Critical Voice by Terry Locke

Chapter 6: The novel: Making sense of the big story

We might define the novel as a long narrative in fictional prose. Compared with poetry and stage drama, the novel is a relatively recent genre with its beginning in England at the beginning of the Eighteenth Century (with the publication of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in 1719).  It was only at this time that prose became the preferred vehicle (over verse) for the writing of long narratives in English.

As we shall see, the very size of the novel has become a key to its diversity as a genre. Its size allows the novelist to adopt a wide sweep over space and time. That is why it lends itself so easily to family and social sagas. Moreover, it allows for a complexity in and multiplicity of point of view and characterisation that would simply not be possible in shorter literary forms.

Paradoxically, while size lends itself to diversification, it also lends itself to standardisation. Hence the historical development of various sub-genres of the novel in response to different social conditions: the picaresque novel, the epistolary novel, the historical novel and so on.

Language Tool Kit:
Novel: A long narrative in fictional prose.
Picaresque novel: An episodic novel which playfully follows the fortunes of likeable misfits. Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, is an example of this.
Epistolary novel: A novel cast in the form of an exchange of letters. Letters from the Inside, by John Marsden, is an example of this.
Historical novel: A novel which uses an actual historical setting and in which at least some characters are actual historical figures. A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens, is an example of this.
Elucidate: The root of this word is the Latin word for light. To elucidate a text is to shed light on its meaning. It can be a useful word. But don’t let yourself be trapped into thinking that meanings are  hidden inside a text like the contents of a can of baked beans.

The aim of this chapter is to raise some general questions about novel reading. As suggested in Chapter 1, the meanings you draw from your reading relate to the kind of attention you bring to bear in your act of reading a text and (equally important) around a text.

Figure 1 is a graphic representation of the wide picture wherein we will locate our reading of a novel. Like any text, a novel, with all its inherent messages and formal qualities, is a product of a particular cultural context and context of situation which is engaged with by a reader or group of readers in another cultural context and context of situation.

The cultural context of the writer
The cultural context of the reader
The reading experience: Point of view
The weave of language: Texture
‘There are places I remember…’ (John Lennon)
Characters and characterisation
The shape of a novel

6.1. The cultural context of the writer

We can construct one kind of meaningfulness for a novel by relating it to the cultural context inhabited by the novelist who wrote it. Biographical criticism is the name given to scholarship which draws on the biography and social background of a writer to elucidate (‘shed light on the meaning of’) their work. But a text can also be used to shed light on the life and cultural background of a novelist. The following are the sorts of questions than might be used to elicit the meaning of a text in relationship to its cultural context:

  • Which groups held and exercised power in this social context?
  • How was this power exercised?
  • What was the writer’s relationship to this group?
  • What values, ideas about reality, behaviours and forms of language were favoured by those in power?
  • What values, ideas about reality, behaviours and forms of language were out of favour with those in power?
  • What issues were being debated in this society at this time?
  • What issues were not being debated in this society at this time?
  • What factors made the publication of the writer’s work easy? Difficult?
  • How are the factors identified in the above reflected in the novel?

a) Relating a novel to its time
The question of a novel’s relationship to its cultural context is a rather complex one. It is also one that tends to elude simple answers. Moreover, to address this question with respect to the novel you are studying in class you will need to embark on a process of inquiry.

Processing information (group)
Your process of inquiry has two major focus questions:

  • What sorts of things were going on prior to and about the time your novelist was writing their novel?
  • Which of these things was your novelist aware of and what was their attitude to them?

Step l: Considering sources of information

  1. Identify sources that have the potential of providing you with relevant information. (Refer to Resource A for some hints.)
  2. How might the novel itself help you decide which events are relevant to your investigation?
Resource A:
Experts, e.g. teachers.
Current affairs magazines, e.g. Time
Social histories
CD Roms
Documented comment by the writer
Critical writing about the writer
Relevant Internet sites

Step 2:  Allocating responsibility
Group members take on responsibility for finding information from one or more of the sources identified in the first task of Step 1.

Step 3: Using the text for clues to relevance.
No writer can provide a complete mirror to their society. At best, novels give us a selective picture of the culture that produced them. Which issues did your novelist find particularly compelling? The novel is an obvious place to look for passages which give you clues to enable you to answer this question. However, sometimes you’ll have to read carefully to identify the issue. (An example of such close reading can be found in the case study of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, included in this section.) Because you are working as a group, you might find it useful to take a section of the novel each as you look for relevant passages.

The following is a passage from The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. The novel was first published in 1985. The novel is an example of dystopian fiction. The setting is the imagined republic of Gilead, which is ruled ruthlessly by a small, elite group of male, religiously fanatic leaders. The main character, Offred, is a handmaid, one of a small group of fertile woman, kept in the household of one of Gilead’s commanders for the sole task of breeding.The questions which follow it indicate ways you can interrogate a text for clues as to the social issues it raises.

Is that how we lived then? But we lived as usual. Everyone does, most of the time. Whatever is going on is as usual. Even this is as usual, now.
        We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t thte same as ignorance, you have to work at it.
        Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it. there were stories in the newspapers, of course, corpses in ditches or the woods, bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with as they used to say, but they were about other women, and the men who did such things were other men. None of them were the men we knew. the newspaper stories were like dreams to ius, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. There were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimention of our lives.
        We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom.
        We lived in the gaps between the stories.

  1. What sorts of ‘goings-on’ is Atwood referring to here?
  2. What attitude does she adopt to these ‘goings-on’?
  3. Are the ‘goings-on’ she refers to restricted to North America? Or are they ‘goings-on’ in your own society?

Step 4: Pooling your readings
As a group, list on a single sheet of paper those aspects of your writer’s cultural context that they comment on. Note any overlap. Select five aspects for your group to focus on as it widens its field of investigation.

Step 5: Contributing to the investigation
Using the sources you were allocated in Step 2, discover what you can about the five aspects you decided on in Step 4. Record your findings as a neat set of short paragraphs.

Step 6: Synthesis and Conclusion
It is important how you use information. Do the following tasks as you complete your investigation.

  1. Share your findings and note the presence of overlap.
  2. Collate (gather together under topic headings) all the information you gathered with respect to each of the aspects decided on in Step 4. Use the title of each aspect as a sub-heading under your general heading of ‘Investigation Findings’. (See Resource B for an example of how you might do this.)
  3. Now collate the material you gathered with respect to your writer’s (or one of their character’s) attitude to these aspects of society which you got from analysing passages from the novel in Step 3. Use the title, ‘An identified position on [name aspect]’ as a series of sub-headings under your general heading of ‘Investigation Findings’. (See Resource B for an example.)
Resource B: (an example of a study of The Handmaid’s Tale)

‘Violence against women’

    The Handmaid’s Tale, though set in the future, refers back to incidents of violence against women as being a characteristic of North American society in the late Twentieth Century. Offred refers to this violence, as to the Aunts and the Commander himself in his conversations with Offred. Our investigation of this topic found a continuing and disturbing tradition of violence against women in contemporary society, not only in America but also in our own society. We note a spate of murders  of women sex-workers, the use of women as objects in advertising, the reappearance of ‘macho’ males in ads and the spread of pornography on the Internet.‘An identified position on violence against women’

    In this novel, we noted the obvious point that Offred does not condone violence against women. We also noted a related position, which commented with disapproval on the inclination of ‘protected’ women to ignore the plight of women who, for a variety of reasons, live lives which makes them more likely to be victims of violence. We wondered how many women would see the murder of a sex-worker as having very much real relevance for their own lives.

    4. Write a ‘conclusion’ to your investigation in two sections:

  • The first section should begin with the words: ‘The novel studied is in many ways a commentary upon the society it was written out of.’ Then summarise your findings.
  • Section two should begin with the words: ‘As a group, we sympathise with some of our author’s concerns.’ Spell out what these are and give your reasons for sympathising.
  • Section two should conclude by saying: ‘However, we don’t necessarily agree that….’ Spell out the concerns your group would tend to disagree with your author on.
Language Tool Kit:
Utopian fiction: Stories that are set in idealised societies.
Dystopian fiction: Stories that are set in oppressive imagined societies.

6.2 The cultural context of the reader

Mark Twain’s novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,  was first published in 1884. Since this time, it has become established as a classic text, taught widely in schools all over the English-speaking world and enjoyed by a large, enduring readership. It can be read by young people and adults. The novelist, Ernest Hemingway, made the comment that American literature came out of Huckleberry Finn, and many critics have agreed with him. Furthermore, it is a book which has been recreated in films, in television series and as a stage musical.

