Friday, 26 February 2021

What is stylistics? How can it help us interpret a text?

Stylistics is a broad term to cover the 'how' texts are put together. Into this 'bag' we can put any of the following and others you might think of:

how is the text 'told' or 'narrated'. There are of course many different ways to narrate a text, some of which pretend that it's not narrated at all, some where the narration seems to have a clear narrator, the 'I' of the narrative (or poem) (sometimes called the 'persona') or the 'I' of the third person narration as with some of Roald Dahl's books. Sometimes the narrator can 'see' everything going on, sometimes the narrator can 'see' into people's minds, sometimes into just one person's mind. This matter of point of view (pov) is very important in stories because we as readers accompany the pov. It's what we as readers 'see'. This is part of what is called 'focalisation' is created. Texts at a given moment usually have a 'focaliser', the point of view of the significant protagonist at a given point. In some texts, inanimate objects or settings can be focalisers of sorts. We see the main character say, through the eyes of the landscape rather than vice versa. Thomas Hardy writes like this sometimes. (Debatable point!)

how a story is narrated also matters when it comes to time. Stories ca be 'now', can loop back in time, loop forwards and do other things with time - talk about things habitually in a certain way (ie continuous time), even adjectives about a character - a 'morose' person, is continuous time, she reacted angrily is present time. Stories and poems are made 'thicker' or 'deeper' by creating different time-frames. 

how thought is depicted varies enormously: she thought, she said to herself, or writers can dispense with these tags altogether and just go from dialogue into a narration as with 'What should he do next?' 

how texts sound ('prosody') is part of the 'how' of a text. Sentences, paragraphs, chapters and whole books set up rhythms, repetitions, patterns.

how texts 'evoke' is important - this is what we might call the 'being there' trick of writing. Broadly speaking, writers can use the senses of narrators, characters of even objects to 'get us there', ie using  what can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted or touched. We can chart these seeing what kind of text it is- a mostly seeing text? Or a mostly hearing text? And so on.

all texts use previously used words, phrases, scenes, 'motifs', archetypes, plot lines, rhetorical forms (eg 'bathos', 'hyperbole' etc), allusions to other texts...all this comes under the heading of 'intertextuality'. 

most texts use the method of 'reveal-conceal'- there are many parts to this ie how a text appears to be 'telling' but as it does so, it invokes the possibility that not all has been told, that there is more to come, that what's coming might be mysterious, dangerous, funny, etc. The first pages of stories, plays, the first lines of poems are very interesting for this. See also the last lines of chapters. Writers are constantly filling texts up with 'hooks' that invite us to speculate what's going on, what's going to happen next, what this really means etc. Reveal-conceal is one of the most powerful 'motors' of writing and yet it is one of the least talked about. 

some texts draw attention to themselves. This has been called 'writerliness'. If the text says, 'I am telling you this...' or even a phrase like 'Later he would come to regret...' it signals that this text is a text. 

all texts involve choices to do with the 'register' of the language. In daily life we refer to these registers all the time: being eg 'slangy', or 'posh', or sounding like a lawyer, or though the use of words like 'jargon' or 'in-group lingo' and so on. We are all aware of people's different 'voices' but also how we ourselves each choose to speak one way in one situation and another way in another. These all involve 'switching'. Texts are full of these voices. We might want to categorise these 'voices' and see how texts change. Dickens is famous for one moment being 'highfaluting' and the next very down to earth. He used the highfaluting tone sometimes to mock the protagonist. 

many texts 'do' dialogue. These are stylised forms of conversation. The study of conversation is called 'pragmatics'. We can apply pragmatics to the dialogue of texts. This enables us to see for example speakers' tactics in negotiating with each other in ways that writers deliberately leave us to figure out. There is a scale for how much writers interpret the dialogue for us - a lot, a bit, not at all. This is also all part of the 'how' of a text.

another way texts 'tell' is that they create 'lexical fields'. They do this by a) usual a word (!) b) by repeating that word (repetition is a crucial part of the feel of a text, especially poetry) c) through using similar words or phrases with similar meanings. If we list these rather like Roget's Thesaurus does, we start to get a feel of what is this text's 'preoccupation'. What is it most interested in? What is it focusing on? The lexical field method also helps us summarise eg what is the lexical field for that character or that setting. It helps us 'typify' what the writer is doing to create the text. We can think of these as 'key words' or as important 'signifiers' in a text. How the lexical field is created is also important and when in the text. Are the words returned to again and again?etc. 

