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.

Foregrounding in ‘Gormenghast’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’

gormenghast_charactersi) The Background to Foregrounding

Jan Mukařovský, one of the founding members of the Prague Linguistic Circle, explores the concept of foregrounding (aktualisace) in a paper entitled ‘Standard Language and Poetic Language’.[1]  Mukařovský is never in any doubt that there is a distinction to be made between ‘standard’ language and ‘poetic’ language, and he writes that ‘the violation of the norm of the standard, its systematic violation, is what makes possible the poetic utilization of language; without this possibility there would be no poetry’.[2]  We have already seen that the postulated existence of an exclusively literary language has since been thrown into question, but Mukařovský’s work can be regarded in hindsight as a valuable precursor to the work on linguistic register.  The identification of ‘the norm of the standard’ is likewise a contentious issue:[3] any attempt to classify language use according to some all-encompassing norm is bound to involve arbitrary decision-making and sweeping generalisations.  However, the advent of the technological age and the rapidly growing role of computers in the gathering of linguistic data[4] means that is it becoming increasingly possible to establish the norms of a given text, as Rebecca Posner points out:

computers…are being used mainly for the purpose of compiling concordances and frequency word lists [which] for students of style…provide the solid ground of the ‘norm’, on which the deviation of ‘individual style’ can stand out more clearly.[5]

Although computers have simplified the task of spotting deviation from the norms established within a given text, it remains problematical nevertheless to measure linguistic deviation within a text against any external standard: first, because a norm of standard language use is practically impossible to document exhaustively,[6] and more importantly, because there are convincing arguments against the existence of a single standard language in the first place.

This dubious literary/non-literary distinction notwithstanding, Mukařovský recognised that foregrounding is possible in both poetic and standard language.  In standard language foregrounding is subordinate to the function of communication.  Conversely, in poetic language,

foregrounding achieves maximum intensity to the extent of pushing communication into the background as the objective of expression and of being used for its own sake; it is not used in the services of communication, but in order to place in the foreground the act of expression, the act of speech itself.[7]

Mukařovský describes the relationship between poetic and standard language in terms of three positions on a language continuum.  At one end of the scale there exists no distortion of the language, although Mukařovský is careful to note that this too represents a stylistic choice.  At the mid-point of the scale, the language is distorted to a certain extent, but communication is still the dominant function of the text.  At the far end of the scale, the language is distorted, and communication is now subordinated to aesthetic function.

Mukařovský complicates the notion of foregrounding by claiming that in poetry there are in fact two norms, that of standard language, and that of the aesthetic canon: Mukařovský argues that poetic language is not a special brand of the standard because it has at its disposal all forms of the given language in addition to its own lexicon, phraseology and grammatical forms.[8]  Mukařovský concludes his paper by noting that foregrounding contributes to richness of expression, and that it subsequently enriches the language.  He notes that in standard language, foregrounding brings to the fore ‘the essence of sentence meaning and the dynamic nature of sentence construction…the meaning of a sentence appears as the total of the gradually accumulated meanings of the individual words’.[9]  Poetry, on the other hand, can foreground the relationship between the individual words and the subject matter of the sentence, and the semantic interrelationships of the words in the sentence – every word affects every other.[10]

In sum, Mukařovský’s argument runs as follows.  There is a distinction between standard and poetic language, and standard language provides the background against which poetic language can be thrown into relief, whereas poetic language employs its own established canon as well as borrowing from standard language.  Foregrounding can occur in both standard and poetic language, but its function in literary texts is to highlight the expression itself, whereas in standard language foregrounding serves a communicative function.

Mukařovský’s ideas have since been adapted and revised.  The idea of a specifically literary language is no longer popular, and the precise way in which literary language functions has been more rigorously defined than it is in Mukařovský’s three-point scale.  It is also no longer fashionable to claim that literary texts do not communicate content, and that they exist purely as aesthetic objects; there is an element of truth in the claim that the function of foregrounding in literary texts is to highlight the expression, but we are perhaps less likely now to dismiss the idea that literary texts can communicate or that non-literary texts can have elements of literariness.  Finally, the claim that standard language acts as background for literary language has to be re-evaluated: instances of foregrounding can only confidently be identified within the confines of the given text, because the only standard that can be established is that of the text.  Any comparison to norms of language usage outside of the text will ultimately rest on subjective assumptions and inconclusive data.  This final point can, I think, be cited in support of the claim that ‘form’ must relate to the whole text: the text, not the language as a whole, is the background against which instances of foregrounding can be identified and from which they derive their meaning.

It should be noted that Mukařovský refers specifically to poetry in his paper, but according to Leech and Short, foregrounding can also act as an aid to clarifying the distinction between transparent and opaque prose writing.  The greater the number of foregrounded elements, the more opaque the text:

the aesthetic theory of foregrounding or de-automatization enables us to see the references to TRANSPARENT and OPAQUE qualities of prose style…as more than vague metaphors…prose is opaque in the sense that the medium attracts attention in its own right; and indeed, the interpretation of sense may be frustrated and obstructed by abnormalities in the use of the lexical and grammatical features of medium…opacity can be equated with the extent to which the reader is required to be creative.[11]

The distinction between transparent and opaque will not always be a clear one, however; in reality, it is likely that texts will occupy positions on a sliding scale.  Leech and Short begin their exploration of foregrounding and its implications by distinguishing between literary relevance (foregrounding), psychological prominence and statistical deviance.  Deviance is defined as a ‘purely statistical notion…the difference between the normal frequency of a feature, and its frequency in the text or corpus’.[12]  Psychological prominence refers to those features which register in the mind of the reader.[13]  Foregrounding is not the same thing as either prominence or deviation, because the foregrounded items must in some way be artistically relevant to other foregrounded items and finally to an interpretation of the text as a whole: ‘we should be able to see a prominent feature of style as forming a significant relationship with other features of style, in an artistically coherent pattern of choice’.[14]  A prominent feature may not have any literary function; prominence may be due to a writer’s preference for short sentences, or monosyllabic words, for example.  Therefore, ‘the dividing line between foregrounding and unmotivated prominence must be drawn in principle: where it is drawn in practice depends on a coherent literary interpretation of style’.[15]

Leech and Short also differentiate between qualitative foregrounding and quantitative foregrounding.  Qualitative foregrounding is to be found in deviation from the language code itself, when the writer breaches some rule or convention; quantitative foregrounding is the deviation from some expected frequency.  It should be noted here that an unusual or noticeable frequency does of course include examples of absence as well as presence: for instance, the absence of a rhyme in a line of poetry where there should have been one – thereby defeating reader expectancy – or the sudden shift away from a prominent pattern of parallel structures in a prose text.  Of course, one form of foregrounding will eventually shade into the other: ‘the quantitative foregrounding…of a prominent pattern of choices within the code shades into the qualitative foregrounding which changes the code itself’.[16]  Is the lack of finite verbs in the Peake passage discussed in the following section an example of qualitative or quantitative foregrounding?  It is more likely that it begins as one and ends as the other.  One expects to see finite verbs in prose text, after all, and their initial absence will undoubtedly strike the reader as odd; as the passage progresses, however, their absence becomes the norm, and any finite verb introduced at this stage will itself be foregrounded as deviant from the code already established by the writer.  I follow my discussion of the passage from Gormenghast with an exploration of a passage from a relatively more transparent text, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.

ii) Semantic Density in Gormenghast

It is clear from the opening lines of Gormenghast that the reader is dealing with a unique text.  It is a text that quickly establishes its own norms, and these norms can be briefly summarised as follows.  Extra levels of meaning are created through a concentration of parallel structures, as detailed in Appendix B.  Lexical items are linked through sound patterns, notably alliteration and pararhyme.  Peake regularly breaks grammatical rules; for example, his text contains examples of the omission of expected items, and the use of grammatical ellipsis or deletion creates a sequence of fragmented sentences, particularly in the opening paragraphs.  In addition, instances of nominalisation account in part for the noticeable lack of finite verbs.  At word level, content words are shifted out of their more usual function, or they are employed in a slightly unusual sense or in a sense that is tricky to place.  Also prominent is Peake’s idiosyncratic use of punctuation, the colon and semi-colon in particular.  And yet I would argue that almost all the above constitute instances of foregrounding, because there is little here that cannot be justified in thematic terms.  To alter the form of Peake’s text is to lose something of its content.

