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.

Focalisation in Chaucer and Swift

In the following exercise, I’ve made use of a focalisation framework to examine passages from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. The passages are reproduced in full below.

Text 1: Geoffrey Chaucer The Canterbury Tales

General Prologue lines 309-330: The Sergeant of the Law

309 A Sergeant of the Lawe, war and wys,

310 That often hadde been at the Parvys,

311 Ther was also, ful riche of excellence.

312 Discreet he was and of greet reverence –

313 He semed swich, his wordes were so wise.

314 Justice he was ful often in assise,

315 By patente and by pleyn commissioun.

316 For his science and for his heigh renoun,

317 Of fees and robes hadde he many oon.

318 So greet a purchasour was nowher noon:

319 Al was fee symple to hym in effect;

320 His purchasyng myghte nat been infect.

321 Nowher so bisy a man as he ther nas,

322 And yet he semed bisier than he was.

323 In termes hadde he caas and doomes alle

324 That from the tyme of kyng William were falle.

325 Therto he koude endite and make a thyng,

326 Ther koude no wight pynche at his writyng;

327 And every statut koude he pleyn by rote.

328 He rood but hoomly in a medlee cote,

329 Girt with a ceint of silk, with barres smale;

330 Of his array telle I no lenger tale.

Chaucer’s portrait of the lawyer is traditionally viewed as satirical. The editor of The Riverside Chaucer notes one or two exceptions to this trend (Benson, 1988: 811), but my personal inclination is towards the less favourable picture of this particular pilgrim.

On first reading this passage, I divided up the description into four sections as follows: 1) the lawyer’s wisdom and professional reputation; 2) his activities as a buyer of land; 3) how his learning enables and facilitates his land-buying activities; 4) his relatively humble attire. I considered also the placing of the lawyer in between the Clerk (or university student) and the Franklin. The Clerk has devoted his life to study and possesses very little; the Franklin is a landowner and an Epicurean. The lawyer shares traits with both these characters: he is learned, like the Clerk, but he uses his learning to facilitate the purchase of land thereby consolidating his wealth and position. The lawyer is a landowner like the Franklin, but while the Franklin enjoys a reputation as a bon viveur, the lawyer appears avaricious and miserly in his ‘medlee cote’. The lawyer’s reputation is that of a ‘greet…purchasour’ (land-buyer), contrasted with the Franklin who is known as a ‘worthy vavasour’ (feudal landholder).

Lawyers had equal status to knights in Chaucer’s time (Benson, 1988: 811) and the Sergeant of the Law’s position is entrenched by his knowledge of existing legislation and precedence dating back to the days of King William, approximately 350 years before The Canterbury Tales appeared. The lawyer represents a societal stratum which reinforces and perpetuates the status quo out of self-interest, and he acquires land apparently without restraint: ‘Al was fee symple to hym in effect’. His belt with its stripes (‘barres’) serves as a metaphor for the system the lawyer serves, a system that is impregnable, unimpeachable, which both debars those not learned from entry and protects those it encompasses.

manoflawbigIn considering the presence of irony in this passage, I came to the following conclusions. It seems unlikely that the lawyer would have presented his land-buying activities in this way and it is not clear how the narrator has gained his knowledge, unless it be by former acquaintance with the lawyer and his reputation (‘So greet a purchasour was nowher noon’). A conversation between the narrator and the lawyer could be imagined, but the reporting of the lawyer’s character and the conclusions drawn would seem to belong entirely to the narrator. There is a throwaway observation in ‘And yet he semed bisier than he was’ which undermines and corrodes the portrait painted so far, as does the reference to the lawyer’s ‘purchasyng’ which interrupts the description of his work as a ‘Justice’. The statements made in relation to the lawyer’s land-buying activities are unproven and could be based purely on hypothetical imaginings on the narrator’s part, but the reader takes it on trust that these statements are true. A pilgrimage is evidently a democratic activity, but the lawyer does not represent a democratic order and the ironic tone of the narrator perhaps highlights this. The lawyer’s words are reported as ‘wise’, but the reader is not allowed to hear the lawyer speak in the passage under consideration. His story, when he tells it, is one of justice being meted out by the gods and, given the evidence in the narrator’s portrait, the reader may be inclined to wonder whether this is how the lawyer imagines his own position in society. The use of irony or satire means taking a stance in relation to the character and it does seem that the narrator is setting himself up as a moral judge. The pilgrims of The Canterbury Tales represent sections of Chaucer’s society and they all come under the scrutiny of a narrator who is a long way from being impartial.

