Contextual frame theory and Shirley Jackson’s ‘A Visit’ 

Shirley Jackson

Contextual frame theory explains ‘how readers track reference to characters and events through the process of reading’ (Stockwell, 2002: 155). To summarise the essence of this approach, the reader constructs mental images, or ‘contextual frames’, containing characters and objects which are said to be ‘bound’ to that frame. The binding process enables the reader to monitor who and what appears in a particular textual location. Characters and objects become ‘primed’, however, when they form the focus of the reader’s attention, and ‘textually overt’ when mentioned (Emmott, 1997). As new information is received, the reader must perform various revisions, such as adding to or amending entity representations for characters and locations. Frame modifications are necessary when characters enter or leave the frame; frame repairs occur when the reader learns that s/he has made an incorrect assumption, such as, for example, the gender of the protagonist; frame replacements (Stockwell, 2002: 158) are an extreme version of the latter in which an entire frame must be revised or scrapped altogether. In this essay I use contextual frame theory to explore one of Shirley Jackson’s most Gothic stories. I begin by examining the Gothic trope of the splintered self in the context of entity representations. I show how the orientational information necessary to contextual frame theory is repurposed to bewilder instead of guide, and I examine how contextual frame theory can explain the calculated deception practised on the reader. I contend that contextual frame theory runs into difficulties when presented with an unreliable narrator, but the necessary repair-work is nevertheless integral to the experience of reading and forms part of the story’s meaning.

‘A Visit’ (1950) appears in a collection of Jackson’s work entitled Come Along With Me and was also anthologised as ‘The Lovely House’ in American Gothic Tales, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, herself a writer in the same tradition.1 Jackson achieved fame as a writer of the Gothic, and given both the identity of the writer and the context of publication, it is crucial that the Gothic genre is taken into account in any discussion of this story. Gothic genre conventions dictate reader expectations: there is, after all, some truth in Kosofsky Sedgwick’s playful comment that ‘[o]nce you know that a novel is of the Gothic kind…you can predict its contents with an unnerving certainty’ (1986: 9). Many readers of the Gothic, and the Female Gothic in particular (Fleenor, 1983; Wallace and Smith, 2009; Wallace, 2013) will be familiar with the themes and tropes of Jackson’s story, including an imprisoned female protagonist, a splintered or fractured self, live burial and a labyrinthine dwelling, but few perhaps will foresee the twist in Jackson’s tale, and most readers will have to perform frame repairs and replacements. A first reading of the story will therefore be an entirely different experience to every subsequent reading. Readings other than the first will draw on repaired and modified frames in the light of acquired knowledge.

The story is narrated in the third person, but there are no scenes in which Margaret is not present and the reader follows Margaret’s subjectivity throughout. The reader has access to Margaret’s thoughts, but the minds of the other characters are kept closed except for what the reader can infer from their reactions and behaviour. The story begins when school-friends Margaret and Carla arrive at Carla’s home, where Margaret is to spend the summer months, and together Margaret and Carla explore the seemingly endless rooms. Carla speaks of the time when her brother will visit and when Paul and the captain arrive, the reader is led to believe that Paul is Carla’s brother. However, when the time comes for the men to depart, the reader discovers that it is the captain who is Carla’s brother. Neither Paul nor great-aunt Margaret in the tower have ever been present, and the very nature of their existence is brought into question.


Plausible readings of the story within the context of the Gothic genre include the possibility that the main female character is the subject of a split personality, and that the house and its occupants represent different facets of just one fractured mentality. For example, Bowman’s ‘structuralist inquiry’ into the work of Victoria Holt asserts that the characters surrounding the Gothic heroine represent ‘projections of her inner ambivalences’ (Bowman, 1983: 69), and similarly, Punter and Byron suggest that the architecture in Gothic fiction embodies an externalisation of a character’s emotions (2004: 179). If the house and its characters represent aspects of Margaret’s unconscious self, it should be noted in addition that there exist at least five versions of the character ‘Margaret’, all of whom may or may not be the same person. Hattenhauer does not doubt that the great-aunt is an older version of Margaret, and suggests that ‘[w]hen the madwoman in the attic appears as Margaret’s double, the theme of Margaret trapped in the history of her disunity as a subject emerges’ (2003: 56). The various Margarets can be identified as follows. The first is Carla’s school-friend, the Margaret who has a mother and sisters, who is embroidering a pair of slippers for a friend and who has a home to send to for more clothes. This Margaret is referred to, but never seen in the narrative. The second is the Margaret who visits Carla at her home during the school summer holidays. The third is the Margaret whose face is depicted on the floor of the tile room, the Margaret who died for love. The fourth is the great-aunt, the Margaret in the tower, and the fifth is the image of Margaret that Mrs Rhodes is preparing to weave into her tapestry at the end of the story. The shared name should not be overlooked: Punter and Byron suggest that ‘repetitions of names…produces a doubling that repeatedly works against any sense of narrative division’ (2004: 213)2. According to contextual frame theory, the reader uses details provided in the text to construct a character, or an ‘entity representation’ (Emmott, 1997). The doubling provoked by the naming of the tiled image and the great-aunt prompts the reader to conflate the various Margarets into one entity representation. As Margaret’s growing fondness for Paul becomes evident, it becomes more likely that she will indeed turn out to be the Margaret who died for love, and whose tiled image now resides permanently in a tiled image of the tower. This conflation of the entity representation with a mosaic image rendered from chips of the very materials from which the house has been constructed provides a valuable clue as to the true nature of the house and its occupants, to which I shall return in due course.