In the following analysis, I have examined each of the seven paragraphs in question individually.  Each paragraph is numbered and reproduced in full preceding its discussion for ease of reference, and the text in its entirety is reproduced in Appendix A.  As noted above, Appendix B is an attempt to represent visually the parallel structures within the text; Appendix C is the result of my attempt to paraphrase these opening paragraphs as part of an investigation into whether the form could be altered without affecting the content.  I would argue that the semantic density of this text renders futile any attempt at paraphrase.

Paragraph 1

(1) Titus is seven.  (2) His confines, Gormenghast.  (3) Suckled on shadows; weaned, as it were, on webs of ritual: for his ears, echoes, for his eyes, a labyrinth of stone: and yet within his body something other – other than this umbrageous legacy.  (4) For first and ever foremost he is child.[17]

This paragraph consists of four sentences numbered (1) to (4) above.  The first and second sentences contain three words, the third, 34, and the fourth, eight.  The opening and closing words of this paragraph are parallel in structure (proper noun/pronoun – copula verb is – adjective/enumerator):

Titus    is          seven               S V C     (subject –verb– subject complement)

he        is          child                S V C

The omission of a determiner in the final phrase (‘he is child’, not ‘he is a child’) has a twofold effect.  The parallelism thus created between this phrase and the phrase which opens the novel – ‘Titus is seven’ – links the two statements in the mind of the reader, thereby reaffirming Titus’ status as a child.  The word ‘child’, which usually functions as a noun, arguably functions here as an adjective, as does the enumerator, the cardinal number ‘seven’, the effect of which is that the word ‘child’, italicized in Peake’s text for emphasis, describes Titus rather than simply telling the reader what he is, almost as if Titus is an embodiment of, or is representative of, every child in the world – an effect which becomes significant later in the extract.  It is Titus’ status as child which forms the basis of his rebellion against the oppressive atmosphere of the castle.  Peake’s use of parallel structures foregrounds this important information for the reader.

The first sentence also forms a parallel with the second, in that both consist of just three words.  The second sentence is elliptical: ‘His confines, Gormenghast.’  The second word ‘confines’ could be interpreted in either an abstract or a concrete sense, depending upon whether the confines referred to are the actual stone boundaries of the castle or alternatively the restrictions and limitations in Titus’ mind, in that Gormenghast is all he knows or all that he can conceive of.  However, the third sentence would appear to reinforce the abstract interpretation of ‘confines’ in its description of Titus’ upbringing and the way in which he interacts with and accesses the world available to him through his physical senses.

Peake’s rich prose does not lend itself easily to paraphrase, not only because several differing but equally valid interpretations of a sentence or phrase are occasionally possible, but also because any paraphrase is likely to lose the ‘poetic’ qualities of the original text, finishing as merely a pale reproduction.  I have noted in Appendix B the many parallel structures which contribute to the rhythm of Peake’s text, and in Paragraph 1, as in the other paragraphs under analysis, there are many subtle phonological effects which one would also not wish to lose.  Note the alliteration in ‘Suckled on shadows; weaned, as it were, on webs of ritual’, and the echo in ‘for his ears, echoes, for his eyes…’.  The italicized phrases echo each other, and the meaning of the text is thereby reinforced in its form.  The word ‘other’ occurs twice, providing another echo in the passage, and the sound pattern of the word ‘for’ is repeated in the final phrase ‘For first and ever foremost he is child’.[18]

In writing my very literal paraphrase of this opening paragraph, I noticed that many deep structure verbs had been suppressed in their surface structure manifestations.  The only verbs remaining are the copula ‘is’ – which, in its insistence on Titus’ state of being, perhaps serves to foreshadow Titus’ rebellion – and ‘suckled’, ‘weaned’, both of which place Titus in the role of beneficiary instead of agent.  Titus is not allowed to be active: he does not hear the echoes or see the maze of stone – they are provided by the castle for his ears and eyes.[19]  Titus is, but he does not act.

Paragraph 2

(1) A ritual, more compelling than ever man devised, is fighting anchored darkness.  (2) A ritual of the blood; of the jumping blood.  (3) These quicks of sentience owe nothing to his forbears, but to those feckless hosts, a trillion deep, of the globe’s childhood.

Sentence (1) consists of twelve words, and a subordinate clause is embedded within the main clause: ‘more compelling than ever man devised’.  This clause informs the reader that the ritual referred to in this paragraph is not, or is unlikely to be, one of the rituals observed at Gormenghast, all of which have been devised by Titus’ ancestors.  The present continuous verb form ‘is fighting’ locates the passage firmly in the immediate present; a battle is at this moment raging against the enemy, the ‘anchored darkness’.[20]  This enemy is fixed and immovable, ‘anchored’ in the liquid of Titus’ blood, which by contrast moves and jumps.

The nine words of the fragmented second sentence tell us that this ritual is ‘of the blood’; this phrase is paralleled in the words following the semi-colon, ‘of the jumping blood’.  The parallelism takes the form of the repetition and embellishment of a noun phrase; this repeated phrase ‘of the blood’, therefore, is the pulse of the sentence, and the adjectival participle ‘jumping’ represents one of the ‘quicks of sentience’ mentioned in (3).  This effect is reinforced by the rhythmical stress of the phrases:

of the blood

⁄              ⁄

of the jumping blood

where the regular heavy stress on ‘blood’ is interrupted by an additional stress on the first syllable of ‘jumping’.

The third sentence in Paragraph 2 is once again the longest, consisting as it does of 21 words, a coordinating construction (‘but to’) and a subordinate clause.  There are some difficult words here: ‘quick’ is not listed as a noun,[21] but in Peake’s text its function is clearly that of a collective noun.  I have assumed that Peake meant the reader to understand the ‘quicks of sentience’ as referring to the jumps in Titus’ blood mentioned in the previous sentence, if one is to assume that Peake has followed the rules, or guidelines, for the construction of a coherent text – namely, that the subject should not be randomly altered without giving the reader some indication of the change.  My assumption is reinforced by the use of the determiner ‘these’ as an anaphoric reference: ‘these quicks of sentience’ refers back to ‘the jumping blood’ of the previous sentence.  I have paraphrased ‘quicks of sentience’ as ‘flashes of self-knowledge’, to indicate Titus’ growing awareness of himself as a child, rather than as the Earl of Gormenghast.  By contrast, the word ‘feckless’ (‘feeble, futile, ineffective, aimless, irresponsible’[22]) seems to undermine the force of these ‘quicks’.  The hosts are ‘irresponsible’ because in encouraging Titus to rebel, they are working against the castle.[23]  Alternatively, the hosts are ‘feeble’ because Titus is as yet immature – or there is always the possibility that we are meant to understand both senses.  Another tricky word to place is ‘hosts’; but the phrase ‘a trillion deep’ would seem to suggest that ‘hosts’ should be interpreted in the sense of a large multitude.

Paragraph 3

(1) The gift of the bright blood.  (2) Of blood that laughs when the tenets mutter ‘Weep’.  (3) Of blood that mourns when the sere laws croak ‘Rejoice!’  (4 ) O little revolution in great shades!