I reconsidered the same passage using a focalisation/point of view framework and some interesting points emerged. There is a conflict between the narrator’s position as pilgrim and the extent of knowledge possessed about his fellow travellers, as is clearly demonstrated in the passage describing the lawyer. I understood the focaliser to be the voice of Chaucer’s pilgrim, and the narrator to be the voice who presents all the information not available to the focaliser. This is one and the same voice, however: what is presented here is an internal focaliser with the attributes of an external focaliser who can penetrate the consciousness of the focalised. The pilgrim is one of the characters and therefore should be limited to external observations and restricted knowledge of the other characters, but this is not the case. The focalised is both internal and external which means that Chaucer’s pilgrim can provide the reader with the same kind of information that would be available to an omniscient narrator. Rimmon-Kenan notes that focalisation and narration are separate in first-person retrospective narratives (2002: 74), which could account for the stance presented here if the time of narration could be confidently asserted, but The Canterbury Tales remains unfinished and without an ending, the reader cannot know whether or not the relation of this pilgrimage is synchronous with events as they unfold.

In the pilgrim’s description of the lawyer it is possible that what is presented is two separate views of the lawyer’s reputation, because there certainly seems to be the expression of a collective voice in line 318: ‘So greet a purchasour was nowher noon’. Lines 309-317 show the lawyer as a professional man and a wise judge, whereas lines 318-327 paint a different picture – the lawyer as land-grabbing opportunist who makes use of his legal knowledge to ensure that no protest against his large-scale purchase of land is possible. If this view were accepted, it may be possible to argue for two different focalisers: an internal focaliser for lines 309-317 and an external focaliser for lines 318-327. The portrait ends with an external focaliser who describes the details of the lawyer’s dress in lines 328-330, but this placing of such a description is calculated. It does not come at the beginning of the portrait as one might have expected, but appears after the reader has learned of the lawyer’s acquisition of land through his legal know-how, and in the light of this knowledge, the reader may feel inclined to consider this modest dress as a disguise or a mask rather than a mark of humility on the lawyer’s part; as previously stated, the lawyer’s silk belt decorated with stripes functions symbolically as the bars which exclude others not of the same status from an impenetrable ‘club’. It is strange that the narrating pilgrim should so decidedly clam up over the lawyer’s appearance (‘Of his array telle I no lenger tale’) when he has previously made some very pointed insinuations about his methods of buying land. It is notable also that the lawyer does not wear his purse on his belt as many of the other pilgrims do; his wealth does not lie in coinage, but in the knowledge of legal cases and judicial decisions that allows him to manipulate the law for his own purposes.

The voice of the focaliser intrudes into this short portrait at three points: in lines 313, 322 and 330. The use of ‘semed’ in lines 313 and 322 suggests that the inner state of the focalised is implicit by external behaviour (Rimmon-Kenan, 2002: 82), and the modality of these two lines casts doubt on the portrait painted: the lawyer only seems to be wise and his apparent busyness is flatly contradicted. In sum, there is a very clear ideological stance from which the lawyer is assessed. The modality of the pilgrim’s interjections suggests that there is reason to doubt the lawyer’s integrity, and the structure of the portrait places the lawyer’s professional work in direct juxtaposition with his activities as a ‘purchasour’; these activities fall no doubt within the law, but it is clearly intimated in the assertion that no man would stand a chance of questioning these land-purchases that there is something distasteful or perhaps immoral about the way in which the transactions are performed. The focalisation/point of view framework was very useful in that its application threw up a great number of questions, not all of which could be answered confidently. The spatiotemporal orientation is fairly easy to pinpoint – that of Chaucer’s pilgrim – but the source of the psychological and ideological orientation is much more complicated. In recognising this, however, the reader becomes more attuned to the satire of The Canterbury Tales and is far less likely to take the text at face value without question.