In her full-length study of contextual monitoring, Emmott notes that the reader retrieves ‘orientational information’ from the text, including details such as where and when the action is located (1997: 103). However, both the temporal and spatial locations of ‘A Visit’ are difficult to identify with any certainty. There are very few clues available, for example, to enable the reader to place the events of the story within a historical timeframe. Margaret arrives with Carla at the house, but no indication is provided of the girls’ means of travel, whether by rail, car, or horse and carriage; the reader is merely told that Margaret ‘alighted with Carla’ (Jackson, 2013 [1950]: 101)3. Paul appears in uniform, and the presence of the ‘captain’ leads the reader to infer that the uniform is a military one and the two men are soldiers; beyond this, however, no further assumptions can be conclusively drawn. As the story progresses, the reader’s sense of temporal disorientation is compounded by elements of narrative repetition, particularly in the dialogue. When Margaret grasps the hands of her namesake in the tower, she hears the words that will be spoken and heard again on Paul’s departure. Carla speaks often of what they will do when her brother arrives, and she begins this refrain again almost as soon as he has departed. The pattern of arrival and departure established in relation to the two men means that by the end of the narrative, it is unclear whether the title of the story refers to Margaret’s visit, the captain’s, or Paul’s.

The confusion caused by the narrative’s circular temporality is compounded by the maze-like spatial location within which the action takes place. The house, with its many rooms and corridors, is an unimaginable space. It is not a home but an anthropomorphised construction with its ‘long-boned structure’ (101); it is also an endlessly repeated exhibit of itself. In a fairy-tale like episode, Carla shows Margaret two identical rooms, one in gold and one in silver, and when Margaret enquires who uses the rooms, Carla replies ‘No one’ (103). (One expects the third room in this sequence to be of bronze, but instead it is the room of mirrors.) In sum, both the spatial and temporal details provided can be described, with some justification, as deliberately unhelpful.

shirley-jackson3-1916-1965In the section which follows, I refer to contextual frame theory to demonstrate how it is that the reader of Jackson’s story is so comprehensively hoodwinked into believing that Paul exists and that he is Carla’s brother. Emmott’s work with contextual frames shows how readers use the information stored in these frames to correctly identify the referent of pronouns (1997). Margaret is the focaliser of the story, but the depth to which the ostensibly third-person narrative is immersed in Margaret’s consciousness is not immediately evident to the reader. Only at the end of the story is the reader made aware that Paul and the great-aunt exist only for Margaret, prompting many frame repairs; in addition, the reader realises that the scene in the tower could not have taken place when the tower is described (for the first and only time) as ‘ruined’ (124). The reader must then perform a frame replacement and substitute instead a scene in which Margaret tries the door of the tower but is unable to gain entry. From the moment Paul arrives, the reader is led to believe that he is Carla’s brother:

…and Carla said, “Brother, here is Margaret.”

He was tall and haughty in uniform… Next to him stood his friend, a captain (108, my emphasis).