In common with the preceding paragraphs, this paragraph consists of a series of fragmented sentences.  It ends with an exclamative, and is perhaps the most ‘poetic’ of the paragraphs to be analysed.  The second and third sentences in particular are poetic in that they are almost a mirror image of each other in their structure: Of blood that – verb phrase – when the – noun phrase – speech verb – imperative in direct speech.  This whole paragraph presents the reader with six verbs in four lines, a relatively dense concentration of verbs, presented as forms of opposites and contrasts (laugh/mourn; weep/rejoice).  This sudden proliferation of action verbs may be emblematic of Titus’ growing state of defiance: the imperatives issued by the laws and tenets are disregarded and mocked by the rebellion in Titus’ blood.[24]  Titus’ rebellion – referred to as a ‘revolution’ in (4) – is still ‘little’, opposed as it is to the ‘great shades’.  And how are we to understand ‘shades’?  Is Peake referring to the shadowy corners of Gormenghast castle, or to the ghosts of Titus’ numerous ancestors – or both?  And are we to understand ‘revolution’ as a rebellion, a change in the state of affairs, or as directionless turning in a circle?  For Titus cannot escape Gormenghast – having left its boundaries, he is later compelled to return – albeit briefly – at the end of the trilogy.  As the Countess prophesies at the end of the second novel, shortly before Titus leaves the castle: ‘You will only tread a circle, Titus Groan.  There’s not a road, not a track, but it will lead you home.  For everything comes to Gormenghast.’[25]

Paragraph 4

(1) Titus the seventy-seventh.  (2) Heir to a crumbling summit: to a sea of nettles: to an empire of red rust: to rituals’ footprints ankle-deep in stone.

This paragraph consists of only two sentences and the structure here is very similar to that of the first paragraph in that both begin with the proper noun ‘Titus’.  The first paragraph told us Titus’ age, but now we are given his title: ‘the seventy-seventh’.  Leaving aside the obvious parallelism in the chosen enumerators (seven: seventy-seventh), the emphasis switches from Titus’ status as a child to his status as the Earl of Gormenghast.  The focus of the text has likewise shifted away from Titus’ growing feelings of rebellion, and moved toward the castle itself – that which Titus has inherited from his ancestors, as opposed to that which he has been given by the other children of the world.  The whole phrase forming the first fragmented sentence serves as a proper noun: it is an example of ellipsis – the phrase in its entirety should read ‘Titus is the seventy-seventh Earl of Gormenghast’.  The phrase reinforces Titus’ role as Earl, immediately following two paragraphs which describe his rebellion as child.  Titus is seven years old – but he is also the seventy-seventh Earl of Gormenghast.

There is a strongly marked parallelism in the second sentence:

Heir     to a…

to a…

to an…

to rituals’ footprints

The images which follow in each of the succeeding phrases are those of decay and things overgrown.  The image of the sea (‘a sea of nettles’[26]) is recalled when the reader reaches the word ‘footprints’ a little later, but the footprints are not those in sand which are quickly erased by the sea – these footprints are ‘ankle-deep in stone’.  The rituals have left their mark indelibly on the castle.

This fourth paragraph is followed by the single word ‘Gormenghast’, the proper noun forming a paragraph all on its own.  In this short extract, then, three paragraphs have begun with proper nouns, as follows:

Titus (is seven)

Titus the seventy-seventh


The parallel structure exemplifies the power-hierarchy.  Titus the seven-year old child is subject to Titus the seventy-seventh Earl of Gormenghast, and even the Earl himself is subject to the timeless power of the castle.  The structure demonstrates where the power lies – with Gormenghast, a force so powerful that it is granted a paragraph all to itself.

Paragraph 6

(1) Withdrawn and ruinous it broods in umbra: the immemorial masonry: the towers, the tracts.  (2) Is all corroding?  (3) No.  (4) Through an avenue of spires a zephyr floats; a bird whistles; a freshet bears away from a choked river.  (5) Deep in a fist of stone a doll’s hand wriggles, warm rebellious on the frozen palm.  (6) A shadow shifts its length.  (7) A spider stirs…

This is the longest paragraph of the opening passage, consisting of seven sentences.  The focus is still on the castle.  The first sentence contains a combination of animistic and humanizing metaphors[27] to personify the castle, which is given a sulky and faintly malevolent personality (withdrawn/broods).  The internal parallelism of (1) after the first colon is reinforced by the repeated ms in ‘umbra’ and ‘immemorial masonry’ and the (almost!) pararhyme in ‘towers’ and ‘tracts’.  The answer to the question posed in (2) is seemingly anomalous because the question – ‘Is all corroding?’ – is ostensibly about the castle, but the answer is concerned with forces of nature (zephyr/bird/freshet) unconnected with the castle – until, that is, the reader comes to Titus once again, wriggling his ‘doll’s hand’ within the ‘fist of stone’.  The question and answer imply the presence of a narrator and a narratee; Gormenghast itself is undoubtedly one of the characters of the trilogy, perhaps the most interesting character of them all.  Peake’s narrative voice is often situated within the consciousness of one of the characters, and more often than not the narration is given from the castle’s point of view.  Manlove comments that ‘Gormenghast, considered both as place and society, is the most important character’.[28]  In considering this short extract alone, it is interesting to note that the number of fragmented sentences rapidly diminishes once the subject turns from Titus to the castle.  The castle is complete – hence the full sentences – but the immature Titus is not.  Peake’s syntax is in this respect iconic.

The themes of rebellion and escape are quickly picked up again after the interrogative of (2), and here we find a succession of action verbs: ‘floats’, ‘whistles’, ‘bears away from’.  The wind, the birds and the streams do not answer to Gormenghast: they are not subject to the castle’s influence, unlike Titus, whom we meet again in (5).  He is no longer Titus the seventy-seventh; he is no longer even a person, but a wriggling ‘doll’s hand’, tiny and ineffectual against the ‘fist of stone’, the larger hand which holds him fast.  But he is active – he ‘wriggles’ – and he is ‘warm’ and ‘rebellious’ where the castle is ‘frozen’.  But the castle is clearly not going to give in without a fight; (6) once again reinforces the images of stagnation and inactivity within the castle grounds: ‘A shadow shifts its length.’  The length of the shadow changes because time is passing – the shadows grow as the day wears on and the sun moves through the sky; what appears to be a verb of movement here (‘shifts’) actually is not at all – it is the sun that moves, not the shadow, nor whatever it is that is casting the shadow.  Finally, the paragraph ends with a verb of movement after all – the spider ‘stirs’ – but with the image of the spider comes the association of cobwebs and dust.  By the end of this paragraph it seems that the two adversaries are evenly matched.  Titus is diminished in physical stature and located deep at the heart of the castle, but his eventual rebellion has been clearly marked in the text; Gormenghast is immeasurably huge, an inexorable power, but the freshet made its escape from the ‘choked river’, just as Titus will make his escape from the vast decaying mass of the castle.  The final word is perhaps reserved for the castle: ‘And darkness winds between the characters.’  How is one to paraphrase this?  Leech and Short suggest that ‘characters’ could refer to the characters of the text – the letters of the alphabet.[29]  But for the moment it would seem that the castle continues to exert its power over its occupants.

At the end of the opening passage, the reader has been introduced to the two adversaries: the enormous sprawling environs of the castle, with its weighty phrases and lexical items concerning stone and shadows, and the child Titus, with his action verbs and his tiny wriggle of rebellion.  Peake foregrounds the theme of rebellion by a number of means.  In the very first paragraph the omission of an expected article emphasises Titus’ childlike status and subsequent phrases relating to Titus’ various roles are placed in a series of parallel structures emblematic of the power hierarchy.  At this stage, the power lies with the castle.  Gormenghast is described in prepositional phrases separated by colons and semi-colons which give each phrase the weight of a sentence: ‘to a crumbling summit: to a sea of nettles: to an empire of red rust’.  The effect of this is to reinforce the castle’s immense physical weight and its heavy influence on the lives of the inhabitants.  Titus’ immature status is embodied in the elliptical sentence structure associated with him but there is a sense of growing rebellion in the description of his ‘jumping blood’; here the form arguably enacts the content.  Peake’s use of foregrounding therefore clearly signposts Titus’ eventual rebellion at word, sentence and discourse levels.

iii)     Foregrounding in Wuthering Heights

The opacity of the opening passage of Gormenghast requires the reader to actively construct meanings.  I turn now to a comparatively transparent text, Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.  I hope to demonstrate that foregrounded items in this text also require the reader to be an active participant rather than a passive recipient.  In the following analysis I have focused on anaphoric reference and parallel constructions, the impersonal pronoun coupled with the use of body parts as actor, and finally the use of parenthetical constructions.