Conversely, the novel has also had a degree of notoriety. In 1885,  the year after it was published, it received its first banning. In our own time, it is a novel which is still fuelling controversy. In this section we will be asking why this novel has suffered this particular fate. At the same time,  we will be exploring the more general issue of a novel’s relationship to its readership. Or putting this in the form of a question: What is it that we as readers bring to our reading as we make sense of a text?

a) Digesting a novel
What we as readers bring to our reading is a set of dispositions – a mindset or a way of thinking that affects our receptivity to something. This something might be a person or what that person stands for; it might be a particular form of behaviour; it might be an idea or a position on a certain issue that we feel strongly about. While you might be favourably disposed towards folk musicians, people who express their feelings openly and the idea that education is a form of social investment, you might be unfavourably disposed towards used-car sellers, people who like blaming others and the idea that education is a commodity.

Language Tool Kit:
Disposition: Our receptivity towards a person, way of acting and speaking, idea or ideological position

Personal writing (individual)
Use your learning log for the following writing tasks:

  1. List the sorts of people you are favourably disposed to.
  2. List the sorts of people you are unfavourably disposed to.
  3. List the sorts of behaviour (ways of acting) you are favourably disposed to.
  4. List the sorts of behaviour (ways of acting) you are unfavourably disposed to.
  5. Describe two positions (on issues) that you are favourably disposed to.
    Describe two positions (on issues) that you are inclined to agree with.
  6. Name a novel you had to read but were unfavourably disposed to. Say why.
  7. Name a novel you had to read but were favourably disposed to. Say why.

b) Culture and ideology
One way of defining a culture is to call it a habitually consistent way of thinking, talking and behaving practised by a large group of people. Traditionally, race, religion, class and gender have been key factors in identifying culture. Thus, one might talk about a lower class, Polish Jewess. Such a person might be expected to manifest a set of behaviours that might be called ‘lower class’; another set that might be termed ‘Polish’; another set that might be termed ‘Jewish’; and another set that might be termed ‘female’. Nowadays, other factors are emerging which complicate the picture even more. These include occupation, age, and leisure-time orientation. (You can probably think of others.) Hence we might describe a person as an middle-class, Catholic, Australian, male lawyer of Italian extraction who loves line-dancing.

All of which sounds and is complicated, but what it indicates is that the simple idea of an easily described culture that we belong to is breaking down. Rather, the social reality for most of us consists of a range of practices that we participate in depending on the stage of life we are at, who we are with and what we are doing.

These practices are reflective of the various ways we, as social beings, make sense of the world. All of us frame the world in terms of versions of reality we have absorbed from our own social and cultural inheritance. An ideology is a coherent and systematic way of thinking about the world or some aspect of the world, often associated with particular powerful groupings of people.

Language Tool Kit:
Social reality: All the things that we, as human beings, have added to the ‘natural’ world. Social reality includes cities, institutions (e.g. the legal system), systems of signs and symbols (including language), ways of conducting social relationships, systems of distributing power,  cultural artefacts, ways of raising children and so on.
Ideology: A coherent and systematic way of thinking about the world or some aspect of the world.

The discussion tasks below are aimed at guiding you, in a small group (say four), to explore your own cultural context — which positions you to be disposed to a novel in a certain way.

Discussion task (group)

  1. Have each group member describe themselves in terms of the following factors:
    • race
    • gender
    • class
    • religion
    • stage of life
    • occupation
    • preferred music style
  2. Have each group member describe how one of the above factors affected their disposition towards either a book they have read, or a film they have seen, or a recent television ad.
  3. Have each group member respond to the following statements. In responding, indicate your views on these statements and also on the words the statements use.
    • Dole-bludgers don’t deserve handouts.
    • If females insist on nagging, you can’t be surprised if real guys lash out.
    • Spare the rod and spoil the child.
    • Blacks are natural athletes.
    • Competition breeds winners.
  4. Jane Austen’s novel, Pride and Prejudice, begins with the famous line: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ Allowing for Austen’s gentle irony here, what view of the relationship between money and marriage is being put forward here? How favourably disposed are members of the group to this view?                         
  5. An ‘ideology’ of marriage would cover such topics as: who can marry whom; who should arrange the match; how courtship should be conducted; the part played by money in marriage; how decisions should be made; and so on. As a group, come up with a list of characteristics of ‘the modern marriage’. Which items on your list would differ from the view of marriage prevalent in Jane Austen’s time?

c) The case of Huckleberry Finn
In the novel, Huckleberry Finn,  a runaway white boy joins a runaway black slave, Jim, on a raft travelling south on the Mississippi River. The novel recounts a series of adventures both on the river and on the shore. The extract reproduced here comes from the famous Chapter 31 and will give you a taste of the novel’s content and style. In this chapter, Jim has been sold back into slavery by one of two con-men who have commandeered Huck and Jim’s raft. In this passage, Huck is agonising over whether to tell Jim’s ‘owner’, Miss Watson, where her slave is so that she can reclaim him.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
by Mark Twain

Once I said to myself it would be a thousand times better for Jim to be a slave at home where his family was, as long as he’d got to be a slave, and I’d better write a letter to Tom Sawyer, and tell him to tell Miss Watson where he was.  But I soon give up that notion, for two things: she’d be mad and disgusted at his rascality and ungratefulness for leaving her, and so she’d sell him straight down the river again; and if she didn’t, everybody naturally despises an ungrateful nigger, and they’d make Jim feel it all the time, and so he’d feel ornery and disgraced.  And then think of me!  It would get all around that Huck Finn helped a nigger to get his freedom; and if I was to ever see anybody from that town again, I’d be ready to get down and lick his boots for shame.  That’s just the way; a person does a low-down thing, and then he don’t want to take no consequences of it.  Thinks as long as he can hide it, it ain’t no disgrace.  That was my fix exactly.  The more I studied about this, the more my conscience went to grinding me, and the more wicked and low-down and ornery I got to feeling.  And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, whilst I was stealing a poor old woman’s nigger that hadn’t ever done me no harm, and now was showing me there’s One that’s always on the look-out, and ain’t a-going to allow no such miserable doings to go only just so fur and no further, I most dropped in my tracks I was so scared.  Well, I tried the best I could to kinder soften it up somehow for myself, by saying I was brung up wicked, and so I warn’t so much to blame; but something inside of me kept saying, ‘There was the Sunday school, you could a gone to it; and if you’d a done it they’d a learnt you, there, that people that acts as I’d been acting about that nigger goes to everlasting fire.’
            It made me shiver.  And I about made up my mind to pray; and see if I couldn’t try to quit being the kind of boy I was, and be better.  So I kneeled down.  But the words wouldn’t come.  Why wouldn’t they?  It warn’t no use to try and hide it from Him.  Nor from me, neither.  I knowed very well why they wouldn’t come.  It was because my heart warn’t right; it was because I warn’t square; it was because I was playing double.  I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all.  I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write to that nigger’s owner and tell where he was; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie – I found that out.
            So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn’t know what to do.  At last I had an idea; and I says, I’ll go and write the letter – and then see if I can pray.  Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather, right straight off, and my troubles all gone.  So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:

Miss Watson your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send.

            I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now.  But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking – thinking how good it was all of this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell.  And went on thinking.  And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time, in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing.  But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind.  I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim had in the world, and the only one he’d got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper.
            It was a close place.  I took it up, and held it in my hand.  I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, for ever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it.  I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
            ‘All right then, I’ll go to hell’ – and tore it up.

Close reading (individual)

  1. Huck tells his story using slang. What is your own view on the use of slang in writing a novel?
  2. Why do you think Huck uses the word ‘nigger’ in this extract? Write an argument either for or against Twain’s allowing this word to be used in his novel?
  3. On the basis of this extract, how does Huck view ‘God’? ‘Divine Providence’? Sin’?
  4. What meanings do you, yourself, attach to these words?
  5. What advice does Huck’s conscience appear to be giving him with respect to Jim as a runaway slave?
  6. Argue a case for or against the statement that our consciences are social constructions (products of the society we grow up in).

d) Huckleberry Finn: It’s reception
The quotation from Jonathan Goodwin below was downloaded during an Internet search done at the time this book was being written. The statement shows that readings of this novel are still affected by various dispositions produced within the context of culture. The following writing tasks are designed to help you explore some of the issues raised by the social reception of Mark Twain’s novel.