The ‘He’ which follows on immediately from Carla’s introduction refers to a man who is not the captain. Moreover, the captain is never referred to by name, which allows the reader to assume that Carla means Paul whenever she refers to her brother. In the scenes which follow Paul’s arrival before Margaret’s visit to the tower, a pattern is established in which the characters are scrupulously bound into every frame in careful descriptions such as the following: ‘They went for a picnic, Carla and the captain and Paul and Margaret, and Mrs. Rhodes waved to them from the doorway as they left, and Mr. Rhodes came to his study window and lifted his hand to them’ (111). In this sentence, all the characters mentioned by name are primed, bound and textually overt. Mr and Mrs Rhodes, however, will not be present for the picnic and are bound out of the frame from this point onwards. Paul, however, remains bound, and is textually overt in his conversations with Margaret. In the reader’s mind, Paul exists as much as Margaret, Carla and the captain. On subsequent readings, the reader must perform frame repairs in striking each of Paul’s utterances and considering how the scene plays out without him. Textual clues previously unnoticed become evident: for example, Carla refers to Margaret as ‘odd’ and looks at her ‘strangely’, and the reason for this is that she does not hear Paul’s remarks, such as his offer to show Margaret the rose garden. Carla, in her refusal to respond to Margaret’s curiosity regarding the tower, is established as someone with a habit of ignoring the utterances of others when it does not suit her to reply; as such, her lack of response to Paul’s conversational turns is not sufficient on a first reading to alert the reader to any possible anomaly. There are other clues in sentences such as the following: ‘After dinner they played charades, and even Mrs. Rhodes did Achilles with Mr. Rhodes, holding his heel and both of them laughing and glancing at Carla and Margaret and the captain’ (109). The reader assumes ‘they’ to refer to Paul as well as the named characters in this sentence, so even though he is not textually overt as the others are, he is still bound and primed into the frame, and in fact becomes textually overt in the sentence which follows when he speaks to Margaret. There is another example of the same tactic here: ‘And they played word games in the evening, and Margaret and Paul won, and everyone said Margaret was so clever’ (109). The ‘everyone’ in this sentence is assumed to include Paul, so he remains bound and primed to the frame, even though his own cleverness has apparently been ignored by those assembled. The most blatant clue, however, is provided in the scene in which Margaret is watching Mrs Rhodes sew while ‘Carla and the captain bent over a book together’. Paul is not bound into this frame and is therefore assumed not to be present. Carla gently rebukes Margaret with the words, ‘Margaret, do come and look, here. Mother is always at her work, but my brother is rarely home’ (110). If the reader weren’t convinced by this stage that Paul is Carla’s brother, this is a clear indication that Carla is referring to the captain. On a first reading, the reader might perhaps believe that Carla’s intention is to criticise Margaret’s inattention to the other guests in the house and thus Paul and the captain are included together in her reference to ‘my brother’. When the narrative reaches its conclusion and the captain is positively identified as Carla’s brother, the resulting confusion renders indecipherable the pronouns used by Paul in his closing remarks before departure. He claims to ‘care for [the house] constantly, even when they forget’, and states that nothing in the house can be replaced: ‘All we can do is add to it’ (123, emphases in original). It would seem that Paul is referring to himself and the Rhodes family, but in touching Mrs Rhodes’ embroidery frame as he speaks, he appears to imply that Mrs Rhodes adds to the house as she embroiders its image. If Paul is including the Rhodes family in his ‘we’, then Carla and the others presumably share the same status as Paul, who claims that without the house he ‘could not exist’ (123). Epistemological uncertainty reaches such a peak at this point that contextual frame theory cannot help the reader sort through the increasingly tangled jumble of what is to be believed and what can be discredited.


There is textual evidence to support the reading that the house and its occupants, including Margaret, are nothing but figures woven into a tapestry. Margaret witnesses the creation of ‘doors and windows, carvings and cornices’ under Mrs Rhodes’ hands, and indeed, Margaret’s own entrapment: ‘[t]he small thread of days and sunlight…that bound Margaret to the house, was woven here as she watched’ (110). The grounds of the house are included: the ‘proper forest’ with its ‘neat trees’ and too-green moss is also part of a tapestry on display in the breakfast room (111). Margaret is afraid of the room of mirrors because ‘it was so difficult for her to tell what was in it and what was not’ (104). The objects in this room such as the table and the wooden bowl which are bound, primed and textually overt may not have any tangible presence at all, and, of course, as elements in a fictional text, the table and bowl exist only as signifiers to evoke an image of the signified in the mind of the reader. Margaret partially guesses the truth when she uses a metaphor of the house as a story: ‘perhaps, she thought, from halfway up the stairway this great hall, and perhaps the whole house, is visible, as a complete body of story together, all joined and in sequence’ (102). Coupled with this metaphor are numerous references to patterns and images that are too large to be seen except from far away, just as one must read the whole story to understand its import. In another scene, an anthropomorphism connected with Margaret’s world-view hints at the possibility of conscious life in inanimate images: ‘Margaret felt surely that she could stay happily and watch the small painted people playing’ (107). The same device is used in the scene depicting the morning after the ball:

the gay confusion of helping one another dress…seemed all to have happened longer ago than memory, to be perhaps a dream that might never have happened at all, as perhaps the figures in the tapestries on the walls in the dining room might remember, secretly, an imagined process of dressing themselves and coming with laughter and light voices to sit on the lawn where they were woven (121).

In the final scene, both Carla and Margaret are still wearing their ball gowns, and Carla – laughing – invites Margaret to sit beside her on the lawn as models for Mrs Rhodes’ tapestry.

This discussion has made use of contextual frame theory to account for the numerous adjustments the reader is required to make on reading ‘A Visit’, and has suggested a possible reading in which the house and its occupants are no more than figures in a tapestry. It has been noted how contextual frame theory falters when confronted with unreliable narration and the resulting epistemological uncertainty. However, it should be noted that frame repairs and replacements do not efface original impressions and the reader is left with the idea of a living consciousness trapped within a woven image. To place the story in its Gothic context once more, the conventions of this genre are employed here to express the living death experienced by women expected to immerse themselves in the home and devote their lives to it. Wallace writes of the civil death which was the legal status of married women in 1765 (2013: 2) and Jackson herself struggled with the domesticity expected of women in post-war America (Smith, 2009). Margaret’s ‘death’, therefore, can be read figuratively not as a physical death from a broken heart, but as the death of what Margaret’s life might have been had she not been bound to the house.


1 Carla’s family name appears as ‘Rhodes’ in the version published in the 2013 Penguin edition, and ‘Montague’ in the Oates anthology. I have used the name ‘Rhodes’ throughout.