The passage from Wuthering Heights I have chosen to explore is volume one, chapter three,[30] in which Lockwood passes the time before falling asleep reading the words Cathy has written; first those carved into the couch itself, which take the form of her given name followed by the three surnames she imagined herself to possess, and second, the words she has scrawled into the margins of those books which constitute her library.[31]  These words recount the events of an ‘awful Sunday’ (p. 20), in which Cathy and Heathcliff are compelled to listen to Joseph’s three-hour homily.

Lockwood’s first dream is a re-enactment of Cathy’s ‘awful Sunday’, in which Joseph is confused with the preacher Jabes Branderham and Lockwood himself takes the place of the child Cathy, forced to listen to a sermon consisting of ‘four hundred and ninety parts’ (p. 23).  At the commencement of the dream, Joseph and Lockwood are likened to pilgrims: Joseph carries a ‘cudgel’ which he refers to as a ‘pilgrim’s staff’ (p. 23), and he admonishes Lockwood for not having one.  In parallel constructions separated by a semi-colon (pronoun + auxiliary verb + main verb), Brontë changes the main verb from ‘going’ to ‘journeying’:

I was not         going there;

we were           journeying to hear…  (p. 23)

Joseph, described as Lockwood’s ‘guide’ (p. 23), was initially supposed to be showing him the way home, but Lockwood is now a pilgrim on a journey.  In the paragraph which follows, the pilgrims become potentially condemned men: ‘either Joseph, the preacher, or I…were to be publicly exposed and excommunicated’ (p. 23).  These events are reminiscent of the children’s admonition at the hands – or tongue – of Joseph, and his assertion that ‘owd Nick’ (p. 22) would come to fetch them.  Joseph’s three-hour homily is magnified in Lockwood’s dream to a sermon of prodigious length, each part of which deals with ‘odd transgressions’ (p. 23) or sins of which Lockwood was unaware; perhaps this reflects Cathy’s mystification at Joseph’s anger with the children for making themselves ‘snug…in the arch of the dresser’ (p. 21).

The Lockwood-Cathy/Jabes-Joseph confusion is made clear to the reader in the following section of Lockwood’s narrative:

Oh, how weary I grew.  How I writhed, and yawned, and nodded, and revived!  How I pinched and pricked myself, and rubbed my eyes, and stood up, and sat down again, and nudged Joseph to inform me if he would ever have done!  (p. 23)

The pronoun ‘he’ could be understood to refer to either Jabes or Joseph himself, the previous reference to Jabes being sufficiently distant from this passage to render it possible that it is Joseph to whom Lockwood refers.  Halliday and Hasan note that ‘where the cohesive element is something like he or one, which coheres by direct reference to, or substitution for, another item, the presupposed element is typically a specific item in the immediately preceding sentence.’[32]  It is significant, I think, that the last reference to ‘he’ which refers directly to Jabes Branderham is four sentences distant from the ‘he’ of Lockwood’s complaint; ‘Jabes’ appears five sentences distant.  It is plausible, therefore, that Joseph and Jabes could be confused in that ambiguous pronoun, and that this effect is intentional on the author’s part.  Joseph has taken the place of the preacher, and Lockwood, his head still full of Cathy’s words, has taken the place of the recalcitrant child.  The parallel constructions

how weary I grew

How I…-ed, and…-ed, and…-ed, and …ed!

How I…-ed and …-ed…and…-ed…

and stood [verb –ed] …,

and sat [verb –ed]…,

and…!  (p. 23)

mimic the fidgeting and complaining of a child.[33]  These constructions – the use of ‘how’ to indicate the extent of an emotion or action and the use of ‘and’ as a conjunction to bind together a string of verbs, coupled with the use of exclamation marks to emphasise strong emotion and to provide the reader with an indication of the tone in which the text is designed to be read – are strongly reminiscent of Cathy’s written style in her makeshift journal:

How little did I dream that Hindley would ever make me cry so!…

Poor Heathcliff!

Hindley…       won’t let him sit with us,

nor eat with us any more;

and, he says,

he and I must not play together,

and threatens to turn him out of the house…  (p. 22)

Lockwood’s complaint, as Branderham is about to embark on the ‘First of the Seventy First’ (p. 24), is the accusation of a child, that of being bored by an adult who has forced the child to sit still and listen, as Cathy is forced to groan and shiver her way through Joseph’s homily.  Jabes Branderham responds with the complaint that Lockwood ‘didst…gapingly contort thy visage’ (p. 24) – an adult’s complaint that a child has been pulling faces, or yawning, instead of paying attention.  Once again, the reader is given the impression that Lockwood has changed places with Cathy, and Joseph with Jabes Branderham.

Lockwood falls asleep for a second time, only to dream that he is visited by Cathy’s child-ghost, a visitor he refuses to acknowledge as human; this refusal is made evident in his use of the impersonal pronoun to refer to the figure at the window, and his repeated use of body parts as actor in material processes.

The poor light obliges Lockwood to rely on his other senses.  The child’s face is distinguished only ‘obscurely’ (p. 25), and the focus throughout this second dream is on that which Lockwood can feel and hear.  Lockwood uses the impersonal pronoun ‘it’ to refer to Cathy’s voice, ‘ “Catherine Linton,” it [‘a most melancholy voice’] replied shiveringly’, her wrist, ‘I pulled its wrist on to the broken pane, and rubbed it to and fro’, the creature, ‘still it wailed’, and Cathy’s hand, or the grip of her hand, ‘and maintained its tenacious gripe’ (p. 25).  Not once does Lockwood refer to ‘she’, or ‘her’, or even ‘the child’.  Cathy is an amalgamation of disassembled face, hand, wrist, fingers, and voice; she is kept distant from the world of the living by Lockwood’s refusal to acknowledge her as anything other than a ‘creature’, and this effect is compounded when coupled with Lockwood’s use of elegant variation to describe Cathy once Heathcliff appears on the scene.  Cathy is, in turn, ‘the little fiend’, ‘that minx’, ‘a changeling’ and a ‘wicked little soul’ (p. 27); she is also linked with the witches of Macbeth in Lockwood’s later reference to the ‘brindled’ cat ‘Grimalkin’ (p. 29).  In Lockwood’s eyes she is a malevolent sprite, in spite of Cathy’s description of herself as a ‘waif’, homeless and helpless, and lost on the moors.

To recap, then: a calculated use of foregrounded anaphoric reference is in evidence once again, but the intention this time is not to confuse the characters in the reader’s mind, but to place as much distance as possible between the disturbed sleeper and the wanderer on the moors.  Lockwood’s persistent use of the impersonal pronoun it to refer to Cathy’s ghost, or parts of her ghostly body, has the double effect of distancing the ghost from the human beings – Lockwood and the reader – and of underlining Lockwood’s callousness towards a child in obvious distress, a female child who has lost her way on the moors, and on a cold and wintry night, at that.[34]

Parenthetical constructions[35] are very much in evidence in both dream-sequences, and their role in each is to remind the reader that Lockwood is simply recounting his nightmares, and that the events described have not actually taken place in the fictional ‘waking’ world.  In his dream of Joseph and the preacher there are two such constructions, the second comprising two lengthy sentences (106 words in total). The first of these interruptions to Lockwood’s narrative is as follows:

Alas, for the effects of bad tea and bad temper! what else could it be that made me pass such a terrible night?  I don’t remember another that I can at all compare with it since I was capable of suffering.