Text 2: Jonathan Swift Gulliver’s Travels (excerpt)

I lay down on the Grass, which was very short and soft, where I slept sounder than ever I remember to have done in my Life, and as I reckoned, above nine Hours; for when I awaked, it was just Day-light. I attempted to rise, but was not able to stir: For as I happen’d to lye on my Back, I found my Arms and Legs were strongly fastened on each side to the Ground; and my Hair, which was long and thick, tied down in the same manner. I likewise felt several slender Ligatures across my Body, from my Armpits to my Thighs. I could only look upwards, the Sun began to grow hot, and the Light offended mine Eyes. I heard a confused Noise about me, but in the Posture I lay, could see nothing except the Sky. In a little Time I felt something alive moving on my left Leg, which advancing gently forward over my Breast, came almost up to my Chin; when bending mine Eyes downwards as much as I could, I perceived it to be a human Creature not six Inches high, with a Bow and Arrow in his Hands, and a Quiver at his Back. In the mean time, I felt at least forty more of the same kind (as I conjectured) following the first. I was in the utmost Astonishment, and roared so loud, that they all ran back in a Fright; and some of them, as I was afterwards told, were hurt with the Falls they got by leaping from my Sides upon the Ground.

Gulliver’s Travels is another satirical work, but by way of contrast, the narrator-focaliser is very much internal. In fact, this text is perhaps one of those for which ‘it is debatable whether we need to posit a focaliser position distinct from the narratorial one’ (Toolan, 2001: 63). Gulliver’s point of view is represented throughout, and the satirical intent of the work is therefore displaced up a level – the satirist is Swift, the author, not Gulliver, the narrator-focaliser. The focaliser is internal, and the focalised external. Everything is rendered from Gulliver’s viewpoint as and when he encounters each new event, and as such, he is the spatiotemporal ‘zero point’. In terms of Rimmon-Kennan’s analysis, the perceptual facets of space and time are both internal (limited and synchronous); the cognitive element of the psychological facet is internal (restricted); and the emotive element of the psychological facet is also internal (subjective and involved). The ideological facet is more complicated: the text functions as a satire on another text (Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe) and as a blistering attack on humankind in general. Gulliver’s Travels is not to be read in the same way as Robinson Crusoe, because the story related could not possibly be true. Defoe’s novel stretches credibility, but it is not the fantasy that Swift’s work represents. For Swift, Gulliver’s voyages are a way of exploring the true subject: the shortcomings of human beings and human society.

In analysing this short passage from Swift’s novel, I found Emmott’s contextual frame theory to be rather more profitable than the analysis based on focalisation and point of view, and Emmott’s theory threw up a very intriguing question in relation to a proleptic statement which I shall discuss shortly.


As is the case in Robinson Crusoe, the distance travelled by the hero and the time taken to do so are carefully documented, thereby suggesting a kind of map and a hint that the reader may be able to mimic the journey undertaken if inclined to do so. When Gulliver awakes after the shipwreck, he is quite literally bound into the frame. He can only see the sky, but the reader can see him and the ‘Ligatures’ that bind him to the ground. (Gulliver’s hair is also tied down, and according to Emmott’s framework, the statement that Gulliver’s hair is long and thick is the only piece of non-episodic information throughout the passage; the remainder is specific to the frame in question and is therefore episodic in nature.) At this point, and consistent with the internal narrator-focaliser, the contents of the frame are limited entirely to what Gulliver himself can see, feel and hear. The Lilliputian who first climbs onto Gulliver’s left leg is bound into the frame when Gulliver becomes aware of him, but because Gulliver cannot see the Lilliputian, the reader’s first assumption may well be that the small man is some kind of insect. When the other Lilliputians follow, the reader accepts Gulliver’s conjecture that these beings are more of the same and binds them into the frame accordingly. Gulliver does the only thing he can do and shouts aloud, which startles the Lilliputians and causes them to jump off. This leads to a proleptic moment in the text: ‘and some of them, as I was afterwards told, were hurt with the Falls they got by leaping from my Sides upon the Ground’ (my emphasis). In the context of Emmott’s framework, this prolepsis is extremely interesting. The reader will create a frame, but personal expectations will dictate what frame is created. Clearly Gulliver survives the current episode, but what does the reader imagine will happen next? If Gulliver is being reprimanded for hurting the Lilliputians who fell, is he still in danger? Is he still in shackles? The ‘telling’ of ‘as I was afterwards told’ is reported in the passive voice, so the reader does not know who is doing the telling and in what context. This allows for many imaginative possibilities. Any frame that the reader forms of Gulliver’s future at this point must be integral to that particular reader’s narrative expectations and perhaps also their hopes concerning the character of Lemuel Gulliver.

