such as lexical choice at word level, and syntactic arrangement and punctuation at sentence level.  On a textual level, meaning can be found in the arrangement and structuring of material, similar to the Russian notion of syuzhet, or the story as shaped and edited by the storyteller.  To the definition of  content must also be added the dimension of context, or the way in which literary language functions: the novel is a different kind of language event from an instruction manual.[73]  However, I do not wish to claim outright that form is inseparable from content only in literary texts; nor do I wish to deny that it is possible to paraphrase some texts (the instruction manual again).  I think it is safe to conclude that the further one travels along the cline of ‘literariness’ towards ‘literature’, the more it is true that form and content are the same thing; but this premise also holds true for non-literary texts that exhibit signs of literariness: some advertisements are very carefully constructed, and many jokes would not be funny – that  is, would cease to be jokes – if they were stripped of their layers of verbal patterning.  So, to recap, form = the whole text, and content = the whole text + context (literary language).

I would now like to take a closer look at the linguistic attempts to isolate the paraphrasable element of an utterance.  These attempts were grounded in the theories of deep/surface structure and transformational grammar, and their success has been negligible.  As far as my argument is concerned, the problem with these concepts is that they deal with utterances on a sentential level only; no account is taken of the ways in which sentences are punctuated, or how they work together within the text as a whole, with the inevitable result that many levels of meaning are ignored.

The deep structure of a sentence comprises two important components: proposition and modality.  The proposition is the bare bones, the relationship between a noun and a predicate expressed in the simplest terms.  Fowler describes the predicate as the ‘semantic nucleus’[74] of a proposition; it is often realised as a verb or an adjective in the surface structure.  The three basic types of predicate are action, state or change of state.  If the predicate represents an event, or a state of being, the nouns of the proposition represent the corresponding participants or objects.  These participants/objects are assigned different roles in the deep structure, namely, agent, object, experiencers, patients, beneficiaries, instrument and location.  The modality component relates to point of view in fiction, and it expresses the writer’s attitude towards both his subject, and his reader.

The deep structure undergoes a transformation via various rules of realization, and the result is the surface structure, ‘an indirect expression of underlying semantic organization’.[75]  So an utterance which is ambiguous has more than one possible deep structure expressed by one surface structure;[76] a paraphrase, on the other hand, is one of several alternative surface structures relating to a single deep structure.  At first glance, it would seem that it is, after all, possible to change the form and retain the meaning, or, as Fowler puts it:

sentences which are superficially dissimilar but ‘mean the same’ (are synonymous) are said to have the same deep structure.  We can see that there is thus no one-to-one relationship between meaning and form; meaning is constant while form or surface structure diverges.[77]

However, there are at least three problems with this argument: neither the role of the reader nor the part punctuation has to play are properly accounted for, and the notion of meaning, or content, as it is understood here, is inadequate for the purposes of literary language.

The symbols on the page are the only tangible contact the reader has with the semantic meaning buried in the deep structure:

our only access to the underlying meaning of texts is via the orders, forms and choices of words which we encounter on the surface, that is to say, we experience meaning only in the form given by the realization rules, the transformations, which the text employs.  Meaning always comes to us processed by the form in which it is expressed.[78]

If the reader can only access the deep structure (content) via the surface structure (form), then surely, for the reader, the form is the same as the meaning?  Having claimed that meaning and form do not enjoy a one-to-one relationship, Fowler states that ‘a writer may transform his deep structures into surface structures which radically modify our apprehension of the propositional meaning of the text’.[79]  It would seem, then, that the way in which the writer finally expresses the deep structure on paper can completely alter the way in which the fictional world is perceived by the reader:

different surface structures make a radical difference to the impression the text makes on the reader: to his sense of the author’s tone, of the rhythm of the text, of its affiliations with other texts; above all, to the reader’s impression of the place of a text and of its author among the thought-patterns of a culture.[80]

Surely then, the only possible conclusion can be that meaning resides in the surface structure, and that form is therefore inseparable from content.  This argument can be further supported by reference to the role of punctuation.  Punctuation carries meaning: one only has to remove the punctuation of a text to see how vital it is to writing.  And yet we often manage without it – text messages, for example, rarely carry punctuation, and it is a sad fact that many native English speakers live in woeful ignorance of the use and function of the apostrophe, and yet people still manage to communicate successfully.  In literary texts, however, the absence or intentional misuse of punctuation is usually significant of something connected to the wider themes and purposes of the text; for example, in Daniel Keyes’ short story ‘Flowers for Algernon’, Charlie Gordon’s atrocious punctuation and spelling signify, within the novel discourse, his low intelligence:

I had a test today.  I think I faled it. and I think that may be now they wont use me.  What happind is a nice young man was in the room and he had some white cards with ink spilled all over them.  He sed Charlie what do you see on this card.  I was very skared even tho I had my rabits foot in my pockit because when I was a kid I always faled tests in school and I spillled ink to.[81]

When Charlie’s IQ is scientifically augmented, his punctuation and spelling are faultless.  In addition to the argument above, it should also be remembered that punctuation and textual layout are vitally important to the fictional representation of speech and thought: this is an area to which I shall return in chapter two.