I began to dream…  (p. 22)

The reader is notified, therefore, that the events to follow are imaginary.  The second interruption is the longest, consisting as it does of a description of the chapel: ‘I have passed it really in my walks…’; the adverb ‘really’ is also intended to act as an indication to the reader that Lockwood’s walks are part of the ‘real’ world, whereas the particular journey he is currently relating is not.  This description comes to an end with the words ‘one penny from their own pockets’ (p. 23).  Although the digression is long, Lockwood’s words do not destroy the gloomy mood of the passage, referring as he does to the ‘embalming on the few corpses’ lying in the swamp.  The parenthesis is brought to an end when Lockwood brings us back to his narrative with the words, ‘However, in my dream,’ (p. 23) and the narrative continues until finally he is woken by the fir-tree’s taps on the window.  In his dream of Cathy’s child-ghost, the reader is kept conscious of the fact that Lockwood is dreaming by the scattering of parenthetical phrases such as ‘This time’, ‘I thought’, ‘when awake’, ‘the intense horror of nightmare came over me’, and, most tellingly of all, ‘why did I think of Linton?  I had read Earnshaw twenty times for Linton’, until finally we come to ‘I discovered the yell was not ideal’ (pp. 25-26).  Brontë, through these parenthetical constructions, has gone to some trouble to distinguish between Lockwood’s dream-world and the ‘real’ world of Wuthering Heights, and the reader is discouraged from confusing the two during Lockwood’s narration of his nightmares.  However, it is a different state of affairs once Lockwood is awake, and the effect is rendered more startling by these earlier attempts to convince the reader of the fictional nature of his dreams.  Heathcliff, of course, is beside himself with anguish, believing as he does that Cathy’s ghost has returned.  Lockwood, too, seems to be convinced that his dream was real.  He tells Heathcliff that the room is ‘swarming with ghosts and goblins’, and in reference to Cathy’s ghost he asserts that ‘If the little fiend had got in at the window, she probably would have strangled me!’ (p. 27).  In addition, let us not forget that the ghost identified herself as Catherine Linton – a fact already remarked upon by Lockwood.  After all, Cathy did not become Catherine Linton until she married Edgar, but Cathy’s child-ghost clings to the name she bore when she died.  As Catherine Linton, she is denied both the Heights and Heathcliff’s presence.

By first convincing the reader that Lockwood’s narrative is really only a dream, and then confounding the issue by having the characters behaving as if the aforementioned events had really taken place after all, coupled with the anomaly of the ghost’s name, Brontë leaves the reader in some doubt as to whether Cathy’s ghost did or did not come that night.  In any case, the effect on Heathcliff is that which is important.  John Hagan has commented as follows on this passage:

when Lockwood arrives at Wuthering Heights and dreams of Catherine’s ghost at the window, all of Heathcliff’s anguished yearning is revived….  Heathcliff is convinced that his visitor has really seen the spectre he himself had hoped to see for all those eighteen years.  Most significantly, it is on precisely this delusion that Emily Brontë arranges for the dénouement of the novel to hinge, for from this point onward Heathcliff can think of nothing but joining Catherine in death.[36]

It is certainly arguable that Heathcliff loses all lust for revenge once he hears Lockwood’s tale of ghosts and goblins.

Lockwood’s dream of Cathy’s child-ghost is one of several episodes in the novel in which Brontë balances the supernatural with the plausible.  We cannot know for sure whether or not Cathy’s ghost did come to seek Heathcliff that night, nor can we be sure that the ghosts of Heathcliff and Cathy do not ‘walk’ at the end of the novel, despite the assertions of Lockwood and Nelly Dean to the contrary.  Does Heathcliff really see Cathy herself shortly before his death, or is her appearance simply an hallucination, an effect of his self-imposed fast?

To sum up: foregrounded anaphoric reference indicates that the participants in Lockwood’s first dream have changed places; certainly the Joseph-Jabes switch is made evident, and thus the Lockwood-Cathy switch can be inferred.  The anaphoric ‘he’ is foregrounded because the reader will be forced to consider who ‘he’ is.  McHale notes that a character, unlike the narrator, is not subject to the cohesive rules of the text and does not have to supply a referent.[37]  It is unclear whether Lockwood is referring to Joseph or Jabes, but I have argued that this is not a failure on Brontë’s part but rather an intentional poetic effect allowing the switch between the characters to take place.  The resulting confusion of Lockwood with Cathy explains how Cathy and not Lockwood comes to be accused of adultery.  The foregrounded parenthetical constructions which represent Lockwood’s intrusions into his own dream narrative support the carefully constructed fabric of the supernatural versus the plausible which is woven throughout Brontë’s novel – a fabric which allows the more romantically inclined reader to believe that Cathy and Heathcliff do indeed walk the moors together once Heathcliff has joined Cathy in the quiet grave.

iv) Conclusions

In this chapter, we have seen many instances of foregrounding, both qualitative and quantitative: Peake’s text in particular abounds in broken rules and unusual constructions which amount to examples of qualitative foregrounding, or breaches of the language code itself.  The parallel constructions that constitute quantitative foregrounding, or deviation from an expected frequency, in Gormenghast contribute to the semantic density of the text: new meanings are created as the reader is required to interpret the links forged between the connected items.

We have also seen examples of prominence – sound patterns and parenthetical constructions – which are noticeable to the reader, but which lack thematic significance and therefore do not constitute an instance of foregrounding.  We see how a collaboration between linguist and critic could prove useful: a linguistic description of a text can reveal what rules have been broken or what is unusual about a particular utterance; the critic can then use this information in the formulation of a coherent interpretation of a literary text, because it is only those examples of deviation and prominence that show thematic significance which can accurately be described as foregrounding.  The theme of rebellion in Gormenghast is marked in foregrounded items such as parallel structures and elliptical sentences.  Brontë’s calculated use of anaphoric reference is important thematically because the character-switch between Lockwood and Cathy must be effected so that Cathy, and not Lockwood, can be seen to be charged with adultery: this point will be explored in more detail in chapter four.

Needless to say, foregrounding is lost in paraphrase, as I discovered in my attempt to paraphrase the opening paragraphs of Gormenghast.  Foregrounding is not just textual decoration that can be discarded: foregrounded items support, reinforce, or even introduce the ideas or themes of a text, and as such constitute a vital component of content.  To disregard foregrounded items, to exclude them from a paraphrase, to change the form in this way, necessarily entails a loss, or a change of content.



Appendix A

Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast (1): Extract[1]

(1)        Titus is seven.  His confines, Gormenghast.  Suckled on shadows; weaned, as it were, on webs of ritual: for his ears, echoes, for his eyes, a labyrinth of stone: and yet within his body something other – other than this umbrageous legacy.  For first and ever foremost he is child.

(2)        A ritual, more compelling than ever man devised, is fighting anchored darkness.  A ritual of the blood; of the jumping blood.  These quicks of sentience owe nothing to his forbears, but to those feckless hosts, a trillion deep, of the globe’s childhood.

(3)        The gift of the bright blood.  Of blood that laughs when the tenets mutter ‘Weep’.  Of blood that mourns when the sere laws croak ‘Rejoice!’  O little revolution in great shades!

(4)        Titus the seventy-seventh.  Heir to a crumbling summit: to a sea of nettles: to an empire of red rust: to rituals’ footprints ankle-deep in stone.

(5)        Gormenghast.

(6)        Withdrawn and ruinous it broods in umbra: the immemorial masonry: the towers, the tracts.  Is all corroding?  No.  Through an avenue of spires a zephyr floats; a bird whistles; a freshet bears away from a choked river.  Deep in a fist of stone a doll’s hand wriggles, warm rebellious on the frozen palm.  A shadow shifts its length.  A spider stirs…

(7)        And darkness winds between the characters.