A warning to teachers:‘The largest problem you will have trying to teach this book in our educational system is the abundance of racial overtones scattered throughout this novel. Before teaching this book it may be a good idea to check with the students and parents before proceeding. This book has been banned in many school systems, and although Twain’s writing was not considered immoral at the time, his language use is questionable in today’s society.’
                                                                                                   Jonathan Goodwin

Writing argument (individual)
Huckleberry Finn was banned from the Concord Public Library in 1885. A report from the Boston Transcript for March, 1885, contains the following paragraph:

The Concord (Mass.) Public Library committee has decided to exclude Mark Twain’s latest book from the library. One member of the committee says that, while he does not wish to call it immoral, he thinks it contains but little humor, and that of a very coarse type. He regards it as the veriest trash. The librarian and the other members of the committee entertain similar views, characterizing it as rough, coarse and inelegant, dealing with a series of experiences not elevating, the whole book being more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people.

Write a letter as an inhabitant of the late Twentieth Century to the Concord Public Library, setting out your reasons for disagreeing with their opinion. Ensure that you cover such issues as:

  • What makes a novel immoral;
  • The committee’s use of the word ‘trash’;
  • The committee’s use of the words ‘rough, coarse and inelegant’;
  • Whether novels should deal with ‘elevating’ experiences’;
  • The concept of respectability;
  • Who novels should be written for.

Extension task (group)
Use the search capability of the Internet to investigate the current controversy surrounding the use of such titles as To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in American high schools (such as Harbor High School in the city of Santa Cruz).

e) Responding to the novel you studied in class (individual)
The following writing tasks are designed to draw your attention to ways in which your own cultural disposition may have affected your response to a novel.

  1. Name a character you found yourself responding to warmly. What was it about that character that you approved of?
  2. Name a character you found yourself disliking. What was it about that character that you disapproved of?
  3. Try listing some of the views on issues that the novel appears to be positioning you to agree with. (See the Language Tool Kit for a definition of ‘reading position’). Which of these reading positions are you happy to go along with (and which seem ‘natural’ to you)? Which of these reading positions would you want to ‘resist’ or argue with?
Language Tool Kit:
Reading Position:
 A term used by the linguist, Gunther Kress, to refer to the particular version of reality a given text would like us to adopt as readers.

6.3. The reading experience: point of view

The topic of point of view has already been explored in Chapter 4.1. (‘The elements of story’), 4.2. (where we looked at the omniscient narrator) and 4.3. (where we looked at ways of curbing the narrator’s omniscience). You will recall that we have defined point of view as the perspective from which events of a story are presented. You might think of the point of view of a novel as a lens or set of lenses through which we view a series of events. I say lenses because long narratives can be constructed so as to provide readers with a variety of perspectives on the action. The novel, Potiki,  by Patricia Grace, is one such novel.

a) The refracting lens: Potiki by Patricia Grace
The choice of point of view by any writer is crucial. It is the narrator with whom we engage as we enter the world of a novel. If the narrator’s style is off-putting we will begin to find the task of reading heavy going, even if the story itself is an interesting one. In addition, if we find ourselves out of sympathy with the view of the world that pervades the narrator’s story-telling, then we are likely to resist even further, even though we may be forcing ourselves to read the book for an examination or simply because it is part of the course.

One way of responding to this situation is to think of the narrator as a travelling companion we are stuck with on a long train journey (the Trans-Siberian railway, for example). They have a story to tell and naturally, being the well bred people we are, we want to give ourselves to the experience. But then, there are times when there is something that irritates us about the way our companion is talking, or they may put forward a position we want to take issue with. At such times, we should feel free to enter into a kind of dialogue with our companion. Of course, such dialogue can only take place in our heads. But at least we are being active and it will prevent boredom or frustration setting in.

When a ray of light passes through a lens it bends. A point of view does not deliver reality. It delivers a version of reality. Potiki, by New Zealand Maori writer Patricia Grace, was first published in 1986. It tells the story of a small Maori community whose marae is threatened by land developers. Twenty-six of the twenty-nine chapters are told by members of the Tamihana family in the first person. Three use a third-person narrator. And the book’s ‘Prologue’ (reproduced in this chapter) is written in the third person.


From the centre,
From the nothing,
Of not seen,
Of not heard,

There comes
A shifting,
A stirring,
And a creeping forward,

There comes
A standing,
A springing,
To an outer circle,

There comes
An intake
Of breath –
Tihi Mauriora.

There was once a carver who spent a lifetime with wood, seeking out and exposing the figures that were hidden there.  These eccentric or brave, dour, whimsical, crafty, beguiling, tormenting, tormented or loving figures developed first in the forests, in the tree wombs, but depended on the master with his karakia and his tools, his mind and his heart, his breath and his strangeness to bring them to other birth.
            The tree, after a lifetime of fruiting, has, after its first death, a further fruiting at the hands of a master.
            This does not mean that the man is master of the tree.  Nor is he master only of the skills that bring forward what was already waiting in the womb that is a tree – a tree that may have spent further time as a house or classroom, or a bridge or pier.  Or further time could have been spent floating on the sea or river, or sucked into a swamp, or stopping a bank, or sprawled on a beach bleaching among the sand, stones and sun.
            It is as though a child brings about the birth of a parent because that which comes from under the master’s hand is older than he is, is already ancient.
            When a carver dies he leaves behind him a house for the people.  He leaves also, part of himself – shavings of heart and being, hunger and anger, love, mischief, hope, desire, elation or despair.  He has given the people himself, and he has given the people his ancestors and their own.
            And these ancestors come to the people with large heads that may be round or square, pointed or egg-shaped.  They have gaping mouths with protruding tongues; but sometimes the tongue is a hand or tail coming through from behind the head, or it is formed into a funnel or divided in two, the two parts pointing in different directions.  There will be a reason for the type of head or tongue the figures have been given.
            The carved ancestors will be broad-shouldered but short in the trunk and legs, and firm-standing on their three-toed feet.  Or their bodies may be long and twisting and scaly, swimmers, shaped for the river or sea.
            After the shaping out of the heads, bodies and limbs, the carver begins to smooth the figures and then to enhance them with fine decoration.  The final touch is the giving of eyes.
            The previous life, the life within the tree womb, was a time of eyelessness, of waiting, swelling, hardening.  It was a time of existing, already browed, tongued, shouldered, fingered, sexed, footed, toed, and of waiting to be shown as such.  But eyeless.  The spinning, dancing eyes are the final gift from the carver, but the eyes are also a gift from the sea.
            When all is finished the people have their ancestors.  They sleep at their feet, listen to their stories, call them by name, put them in songs and dances, joke with them, become their children, their slaves, their enemies, their friends.
            In this way the ancestors are known and remembered.  But the carver may not be known or remembered, except by a few.  These few, those who grew up with him, or who sat at his elbow, will now and again remember him and will say, ‘Yes, yes, I remember him.  He worked night and day for the people.  He was a master.’  They may also add that he was a bit porangi too, or that he was a drunk, a clapmouth, a womaniser, a gambler or a bullshit artist.
            Except that he may have been a little porangi, and that he certainly became a master, none of these words would apply to the carver of this chapter of our story.  He was a humble and gentle man.
            He was the youngest child of middle-aged parents who, because he was sickly as a baby, decided that he should not go to school.
            Before the parents died, and when the boy was ten years old, they wrapped him in scarves and put him at the elbow of a master carver who was just at that time beginning the carvings for a new house.  This man had no woman.  He had no children of his own.
            The boy sat and watched and listened and, until he was fourteen, he barely moved except to sweep shavings and smooth and polish wood.
            Then one day the master shaped out a new mallet from a piece of rimu and carved a beaky head at the tip of the handle, and gave the head two eyes.  He handed the mallet to the boy and said, ‘Unwrap yourself from the scarves, son, and begin work.  Remember two things,’ he said.  ‘Do not carve anyone in living memory and don’t blow on the shavings or your wood will get up and crack you.’
            The boy let the scarves fall at his feet, and took the mallet in his hand.  At the same time he felt a kicking is his groin.
            He never went back into scarves.  He dropped them in the place where he had sat at the elbow of his tutor and never went back for them.  Later is life he, in turn, became master of his craft.  There was no one to match him in his skill, and many would have said also that there were none who could match him as a great storyteller and a teller of histories.
            Near the end of his life the man was working on what he knew would be the last house he would ever carve.  It was a small and quiet house and he was pleased about that.  It had in it the finest work he had ever done.
            There were no other carvers to help him with his work but the people came every day to cook and care for him, and to paint patterns and weave panels and to help in every possible way.  They came especially to listen to his stories which were of living wood, his stories of the ancestors.  He told also the histories of patterns and the meanings of patterns to life.  He told of the effects of weather and water on wood, and told all the things he had learned at the elbow of his tutor, all the things he had spent a lifetime learning.
            At the time when he was about to begin the last poupou, the ones already completed, much discussion, quarrelling and planning had taken place.  The people were anxious to have all aspects of their lives and ancestry represented in their new house.  They wished to include all the famous ancestors to which they were linked, and also to include the ancestors which linked all people to the earth and the heavens from ancient to future times, and which told people of their relationships to light and growth, and to each other.
            But the last poupou had not been discussed, and the people, to give honour to the man, said, ‘This one’s yours, we’ll say nothing.  It’s for you to decide.’
            The man knew that this would be the last piece of work that he would do.  He knew that it would take all of his remaining strength and that in fact he would not complete the work at all.
            ‘If I don’t finish this one,’ he said, ‘it is because it cannot yet be finished, and also because I do not have the strength.  You must put it in your house finished or not.  There is one that I long to do but it cannot yet be completed.  There is no one yet who can carry it forward for me because there is a part that is not yet known.  There is no one yet who can complete it, that must be done at some future time.  When it is known it will be done.  And there is something else I must tell you.  The part that I do, the figure that I bring out of wood, is from my own living memory.  It is forbidden, but it is one that I long to do.’  The people did not speak.  They could not forbid him.  They went away quietly as her turned towards the workshop.
            He decided that he would leave himself hollow for this last work, that he would not bring out this final figure with his eyes or his mind, but only with his hands and his heart.  And when he spoke to the wood he only said, ‘It is the hands and the heart, these hands and this heart that will bring you out of the shadows, these hands and this heart before they go to earth.’
            In his old age his eyes were already weak, but he covered the workshop window to darken the room, and his hands and his heart began their work.
            The boy at his elbow asked no questions and no one else came near.
            After several weeks the carver pulled the cloth from the workshop window.  He called the people in and told them that the top figure was done.  ‘I’ll tell you the story,’ he said, ‘but the lower figure must be left to a future time, for when it is known.
            ‘This is the story of a red-eyed man, who spent his life bent in two, who had no woman and no children of his own.  He procreated in wood and gave knowledge out through his elbow.  At this elbow of knowledge there is a space which can be left unfilled, always, except for this pattern of scarves.  It is like a gap in the memory, a blind piece in the eye, but the pattern of scarves is there.
            ‘His head is so wide so that it may contain the histories and sciences of the people, and the chants and patterns, and knowledge concerning the plants and the trees.  His forehead is embellished with an intricate pattern to show the status of his knowledge.  His eyes are small because of the nearness of his work and because, before my time, he worked in a dim hut with a lantern at night, and worked many hours after dark.
            ‘His tongue is long and fine and swirling, the tongue of a storyteller, and his neck is short so that there is no great distance from his head to his arms.  His head and his hands work as one.
            ‘The rounded back and the curve of the chest tell of his stoopiness and his devotion.  The arms are short because of the closeness to is work.  He has come to us with six fingers on each hand as a sign of the giftedness of his hands.
            ‘The mallet in his right hand rests on his chest, and the mallet is another beating heart.
            ‘His left hand grasps the chisel, and he holds the chisel against his pelvis.  The long blade of the chisel becomes his penis thickening to the shape of a man.  And this chisel-penis-man resembles himself, like a child generated in wood by the chisel, or by the penis in flesh.
            ‘The eyes of the man and the eyes of the penis-child contain all the colours of the sky and earth and sea, but the child eyes are small, as though not yet fully opened.
            ‘There is no boldening of the legs, and they are not greatly adorned, but they are strong and stand him strongly to his work.  And between and below his three-toed feet there is an open place.  It is the space for the lower figure, but there is none yet to fill that place.  That is for a future time.
            ‘All about the man you can see the representations of his life and work, but with a place at the elbow which will remain always empty except for the pattern of scarves.
            ‘A man can become master of skills in his lifetime but when he dies he may be forgotten, especially if he does not have children of his own.  I give him to you so that he will not be forgotten.  Let him live in our house.
            ‘”A life for a life” could mean that you give your life to someone who has already given his to you.  I was told not to call out anyone in living memory, but it is done.  I was told not to give breath to wood but … “A life for a life” could mean that you give your life to someone who has already given you his own.’
            When the people had gone and he had sent the boy away the carver closed the workshop door.  He put his face close to the nostrils of the wood face, and blew.
            The next morning the people lifted the poupou from off him and dressed him in fine clothes.