The third objection to the deep/surface structure theory is that it employs a definition of meaning, or content, that I consider to be severely impoverished; for example, a definition of meaning as Fowler intends the term to be used is ‘cognitive or propositional meaning residing in deep structure’.[82]  For the critic, this is simply too bald a definition to be of any use: ideas of propositional meaning, descriptive synonymy and truth conditions may satisfy the linguist, but the critic has need of a more detailed approach.  And it seems that so much linguistic information has come to be included in the deep structure of an utterance, that the resulting structure hardly differs from its companion on the surface.  In his article ‘Style and the Concept of Deep Structure’,[83] Fowler denies the existence of optional transformations[84] and argues that if transformations are to be meaning-preserving, everything must be accounted for in deep structure, including syntactic arrangements and lexical choices.  Fowler preserves the deep/surface structure distinction, however, by maintaining that transformations do not contribute to meaning if they leave ‘the paraphrasable content of a text untouched’.[85]  But it is difficult to understand exactly what comprises this ‘paraphrasable content’ if deep structure is to include both the words that will appear in the final surface structure[86] and their syntactic arrangement.

In the same article, Fowler quotes extensively from the work of Ohmann, a staunch defender of transformational grammar.  Fowler summarises Ohmann’s conclusion as follows: ‘the style of an author or a text can be expressed by a statement of the characteristic transformations which are employed, or of the characteristic combinations of different types of transformation’.[87]  For Ohmann, the ‘notion of style calls for different ways of expressing the same content’.[88]  To summarise this argument as briefly as possible: in any human activity – and Ohmann uses the analogy of a game of tennis – there are fixed and variable components, that is, rules that must be obeyed, and the freedom of the individual to act within the boundaries of these rules.  So, a tennis player must abide by the rules of the game, but he can choose the shots he wishes to play.  Although the analogy does not correspond without difficulty to the activity of writing prose – it is possible, for example, to break grammatical rules for aesthetic effect without rendering a text incomprehensible to a reader – it holds well enough to support Ohmann’s argument that

the idea of style implies that words on a page might have been different, or differently arranged, without a corresponding difference in substance.  Another writer would have said it another way.  For the idea of style to apply, in short, writing must involve choices of verbal formulation.[89]

Given that the reader’s only access to the underlying meaning is via the surface structure, and given that there are in all probability several choices of expression available to the author, any final authorial decision must therefore also articulate all possible variants that were eventually rejected.  This conclusion lends support to  Ohmann’s proposal that in order to arrive at a description of an author’s style which is not simply impressionistic and can be supported by valid linguistic data, it is necessary for the critic to explore those sentences which the author did not write, as a means to formulating a hypothesis, linked to the thematic and aesthetic qualities of the text, which can explain why the author chose to write as he did.

The next problem to be tackled is how to formulate these alternative constructions without straying from the original.  Ohmann postulates that transformational rules can allow the critic or reader to do precisely this:

a transformation works changes on structure, but normally leaves part of the structure unchanged.  And in any case, the new structure bears a precisely specifiable relationship to the old one, a relationship, incidentally, that speakers of the language will intuitively feel.[90]

Ohmann notes that ‘some transformations import new content, others eliminate features of content, and no transformation leaves content absolutely unaltered’.[91]  Although this statement appears to undermine his line of argument, Ohmann is careful to qualify what he means by content: ‘the most useful sense of “content” – cognitive content – may be such that transformations do generally leave it unaltered’.[92]