Appendix B                  

Gormenghast (2): Figure showing parallel constructions in extract (1)

Titus is seven.

His confines, Gormenghast.

Suckled                       on shadows;

weaned, as it were,     on webs of ritual:

for his ears,                  echoes,

for his eyes,                 a labyrinth of stone:

and yet within his body something     other –

other than this umbrageous legacy.

For first and ever foremost

he is child.


A ritual, more compelling than ever man devised, is fighting anchored darkness.

A ritual            of the blood;

of the jumping blood.

These quicks    of sentience owe nothing        to his forbears,

but         to those feckless hosts, a trillion deep,

of the globe’s childhood.


The gift           of the bright blood.

Of blood         that laughs       when the tenets           mutter ‘Weep’.

Of blood         that mourns     when the sere laws      croak ‘Rejoice!’

O little revolution in great shades!


Titus the seventy-seventh.

Heir     to a crumbling summit:

to a sea of nettles:

to an empire of red rust:

to rituals’ footprints ankle-deep in stone.




Withdrawn and ruinous it broods in umbra:

the immemorial masonry:

the towers,

the tracts.

Is all corroding?


Through an avenue of spires   a zephyr floats;

a bird whistles;

a freshet bears away from a choked river.

Deep in a fist of stone             a doll’s hand wriggles,

warm rebellious on the frozen palm.

A shadow shifts its length.

A spider stirs…


And darkness winds between the characters.


Appendix C                           

Gormenghast (3): Paraphrase of extract (1)

Titus is seven years old.  He lives in the castle of Gormenghast, which is both his territory and his prison.  He has been reared within the castle, nourished and nurtured on its shadows and traditions.  He hears echoes and he sees an endless maze of stone.  But inside him there exists something alien, something else, something that is not the shadowy castle with its many rituals that he has inherited.  Because the most important thing about Titus is that he is a child.

This ‘something else’ growing inside Titus is a ritual, but it is not like any of the rituals that are observed in Gormenghast; it has more appeal, more power than these man-made rituals.  Within Titus there rages a battle between the rituals of Gormenghast and the more commonplace rituals of childhood.  The rebellion is situated in Titus’ blood, which pulses with life.  These flashes of self-knowledge have not been inherited from his ancestors, but they have originated in the multitude of children all over the world.

The rebellion in Titus’ blood is a gift from the world’s children.  This blood laughs when doctrine and tradition demand that it weep, and this blood mourns when the ancient laws command it to rejoice.   A small show of defiance in the boundless shadow of Gormenghast’s history and tradition!

Titus is the seventy-seventh Earl of Gormenghast.  He will inherit a castle whose uppermost towers are gradually disintegrating: whose grounds are overgrown with weeds; he will inherit a domain of rusting metal: a domain in which the rituals must be observed.  These rituals are imprinted upon the very stones of the castle.


The castle sits in shadow, decaying and isolated: the masonry ancient beyond memory or record, the towers, the vast regions within its boundaries.  Is everything corroding?  No.  A breeze floats through the many spires of the castle; a bird whistles; a fresh-water stream flows away from a choked river.  Inside the stones of the castle Titus’ tiny hand wriggles; it is warm and rebellious against the cold stones of the castle.  The day draws on and the shadows lengthen.  A spider stirs…

And darkness winds between the inhabitants of the castle.

[1] M. Peake, Gormenghast (1950) in The Gormenghast Novels (1995), p. 399.  Paragraphs are numbered for ease of reference.

[1] J. Mukařovský, ‘Standard Language and Poetic Language’ (1958), Linguistics and Literary Style (1970), D. C. Freeman (editor), pp. 40-56.

[2] Ibid., p. 42.

[3] Bernard Bloch is frequently quoted in relation to this issue, because Bloch asserts that the style of a particular text can be defined as ‘the message carried by the frequency distributions and transitional probabilities of its linguistic features, especially as they differ from those of the same features in the language as a whole’ (quoted in G. Leech and M. Short, Style in Fiction (1981), p. 43).  Leech and Short point out that it is indeed possible to make some fairly reliable statements about the properties of language, but that the norm of ‘the language as a whole’ is not so easily identified as Bloch seems to imagine, and that ‘without some clearcut notion…of what is meant by “the language as a whole”, any sampling procedure is bound to involve subjective decisions’ (p. 45).

[4] In corpus-based analysis, for example.

[5] R. Posner, ‘The Use and Abuse of Stylistic Statistics’, Archivum Linguisticum (1963), p. 126.

[6] Maurice Gross makes some interesting observations on the failure of generative grammar to produce a workable grammar of the English language some twenty years after its initial inception; Gross suggests that generative grammar could have provided this description of the language as a whole that is currently lacking.  He proposes various reasons for this failure, among them the fact that no room has been made for diachronic discussion, and that linguistic theory has been privileged over accumulation of data.  M. Gross, ‘On the Failure of Generative Grammar’, Language (1979).

[7] J. Mukařovský, ‘Standard Language and Poetic Language’ (1958), Linguistics and Literary Style (1970), D. C. Freeman (editor), pp. 43-44.  Mukařovský takes the position that poetic foregrounding cannot create new means of communication; in the case of poetic neologisms, for example, their aesthetic function is endangered if they are created with communication in mind.  Mukařovský’s argument here takes in some of the unwanted extremes of monism, but there is in his words the germ of the idea that literary language functions differently.

[8] The existence of an ‘aesthetic canon’ can be supported by reference to the fact that certain words and phrases are marked in the dictionary as belonging to a specifically literary register.  The following notes can be found on page xxxi of the eighth edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary: ‘9.3.6  literary indicates a word or use that is found chiefly in literature.  9.3.7  poet. ( = poetic) indicates uses confined to poetry or other contexts with romantic connotations.’

[9] J. Mukařovský, ‘Standard Language and Poetic Language’ (1958), Linguistics and Literary Style (1970), D. C. Freeman (editor), p. 55.

[10] Alex Rodgers’ excellent and very thorough essay on W. H. Auden’s poem ‘O Where Are You Going?’ constitutes an illuminating discussion on how this very process works: in working out the links between the words reader, rider, fearer, farer, horror and hearer – words that are placed in similar positions syntactically and which are also linked through phonological resemblance – the reader eventually arrives at a much deeper understanding of what is at first glance a strange and forbidding poem.  A. Rodgers, ‘ “O Where Are You Going?”: A Suggested Experiment in Classroom Stylistics’, Language and Literature: An Introductory Reader in Stylistics (1982), R. Carter (editor), pp. 123-161.

[11] G. Leech and M. Short, Style in Fiction (1981), p. 29.  See also introduction, p. 16, footnote 60.

[12] G. Leech and M. Short, Style in Fiction (1981), p. 48.  The problem with this definition, of course, is the difficulty in establishing the ‘normal frequency of a feature’.

[13] This notion is inextricably linked to literary competence, and is different for every reader, depending on previous training, experience, and so on.  See also chapter four of this thesis.

[14] G. Leech and M. Short, Style in Fiction (1981), p. 50.

[15] Ibid.  It will have been noticed that Leech and Short include the reader in their discussion of foregrounding, which Mukařovský does not.

[16] Ibid., p. 139.

[17] M. Peake, Gormenghast (1950) in The Gormenghast Novels (1995), p. 399.  Subsequent references to this work are taken from the same page unless otherwise indicated.