Close reading and reflection (individual)
Answer the following questions once you have read closely the ‘Prologue’ to Potiki.

  1. Why do you think Grace has used a third-person narrator here, when she has mostly used a series of first-person narratives elsewhere in her novel?
  2. What is your response to the use of Maori words such as porangi and poupou? Should Grace have provided a glossary of Maori words? Why do you think she didn’t?
  3. Write out four sentences from the ‘Prologue’ which in your view illustrate a Maori cultural viewpoint on a particular aspect of life, for example wood-carving, or time, or community. For each sentence, describe what this Maori viewpoint is.
  4. Write a piece of dialogue in which engage in an imaginary conversation with the narrator of this prologue (whom, of course, we will not confuse with Patricia Grace herself). You might like to base your conversation around the formula: ‘While you say that…..I personally believe that…..’

b) Analysing the point of view of any novel (group)
Use the following questions as a structure for your note-taking on point of view.

  1. Is this novel first person, third person or a combination of both?
  2. How many different perspectives on the action does your novel provide you with? List these. (A first person narrative may give you only one perspective whereas a third person narrative may give you the perspective of an omniscient narrator plus the points of view of selected central characters.)
  3. For each perspective, makes notes on the version of reality (or way of seeing) that is associated with that perspective. (You can begin by asking a fairly basic question here, and that is: ‘Does this narrative perspective appear to accept uncritically the social setting of the novel or does it appear to be critical of the social setting in some way. In framing your answer, you might like to use a two-column format: ‘What this narrative perspective accepts in the social setting’; ‘What this narrative perspective challenges in the social setting.’
  4. For each perspective, makes notes on areas of agreement and disagreement you have as a group. (Again, you might like to use a two-column format here: ‘Areas of agreement’, Areas of disagreement’.

6.4 The weave of language: texture

Open a novel at any page and you not only confront a point of view (and therefore the sorts of meanings that a point of view attaches to the world); you also confront a style. Style, as discussed in Chapter 4.1., is a particular way of texturing language through choices with respect to diction, syntax and sometimes punctuation.

You can think of the texture of language as the vehicle for conveying a point of view. Just as a point of view, as explained in the last section, is not a neutral, clear vantage point on to the world but rather a socially conditioned way of seeing, so a style has a particular way of seeing or a set of assumptions built into it. In this section, we will be revisiting some of the elements of prose fictional style and exploring the non-neutrality of style in two novels.

a) A Farewell to Arms,  by Ernest Hemingway
A Farewell to Arms was first published in 1929. In this novel, Hemingway drew on his experiences as an ambulance driver on the Italian-Austrian front of the First World War to write a novel about war and love in war-time. In the course of the novel, its chief character (and narrator) Fred Henry forms a relationship with an English nurse Catherine Barkley. In the extract we have provided, Fred is in hospital in Milan recuperating from a war injury to his knee.

Chapter 17

When I was awake after the operation I had not been away.  You do not go away.  They only choke you.  It is not like dying, it is just a chemical choking, so you do not feel, and afterwards you might as well have been drunk except that when you throw up nothing comes but bile and you do not feel better afterwards.  I saw sandbags at the end of the bed.  They were on pipes that came out of the cast.  After a while I saw Miss Gage and she said, ‘How is it now?’
            ‘Better,’ I said.
            ‘He did a wonderful job on your knee.’
            ‘How long did it take?’
            ‘Two hours and a half.’
            ‘Did I say anything silly?’
            ‘Not a thing.  Don’t talk.  Just be quiet.’
            I was sick and Catherine was right.  It did not make any difference who was on night-duty.

            There were three other patients in the hospital now, a thin boy in the Red Cross from Georgia with malaria, a nice boy, also thin, from New York, with malaria and jaundice, and a fine boy who had tried to unscrew the fuse-cap from a combination shrapnel and high explosive shell for a souvenir.  This was a shrapnel shell used by the Austrians in the mountains with a nose-cap which went on after the burst and exploded on contact.
            Catherine Barkley was greatly liked by the nurses because she would do night-duty indefinitely.  She had quite a little work with the malaria people, the boy who had unscrewed the nose-cap was a friend of ours and never rang at night unless it was necessary, but between the times of working we were together.  I loved her very much and she loved me.  I slept in the daytime and we wrote notes during the day when we were awake and sent them by Ferguson.  Ferguson was a fine girl.  I never learned anything about her except that she had a brother in the Fifty-Second Division and a brother in Mesopotamia and she was very good to Catherine Barkley.
            ‘Will you come to our wedding, Fergy?’  I said to her once.
            ‘You’ll never get married.’
            ‘We will.’
            ‘No you won’t.’
            ‘Why not?’
            ‘You’ll fight before you’ll marry.’
            ‘We never fight.’
            ‘You’ve time yet.’
            ‘We don’t fight.’
            ‘You’ll die then.  Fight or die.  That’s what people do.  They don’t marry.’
            I reached for her hand.  ‘Don’t take hold of me,’ she said.  ‘I’m not crying.  Maybe you’ll be all right you two.  But watch out you don’t get her into trouble.  You get her in trouble and I’ll kill you.’
            ‘I won’t get her in trouble.’
            ‘Well watch out then.  I hope you’ll be all right.  You have a good time.’
            ‘We have a fine time.’
            ‘Don’t fight then and don’t get her into trouble.’
            ‘I won’t.’
            ‘Mind you watch out.  I don’t want her with any of these war babies.’
            ‘You’re a fine girl, Fergy.’
           ‘I’m not.  Don’t try to flatter me.  How does your leg feel?’