Ohmann, like Fowler, uses only a limited definition of content, and it is arguably a definition that bears little relevance to literary texts; and although Ohmann confidently asserts that ‘another writer would have said it another way’, we are still unsure what it actually is.  It is also interesting to note that Leech and Short attempt an investigation into possible stylistic alternatives in chapter four of Style in Fiction, in which they provide a detailed analysis of a line from one of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories (without the aid of transformational grammar!).  Their conclusion is that the line written by Mansfield is superior to its alternative renderings on semantic, syntactic and phonological grounds – and they demonstrate effectively that in fact it is not possible to rewrite Mansfield’s sentence.  Ohmann’s own attempts at critical analysis based on the methods dictated by transformational grammar have not met with universal acceptance.  In his article ‘Literature as Sentences’,[93] Ohmann uses transformational grammar to analyse sentences from James Joyce’s Araby and Conrad’s The Secret Sharer.  This article was met with various rebuttals, including a paper entitled ‘Linguistic Structure and Literary Meaning’ by David Hirsch.  Hirsch argues that the theory of deep structure is inadequately equipped to deal with literary language, and he demonstrates clearly the deficiencies of Ohmann’s artificially generated sentences which supposedly form the core of Joyce’s chosen sentence.  Hirsch concludes as follows:

the fact is that no other arrangement of Joyce’s words (or substitutes for them) could possibly communicate the same content….  This is not to say that form and content can never be separated.  It seems likely that in our everyday utterances we communicate meanings in one form that could as easily have been communicated in another.  But the language of poetry is different.  It communicates cognitive and emotive meanings in a special way.[94]

We are back, then, to the idea that literary language functions differently, and that as far as literary language is concerned, form and content are indivisible.  Instead of attempting to formulate dubious paraphrases in an attempt to isolate and describe an author’s style, it surely makes more sense to investigate the text in terms of medium dependence, reregistration, semantic density, displaced interaction, polysemy, and discourse patterning – the suggested criteria for identifying literary language.  To the equation form = content, I would argue that we can now add another component: form = content = style.

iii)     Texts and Theories

The remainder of this thesis is divided into four chapters on the subjects of foregrounding, speech and thought representation, point of view, and the role of the reader.  I have referred to four narrative fictions: Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wall-Paper.  The scope of the thesis moves gradually outward from the text to the narrator to the reader.  Chapters two and three follow on naturally from one another in that the fictional representation of speech and thought is a subsection of fictional point of view.  In chapter four, linguistic analysis alone is shown to be incapable of accounting for reader response.

Linguistic description can help the critic to explain clearly and objectively how textual elements are foregrounded: the problem, naturally, is how to identify these elements in a manner that is both consistent and ratifiable.  Gormenghast is useful for two reasons: first, it is arguable that the entire text is foregrounded, and second, Peake’s novel is opaque rather than transparent in that it solidly resists paraphrase.  In making the attempt myself, some meanings had to be discarded and some senses lost.[95]  Wuthering Heights is also considered in chapter one to provide the contrast of a relatively transparent text.  Linguistic theories have already proved useful as far as the fictional representation of speech and thought is concerned.  Brian McHale argues that Free Indirect Discourse, like foregrounding, is one of the possible markers of a literary text.[96]  The effects of speech representation are subtle and these effects are lost in paraphrase.  Pratchett moralises freely through his use of Free Indirect Discourse, and Going Postal is both interesting and useful because its major protagonist is a seasoned criminal, yet he presents the reader with the most moral of arguments.  One expects morality from an upright character such as Sam Vimes,[97] but not from Moist von Lipwig.  Paul Simpson’s transitivity and modality systems[98] provide easy and useful access to the study of point of view with the advantage that these systems force the student of literature to draw a conclusion based on textual evidence alone.  Gilman’s narrator is unreliable and the reader is eventually alienated from her.  I return to Wuthering Heights in the final chapter when I discuss literary allusion as part of my investigation into how a reader makes sense of a text.


[1] K. Green, ‘Literary Theory and Stylistics’, Encyclopedia of Language & Linguistics (2006), p. 261.  Green notes that ‘elocutio dealt with the appropriateness of the expression and the relevance of its stylistic choices.’

[2] P. Simpson, Language, Ideology and Point of View (1993), p. 3.

[3] K. Green, ‘Literary Theory and Stylistics’, Encyclopedia of Language & Linguistics (2006), p. 265.

[4] P. Simpson, Language, Ideology and Point of View (1993), p. 5.

[5] D. Robey, ‘Modern Linguistics and the Language of Literature’, Modern Literary Theory: A Comparative Introduction (1986), p. 70.

[6] D. Robey, ‘Modern Linguistics and the Language of Literature’, Modern Literary Theory: A Comparative Introduction (1986), p. 71.

[7] I. Watt, ‘The First Paragraph of “The Ambassadors”: An Explication’, Essays in Criticism (1960), p. 253.

[8] R. Ohmann, ‘Generative Grammars and the Concept of Literary Style’ (1964), Linguistics and Literary Style (1970), D. C. Freeman (editor), p. 262.  Ohmann wrote in an earlier paper that the study of style had necessarily been inclined ‘to rely only on those impressionistic, metaphorical judgments which have too often substituted for analysis: dignified, grand, plain, decorative, placid, exuberant, restrained, hard, and the whole tired assortment of epithets which name without explaining.’  R. Ohmann, ‘Prolegomena to the Analysis of Prose Style’, Style in Prose Fiction (1958), H. C. Martin (editor), pp. 1-24.