List of references

Chaucer, G. (1988) The Riverside Chaucer. L. Benson. Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Emmott, C. (1997) Narrative Comprehension: A Discourse Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

Swift, J. (1967, 1726) Gulliver’s Travels. J. Chalker & P. Dixon. Eds. London: Penguin.

Toolan, M. (2001) Narrative: A Critical Linguistic Introduction. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.


Reading Challenge 2016: A Book You Can Read In A Day

Julie Maroh Skandalon

Mario Saraceni The Language of Comics

Skandalon_top pictureI’m kicking off this year’s Reading Challenge with a couple of books, both of which can be read in a day: Julie Maroh’s Skandalon, and Mario Saraceni’s The Language of Comics, and I’m going to use one to discuss the other. A little bit of background is necessary for the Maroh novel, however: it can be read and understood on its own terms, naturally, but Maroh provides an Afterword which situates the main character in a different, more mythical dimension and provides an explanation for his behaviour which goes beyond the rather trite summary to be found in the book’s blurb: ‘a fiery and intense contemporary myth about the recklessness of fame’. Well, no, not really. The myth in question here is not a new one for our times, it is a much older myth that has been retold in a modern setting with a main character who is the perfect vehicle: an immensely successful rock star who wields enormous power over his fans, men and women who adore him and follow wherever he leads.

Skandalon is a truly astonishing book. Much is explained in Maroh’s Afterword, which, following the writings of René Girard, sets out the philosophy of prohibition and the way in which myths and rites produce stories which become culturally embedded, thereby reinforcing and perpetuating accepted behaviours. The skandalon is a figure that transgresses these imaginary boundaries, attracting scandal as he does so and encouraging others to mimic his behaviour. But inevitably, the skandalon eventually becomes the scapegoat or victim. He who has vicariously fulfilled the desires of others has to face the consequences as the people turn on him – which they must, if societal order is to be restored. And so it is with Maroh’s main character, Tazane, the name being of course a pseudonym. His real name is Cedric. (One of the other characters suggests that the name Tazane is cursed and all would have been well if they’d stuck to Cedric.)

Saraceni’s book is a wonderfully accessible introduction to the study of comics as multi-modal texts: complicated concepts are made simple and exemplified with reproductions of numerous individual frames and complete comic strips. What I propose to do here is to explore a few of Saraceni’s observations with reference to Skandalon, but what follows is certainly not going to be an exhaustive exploration of how comics work – merely a taster.

One of the most interesting points of Saraceni’s discussion lies in his comparison of the layout and format of a comic strip with that of a text composed entirely of verbal features. He notes that the difference between functional and content words is reflected in the make-up of the verbal and visual language of comics, where functional words (words that link other words together to build a sentence, such as conjunctions and prepositions) have their counterpart in functional components, and content words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.) in content components. The functional components of comics are things like captions, sounds effects and emanata (text or icons that represent what’s going on in a character’s head, so for example, sweat drops can indicate anxiety or nervousness). In this image here, for example, the ringing of the telephone rendered by the dring sound effect becomes more insistent over the three panels; Tazane ignores it, but the increased size of the letters and the frequency with which they appear indicate both the character’s consciousness of the sound, the length of time which has passed since the telephone first began to ring, and his growing agitation as the words gradually fill the frame. (Eventually he rips the socket from the wall.)


Another functional component is the speech balloon. This is the space that is used to report what a character is saying, and its physical appearance on the page acts as a sort of adverb to tell us how something is said. Here, for example, we know from the visual elements (the crowSkandalon-redd, the microphone) that Tazane is onstage singing, but we can guess from the spiky balloons and large spaced-out font of the letters that he is not crooning softly, but belting out the words. The colour scheme reinforces this impression: think how these panels would differ if rendered in pale blue or green, for example.