Close reading (individual or group)

  1. Do a quick overview of this extract by dividing it up between panoramic sections and scenic sections.  (See Chapter 4.4.)
  2. Describe the structure of the sentence from the first paragraph beginning ‘It is not like dying….’ What is the function of the commas and the conjunctions in this sentence?  Why do you think that Hemingway has written such a long sentence here?
  3. How many examples of figurative language can you find in this extract?
  4. What is your response to this absence of figurative language? Why might Hemingway have wanted to avoid figurative language in his writing.
  5. Note the occasions where the narrator uses the word ‘fine’? What does his use of this word tell you about him?
  6. Why do you think Ferguson reacts the way she does to his use of the word ‘fine’? 
  7. Rewrite all the sentences in the scene with Ferguson that use the word ‘fine’, using different words and more detail. What changes do you find yourself needing to make in the sentences which follow those you have changed? How do these changes affect the relationship between Fred and Nurse Ferguson?
  8. A recent billboard ad for beer in New Zealand had the following words: ‘We’re men of few words. Make ours Lion Red.’ In your view, how manly is it to be a ‘man of few words’?

b) Style in The Handmaid’s Tale
The stylistic texture of The Handmaid’s Tale is not consistent. At times, readers are given a straightforward account of events. At other times, however, the language becomes very dense, figurative and syntactically complex. Such a passage is reproduced below.

Well. Then we had the irises, rising beautiful and cool on their tall stalks, like blown glass, like pastel water momentarily frozen in a splash, light blue, light mauve, and the darker ones, velvet and purple, black cat’s-ears in the sun, indigo shadow, and the bleeding hearts, so female in shape it was a surprise they’d not long since been rooted out. There is something subversive about this garden of Serena’s, a sense of buried things bursting upwards, wordlessly,  into the light, as if to point, to say: Whatever is silenced will clamour to be heard, though silently. A Tennyson garden, heavy with scent, languid; the return of the word swoon. Light pours down upon it from the sun, true, but also heat rises, from the flowers themselves, you can feel it: like holding your hand an inch above an arm, a shoulder. It breathes, in the warmth, breathing itself in. To walk through it in these days, of peonies, of pinks and carnations, makes my head swim.
    The willow is in full plumage and is no help, with its insinuating whispers. Rendezvous, it says, terraces; the sibilants run up my spine, a shiver as if in fever. The summer dress rustles against the flesh of my thighs, the grass grows underfoot, at the edges of my eyes there are movements, in the branches; feathers, flittings, grace notes, tree into bird, metamorphosis run wild. Goddesses are possible now and the air suffuses with desire. Even the bricks of the house are softening, becoming tactile; if I leaned against them they’d be warm and yielding. It’s amazing what denial can do. Did the sight of my ankle make him lightheaded, faint, at the checkpoint yesterday, when I dropped my pass and let him pick it up for me? No handkerchief, no fan, I use what’s handy.
    Winter is not so dangerous.  I need hardness, cold, rigidity; not this heaviness, as if I’m a melon on a stem, this liquid ripeness.

Printed below as Resource C is an example of an analysis of this passage. As you read it, keep referring back to the passage itself. Ensure that you read the analysis critically. You might take note of things you noticed about the passage that the analysis doesn’t discuss, or discusses differently than you would have.

Resource C: A Sample Analysis
Contextualise: This passage occurs within a section called ‘Soul Scrolls’ but this particular chapter is primarily concerned to give a panoramic overview of Offred’s first clandestine meetings with the Commander. The passage in question is a reflection of Offred’s feelings about Serena Joy’s garden, but refers back to an earlier incident of Offred’s encounter with a checkpoint Guardian. (Ch. 4)

Generalise: While the passage is anchored in Offred’s sensations as they relate to Serena Joy’s garden, it also sheds light on her inner state of being: feelings, reflections, realisations. In particular, the garden, trees, even the house are presented as beings ‘on heat’ rather as one might talk about a beast as being ‘on heat’. The surroundings are a kind of mirror to Offred’s own sense of her own flesh, her own carnal nature…which in the society of Gilead has been driven underground.

Structure: The passage begins by recalling the irises of spring…which are characterised by their coolness, stillness and perfection. It then shifts to the present…to a statement about the fact that Offred finds Serena’s garden ‘subversive’. A reader might be forgiven for asking the question: How on earth can a garden be subversive? The passage moves on to elaborate on this sense of the garden, highlighting such things as the scent, the heat, the bright light, the sense of living things, the colours of such summer flowers as ‘pinks and carnations’ which are a contrast to the blues and mauves of the spring irises.The second paragraph moves outward from the garden to other aspects of the setting: trees, lawn, birds and house. The language is full of suggestions of sexual energy, change, movement, stirrings of desire. Offred is aware of her own body and the potential of her own body to stir desire in others. The final paragraph is like a warning to herself. A reminder that winter is safer. In colder weather, it is easier to confine one’s sexual self within the rigid constrictions imposed by Gilead. Survival depends on keeping certain things below the surface. But this setting is a reminder of how: ‘Whatever is silenced will clamour to be heard, though silently.’ This is probably the central thematic statement as far as this passage is concerned.

(a) Syntax (rhythm)
As is typical of The Handmaid’s Tale, the sentence structure of this passage attempts to imitate a person thinking, reflecting, talking out loud. Sentences are often short. When they are long, they often proceed through the addition or accumulation of elements which reflect either a thinking process or a process that is occurring in Offred’s surroundings. The single word opener ‘Well,’ is like a recognition that the ‘shears’ mentioned at the end of the preceding section are unattainable and that something has finished…in this case the spring of ‘irises’. The long complex sentence describing the irises begins with a main clause (as do all loose periodic sentences, which are typical of conversational language) and builds on the main clause through phrases (participial, adverbial, adjectival, noun) and a couple of final clauses (one adverbial and one noun). The structure simply mirrors  Offred’s process of articulating her sense of the irises.The next sentence begins with a pronouncement, a simple sentence which is a statement of theme, which is elaborated upon by a phrase in apposition and other phrases. The phrase in apposition typically attempts to restate the beginning of the sentence. Offred really wants her reader to understand what she is saying. The next sentence is minor (i.e. lacks a finite verb) as if to mirror the heaviness of the sensations. The next sentence (‘Light pours…) is a compound sentence…with ‘but’ as a conjunction. The word ‘true’ has been slotted in before the ‘but’ as a way of underlining the fact that the notion of heat falling is also coupled with the sense of heat rising. The colon (a longish pause) introduces an adverbial phrase (a simile), which seeks to elaborate further on Offred’s sense of the garden’s heat as having a human or animal quality.Notice how the question and answer format in the next paragraph also shows the way in which Offred continuously engages with herself. It is, after all, her primary means of survival. She relies on herself for company.

(b) Diction
This passage is anchored in her sensory surroundings, so you would expect to find concrete words suggestive of her literal surroundings. There are many words that are both concrete and literal and because this garden is a feast of sensation these images appeal to all of the senses: sight (‘light blue’, ‘indigo shadow’), sound (‘grace notes’, ‘rustle’, ‘clamour’), smell (‘scent’ ) and touch (‘heavy’, ‘languid’, ‘rustles against’, ‘shiver’).At the same time, the literal concrete quickly graduates to the figurative as Offred’s seeks to find in language some way of articulating her sense of what the garden is meaning to her.  Similes are most prominent: ‘like blown glass, like pastel water momentarily frozen in a splash’ communicates her sense of the irises as perfect, still, cold and delicate’….(a contrast to the peonies, pinks and carnations of summer). The simile, ‘like holding your hand an inch above an arm, a shoulder’ is actually a personification since it is giving the garden’s heat human qualities. (Offred, on heat, identifies with the garden, on heat.) Finally, Offred’s identification with this heavy sense of sexual desire is communicated in the simile: ‘…as if I’m a melon on a stem.’The garden is generally personified in much of the figurative imagery. Calling the garden ‘subversive’ is a personification. The ‘willow’ is personified as containing ‘insinuating whispers’. (Wonderful word, ‘insinuating’). The bricks are described as ‘soft and yielding’ (the characteristic attitude of women in romantic fiction when they are under the spell of a male hero). Suggesting that summer is ‘dangerous’ is another personification.There is, of course, abstract diction. Offred is a tough-minded woman and her victory against the system is a tribute to her tough-mindedness. Hence words which mirror her thought processes or her arguments with herself: ‘subversive’, ‘whatever is silenced’, ‘buried things’, ‘desire’, ‘denial’, ‘dangerous’, ‘rigidity’, ‘heaviness’, ‘ripeness’

c) Passages for analysis
The following passages, from two very different novels, have been offered as opportunities for close reading as members of a group, where you can pool your insights and abilities.