[9] M. Toolan, The Stylistics of Fiction: A Literary-Linguistic Approach (1990), pp. 42-43.

[10] H. G. Widdowson, Stylistics and the Teaching of Literature (1975), R. Pope, Textual Intervention: Critical and Creative Strategies for Literary Studies (1995), and P. Simpson, Stylistics: A Resource Book for Students (2004).  Stylistics textbooks have therefore been available since the mid-1970s at least, but Toolan wrote the words quoted above in 1990 (see footnote 9).  Toolan’s words are really about the fact that stylistics had not at that time been widely adopted in English departments.

[11] K. Wales, ‘Stylistics’, Encyclopedia of Language & Linguistics (2006), p. 214.

[12] K. Green, ‘Literary Theory and Stylistics’, Encyclopedia of Language & Linguistics (2006), p. 261.

[13] I am indebted to Jim Miller for this information.

[14] Ohmann has defined style as ‘a characteristic use of language’ (‘Generative Grammars and the Concept of Literary Style’ (1964), p. 262), but critical essays on ‘style’ seem to be wide-ranging in their discussion, taking in everything from the social conditions surrounding the production of the work to the minutiae of the author’s psychology.  In his essay ‘On the Style of Vanity Fair’ (reprinted in Style in Prose Fiction (1958), Harold C. Martin (editor), pp. 87-113), G. Armour Craig focuses his discussion on the distance Thackeray establishes between the novel’s narratorial voice and its characters; the reader is left to infer that which the narrator pretends not to know and does not tell.  To be fair, Craig’s essay does not pretend to be about Thackeray’s style; the title makes reference to the style of this particular novel.  Even so, what is under discussion here is surely a matter of technique – Craig’s essay would be helpful in a discussion centred on narrative point of view, but it tells us very little about Thackeray’s ‘characteristic use of language’.  An essay by Albrecht Strauss reprinted in the same volume (‘On Smollett’s Language: A Paragraph in Ferdinand Count Fathom’, pp. 25-54) appears more promising.  While Strauss’ essay is arguably nearer the mark, one is still left with a list of techniques – use of formulaic method, stock phrases and eighteenth-century periphrasis, recurrence of animal imagery, and so on – all of which would enable a reader to produce a Smollettian parody, but, as Strauss himself notes, does not ‘account for the robustness and verve of style which most readers of Smollett will rightly consider to be peculiarly his’ (pp. 49-50).  Strauss suggests that Smollett’s voice is so difficult to isolate because ‘the persona of the detached narrator’ is largely absent.  Strauss also links his observations to genre: he notes that in Smollett, what fails in pathos succeeds brilliantly in farcical comedy.  Between them, Craig and Strauss discuss literary techniques, literary genre and narratorial point of view in their essays on ‘style’, but it could be argued that neither critic manages to identify the ‘characteristic use of language’ of the authors in question.

[15] G. Leech and M. Short, Style in Fiction (1981), chapter three, pp. 75-82.

[16] W. Iser, The Implied Reader (1974), introduction, p. xi.  To quote from personal experience, I recently consulted a collection of critical essays in the hope that someone would be able to shed some light on the text of Franz Kafka’s The Trial (Twentieth Century Interpretations of ‘The Trial’: A Collection of Critical Essays (1976), J. Rolleston, editor).  Instead I found that each critic interpreted the story according to his or her favoured theory.  It did not escape my attention how easily Kafka’s text could be bent around any particular reading applied to it: a circumstance which may reveal how slippery the text is, and how difficult it is to pin any one interpretation to Joseph K’s ordeal.  The most interesting reading by far was a semiotic investigation of Kafka’s text (T. M. Kavanagh, ‘Kafka’s “The Trial”: The Semiotics of the Absurd’, ibid., pp. 86-93), which pinpoints K’s inability to decipher the codes and signs.

[17] K. Green, ‘Literary Theory and Stylistics’, Encyclopedia of Language & Linguistics (2006), p. 262.

[18] P. Simpson, Language, Ideology and Point of View (1993), p. 4.

[19] This antagonism is incisively documented in chapter one of M. Toolan’s The Stylistics of Fiction: A Literary-Linguistic Approach (1990), pp. 1-27.

