Friday 1 December 2017

Using narratology, stylistics, pragmatics, intertextuality in analysing passages of writing

In this blog, I want to break down the topics or disciplines of narratology, stylistics, pragmatics and intertextuality into triggers which we can use productively as ways of examining how texts work. If we link this to ideology we might get a view on why these methods were used by any given writer. 

Note: these triggers or categories are not meant to be water-tight; they can be adapted, and recycled to use or merge with other triggers. 

Note 2 - I am of course am aware that thousands of English teachers have used some or all of these categories before and indeed used many others. However, some (many?) have not. I am offering this because they've proven useful to me in the past, and also to some of my students. I am not making great claims for being original here. I fully understand that I might be re-inventing the wheel on some, most or all of them. 

1. How is the text narrated? Why is it being narrated this way? Categories here might be e.g. 'omniscient narrator' 'multiple narrators', 'unreliable narrator', 'first person narrator' 'self-conscious narrator' (who reveals that he/she/it is narrating).  At any given moment and at all moments, a text is narrated. The question here is how and why? John Stephens (academic) argues that how a text is narrated is very 'ideological'. In his analysis, a first person narrative is un-complex and nearly always seeks to make the reader 'identify' with the narrator, be on the narrator's side. Other kinds of narratives can be more complex and ask the reader to take up varying positions and attitudes to different characters and situations. This leads to the reader debating more matters of right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate etc. 

2. Time frames. At any given moment and at all moments a text is in a time frame. It's possible and frequent for texts to move backwards and forwards in time. It's possible for texts to indicate continuous states of being in the past, present or future e.g. 'Rasheda loved movies..' 'Thin' texts stick largely to one time frame. 'Thick' texts, take you backwards and forwards indicating depth, breadth, background, motive etc.

3. Depiction of thought. How does the text indicate what someone is thinking? The most obvious way is 'She thought...' but there are many variations including one in which the text seems to just 'slide' into the protagonist's mind. It's often done with question in the third person: Rasheda finished reading. Now what should she do next?' This kind of writing has a name: 'free indirect discourse'. Texts which choose not to show us people's thoughts (e.g. folk ballads) are different from those that do. (Clearly!)

4. Point of view, foregrounding and focalisation. These slightly different terms point out that any given moment in a text, we are looking at someone or something from a point of view. If it's through the view of a protagonist, we can call that protagonist at that moment the 'focaliser'. This is all very ideological and political. Think gender,race, class, disability etc, and look to see how and which protagonist is focalised or is the focaliser. Why? How? 

5. Prosody - this means the musicality of a text and is usually applied to poetry and song lyrics but in fact can be applied to any text, particularly when the text appears to make rhythm and alliteration very apparent. However, it can also be done with sentence length, repetition of words or phrases, or breaks in rhythm and the like. 

5a Sentences - without going particularly into the grammar of sentences - you can tell a lot of what is going on with texts by comparing lengths of sentences. Sometimes writers use a series of short sentences and then a long one. Or there might be a series of long sentence, broken by one single short one. These days, many writers create 'non-grammatical' sentences ie they don't 'obey the rule' that a sentence must have a finite verb in it. Dickens did this on the opening page of 'Bleak House'. It's very common these days. Why? Some writers use elaborate (over-elaborate?) long sentences with many 'clauses'. Why? Sentences create rhythms, which you can look at when looking at prosody. 

6. How are people, settings, creatures, and events evoked or described? This can be done e.g. with incremental material detail. It can be done describing inner states of being. It can be done using figurative language (metaphors and similes). It can be done by the narrator appearing to take a stance towards that setting, creature person or event. Is this sympathetic, hostile, mocking, ironic? If so, why? How is that irony produced? How do we know it's ironic? 