Group task: close reading
You may wish to follow the structure used in the ‘model’ analysis. That is, begin by generalising on the passage (saying, roughly what it is about, or what’s going on), commenting on its structure and then looking in detail at its syntax and diction (including particular uses of punctuation marks).

Passage A: from Pride and Prejudice,  by Jane Austen

 In this extract, the novel’s heroine, Elizabeth Bennet has gone to Netherfield (a country house) to care for her sister Jane who has a bad cold. The character Bingley, is the gentleman in possession of Netherfield and is enamoured of Jane. Of his two sisters (the two ladies mentioned in the first sentence), one is married to Mr Hurst. The other (‘Miss Bingley) rather fancies Mr Darcy, the (ultimate] hero of this famous novel.

At five o’clock the two ladies retired to dress, and at half past six Elizabeth was summoned to dinner. To the civil enquiries which then poured in, and amongst which she had the pleasure of distinguishing the much superior solicitude of Mr Bingley’s she could not make a very favourable answer. Jane was by no means better. The sisters, on hearing this, repeated three or four times how much they were grieved, how shocking it was to have a bad cold, and how excessively they disliked being ill themselves; and then thought no more of the matter: and their indifference towards Jane when not immediately before them, restored Elizabeth to the enjoyment of all her original dislike.
    Their brother, indeed, was the only one of the party whom she could regard with any complacency. His anxiety for Jane was evident, and his attentions to herself most pleasing, and they prevented her feeling herself so much an intruder as she believed she was considered by the others. She had very little notice from any but him. Miss Bingley was engrossed by Mr Darcy, her sister scarcely less so; and as for Mr Hurst, by whom Elizabeth sat, he was an indolent man, who lived only to eat, drink, and play at cards, who when he found her prefer a plain dish to a ragout, had nothing to say to her.

Passage B: from Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff

Context: The following passage comes from near the beginning of 5. Beth Heke has just woken after a violent party where she has been beaten up by her husband, Jake. She has woken too late to support her son Boogie who is appearing in court.

    She got quietly out of bed, went to the bathroom.
    Oo, look at me – look at me, at her reflection in the medicine cupboard mirror with the silver starting to break up behind the glass and mould formed in the lower too corners. And this face – if you could call it a face – framed there, beaten to a barely recognisable pulp. And him, the doer of this to me, laying back there in bed – my bed – as if nothing happened. I’ll killim. I’ll kill the black bastard.
    The right eye puffed shut, nose broken – again – lower lip swollen with a deep cut about midway and leaking blood. Bruises all over. Beth sighed, shook her head in a kind of astonishment. You mad mad crazy bastard, Jake Heke.
    The house was  quiet. Kids must’ve gone to school Wonder what ti – Oh God. Boogie. He’s in court today. Ten o’clock. She hurried downstairs, to the kitchen where the clock was – so clean, oh, you good good kids. Clock. Where the hell is it? on the windowsill above the sink – What? Five to one? In the afternoon! Oh poor Boogie, I should’ve been there. Rushing back up to the bathroom, the mirror…Look at me, son. Look at the state of me: I couldn’t’ve come looking like this. I couldn’t’ve. The guilt, or something, bringing tears to her eyes – and oh, stinging the bad one. Grinding her teeth together in frustration and rage. Standing there for several minutes willing herself not to lose control.

6.5 ‘There are places I remember…’ (John Lennon)

Because the novel is prose fiction on a grand scale it give the writer scope to portray a range of settings in great detail. Frequently, if the story takes place over a number of years, places can be shown undergoing various processes of social change. We have already touched on the concept of setting in Chapter 4.1. In this section, we will be exploring setting in more detail.

Language Tool Kit:
Social setting: The portrayal in narrative fiction and non-fiction of the social reality or realities within which the characters act out their lives.

a) Social setting: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
The social setting of a novel is the portrayal of the social realities within which the characters live and act. The social setting will include the following:

  • a geographical place (e.g. the English countryside);
  • a historical time (e.g. England in the early Nineteenth century);
  • physical spaces (e.g. country houses, towns,  drawing-rooms, bedrooms, gardens);
  • institutional contexts (e.g. the Anglican Church, a marriage, a legal system);
  • socio-economic contexts (e.g. the English middle classes);
  • forms of social behaviour (e.g. acceptable and unacceptable behaviours related to a range of social contexts);
  • power relationships (e.g. hierarchies, systems of decision-making). 

As pointed out elsewhere in this chapter, we don’t just inhabit a social reality. There’s a sense in which social realities inhabit us. Use the following discussion tasks to examine the way in which Austen introduces the social setting of her famous novel in the very first few paragraphs of the novel.

Pride and Prejudice
by Jane Austen
Chapter 1
            It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
            However little known the feeling or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
            ‘My dear Mr Bennet,’ said his lady to him one day, ‘have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?’
            Mr Bennet replied that he had not.
            ‘But it is,’ returned she; ‘for Mrs Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.’
            Mr Bennet made no answer.
            ‘Do not you want to know who has taken it?’ cried his wife impatiently.
            ‘You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.’
            This was invitation enough.
            ‘Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it that he agreed with Mr Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.’
            ‘What is his name?’
            ‘Is he married or single?’
            ‘Oh! single, my dear, to be sure!  A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year.  What a fine thing for our girls!’
            ‘How so? how can it affect them?’
            ‘My dear Mr Bennet,’ replied his wife, ‘how can you be so tiresome!  You must know that I am thinking of his marrying one of them.’
            ‘Is that his design in settling here?’

Close reading (group)

  1. In your view, by whom is the ‘truth’ referred to in the first line  ‘universally acknowledged’? What is meant by the word ‘universally’?
  2. On the basis of your reading of this extract, would you say that Mr Bennet ‘acknowledges’ this truth?
  3. On the basis of your answers to Questions 1 and 2, what does Austen really appear to be saying about the universality of social beliefs?
  4. What belief about rich, single men is referred to in paragraph 2? Which character or characters appear to subscribe to this belief?
  5. Why do you think Austen begins her second paragraph with the adverbial phrase, ‘However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be’?
  6. By the time this novel opening becomes scenic, we are being introduced to a marriage. Would you say Mr or Mrs Bennet exercises most power in the conversation? Provide evidence for your answer.
  7. To what extent are the formalities of the Bennets’ conversation strange to you?

b) Holding up a mirror to the society setting
Novels vary in the extent to which they challenge the various social realities they are set in. The following questions can be used to explore this question with respect to the novel you have studied in class.

Close reading (individual)
Some of the following questions will need considerable detail if you are going to answer them properly. However, they will also take you to the heart of an important means of making your chosen novel meaningful.

  1. Construct a visual overview of the major settings in your novel specifying places, historical times, physical spaces, and institutional and socio-economic contexts.
  2. How is power distributed in your novel’s social setting? Again, you may find it helpful to record your answer in diagrammatic form, with the most powerful on top and the lest powerful  at the bottom.
  3. List some of the ways in which the powerless are controlled by the powerful in your novel’s social setting.
  4. Read two scenes where some kind of social interaction is occurring? Which character or characters appear to be dominant? How is this dominance shown?
  5. Construct a list of do’s and don’t’s of behaviour for two or three contrasting characters who appear in the two scenes you examined in Question 4. (This contrast may, for example, result from gender, class, race, religion or some other factor.)
  6. Identify some of the ideas that the powerful group or groups in this social setting use to justify maintaining their position of power.
  7. What are some of the important values and beliefs held by the powerful group in your novel’s social setting.
  8. Do any of the characters in your novel act in ways that challenge the dominant social practices in your novel’s setting? Who are they? In what ways do they issue their challenge?
    What are the consequences of their challenge?
  9. In your own view, is the novelist essentially accepting or rejecting of the social reality that dominates in their novel? Provide detailed evidence for your answer. 

c) The natural setting
A whole book could be written on humankind’s changing perceptions of the natural world (and many have). Look up the meaning of the word ‘nature’ in a large dictionary and you will find a variety of definitions that reflect various perspectives on this word. In this chapter section, word ‘nature’ refers simply to everything in our environment that is not the product of human enterprise.