[20] R. Fowler quotes both Harold Whitehall and Roman Jakobson in his essay ‘The New Stylistics’, Style and Structure in Literature (1975), R. Fowler (editor) pp. 1-18.  Whitehall wrote ‘as no science can go beyond mathematics, no criticism can go beyond its linguistics’, and Jakobson is quoted as follows: ‘poetics deals with problems of verbal structure….  Since linguistics is the global science of verbal structure, poetics may be regarded as an integral part of linguistics’ (p. 1).

[21] R. Fowler, ‘Linguistics, Stylistics; Criticism?’, Lingua, 16 (1966), pp. 157-158.

[22] H. H. Vendler, book review of Essays on Style and Language: Linguistic and Critical Approaches to Literary Styles (1966), R. Fowler (editor), Essays in Criticism, XVI (1966), p. 457.

[23] R. Fowler, ‘Language and the Reader: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73’, Style and Structure in Literature (1975), pp. 79-122.

[24] P. Barry, ‘The Limitations of Stylistics’, Essays in Criticism, XXXVIII (1988), p. 182.

[25] Ibid., p. 181.

[26] ‘The more detailed forms of practical criticism’ would presumably exclude the practical criticism of I. A. Richards, which ultimately privileges reader response over exhaustive textual analysis.

[27] M. Short, Exploring the Language of Poems, Plays and Prose (1996), p. 6.

[28] Ibid., p. 356.

[29] M.A.K. Halliday recognises that ‘the only ultimately valid unit for textual analysis is the whole text’, but he also acknowledges the difficulties inherent in this conclusion: ‘it takes many hours of talking to describe exhaustively even the language of one sonnet’.  M.A.K. Halliday, ‘Descriptive Linguistics in Literary Studies’ (1964), Linguistics and Literary Style (1970), D. C. Freeman (editor), p. 58.

[30] An example of such an essay is D. Hymes’ ‘Phonological Aspects of Style: Some English Sonnets’, Style in Language (1960), T. Sebeok (editor), pp. 109-131.

[31] Mikhail Bakhtin argued that ‘the linguistic analysis of a poetic work has no criteria for separating what is poetically significant from what is not’.  M. Bakhtin, ‘The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship’ (1928), The Bakhtin Reader (1994), P. Morris (editor), p. 145.

[32] R. Fowler, ‘The New Stylistics’, Style and Structure in Literature (1975), p. 6.  Fowler quotes D. Freeman, ‘The Strategy of Fusion: Dylan Thomas’s Syntax’, ibid., p. 21.

[33] K. Wales, ‘Stylistics’, Encyclopedia of Language & Linguistics (2006), p. 215.

[34] M. Short, Exploring the Language of Poems, Plays and Prose (1996), p. 358.

[35] P. Simpson, Language, Ideology and Point of View (1993), p. 3.

[36] J. L. Mey, ‘Literary Pragmatics’, Encyclopedia of Language & Linguistics (2006), p. 256.

[37] S. Fish, ‘What Is Stylistics and Why Are They Saying Such Terrible Things About It?’ (1972), Approaches to Poetics (1973), S. Chatman (editor), p. 114.  Fish also notes on page 113 of the same article that ‘a serious defect in the procedures of stylistics [is] the absence of any constraint on the way in which one moves from description to interpretation, with the result that any interpretation one puts forward is arbitrary.’

[38] J. Russell, ‘From Style to Meaning in “Araby”: Comment and Rebuttal’, College English, (1966), p. 170.

[39] Ibid.  I would like to add that though meaning may or may not be ‘the final goal of the analyst’, it is not the final goal of the teacher.  The teacher is far more interested in imparting an understanding of how the text works, in order to enable the student to formulate readings of other literary texts independently of his teacher.  This is an area perhaps where a stylistic approach is demonstrably more useful than a traditional analysis.

[40] Ibid.

[41] For example, M.A.K. Halliday’s analysis of ‘Leda and the Swan’ in ‘Descriptive Linguistics in Literary Studies’ (1964), Linguistics and Literary Style (1970), D. C. Freeman (editor); Halliday makes two separate points about the grammar of the poem, but he does not pursue these points any further with reference to literary effect, or the poem’s meaning.

[42] R. Fowler, Linguistics and the Novel (1977), pp. 48-55.

[43] G. Leech and M. Short, Style in Fiction (1981), chapter 3, pp. 74-118.  The texts studied are Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer, D. H. Lawrence’s Odour of Chrysanthemums, and Henry James’ The Pupil.

[44] G. L. Dillon, ‘Whorfian Stylistics’, Journal of Literary Semantics, (1982), p. 75.

[45] R. Fowler, ‘Style and the Concept of Deep Structure’, Journal of Literary Semantics, (1972), p. 5.