[18] The characters in bold are an instance of pararhyme (CVC), another of Peake’s sound patterns.  (CVC: where C = consonant and V = vowel; the characters in bold are those on which the rhyme is founded.)  However, the phrase in question here is very common in English.  M. Short warns the student of literature against the dangers of ‘over-milking’ the significance of phonetic patterns.  He notes on p. 116 of Exploring the Language of Poems, Plays and Prose (1996) that ‘because English only has approximately 45 phonemes, there are bound to be a fair number of accidental alliterative and assonantal patterns in any text as a consequence of the chance distribution of sounds in groups of words.  So we should not assume that all sound patterns will be significant in terms of interpretation.’

[19] Gunther Kress distinguishes between transactive and nontransactive structures as follows: ‘events either appear in a transactive form…that is, portrayed as either arising directly as the result of some agent’s action and with a direct effect on a goal (where both agent and goal may be either animate or inanimate), or in a nontransactive form, arising without such action, that is, as either a self-caused action or an action that happens in some unspecified way.’  Clearly, the reader is presented here with the nontransactive form, the portrayal of events in the passive voice.  G. Kress, ‘Ideological Structures in Discourse’, Vol. 4: Handbook of Discourse Analysis, Discourse Analysis in Society (1985), p. 34.

[20] Peake’s use of the present tense for the opening paragraphs of his novel lends the text a sense of immediacy; however, in the wider context of the novel, the use of the present tense also suggests and reinforces the idea of time standing still.  Manlove notes that frequently within the structure of the novel’s storyline ‘time seems to be going both backwards and forwards, and the net effect is that the temporal sequence appears frozen’.  C. N. Manlove, Modern Fantasy: Five Studies (1975), p. 226.  Past, present and future are all one and the same.  Change is the enemy of Gormenghast; changes take place over time; time does not move within the castle.  As noted elsewhere in this thesis, tense should not always be taken as an indicator of chronological time.  Ronald Carter has written that ‘recent studies have contended that where a particular tense pattern dominates a text, what is communicated as a result is not so much a notion of time or chronology as a special modality’.  R. Carter, ‘Responses to Language in Poetry’, Literary Text and Language Study (1982), R. Carter and D. Burton (editors), p. 32.  In the case of Peake’s novel, the present tense indicates not exactly the here and now, but the sense that what is described represents the general state of affairs, past, present and future.

[21] Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, fifth edition, 2002.

[22] Ibid.

[23] C. N. Manlove, author of Modern Fantasy: Five Studies (1975), would most likely agree with this reading, his argument being that Peake became so involved with the world he created in Gormenghast, that he failed to provide Titus with a good enough reason for leaving it: ‘so much does the castle of the Groans dominate [Peake’s] imagination, that where other writers strive to get into their fantastic worlds, Peake struggles to get out’ (p. 217)…‘Throughout Gormenghast he shows his uneasiness in a continual search for some way of accounting for Titus’ quest.  He offers a confused variety of motives which still beg the question as to where they come from in the first place’ (p. 238).

[24] Manlove notes that Peake generally avoids the use of verbs – specifically action verbs – in connection with the castle itself: ‘the power…comes from Peake’s use of verbs: giving none to the castle, he frees its life from any link with the time-bound’, Modern Fantasy: Five Studies (1975), p. 219.  While this is an interesting point, I think it has to be noted that Manlove does not provide any quantitative data to support his assertion; without such data – which a stylistician would not, I think, have neglected to provide –  his claim, although thematically plausible, is simply a hunch.

[25] M. Peake, Gormenghast (1950) in The Gormenghast Novels (1995), p. 807.

[26] Nettles are also plants on overgrown land.

[27] Leech notes that these categories ‘overlap, because humanity entails animacy’; the animistic metaphor ‘attributes animate characteristics to the inanimate’ and the humanizing or anthropomorphic metaphor ‘attributes characteristics of humanity to what is not human’.  ‘Withdrawn’ and ‘broods’ can at a stretch fit both categories, although ‘ruinous’ has a more dubious status.  G. Leech, A Linguistic Guide to English Poetry (1969), p. 158.

[28] C. N. Manlove, Modern Fantasy: Five Studies (1975), p. 217.

[29] Leech and Short provide an interesting analysis of a section of Gormenghast which immediately follows the one analysed here.  This section opens with the words ‘Who are the characters?’, and Leech and Short note that ‘characters can mean either “letters, ciphers”, or “people in the fiction” ’.  G. Leech and M. Short, Style in Fiction (1981), p. 140.

[30] E. Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847), Penguin Classics edition (1995), pp. 19-32.  Subsequent references to this edition are marked in the main body of the text.

[31] Critics have, of course, discussed Cathy’s negative relationship with books.  She makes herself ill on purpose in order to separate Edgar from his library, and from the passage discussed here the reader can see that even from a very early age she was ill-disposed towards literature.  Instead of reading the books in her library, she defaces them with scribbled complaints about Hindley’s ill-treatment of Heathcliff and with rude caricatures of Joseph.  She hurls a volume into the dog-kennel, vowing that she hates ‘a good book’ (p. 21).  Heathcliff follows suit, and his punishment is to be prohibited from eating meals with the family and from playing with Cathy.  Heathcliff is later barred from pursuing his education any further, and books symbolise to a certain extent the social world that is represented by Thrushcross Grange and its inhabitants.  One can add to these observations the fact that Lockwood piles ‘the books up in a pyramid’ against the hole in the window, in order to keep Cathy’s child-ghost out (p. 25).  It is significant also that Cathy’s daughter wins Hareton over by encouraging him to read, thereby achieving what her mother could not – she accepts and sets out to improve the ‘degraded’ Hareton, where Cathy rejects the ‘degraded’ Heathcliff.

[32] M.A.K. Halliday and R. Hasan, Cohesion in English (1976), p. 15.

[33] Heathcliff also reprimands Lockwood on this score: ‘your childish outcry has sent sleep to the devil for me’ (p. 28).

[34] There has been much discussion regarding the morality of Brontë’s novel, and Q. D. Leavis was of the opinion that the book ‘has a very firm moral effect.  The technical means…for implying moral criticism without stating it, for making the reader do this work himself, is the technique of contrast and parallelism’.  Q. D. Leavis, ‘A Fresh Approach to Wuthering Heights’, Collected Essays Volume 1 (1969), p. 252.  Leavis’ argument is that the apparently cruel behaviour of one character is often offset by the brutal behaviour of another, and this parallelism constitutes part of Lockwood’s role: ‘Lockwood’s horror of the household at Wuthering Heights is immediately offset by our horror at him when he then, in a real nightmare, brutally fights off the child begging…to be let in after losing the way on the moor’ (ibid., p. 254).

[35] By ‘parenthetical constructions’, I mean those clauses or sentences which are not part of Lockwood’s dream narrative, and which represent an intrusion of Lockwood’s voice into the dream-sequences.

[36] J. Hagan, ‘Control of Sympathy in “Wuthering Heights” ’, Nineteenth-Century Fiction (1967), p. 316.

[37] B. McHale, ‘Unspeakable Sentences, Unnatural Acts: Linguistics and Poetics Revisited’, Poetics Today (1983), pp. 17-45

What is stylistics?


i) What is stylistics?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ii) Form = Content?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

iii)     Texts and Theories

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[25] Ibid., p. 181.

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

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

[28] Ibid., p. 356.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[40] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[59] Ibid., p. 6.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[66] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[78] Ibid., p. 22.

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

[80] Ibid., p. 11.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[89] Ibid., p. 264.

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

[91] Ibid., p. 268.

[92] Ibid.

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

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

[95] See Appendix C.

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

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

[98] See Appendices E and F.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mansfield in 1914

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

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

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

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

List of references

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transitivity patterns in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116: ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds’

What follows is my answer to an exercise on transitivity patterns for the MA Literary Linguistics programme on which I’m enrolled. This post is probably not going to be particularly readable unless you’re familiar with transitivity patterns – however, I’ve uploaded a pdf of a mindmap I made which may help. You might have to zoom in on the pdf to make parts of it legible. If you’d like to browse some original sources, you’ll need to look up Michael Halliday and read his work.