Nature, as a setting, varies in importance from novel to novel. It’s presence is rather muted in Pride and Prejudice but emerges strongly in novels later in the Nineteenth Century such as Wuthering Heights  (by Emily Bronte) and Huckleberry Finn. (It’s an interesting research question as to why this should be.)  The concern here, however, is to have you explore the kinds of meanings that can attach themselves to nature, where nature is a key setting in a novel. The extract below is also a rather famous novel opening: the opening of A Farewell to Arms.

A Farewell to Arms
by Ernest Hemingway

Book 1: Chapter 1

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.  In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.  Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees.  The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterwards the road bare and white except for the leaves.
            The plain was rich with crops; there were many orchards of fruit trees and beyond the plain the mountains were brown and bare.  There was fighting in the mountains and at night we could see the flashes from the artillery.  In the dark it was like summer lightning, but the nights were cool and there was now the feeling of a storm coming.
            Sometimes in the dark we heard the troops marching under the window and guns going past pulled by motor-tractors.  There was much traffic at night and many mules on the roads with boxes of ammunition on each side of their pack-saddles and grey motor-trucks that carried men, and other trucks with loads covered with canvas that moved slower in the traffic.  There were big guns too that passed in the day drawn by tractors, the long barrels of the guns covered with green branches and green leafy branches and vines laid over the tractors.  To the north we could look across a valley and see a forest of chestnut trees and behind it another mountain on this side of the river.  There was fighting for that mountain too, but it was not successful, and in the fall when the rains came the leaves all fell from the chestnut trees and the branches were bare and the trunks black with rain.  The vineyards were thin and bare-branched too and all the country wet and brown and dead with the autumn.  There were mists over the river and clouds on the mountain and the trucks splashed mud on the roads and the troops were muddy and wet in their capes; their rifles were wet and under their capes the two leather cartridge-boxes on the front of the belts, grey leather boxes heavy with packs of clips of thin, long 6.5 mm cartridges, bulged forward under the capes so that the men, passing on the road, marched as though they were six months gone with child.
            There were small grey motor-cars that passed going very fast; usually there was an officer on the seat with the driver and more officers in the back seat.  They splashed more mud than the camions even and if one of the officers in the back was very small and sitting between two generals, he himself so small that you could not see his face but only the top of his cap and his narrow back, and if the car went especially fast it was probably the King.  He lived in Udine and came out in this way nearly every day to see how things were going, and things went very badly.
            At the start of the winter came the permanent rain and with the rain came the cholera.  But it was checked and in the end only seven thousand died of it in the army.

Close reading (group)

  1. What period of time does this opening cover? Why do you think Hemingway has used such a wide sweep of time?
  2. Two realms, the social and the natural, are juxtaposed in this opening chapter. On the basis of your reading of the first paragraph, come up with as many sentences as you can which make a connection between the words ‘troops’ and ‘trees’.
  3. In this opening chapter, the reader is invited to move from small objects in the landscape to large ones. Find instances where this happens. What effect does this movement from small to large have on you as readers?
  4. The second-to-last paragraph in this opening chapter appears to mock power in society. In what way does it do this?
  5. An army might be thought of as an example of a socially constructed force. In what ways is nature being presented as a force in this opening chapter?
  6. On the basis of your reading of this chapter, which force is being presented as more powerful, society or nature?

6.6. Characters and characterisation

Novels without characters are unimaginable. In this section we will be asking some broad questions about characters, we will be looking at some of the functions of character and we will revisit the issue of characterisation raised in Chapter 4.1.

a) The uses of character
In the group exercise that follows, we will be exploring some rather obvious questions about character. So obvious, in fact, that they sometimes don’t get asked at all.

Group discussion task

  1. What does prose fiction gain from the presence of characters? (To answer this question, you might consider your response to a history book that tells you virtually nothing about the characters involved in the events it recounts.)
  2. How important do you think it is to be able to identify with characters in novels? Give reasons.
  3. Can any of your group recall characters from novels that they have disliked but which are still memorable? Say why these characters were memorable.
  4. List some of the uses to which novelists can put characters.
  5. Often novelists make use of relatively minor, two-dimensional characters in their novels (e.g. Mr Collins, in Pride and Prejudice,  the confidence men in Huckleberry Finn,  Ferguson in A Farewell to Arms,  Janine in The Handmaid’s Tale,  Mr Dolman in Potiki ). What are some of the functions such characters can serve?

b) Using character to establish a position
Many novels use characters to help establish a ‘reading position’ in their readers (See section 2 of this chapter.) Identification is a very powerful tool, and when we find a character whom we sympathise with, we have an inclination to empathise with their point of view. We begin to think of their version of reality as ‘normal’ or ‘the truth’.

Close reading (individual)
The tasks below can be used to help in a critical reading of character in any novel. Do the tasks in sequence.

  1. Rank the characters in the novel, starting from the ones you personally find most sympathetic and moving to the ones you find least sympathetic.
  2. Rank the characters in the novel starting from the ones you think the novelist intends to be most sympathetic and moving to the ones intended to be least sympathetic.
  3. How similar are these two ranked lists? Account for discrepancies between the two lists.
  4. Now select the character whom you think the novelist approves of most. List carefully the reasons why you think this character is meant to be approved of. (Mention specific textual evidence to support your points.)
  5. To what extent does the novelist use this character as a contrast to common ways of behaving and thinking in the novel’s social setting? Detail some of these contrasts using the formula: ‘This character challenges his or her society by….’
  6. Write a paragraph detailing your own responses, both positive and negative, to this character’s ideas and behaviour.
  7. Finally, respond to this character’s ideas and behaviour from the point of view of the character in the novel you dislike most.

c) Telling and showing
This section expands on a distinction, first made in Chapter 4.3. One of the pitfalls to avoid in using an omniscient, third-person point of view is the temptation to tell readers about characters rather than to present them by showing them doing, thinking and saying.

Close reading (group)
The following tasks give you the opportunity to compare methods of characterisation in novels using contrasting narrative points of view. The first extract is from Pride and Prejudice.

Mr Collins was not a sensible man, and the deficiency of nature had been but little assisted by education or society; the greatest part of his life having been spent under the guidance of an illiterate and miserly father; and though he belonged to one of the universities, he had merely kept the necessary terms, without forming at it any useful acquaintance. The subjection in which his father had brought him up, had given him originally great humility of manner, but it was now a good deal counteracted by the self-conceit of a weak head, living in retirement, and the consequential feelings of early and unexpected prosperity. A fortunate chance had recommended him to Lady Catherine de Bourgh when the living of Husford was vacant; and the respect which he felt for her high rank, and his veneration for her as his patroness, mingling with a very good opinion of himself, of his authority as a clergyman, and his rights as a rector, made him altogether a mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility.

It should be pointed out that this passage is not being presented as typical of Austen’s novel as a whole. But it does typify those panoramic sections where the novelist is presenting an overview.

  1. How do you respond to the authoritative manner of this description? Does it give you confidence in the writer, or are you irritated by it?
  2. It can be argued that this description of Mr Collins has been made bearable by Austen’s style. To what extent do you agree with this statement? Give reasons.
  3. Come up with the rough outline of a scene which would enable some of Mr Collins character traits to be presented to the audience without their being told so directly.

Now read an extract from A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway. This extract occurs quite early in the novel, (Chapter 6) and is part of Fred Henry’s third encounter with Catherine Barkley.