[46] R. Ohmann, ‘Generative Grammars and the Concept of Literary Style’ (1964), Linguistics and Literary Style (1970), D. C. Freeman (editor), p. 259.

[47] Fish, among others, found fault with the concept of transformational grammar, and in 1972 he wrote: ‘It is possible…to salvage the game…by making it more sophisticated, by contextualising it.  One could simply write a rule that allows for the different valuings of the same pattern by taking into account the features which surround it in context.  But this would only lead to the bringing forward of further counterexamples and the continual and regressive rewriting of the rule.  Eventually a point would be reached where a separate rule was required for each and every occurrence’.  ‘What Is Stylistics and Why Are They Saying Such Terrible Things About It?’ (1972), Approaches to Poetics (1973), S. Chatman (editor), pp. 120-121.

[48] M. Short, Exploring the Language of Poems, Plays and Prose (1996), p. 6.

[49] While I acknowledge that there probably should be scare quotes around the words ‘literary’ and ‘literature’, I have not typed them because I feel that their constant appearance would be tedious for the reader; I prefer instead to state once and for all that I realise these are highly subjective terms.

[50] P. Simpson, Language, Ideology and Point of View (1993), p. 3.

[51] M. A. K. Halliday, ‘Descriptive Linguistics in Literary Studies’ (1964), Linguistics and Literary Style (1970), D. C. Freeman (editor), p. 67.

[52] Bakhtin uses the term ‘speech genres’ for register in his essay ‘The Problem of Speech Genres’ (1952-1953).  In her introduction to The Bakhtin Reader Pam Morris writes that ‘the most interesting new area in this essay is the suggestion that the form of utterances is not a matter of free choice on the part of any individual speaker….  Bakhtin argues that speech genres impose an order and form on everyday speech in ways we are largely unaware of, but which can have a considerable effect upon our speech flexibility and ease’.  P. Morris, The Bakhtin Reader (1994), p. 17.  In other words, we do not have as much freedom as we suppose in the construction of our individual utterances.

[53] Halliday also developed a method to help in the characterisation of register based on the field, tenor and mode of the text in question, where field, or domain, is the subject matter, tenor relates to the relationship between the participants and the formality of the situation, and mode concerns the type of channel –whether the text is written (a letter) or spoken (a radio play), for example – and the organisation of the text.  Field, tenor and mode correspond approximately to Halliday’s three categories of language function: ideational, interpersonal and textual respectively.  Halliday makes what I think is an important contribution to the form/content debate here.  He notes that ‘ “an early announcement is expected”…and “apologies for absence were received”…are not simply free variants of “we ought to hear soon” and “was sorry he couldn’t make it”.’  (The Linguistic Sciences and Language Teaching (1964), p. 87, quoted in R. Fowler, Linguistic Criticism (1996), pp. 190-191.)  If a different form triggers a different register, then the words spoken will surely be understood differently by the hearer/reader, in that the words of the message will be located in a different situation type.  This, then, is one argument in favour of the inseparability of form and content.

[54] R. Fowler, Linguistic Criticism (1996), p. 204.

[55] R. Carter and W. Nash, ‘Language and Literariness’, Prose Studies (1983), p. 139.

[56] S. Smith, Novel on Yellow Paper (1936), p. 35.

[57] Fowler argues that when a text contains numerous registers, the point of association between the varieties has to be worked out, and therefore heteroglossia is intrinsically connected with defamiliarisation.  R. Fowler, Linguistic Criticism (1996), p. 197.

[58] T. Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983), p. 2.

[59] Ibid., p. 6.

[60] G. Leech and M. Short, Style in Fiction (1981), p. 29: a text is ‘opaque in the sense that the medium attracts attention in its own right; and indeed, the interpretation of sense may be frustrated and obstructed by abnormalities in the use of the lexical and grammatical features of medium.’

[61] B. Burton and R. Carter, ‘Literature and the Language of Literature’, Encyclopedia of Language & Linguistics (2006), p. 267.  Eagleton also recognises the truth of this argument: ‘Anything can be literature, and anything which is regarded as unalterably and unquestionably literature – Shakespeare, for example – can cease to be literature….  Literature, in the sense of a set of works of assured and unalterable value, distinguished by certain shared inherent properties, does not exist….  Just as people may treat a work as philosophy in one century and as literature in the next, or vice versa, so they may change their minds about what writing they consider valuable.  They may even change their minds about the grounds they use for judging what is valuable and what is not.’  T. Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983), pp. 10-11.

[62] R. Fowler, Linguistic Criticism (1996), p. 205.

[63] M. Bakhtin, ‘The Problem of Speech Genres’ (1952-1953), The Bakhtin Reader (1994), P. Morris (editor), p. 82.