2 This comment appears in a discussion of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, a novel that, along with Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, operates as a Gothic ur-text which has inspired many imitations (Stoneman, 1996). Cf. Hattenhauer’s reference to the great-aunt in the tower as ‘the madwoman in the attic’ (2003: 56).

3 All subsequent references are to this edition.

List of references

Bowman, B. (1983) Victoria Holt’s Gothic Romances: A Structuralist Inquiry. In J. E. Fleenor (ed). The Female Gothic. Montréal: Eden Press, 69–81.

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

Fleenor, J.E. (ed). (1983) The Female Gothic. Montréal: Eden Press.

Hattenhauer, D. (2003) Shirley Jackson’s American Gothic. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Jackson, S. (1996 [1950]) The Lovely House. In J. C. Oates (ed). American Gothic Tales. New York: Plume, 204–225.

Jackson, S. (2013 [1950]) A Visit. In S. E. Hyman (ed). Come Along With Me: Classic Short Stories and an Unfinished Novel. New York: Penguin, 101–125.

Kosofsky Sedgwick, E. (1986) The Coherence of Gothic Conventions. New York: Methuen.

Punter, D. & Byron, G. (2004) The Gothic. Oxford: Blackwell.

Smith, A. (2009) Children of the Night: Shirley Jackson’s Domestic Female Gothic. In The Female Gothic: New Directions. London: Palgrave, 152–165.

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

Stoneman, P. (1996) Brontë Transformations: The Cultural Dissemination of ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’. London: Prentice Hall.

Wallace, D. (2013) Female Gothic Histories: Gender, History and the Gothic. Cardiff: Cardiff University Press.

Wallace, D. & Smith, A. (eds). (2009) The Female Gothic: New Directions. London: Palgrave.

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

KM writing sample
Katherine Mansfield’s notoriously indecipherable handwriting

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

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


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

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

Letter to J M Murry, 13 November 1919

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



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

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

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

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

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

Letter to J M Murry, 5 June 1918

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

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

Journal, May 1917

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

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

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

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

Politeness theory and the complicit hearer-reader in Saki’s ‘The Talking-out of Tarrington’

In this essay I use the politeness theory framework as formulated by Brown and Levinson (hereafter B&L) in their 1978 study (reissued in 1987) to explore the interaction between two fictional interlocutors in Saki’s satire of the process of ‘talking-out’ a Parliamentary bill. I describe the progress and outcome of the characters’ conversation in terms of the principal face-threatening act (FTA) which takes place. In the second section of the analysis, I consider how the constructed addressee, or implied reader (Iser, 1974), is manipulated by the narrator-intermediary into complicity with one of the two interlocutors. The discussion of the conversational exchange is informed by B&L’s politeness theory with reference to adjacency pairs, speech act theory and Grice’s conversational maxims; the roles of narrator and reader are considered in terms of speech and thought representation, speech-act verbs, and literary point of view. The description of the exchange demonstrates the means by which one character prevents another from achieving a desired goal, and it is concluded that the speaker-hearer relationship between the two characters is mediated through a parallel speaker-hearer relationship comprising narrator and reader.

This is a long post, so I’ve split the content over 6 pages. Please use the page counter below to access the page following. A full text of the short story discussed appears in the Appendix on page 5. The extract under consideration is labelled and the paragraphs numbered for ease of reference. See page 6 for the list of references.

B&L’s framework hinges on their concept of a Model Person (MP), a ‘rational’ being, displaying ‘consistent modes of reasoning from ends to the means that will achieve those ends’ (1987: 61). Kopytko criticises this kind of traditional pragmatics on the grounds that a means-ends rationalistic approach is too simplistic to deal with the multi-faceted and highly complex nature of human interaction, and he argues instead for a more empirical approach (1995). Grainger lists the problematic areas of former practices in pragmatics as ‘speaker intention’, ‘constructed examples of utterances’, ‘inherent meaning and…universality’ (2013: 29), but as the title of her article suggests, Grainger is keen not to jettison those ‘fundamental, universal insights of language-in-interaction’ (36) formulated in early politeness research. I do not intend to deal with these issues here, however, because this essay is concerned with a fictional conversation. B&L intended their framework for use in the analysis of communication between real-life interactants, but the same framework can be employed in fictional analyses because our understanding of literary dialogue is rooted in what we know of the real world: we make sense of such dialogue, with all its implicatures and inferences, by bringing to the text our knowledge of how people converse in real life. However, there is an added complication: in fictional texts, the idealised speaker/hearer of B&L’s framework is joined by constructs such as the narrator and the implied reader, and these must be accounted for. Simpson’s concern that politeness analysis of dramatic texts should ‘encompass the interaction between writer/playwright and reader/audience’ (1989b: 172) finds its counterpart in Chilton’s suggestion that in the analysis of political speeches, politeness theory should be extended beyond the immediate interlocutors to ‘non-present hearers’ (1990: 214).