7. All texts use other texts from before. In fact, at every level word, phrase, clause, paragraph, chapter, genre - previous texts are borrowed. But borrowings also go on at the level of motif, trope, and rhetorical device. All this is 'intertextuality'. You can play the game of intertextuality-spotting'. What does the text appear to have borrowed? Why? How has the text worked variations on what it has borrowed? (ie how has the text 'transformed its sources'? Why?) Rhetorical devices can be found in books of rhetorical devices (!) e.g. an excellent one by Sam Leith. There are also books that include or write up literary motifs and tropes e.g. 'pathetic fallacy' etc. 

8. All texts conceal as they reveal. Whenever they intimate that they are going to be saying something later,  they can invoke or imply danger, fear, loss, spookiness, uncanniness. They can use time-frame switches to indicate there is more to come. Even phrases like 'once upon a time' are revealing-concealing devices which hook readers/listeners in because they say, I am telling you that this happened 'once upon a time' while everyone listening knows that the phrase means there's more to come but which I haven't told you yet! Reveal-conceal is very important for 'hooking' readers, calling on them to read more and more.

9. Writerliness - this describes how texts refer to the fact they are texts. This is part of self-conscious narration or removal of the 'fourth wall' in films and plays. Narrators can do it, or protagonists can step out of role and appear to talk to the reader/listener/viewer. 

10. Register or code. Texts have to use a 'voice' or many voices which precede it. This kind of borrowing is intertextual but can be looked at separately. Particularly interesting, is when, say, narrations switch register, one moment being, say, very formal another appearing to adopt the 'voice' of someone talking. Narrations can borrow the 'voices' (through culturally or professionally specific groups) of trades, classes, localities. Clearly characters do this, but we'll look at that under 'dialogue'. 

11. Dialogue - pragmatics. This is a huge subject but of course is crucial for drama, film and novels. I am no way doing this justice here!

It might be useful to compare text dialogue with transcripts of people in real dialogue. The comparison will reveal that text dialogue features much fewer interruptions, hesitations, ellipses, repetitions than real dialogue. How far from 'real' speech is the dialogue? What methods are used to make it seem more like real speech? e.g. through interruption, hesitate, ellipses and repetition? One thing a written text can't do is show directly that people are talking at the same time, and yet we do this in real life!

How is the dialogue narrated? Using simple tags, tags with adverbs? Passages of description between the dialogue? What is being described? People, setting, weather? Inner states of mind and motive? 

It might be useful to look at whether the dialogue shows people as developing understandings and co-operating? Or being antagonistic?  It might be useful to develop some sub-categories here, eg at the level of how dialogue is represented in terms of how are people taking turns? 

You might want to look at what is 'revealed/concealed' by the dialogue. Are there unspoken, unstated, implied things being said which the writing wants you to pick up on but the narration doesn't spell out? Alternatively - think Enid Blyton and e.g. 'That served her right'  - some texts narrate a commentary on the dialogue that spells things out. 

12. All these features can be analysed and/or summated in terms of ideology. This comes from constantly a) finding ways to describe what's going on in any particular category and then b) asking  why? Why would the author have written the text this way?And/or what does the text 'imply' even if the author intended it or not? Ideology can taken to be something like the 'message'  but if we look at why, say, a book is narrated in a particular way, then ideology becomes more subtle, and more difficult to pin down. Or, take focalisation - what if, like the beginning of 'A Christmas Carol' where the narrator is the focaliser for the first page or so? When we look at Dickens's preface to the book, we can see a certain urgency about how he, Charles Dickens, wanted to make a point with this book. He wanted to say, I Charles Dickens have stuff to tell you about the state of Britain. So, we might say, that this need - perhaps egotistical, but also highly political - goes some of the way to explaining why the narration is so strongly self-conscious and insistent in the first pages of the story. 

Useful books:

'Exploring the Language of Poems, Plays and Prose' Mick Short (Routledge)

'Dictionary of Narratology' Gerald Prince (University of Nebraska Press)

'Language and Ideology of Children's Fiction',  John Stephens
(This is the best book I know to make a case for the ideology of narration.)

'You Talkin' to me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama',  Sam Leith

Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics, Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan

In the next blog, I'll try to apply these categories to the opening pages of 'A Christmas Carol' and 'Emil and the Detectives'.