Saraceni also argues that the gutter – the blank space separating the panels – ‘is similar to the space the divides one sentence from the next’. The gutter is not simply a blank space, in fact: every narrative is necessarily incomplete and this is a space for the reader to fill with real-world knowledge. Take the following example.

montage skandalon

This montage is made up of two pages, with the page break occurring down the middle, after the third panel from the left: this is important, because in the Western world we read each panel from left to right, top to bottom, and we do the same thing with the whole page.

So what’s happening here? We see first of all a cloud of smoke. On its own, this means that something is on fire, but what? In the second panel, a lit cigarette lies next to a butt in an ashtray, and we can see that the smoke comes from the cigarette. The ashtray is on a table, and in the third panel, we see what else is on the table: empty or near-empty bottles of alcohol – spirits and beer rather than wine – one bottle could be vodka, another Jack Daniels. The fourth panel shows us another view of the table (and all the time, the repetition of the table image is leading us to assume that it is the same one): a pencil, and some papers with musical notation. Finally, the fifth panel shows us the human agent behind all this – a hand playing a guitar – and we can infer that the musician shown here is the one who has been smoking, drinking and writing music. This is Tazane.

Onto the panels on the right-hand side of the montage, and we see at the top a close-up of Tazane with eyes closed, clearly absorbed in his task. The ‘camera’ pans out for the next panel and we see him playing, the tops of the bottles just visible in the right-hand corner. In the panel which follows, Tazane is writing on the paper, and we can infer again that he is writing down the tune he has just played, or perhaps some lyrics. The foreshortened perspective of the image ensures that the hand holding the pencil is central to the panel, with the trajectory of the pencil leading the eye back to Tazane’s face and from there down to the point of the pencil again, following the circle of thought from the origin to the recording of that thought. He returns to his playing for the final frame, depicted from yet another angle, and here we note an interesting point Saraceni makes about the panel – that it is not the same as a photograph or a film still, because the panel represents a portion of time rather than a snapshot. The final frame of this sequence could take up any amount of time: he could be playing for a few seconds, or a few hours. Panels can fill an entire page, as the one shown below does.


And there are numerous other examples of one-page panels in Skandalon. Page 85 is entirely blank, with not even a page number, but this can also be considered a panel; in fact, the page is blank because the narrative has reached a point where Tazane rapes a young female fan, and the blank page emphasises the horror of the scene by hiding it from the reader.

I mentioned the ‘camera’ earlier, and something that has sparked interest in recent years is the presence of the narrator in comics and graphic novels. In Skandalon, Tazane himself does some of the narrating for us, rendered in square captions in a font different to that of the round speech balloons. So Tazane is narrator as well as character. The other character, Philippe, also does a little narrating for us. On finding the remains of Tazane’s mobile phone, he says ‘Not again!’ – but who is he talking to? Ostensibly, himself, but arguably he is speaking to the reader as well and imparting the information that this is not the first time Tazane has smashed up his phone. But I think there is yet another narrator, the one that decides what to show us in each panel and whose point of view we see: close-ups, for example, are more likely to invite us to feel empathy for the character concerned. Creating a graphic novel involves decisions about the shape and size of each individual panel, its positioning on the page, its relation to other panels and its place in a sequence as well as what is depicted, how characters and events are depicted, what point of view is represented, whether or not captions are used, and many, many other decisions relating to both functional and content components. It is perhaps here, in these decisions, that we should be searching for the narrator. Saraceni recognises that the narrator’s presence cannot be reduced to a consideration of captions alone. The kind of syntagmatic and paradigmatic analyses that are applied to verbal texts can equally be applied to graphic novels, if we consider creative choices made on both horizontal and vertical levels.


To conclude, Skandalon is a disturbing but immensely rewarding read, and Saraceni’s exceptionally useful book helps the reader to understand and articulate Maroh’s work. I’ve had a happy week with this, all in all.

Interesting use of panels to show the division between land and water in Tazane’s heroin-induced narcissistic hallucination.