The starting-point for the present analysis is B&L’s notion of the MP’s ‘public self-image’ as ‘face’: this face is divided into two, the positive and the negative (1987: 61). The positive face is the personality that the MP wishes to project, and that s/he desires others to approve of; the negative face is concerned with ‘freedom of action and freedom from imposition’ (61). In a community of MPs, every member is aware of both their own ‘face’ and that of others. A face-threatening act (FTA) is an attack which can be targeted at the positive or the negative face: for example, an attempt to damage someone’s self-esteem in the case of the former, or in the latter, preventing someone from going about their business freely. B&L use a mathematical formula involving relations of social distance, power and rank of imposition to express how the extent of an FTA might be calculated (1987: 76).

In the text under consideration, there are two FTAs occurring simultaneously: Tarrington acts against Clovis’ negative face while Clovis retaliates by attacking Tarrington’s positive face. The social distance (D) between the two is heavily marked: if, as B&L claim, D is linked with ‘frequency of interaction’ (1987: 77), then Tarrington is in a bad position. He has lunched once with Clovis and his aunt and is an acquaintance his aunt chooses to avoid. Furthermore, in Clovis’ use of pronouns in his speech about pet owls, he firmly places himself and his aunt in one camp and Tarrington in another: ‘if one or two of them…leave us in any of the ways that pet owls are prone to, there will be always one or two left to carry on your name’ (¶8, my emphasis). Clovis groups himself and his aunt together, whereas Tarrington is pushed outside the social group – in fact, in giving his name to the owls, Clovis does not even count Tarrington among the same species. The harshness of this treatment is counterpoised by a narratorial emphasis on the severity of the threat Tarrington poses, in which indicators of the characters’ respective social status are juxtaposed via their attendants: the aunt’s entourage comprises a ‘wake’ of pampered lapdogs whereas Tarrington brings with him a bevy of ‘wives and mothers and sisters’. Tarrington’s FTA towards Clovis is thus magnified into an invasion of the lower classes, in the form of a whole tribe of off-stage women – presumably those who have put Tarrington up to this in the first place.

Through a glass, darkly: Muriel Spark’s ‘The Dark Glasses’ (1961)


For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. 

1 Corinthians 13:12

The short story The Dark Glasses first appeared in 1961 in Voices at Play, a collection of Spark’s stories and radio plays. The verse from the King James Bible quoted above is not directly referred to in the story, but it’s always at the forefront of my mind when I read it, partly because the story was written at a time when Muriel Spark was still a recent convert to the Catholic faith, but mostly because the two characters in the story who wear coloured glasses – Joan with her dark glasses and Dorothy with her green – are the ones who really do ‘see’ (in the sense of ‘understand’) exactly what is going on. By comparison, Dr Gray, the psychologist who is insistent that Joan should remove her dark glasses, is adept at ignoring the evidence in front of her eyes because it suits her to do so: Joan remarks that ‘[t]hese fishers of the mind have no eye for outward things’ [p. 379]. In fact, the implication is that Dr Gray has trained in psychology in order to enable her to reinterpret events in a manner of her own choosing.

(Incidentally, this is not the only dig at psychological practices to be found in Spark’s writings: perhaps she felt that psychologists were attempting to encroach on an area – the human mind – that should be accessible only to God, or perhaps, as is suggested in this story, it was her view that psychologists state what is obvious and pass it off as science: 

‘ “Didn’t you know that when you married him? I should have thought it would have been obvious.”

She looked at me again. “I had not studied psychology at that time,” she said.

I thought, neither had I.’ [Complete Short Stories, 2001, p. 379].)

Of course, the biblical verse doesn’t quite fit with the story, but what is relevant is the idea of seeing and knowing. This is a story which explores the many different ways of seeing, and as I’ve already suggested, seeing is linked with understanding in the two characters who have problems with their sight: Joan, who needs reading glasses, and Dorothy, who goes blind in first one eye and then the other. The story begins when the I-narrator Joan recognises Dr Gray from the past and puts on her dark glasses to conceal the fact that she has identified the woman with whom she is taking a lunchtime stroll.

Joan is a familiar narrator in Spark: a confident, somewhat abrasive woman, easily bored and more than a little impatient with other people. She is thirteen when she goes to have her eyes tested and Basil Simmonds, the oculist, takes something of an unhealthy interest in her. Joan judges from his reaction when his sister Dorothy enters the dimly-lit examination room that his intentions were not honourable: ‘Mr Simmonds removed his arm from my shoulder with such a jerk that I knew for certain he had not placed it there in innocence’ [p. 368]. Dorothy later accuses Basil of attempting to blind her because ‘she had seen something that he didn’t want her to see, something disreputable’ [p. 378]. By far the strongest implication in the narrative is that the ‘something’ mentioned here is Basil’s attempted forgery of his mother’s will, but it is undeniable that this ‘something’ could also be Basil’s manhandling of Joan, an adolescent. And Joan’s status as an adolescent at the early stages of the story is imbued with some importance later on in Dr Gray’s lecture at the summer school on child-poltergeists: ‘ “Adolescents in a state of sexual arousement,” she said, “may become possessed of almost psychic insight.” ’ [p. 377]. In spite of Spark’s apparent debunking of psychologists in the story, there exists a narrative level at which the claim that adolescents have psychic powers is also true: Joan does, indeed, have a sense of what is really happening and she is able to visualise clearly not only the interior of the Simmonds’ house, but also the enmity between brother and sister, worth quoting in full if only because it’s one of my favourite passages in Spark:

‘I invented for myself a recurrent scene in which brother and sister emerged from their mother’s room and, on the narrow landing, allowed their gaze to meet in unspoken combat over their inheritance. Basil’s flat-coloured eyes did not themselves hold any expression, but by the forward thrust of his red neck he indicated his meaning; Dorothy made herself plain by means of a corkscrew twist of the head – round and up – and the glitter of her one good eye through the green glasses’ [p. 370].