[64] Fish offers a similar argument to that proposed by Carter and Nash in his article ‘How Ordinary is Ordinary Language?’, New Literary History (1973).

[65] R. Carter and W. Nash, ‘Language and Literariness’, Prose Studies (1983), p. 130.

[66] Ibid.

[67] B. Burton and R. Carter, ‘Literature and the Language of Literature’, Encyclopedia of Language & Linguistics (2006), p. 273.

[68] Cf. Wittgenstein and polythetic categories of ‘family resemblances’.

[69] David Lodge has since reassessed his position, however, and he notes in the afterword to the second edition of Language in Fiction (1984), p. 296, that he now considers himself an advocate of pluralism in the sense described by Leech and Short in Style in Fiction (1981), chapter one, pp. 29-34.

[70] C. Brooks, ‘The Heresy of Paraphrase’, The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (1947), pp. 192-214.

[71] P. Barry, ‘The Enactment Fallacy’, Essays in Criticism (1980), p. 95.

[72] Mervyn Peake, 1911-1968; although mostly known for his work as an artist and illustrator Peake is also the author of the Gormenghast trilogy, a work best described as a Gothic fantasy.

[73] Bakhtin refers to the literary work as an ‘utterance’, regardless of the length of that work, and he asserts that ‘thematic content, style, and compositional structure…are inseparably linked to the whole of the utterance and are equally determined by the specific nature of the particular sphere of communication’.  M. Bakhtin, ‘The Problem of Speech Genres’ (1952-1953), The Bakhtin Reader (1994), P. Morris (editor), p. 81.  Thus ‘form’ is the whole text and ‘content’ is the form plus its context.

[74] R. Fowler, Linguistics and the Novel (1977), p. 13.

[75] R. Fowler, Linguistics and the Novel (1977), p. 20.

[76] An oft-quoted example of an ambiguous phrase is that of Hockett’s telegram, which reads ‘Ship sails today’.  Is ship a noun (agent) or a verb (action, imperative)?

[77] R. Fowler, Linguistics and the Novel (1977), p. 11.

[78] Ibid., p. 22.

[79] R. Fowler, Linguistics and the Novel (1977), p. 17.

[80] Ibid., p. 11.

[81] D. Keyes, Flowers for Algernon (1966).

[82] R. Fowler, Linguistics and the Novel (1977), p. 11.

[83] R. Fowler, ‘Style and the Concept of Deep Structure’, Journal of Literary Semantics (1972).

[84] If the phrase structure component represents obligatory transformations (the fixed element), transformational rules are optional (the variable component).

[85] R. Fowler, ‘Style and the Concept of Deep Structure’, Journal of Literary Semantics (1972), p. 16.

[86] I shall comment further on the ramifications of individual word meaning in chapter four.

[87] R. Fowler, ‘Style and the Concept of Deep Structure’, Journal of Literary Semantics (1972), p. 8.

[88] R. Ohmann, ‘Generative Grammars and the Concept of Literary Style’ (1964), Linguistics and Literary Style (1970),  D. C. Freeman (editor), p. 267.

[89] Ibid., p. 264.

[90] R. Ohmann, ‘Generative Grammars and the Concept of Literary Style’ (1964), Linguistics and Literary Style (1970),  D. C. Freeman (editor), p. 266.

[91] Ibid., p. 268.

[92] Ibid.

[93] R. Ohmann, ‘Literature as Sentences’, College English (1966).

[94] D. H. Hirsch, ‘Linguistic Structure and Literary Meaning’, Journal of Literary Semantics (1972), p. 88.

[95] See Appendix C.

[96] B. McHale, ‘Free Indirect Discourse: A Survey of Recent Accounts’, Poetics and Theory of Literature (1978).

[97] Samuel Vimes is Commander of the City Watch of Ankh-Morpork and a character who appears regularly in the Discworld series.

[98] See Appendices E and F.

Reading Challenge 2016: I haven’t forgotten about it

Reading Challenge 2016

I haven’t forgotten about the 2016 Reading Challenge – I just haven’t been very diligent about writing it up. Truth be told, though, I’m behind with the reading, and given that it’s mid-November, I think this is going to turn into a challenge for next year as well as this one, but THAT’S OKAY and I’m not going to beat myself up about it BECAUSE it occurred to me last week when I was attending a conference at Sheffield Hallam that I’ve done very little reading this year outside the confines of my MA course. I read all the time, but I’m reading books about books rather than just books (if you see what I mean). For example, at present I’m reading John Guillory’s Cultural Capital because I have a unit coming up which focuses on the literary canon. It’s an interesting but difficult book: I’m reading at frustration level a lot of the time, but I understand just about enough to persevere with it. It is a shame, though, that studying for a literary-linguistic degree means I’m struggling to make time for a bit of the actual reading-for-pleasure. Trouble is that when I want to relax, reading isn’t my activity of choice right now: I’ve been reading all day, I say to myself, and now all I want to do is listen to that Pink Martini CD and paint pots.