Transitivity mindmap pdf below. The examples of each process are taken from John Braine’s Room at the Top, but these are examples I’ve picked out myself, so please be wary: I’m not altogether sure I’ve really understood the difference between an attributive and an identifying process, so best treat the examples with caution.

Action mindmap

I’ve reproduced below Sonnet 116 in full…and you might remember Marianne (Kate Winslet) reciting part of it after she’s been heartlessly dumped by Willoughby (Greg Wise) in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments; love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove.

O no, it is an ever-fixèd mark,

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wand’ring bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come;

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Which type of process is dominant in the poem, or does the poem mix different types? 

The poem consists of a mixture of different transitivity types.

There is a speaking voice in the sonnet, an ‘I’ or a ‘me’, whose presence is most noticeable in lines 1-2, 5 (‘O no’), and 13-14; on a discourse level, therefore, the sonnet in its entirety could be understood as a mental externalised process in which the SAYER is the I/me of the poem, the VERBIAGE is the text of the sonnet, and the TARGET is the reader/audience (Simpson, 1993: 90). Simpson’s PROCESS is absent but understood, owing to considerations of form. There is no novelistic reporting clause such as ‘said the poet’.

The other processes involved are material action processes of both intention and supervention; relational processes and a mental internalised perception process (‘That looks on tempests’).

Labelling the processes is a difficult exercise in this case because much of the poem’s transitivity involves a metaphorical blend in which a personified abstract concept takes on the role of animate ACTOR, and in addition, much of the ‘action’ of the poem is actually inaction. Moreover, the poem contains many expressions of negativity (not, never, no, nor…ever), which complicates matters further.

Who is the main actor or agent in the poem? 

The ACTORs are:

•’I/me’ (the speaker of the poem);

•‘love’ as abstract concept until the third quatrain when it appears as a personification;

•‘not love’;

•possibly no man in the final line, but there is ambiguity here. The words ‘nor no man ever loved’ could be taken to mean ‘I have never loved a man’ as well as ‘no man has ever been in love’. This depends on whether we understand ‘no man’ to be the ACTOR, or whether we consider the subject to be ‘I’ still, carried over from ‘I never writ’: it could be argued that the subject of the following phrase has been removed, but that ‘I’ is understood.

‘Love’ is the CARRIER of the poem’s attributive processes, and the IDENTIFIED of its identifying processes.

Who or what receives all the action? 

The action is distributed between the ACTORs, but it should be noted that perhaps as many as two-thirds of the material action intention processes actually refer to an action not being performed. Love as an abstract noun or personification is associated with that which is fixed, permanent and immovable. Any action attributed to Love is that of inaction, and movements such as altering and bending are associated with Love’s antithesis, ‘not love’. This call to inaction reflects the desire expressed in the first line of the sonnet that the poet should not ‘admit impediments’ to ‘the marriage of true minds’: namely, that the poet wishes to do nothing to hinder true love.

Is there a pattern for processes and participants in main clauses, compared with the pattern in subordinate clauses? 

Main clauses tend to feature relational processes, and the claim made by way of this process is explored further in the subordinate clauses through material action processes, either intention or supervention.

How can your annotated analysis help to support your sense of the meaning of the poem?  

In the opening lines of the sonnet, the speaker exhorts someone to prevent him or herself from embarking on a certain course of action. The remark could, of course, be self-directed – a ‘note to self’ not to act as described. It is the equivalent of a theatrical soliloquy, in which an actor shares his or her thoughts with the audience. The speaker expresses his/her desire not to act, or not to behave in a certain way, and one can see that throughout the rest of the poem the transitivity patterns support this call to inaction. Love is something fixed, immovable and enduring, whilst its antithesis (‘not love’) ‘alters’ and ‘bends’ when provoked to do so.

Having begun the sonnet with this exhortation, the speaker makes an abrupt switch in line 2 to an exploration of what love is not (and, by implication, what it is):

…; love is not love 

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove. 

Here a main clause contains two subordinate clauses, both relative, the second a reduced relative clause because ’which’ has been removed, but is understood. The transitivity of the main clause is that of a relational process, incorporating two material action intention processes in the subordinate clauses, where these latter processes are in themselves a metaphorical blend involving an inanimate abstract concept as ACTOR.

The relational process of the main clause is set against the material action intention processes in the subordinate clauses, where the ACTOR ‘not love’ intentionally alters or bends according to circumstances. Put bluntly, action is bad, inaction is good: a ‘still’ process encloses two action processes in which the participants behave in a way that would suggest this is not ‘a marriage of true minds’.

The morphological variations of the action-words enact the changes they describe: ‘alters’ (verb) becomes ‘alteration’ (noun); ‘the remover’ (determiner + noun) becomes ‘to remove’ (verb in infinitive). The change expressed in these two lines (‘alters’, ’bends’) is reflected on a different textual level in the changing word-formations.

In the second quatrain (lines 5-8), the poet moves the discussion on from what love is not, to what love is, and love as an abstract concept is explored through metaphors related to shipping. Once again, the action expressed in the material action intention processes is in fact inaction, and the abstract concept as ACTOR provides a metaphorical blend. Love, expressed as a ‘ever-fixèd mark’, is immobile in the face of a raging sea-storm and immovable regardless of the storm’s violence.

The nautical metaphor continues into the second half of the second quatrain, and love is now a ‘star’, most likely the ‘northern star’ or ‘Pole Star’ (Duncan-Jones, 1997: 342). The star, like the ‘ever-fixèd mark’, serves as a guide to those who are lost (the ‘wandering bark’). The transitivity of line 8 is an attributive process, where the CARRIER is love (personified and metaphorically expressed), and the ATTRIBUTE is ‘of unknown worth’, in other words, invaluable or priceless. This same line balances that which cannot be measured (‘Whose worth’s unknown’) against that which can (‘although his height be taken’). The latter phrase extends the metaphorical references to shipping and navigation: ‘ “take height” was a regular term in navigation and astronomy’ (Duncan-Jones, 1997: 342).

A star is fixed just as the ‘mark’ is fixed, and neither mark nor star can move. In addition, the measurement of the star’s height presumably represents a straight line, which is in contrast to the bending manifested by the ‘not love’ ACTOR and by Time’s sickle in the third quatrain.

The word ‘bends’ from line 4 reappears in one of its lemma forms as ‘bending’, and again, this word is associated with that which is not permanent and which is not love. The transitivity process here is a material action supervention process describing the appearance and action of Time’s scythe scooping up the ‘rosy lips and cheeks’ that are associated with youth and transience, and which serve metonymically here for the whole person. The word ‘compass’ will recall the shipping metaphor of the previous quatrain even though the sense is different here; nevertheless, ‘compass’ shares the same semantic field with the ‘star’ and the ‘wandering bark’.

In lines 11-12, Love as personification is involved in two material action intention processes in a metaphorical blend with a personified ACTOR, as follows:

ACTOR = Love (in personified form)

PROCESSES = 1) alters not, 2) bears it out.

When Love is finally involved in a transitivity process involving action, that action is to stay the same and to do nothing.

The sonnet ends with a rhetorical trick expressed as a hypothetical question which allows no disagreement. The reader has just read the sonnet written by the poet, so ‘I never writ’ is nonsensical in context, and given that this half of the line is untrue, then the second half (‘nor no man ever loved’) is also assumed to be untrue. The transitivity processes may well be those of material action intention process, but as seen several times before, the action referred to represents inaction – in this instance, not writing and not loving. However, because both statements are untrue, the action becomes a positive event: the poet did write the sonnet, people have loved each other, and therefore love must exist as the poet has described it.

List of references

Duncan-Jones, K. (Ed.) (1997) Shakespeare’s Sonnets. London: The Arden Shakespeare.

Simpson, P. (1993) Language, Ideology and Point of View. London: Routledge.