Of course, it would seem that it is Basil, rather than Joan, who is ‘in a state of sexual arousement’, but thirteen-year-old Joan is far from naive and she is seen to be going through a process of sorting ‘right’ behaviour from ‘wrong’ in her head. The narrative voice from Joan as a thirteen- and a fifteen-year-old is peppered with observations about whether or not the characters, including herself, are ‘in the right’, or ‘in the wrong’: ‘Dr Gray swung her legs, she was in the wrong, sexy, like our morning help… Dr Gray swung her legs, and looked professional. She was in the right, she looked like our games mistress’ [pp. 376-377]. It is Joan’s growing awareness of sex and the sexual behaviour of other people rather than any possible attraction to Basil which marks her as sexually aroused. 

However, rather more convincing than Dr Gray’s theories about adolescent second-sight are the alternative explanations that Joan’s insight is derived from her role as detective and her status as a narrator who is also a reader of books. Joan creates a story from what she knows of other stories.

James Naremore points out in his essay on Dashiell Hammett that ‘in a general sense any fictional detective becomes the story’s omniscient narrator and hence a type of God’ [Benstock, 1983, p. 51]. Joan is not, of course, entirely omniscient, but in the general sense implied by Naremore, she certainly attains a degree of omniscience. Joan takes on the role of detective when she becomes intrigued by the brother-sister set-up in Leesden End, and she takes pains to find out as much as she can by encouraging other people to divulge what they know in the form of teatime gossip and, most importantly, in taking every opportunity to spy on the Simmonds’ house. Like Dorothy, Joan sees what she shouldn’t see, and we learn about the antipathy between brother and sister through Joan’s snooping and Joan’s imagined scenarios. The latter builds on the illusion of omniscience surrounding the figure of Joan because the impression created is that Joan can actually see into the minds of the other characters. 

Joan also shares the omniscient narrator’s ability to leap about in time. There are three distinct time periods to the story: Joan at thirteen, Joan at fifteen, and Joan as an adult recognising Dr Gray at the summer school. Spark’s characteristic use of repetition as a time-marker guides the reader through Joan’s narrative, but an additional effect is to create the impression of timelessness: events previously witnessed are seen again as if they hadn’t happened.

The narrator is, of course, present-day Joan, but she takes on the voices of two other Joans who narrate different sections of the story: Joan at thirteen and Joan at fifteen, as previously stated. In the analeptic sections which make up the reminiscences of the two adolescent Joans, the present-day Joan breaks the usual illusion that the analeptic passages are taking place in the present by throwing in phrases which remind the reader that this section is a reminiscence: ‘I can still smell the rain and hear it thundering about me’ [p. 372]; ‘I recall reading the letters… I recall Mr Simmonds squeezing my arm…’ [p. 368]. 

On a narratorial level, then, Joan can see into the minds of others and she can jump about in time as she chooses. She is the omniscient detective who collects the facts and explains them to us. Of course, we are just getting Joan’s view of things, and it is not inconceivable that a great deal of the story may be the product of Joan’s imagination. She is clearly a reader of books with a flair for narrative: ‘I knew he was going to select one sheet of paper from the sheaf, and that this one document would be the exciting, important one. It was like reading a familiar book: one knew what was coming, but couldn’t bear to miss a word’ [p. 372]. Basil does indeed select one sheet of paper and his subsequent actions may well be those of someone attempting to copy someone else’s handwriting. And naturally, Dorothy catches him at it: ‘I was not surprised, but I was thrilled, when the door behind him slowly opened. It was like seeing the film of the book’ [p.372]. The next day, something goes wrong with Dorothy’s eye-drops and her one good eye is damaged almost beyond repair. Joan has her own ideas about what everyone else regards as an unfortunate mishap. She uses what she knows of stories to interpret the events she has witnessed:

‘I said, “The bottle may have been tampered with, have you thought of that?” 

“Joan’s been reading books” ’ [p. 376].

We are not, on the whole, led to question Joan’s reading of events, but it must be borne in mind that, as previously mentioned, one of the themes of the story is seeing and different ways of seeing. Seeing (or not-seeing) in this story is a memory, seeing in the mind’s eye, a glance, watching, looking, testing one’s sight, losing one’s sight, ogling, spying, visualising, something camouflaged, a forgery, seeing as a child or through the eyes of an adult, interpreting, understanding, psychic insight, and of course, recognition – the story begins and ends with an act of recognition.