texts are 'stuck together' through 'cohesion'. There are many ways in which one word, one phrase, one sentence, one paragraph links to another eg through use of pronouns, through the use of 'the' (!) as opposed to 'a', use of 'this', 'that', 'there', 'here', 'his', 'her'' through repetition of sounds, images, feelings, through the contrast of images and feelings, through the juxtaposition of images, through the repeated but changed use of motifs, symbols, descriptions. These are the cohesive patterns of a text. We can find these by using my 'secret strings' method. Draw actual or imaginary lines between any part of a text that links to any other part of a text whether that be by sound, feeling, image, language, grammar, prosody - any reason at all.  This will 'unpack' the stylistics of a text. It will show how a text has been patterned in order to pass on meaning in other ways other than the fact that language 'refers' to things/feelings/ideas etc. This is the how! 

text is of course language in use. Language has thousands of different ways of referring, describing, intervening and so on. Language-users are making choices all the time about how to do this. I've referred to quite a few above, but there are other criteria or 'parameters' at work too. For example, how about looking at 'referring'. A writer's narration can refer very specifically, very plainly, very metaphorically, very vaguely..and so on. Consider for a moment the continuum of being very specific...through to very vague. In the picture book 'Where the Wild Things' are we find this operating very clearly. 

Try this experiment: go through the book, noting down 'very specific'  (vs) words or phrases, and 'very vague' (vv) ones. So from the beginning we get: 'The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of...' is vs, but then we read 'of one kind and another' which is vv. 'Wild' is vs but 'thing' is vv. 'sent to bed' is vs so is 'without eating'  but 'anything' is vv. 'That very night' is vs and so is the next passage. Then we get to some strange disjuncts with time and space: 'sailed through night and day and in and out of weeks' (how do you sail 'out of a week?!) and then 'to where the wild things are'. (where is that? pretty vague!) . Then we come to the repeat of the word 'terrible' which at first is very specific but somehow the more it is repeated the less specific it becomes! 

Following this we have quite a lot specific writing about taming the wild things and Max being made king and then we come to one of the most curious passages of all:

'And Max the king of all wild things [we know that is by now] was lonely (sufficiently vs for a story that's like fairy story] 'and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.'

Where is this? 

This invites us to wonder or interpret where this might be. We have two resources to help us - at least! One is the story so far. The other is ourselves. We can ask, where would I go to find someone who loved me best of all?' And we can ask, do I know of any other stories, songs, poems, films TV programmes ('texts') where people who were lonely went to find someone who  loved them? So there are the resources of the text, the resources of life, and the resources of other texts to help us interpret the very vague! It's a great example of reveal-conceal. 

Some might say it's obvious who the text means. Is it? Do we 'see' that person? No other human is visible in the pictures and the carer in the books 'the mother' acts in an angry way and the only thing we see her doing (so far) is to 'detach' from Max - send him to his room, and withdrawing affection from him by not giving him anything to eat. Hmmm, we might wonder, Max may well want to be where someone loved him best of all, but does he really think his mother does love him best of all? Does Max think he's getting that love? The vagueness of the text gives us room to wonder about this. (There's no definitive answer and people can argue forever about it. The interesting thing here is that it brings up issues for people of any age about 'detachment-attachment in how we bring up (or are being brought up, or were brought up) when children are perceived to be 'naughty'.) The vagueness gets right to the heart of this.

Following this crux to the story, the story goes into reverse mode, heads back home, repeating the patterns of language, till Max gets home 'where he found his supper waiting for him and it was still hot'. 

I've heard people explain how this is redemption. Max has resolves his anger issues (as it were) and so he is forgiven, happily ever after. Full  stop. 

But really?

'Supper' is specific but the structure of the sentence doesn't tell us who made the summer, it 'is waiting' and '' so these are characteristics it possesses. There is no 'agent' putting it there. And no agent, giving Max a cuddle. No one visible. The supper may well be a symbol of affection but there is a gap or a vagueness for us to wonder about who brought it, why it's still hot and, why this person isn't there. Is this more 'detachment'? Is this at the heart of what this book is about?

So with this reading, the surface text is, yes, all about a boy resolving his anger and being forgiven for being beastly but that there is a sub-text about a boy not getting the attachment he wants whether he's angry or whether he's resolved his anger. And if we want to zoom out even further from this reading, we might find that in a way this 'explains' his anger. After all, what else explains his anger? The clue from the text is indeed that he doesn't see or touch his mother and the only act we are sure that she does is send him to bed without anything to eat, though,  yes, she may well have made sure he had something to eat in the end.

One reading 'shows' that 'time-out' and 'detachment' works in bringing a child to his senses (!), but another says that actually nothing has been really solves by this, because the underlying situation still prevails.

Our route to this is to look at the 'how' of the telling anyhow it veers between being very specific and very vague, giving us huge leeway with which to interpret the story. Hurrah for that.