A pot I painted instead of reading

So, this is a sort of cheat of a blog post because actually I’m just going to recap where I’ve got to with the reading challenge and list all the stuff I still have to read.

Okay. So. The image above lists the twelve categories for the challenge. I’ve already written about A Book Published Before You Were Born and A Book You Can Read In A Day, but that’s as far as I’ve got. I’m waiting until the end of the year until I make my choice for A Book Published This Year, but I’ve chosen titles for all the other categories and  I’ve listed these with notes below.


A Book You’ve Been Meaning To Read

Well, actually, I haven’t decided this one. But my bookshelves are full of books that I’ve been meaning to read, so I could put LITERALLY ANYTHING here and it wouldn’t make any difference.

A Book Recommended By Your Local Librarian Or Bookseller

The Chimes by Anna Smaill. Yes, I have a copy. No, I haven’t read it yet.

A Book You Should Have Read In School

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. I also have to read The Ambassadors for my course, so 2016 is clearly my year for reading Henry James. Plus, see below…

A Book Chosen For You By Your (etc.)

The etc. denotes that I roundly rejected the book chosen for me by my sibling, which was A A Gill’s Pour Me: A Life (sorry Tif) and have chosen instead a book recommended by a friend. I just couldn’t get on with Gill. I found his overwritten and self-indulgent prose quite nauseating, and then I read somewhere that he murdered a baboon just to find out what it was like to kill. Gill is in the news this morning because he’s announced that he has cancer, but I don’t care. My sympathy lies with that poor baboon. For this category, I’ve chosen instead The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James, and I have read this and I ENJOYED IT! I’ve been meaning to write a post about Spoils and ekphrasis, but, you know…it’s coming. It’s coming.

A Book That Was Banned At Some Point

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. My Significant Other is always nagging me about not having read this. It is (apparently) an unacceptable gap in my knowledge. Okay, fine, I’ll read it. I’ve bought a copy. I haven’t read it yet.

In case you’re wondering why it was banned, the Wikipedia page for banned books tells us that Alice was

Formerly banned in the province of Hunan, China, beginning in 1931, for its portrayal of anthropomorphized animals acting on the same level of complexity as human beings. The censor General Ho Chien believed that attributing human language to animals was an insult to humans. He feared that the book would teach children to regard humans and animals on the same level, which would be “disastrous”.

A A Gill would probably agree with General Ho Chien’s sentiments, but I don’t, and I suspect that baboon didn’t either. Oh, and by the way Ho Chien! Your name is French for dog.

A Book You Previously Abandoned

Oh god. This is Nabokov’s Pnin. I started it – and it is wonderful – but I’m a very anxious person and this book is an absolute nightmare for those of us who worry all the time about journeys going wrong, things getting lost, important stuff getting left behind, etc. This book is like all my anxiety nightmares rolled into one big fat sweaty never-ending anxiety horror film.

A Book You Own But Have Never Read

I’ve done this one! I read The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins and it was bloody awful. It helped me remember why I avoid nineteenth-century fiction. Proper blog post to follow. In due course.

A Book That Intimidates You

Ah, now, I’m going to have a go at House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. I’ve never read anything like this before, plus it’s HUGE. But given the way my literary interests are leaning these days, I think this is a must-read.

(What’s the Z for? Is it for real or is it a pose?)

A Book You’ve Already Read At Least Once

I could cheat with this one because I had to re-read Titus Andronicus as part of my course, but I’m going to stick with my original choice of Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, just because Gibbons’ book is enormous fun. I’m saving this one for the Christmas holiday.

Ta-dah! All my procrastinatory effort laid out before you in block quotes. There’ll be more to follow. I’ll get back to you on this.


What is literature?

Literature, s. learning, skill in letters.

Dr Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary

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

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

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

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

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

What is literature?

Some of my initial thoughts were as follows.

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

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

Chambers Dictionary

literature n.

1 The art of composition in prose and verse

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

3 Literary matter

4 Printed matter

5 Humane learning

6 Literary culture or knowledge

…and here’s the second definition:

Shorter Oxford English Dictionary

literature, n.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, works of literature become ‘Literature’ when:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. What is literature for?

I came up with seven possible responses to this one.

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

And the final question:

6. Does literature make anything happen?

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

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

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