The story is also awash with doubles: Joan recognises Dr Gray from her reflection in the lake, and the two women stand there at the beginning of the story like two versions of themselves, past and present; Dr Gray’s first husband was also Dr Gray; Joan’s aunt and grandmother parrot each other and finish each other’s sentences. Seeing can be deceptive: Basil turns his attempted caress of Joan into a movement more befitting an oculist; Basil attempts to forge his mother’s handwriting in order to deceive the eye; Joan presses against the tree and wills herself ‘to be the colour of the bark’ [p. 372] as a form of camouflage in order to disguise her presence. Lastly, seeing does not always entail understanding, because it is necessary to be able to read and correctly interpret the signs. On a basic level, as an occulist, Basil has pictures for illiterates who cannot read the letters. On a different level, Dorothy and Joan are both able to read the situation very quickly and interpret what they see accurately. But this is their truth, and everyone else in the story has a different truth. Dr Gray has usefully created two truths for herself – one as Basil’s wife and one as a psychologist, the latter being more conducive to her peace of mind. 

Given all this, it would seem that this is one more Spark narrative in which one of the major themes is the difficulty in getting at the real truth. Joan is not an unreliable narrator, but she is a storyteller nevertheless and the narrative calls attention to its own artfulness at several points and in various ways. By the end of the story, Joan is working as a historian, and the historian’s job is very similar to that of the detective: the facts must be assembled and then interpreted. The resulting narrative is itself a creation and as such cannot be a truthful account of events. 

The picture at the top was taken while on holiday last year in Amsterdam: it’s a selfie and it’s a reflection of us in a metal sculpture. And we’re both wearing dark glasses, of course.


Naremore, J., 1983. Dashiell Hammett and the Poetics of Hard-Boiled Detection. In: B. Benstock, ed. Essays on Detective Fiction. London: Macmillan. 

Spark, M., 2001.The Complete Short Stories. London: Penguin.

Like a hell-broth boil and bubble


This post is about Muriel Spark’s short story The Twins, and the first thing I have to note is that if you search for ‘creepy twins’ in Google Images, you get a whole load of stuff that you really, really don’t want to see: ‘creepy’ in every sense of the word. But I did manage, by peeking through my fingers and scrolling down as quickly as I dared, to find several useful and really quite horrible images with which I shall pepper this post. You’ve been warned…


The Twins is not much of a story, really. An I-narrator recounts the events of a couple of visits to her friend Jennie’s house, once when the twins are five and again when they are twelve. If we are to believe what the narrator tells us – and I’ll explore this in more detail a little later on – the twins are born troublemakers whose angelic appearance belies their true nature. The story consists of six incidents in which it appears that a misunderstanding has occurred, but these ‘misunderstandings’ are in fact deliberately engineered to create disharmony amongst the characters. Eventually the narrator is moved to make an excuse to leave the house, without any intention of returning.

The six incidents are as follows: 1) the loan of a half-crown, in which little Marjie creates discord by not revealing all the necessary details; 2) the business with the tops, in which little Jeff lies outright; 3) Jennie reporting that Simon said the narrator looks ill and haggard, when the reader has overheard the conversation in question and knows he did nothing of the kind; 4) the biscuits and the mice – again, the reader knows that Jennie packed the biscuits and put them in the narrator’s room; 5) the business with the petrol money; 6) the most serious incident of them all: Mollie and Simon’s alleged misbehaviour in the kitchen.


The text world of The Twins is one in which everything can be questioned and even the most innocuous remark can cause great offence. This is a story about truth and about the telling of stories. And, what with it being a story, and being a story written by Muriel Spark, we mustn’t forget that actually none of it is true anyway. The reader believes what s/he is told by the first-person narrator, because that is what readers are inclined to do, but there are instances when the narrator herself is less than honest, if her words are to be taken at face value. For example,

“When I returned, these good children were eating their supper standing up in the kitchen, and without a word of protest, cleared off to bed before the guests arrived [p. 323*].”

Knowing what we do about the twins at this stage, in what sense are they ‘good’ children? There are two possible answers here: 1) they are good children and we can’t believe what the narrator has told us previously; 2) we are to understand that the word ‘good’ is heavily ironic in this sentence. Another example of the narrator’s possible duplicity occurs slightly previous to this episode on page 322:

“I munched [a biscuit] while I looked out of the window at the calm country sky, ruminating upon Jennie’s perennial merits.”

(Note the lovely inversion of the pathetic fallacy: the calm country sky in no way reflects the tension running through the country home.) It is strange to find the narrator pondering Jennie’s good points when she catches Jennie lying earlier that day:

“‘Thin and haggard indeed!’ said Jennie as she poured out the tea, and the twins discreetly passed the sandwiches [p. 322].”

Simon doesn’t say ‘thin and haggard’ at all. What he says is: “‘Why, you haven’t changed a bit… A bit thinner maybe. Nice to see you so flourishing.'” [p. 322] But Simon’s words are also part of what the narrator tells us, so whom can we believe?


For an explanation, we might look to the twins discreetly passing the sandwiches as the parent behaves in the way in which she has been taught to behave by her offspring, for this is a story in which the usual roles are topsy-turvy. “‘You’ll ruin those children,'” says Jennie to Simon, but in fact the reverse happens: the children ruin their parents in a startling role-reversal. The narrator tells us in the closing paragraphs that the twins gaze on their parents ‘with wonder, pride and bewilderment’, as they regard ‘the work of [their] own hands’ [p. 325]. But once again, this is what the narrator tells us, and the behaviour of all concerned is explained away in the narrator’s tenuous comparison of an expression on the twins’ faces with that of a portrait painter she once saw at the Royal Academy. But if these sentences were removed from the story, how could we explain the strange behaviour of Jennie and Simon? We rely on the narrator to tell us the truth, but there is no guarantee that what we are told is not a fabrication on the part of the narrator; the twins might well be the little angels everyone believes them to be and the narrator could be leading the reader by the nose just in order to have a good story to tell. Happy couples do not make narratives because there’s no narrativity in contentment. So there are two ways in which we can read a sentence such as the following:

“In these surroundings she seemed to have endured no change; and she had made no change in her ways in the seven years since my last visit [p. 322].”

We could take the sentence at face value: Jennie has made no change and all is as idyllic as before; or, the narrator is being disingenuous here and Jennie has changed – she has become the same kind of devious mischief-maker as her children. In the context of the rest of the story, the second option seems the most likely, but if we admit this, then we are admitting that the narrator has just lied to us. In addition, the tentative note of ‘seemed’ appears in the first clause, but not, as it should, in the second. If we admit then, that the narrator lies to us occasionally, how much more of this narrative is not quite true?


For the sake of moving the discussion on, let’s assume that the narrator is indeed telling us the truth and that those moments of apparent disingenuousness are to be read and understood ironically. To be fair, the story is constructed so as to convince the reader of the narrator’s veracity. The first incident which occurs to make us suspect the twins of not being quite so lovely is the episode in which Marjie asks for a half-crown. This coin is to provide Jennie with change for the baker’s man, but Marjie does not reveal as much: she simply says that she wants it, which is not enough to induce the narrator to provide her with a coin, thus landing the narrator in some trouble with Jennie. Marjie is only five years old at the time, and we could believe that she has made a mess of this errand owing to youthful inarticulacy, had we not just been told how advanced the twins are for their years. (And in fact, Jennie herself says that she would never allow the children to ask for money when she has moments before instructed Marjie to do exactly that. No wonder the poor narrator is left floundering.)


Marjie’s odd behaviour is still in the reader’s mind when it comes to the fuss about the tops, which is why we accept the narrator’s version of Jeff’s behaviour so readily. The narrator provides us with two pieces of information which put together demonstrate that Jeff is telling an outright lie when he insists that he was playing with the blue top: Jennie points out that the top Simon has taken to pieces is the red one, and the red one belongs to Jeff; later, when the narrator goes outside, she sees ‘the small boy spinning his bright-red top on the hard concrete of the garage floor’ [p. 320]. From this, we can deduce that Simon did manage to piece together Jeff’s top after he’d taken it apart, and that Jeff played with this top before taking it apart again in order to cause trouble between his parents. If it weren’t for these two pieces of information, we could easily believe that Simon had broken Jeff’s top and hadn’t wanted to admit it.


Not that this incident does cause trouble between Jennie and Simon, of course – not on the surface, anyway. Everyone is too polite to make a fuss and this is precisely what allows the twins to get away with their little fibs and fabrications. Repeatedly we hear characters enjoin the narrator not to mention what has happened, or that words have been spoken, because Jennie doesn’t want to upset Simon, and vice versa. When the narrator visits Jennie and Simon for the second time, it is no longer the twins causing trouble: it is Jennie and Simon, both of whom have adopted this behaviour from their creepy kids. And they are creepy: eerily beautiful, spookily well-behaved and exceptionally intelligent: we hear from Jennie when the twins have reached the age of twelve how both Marjie and Jeff have won scholarships. In a world where everything is suspect and every remark subject to scrutiny, Jennie’s comments about Marjie’s geography are potentially explosive: “‘If it hadn’t been for the geography she’d have been near the top. Her English teacher told me.'” In any other story world, this remark would be taken as ordinary parental boasting and perhaps also as a way to introduce the English teacher, Mollie Thomas, but in this world, the reader can easily imagine Jennie’s comments becoming part of yet another fraught and private conversation in which one of the speakers uses the words ‘Please don’t say anything’. Each lie or half-truth opens up for the reader a little text world which may or may not exist: Simon and Mollie’s alleged dalliance in the kitchen, for example – what happened here? The narrator says ‘She’s in the kitchen,’ [p. 324] when Jennie asks where Mollie is, and before you know it, Simon is writing to the narrator berating her for insinuating that he and Mollie were ‘behaving improperly’ [p. 325]. The narrator by this time has quite sensibly cut her losses and left Jennie and Simon’s troubled house, never to return.

Can’t blame her. Stay away from the creepy twins!





*Spark, M., 2002. The Complete Short Stories. London: Penguin.