I saw Catherine Barkley coming down the hall, and stood up.  She did not seem tall walking towards me but she looked very lovely.
            ‘Good evening, Mr Henry,’ she said.
            ‘How do you do?’ I said.  The orderly was listening behind the desk.
            ‘Shall we sit here or go out in the garden?’
            ‘Let’s go out.  It’s much cooler.’
            I walked behind her out into the garden, the orderly looking after us.  When we were out on the gravel drive she said, ‘Where have you been?’
            ‘I’ve been out on post.’
            ‘You couldn’t have sent me a note?’
            ‘No,’ I said.  ‘Not very well.  I thought I was coming back.’
            ‘You ought to have let me know darling.’
            We were off the driveway, walking under the trees.  I took her hands, then stopped and kissed her.
            ‘Isn’t there anywhere we can go?’
            ‘No,’ she said.  ‘We have to just walk here.  You’ve been away a long time.’
            ‘This is the third day.  But I’m back now.’
            She looked at me.  ‘And you do love me?’
            ‘You did say you loved me, didn’t you?’
            ‘Yes,’ I lied.  ‘I love you.’  I had not said it before.
            ‘And you call me Catherine?’
            ‘Catherine.’  We walked on a way and were stopped under a tree.
            ‘Say, “I’ve come back to Catherine in the night.”’
            ‘I’ve come back to Catherine in the night.’
            ‘Oh, darling, you have come back, haven’t you?’
            ‘I love you so and it’s been awful.  You won’t go away?’
            No. I’ll always come back.’
            Oh, O love you so.  Please put your hand there again.’
            ‘It’s not been away.’  I turned her so I could see her face when I kissed her and I saw that her eyes were shut.  I kissed both her shut eyes.  I thought she was probably a little crazy.  It was all right if she was.  I did not care what I was getting into.  This was better than going every evening to the house for officers where the girls climbed all over you and put your cap on backwards as a sign of affection between their trips upstairs with brother offers.  I knew I did not love Catherine Barkley not had any idea of loving her.  This was a game, like bridge, in which you said things instead of playing for money or playing for some stakes.  Nobody mentioned what the stakes were.  It was all right with me.
            ‘I wish there was some place we could go,’ I said.  I was experiencing the masculine difficulty of making love very long standing up.
            ‘There isn’t any place,’ she said.  She came back from wherever she had been.
            ‘We might sit there just for a little while.’
            We sat on the flat stone bench and I held Catherine Barkley’s hand.  She would not let me put my arm around her.
            ‘Are you very tired?’ she asked.
            She looked down at the grass.
            ‘This is a rotten game we play, isn’t it?’
            ‘What game?’
            ‘Don’t be dull.’
            ‘I’m not, on purpose.’
            ‘You’re a nice boy,’ she said.  ‘And you play it as well as you know how.  But it’s a rotten game.’
            ‘Do you always know what people think?’
            ‘Not always.  But I do with you.  You don’t have to pretend you love me.  That’s over for the evening.  Is there anything you’d like to talk about?’

  1. List the various ways Hemingway uses in this scene to present character.
  2. On the basis of this extract, write down character assessments of Fred Henry and Catherine Barkley.
  3. Which of these two characters do you feel you know better? Give reasons for your answer.
  4. Which of these two characters do you dislike more? Give reasons.
  5. Explain why this scene is ironical.
  6. As a group, come up with a third-person character description of Fred Henry, more or less imitating the style of Jane Austen. Use any information you’ve gathered from this short scene, but feel free to imagine other details about Fred’s background.
  7. Construct a summary sheet in two columns setting out the advantages and disadvantages of Showing and Telling as contrasting methods of characterisation.

6.7. The shape of a novel

When we talk about the structure of a novel, we refer to its overall shape – the way its parts relate to the whole. In general, there are three broad ways in which a novel can be made coherent:

  • Plot: The way events (not just things happening to and between characters but also within characters) are organised in sequence.
  • Point of view: The consistency of vantage point or vantage points from which the action is viewed.
  • Motif: The patterning created by recurring images and ideas. (An example of this is the recurrent rain in A Farewell to Arms, and the recurrence of the word ‘pride’ in Pride and Prejudice. )

In this section, we will be focusing on plot. Firstly, we will be looking at ways in which you can construct a overview of the plot structure of a novel. Then we will revisit ways in which writers manipulate plot. Finally, we will reflect on the relationship between story pattern and cultural context.

a) An overview of plot structure
In ‘real’ time, events occur in chronological sequence. Many novels choose to follow this chronological sequence. Pride and Prejudice, A Farewell to ArmsHuckleberry Finn and Potiki all follow a chronological sequence (though Hemingway’s novel is affected by the fact that the narrator is telling his story retrospectively and Grace’s novel is pervaded by a Maori view of time and history.) The Handmaid’s Talehowever, is only partly told chronologically. Its structure is dominated by the psychological time of its first person narration and is full of flashbacks. (See Chapter 4.1.)

Individual close reading
Complete the following steps as a way of gaining an overview of the plot structure of the novel you are studying.

Step 1: Look at  Resource D: Making a synopsis. It shows how one might summarise a section of the Handmaid’s Tale. Use its format in summarising the main events in your novel, chapter by chapter. (Note the use of abbreviations. FB stands for flashback. RLRC stands for Rachel Leah Re-education Centre.) Use few words.

Step 2: 
Construct a timeline of the chronological events that your novelist has organised into a plot. Such a construction is particularly revealing for novels which disturb the flow of chronological time. It can also be useful as a way of establishing the prehistory of a story. In the box below, there is an example of this based on The Handmaid’s Tale.

Step 3: What events or episodes have been highlighted by the structure as it reveals itself through your synopsis and timeline? Give reasons why these particular events have been highlighted.

b) Manipulating plot.
In Chapter 4.1 we identified a number of plot elements. These included:

  • predicament,
  • conflict,
  • rising action,
  • climax,
  • denouement.

From our study of tragedy, we identified:

  • crucial error of judgement,
  • turning point.

To these elements we are going to add:

  • complication
  • resolution.

A complication occurs in the action of a story when a character is suddenly confronted by an unexpected problem or unfortunate turn of events. A resolution occurs when a difficult choice has been made or a problem has become satisfactorily or at least finally dealt with.

Language Tool Kit:
Flashback: A sudden insertion in a narrative of an account of an event that has occurred some time prior to the present action.
Complication: An expected problem or misfortune that interrupts the smooth flow of action of a story.
Resolution: A choice or event which sorts out a complication, one way or another.

Close reading (individual)

  1. Referring to your timeline, synopsis or any other notes you have made, identify places in your novel where the above plot elements occur.
  2. Describe in detail at least one major predicament in your novel. How did the character resolve this predicament?
  3. Use a diagram to map the significant conflicts that occur in your novel.
  4. Discuss in detail one of the central turning points in your novel?
  5. Discuss two point in your novel where the novelist introduced a complication for the purpose of generating suspense.
  6. Was there a significant error of judgement made by a main character in your novel? If so, what was the error? What caused it? What was the consequence of this error?
  7. Discuss the point in the novel you consider to be its climax.

c) Our cultural inheritance of plot patterns
If we reflect on the range of stories we are exposed to through the various media of Western  popular and literary culture,  we can identify a number of common plot patterns. Here are some of them.

  • The Inner Quest: This involves the main character in a journey towards self-discovery. Tragedy as a genre is con-  cerned with this. A contemporary example is John Marsden’s book, The Journey.
  • The Journey: This may involve a character or group of characters engaging in a quest for an actual object (e.g. treasure) or in a series of adventures. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is an example of this.
  • Revenge: In this pattern, a central character seeks to avenge an act of injustice. Again, this is an old form that retains its popularity. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is an example.
  • The Mysterious and Powerful Stranger: In this pattern, a stranger enters a community and exerts a remarkable influence. The classic Western, Shaneis an example of this pattern. So is The X-Files. 
  • Mixed Identities: In this pattern, characters either conceal their real identities for strategic purposes or participate in events unaware of who they really are. Many comic narratives incorporate this pattern.
  • Romantic Complication: In this pattern, lovers have problems acknowledging their real attraction (as in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) or lovers find they have to overcome a number of obstacles (including rivals) before the happy-ever-after ending can be established.
  • Survival: In this pattern, a character or group of characters is confronted with a situation of peril (often with a time constraint thrown in) which they have to find a solution for. MacGyver is contemporary example of this.
  • The Awkward Mix: In this pattern, a group of contrasting and often conflicting characters is brought together through external circumstance. Often setting provides the motive for this bringing together, as in M*A*S*H  and Shakespeare’s play The Tempest.
  • The Driving Ambition: In this pattern, a single character or group has their mind set on achieving a particular goal. The BBC’s political thriller, The Final Cut,  about the fictitious British Prime Minister, Francis Urquart, is an example of this pattern.

Thinking critically (group)
Record your findings with respect to the following tasks and present them as a group to the rest of the class.

  1. Which of the above patterns can you relate to stories you have had read to you, read yourselves or viewed on television or at the cinema. Write down your group’s examples next to each pattern.
  2. For which of the above patterns did you find most easy to find examples? Suggest reasons for this.
  3. Attempt as a group to rank the above patterns from most preferred to least preferred. Give reasons for your ranking. If your group can’t agree, summarise the reasons for disagreement.
  4. Are there patterns which your group can think of that are not included in the above list? If so, describe the pattern briefly and provide an example.
  5. Choose two groups of people in your society whom you would consider to be relatively disadvantaged or marginalised. Construct plot patterns that you think would appeal to each of them. (You can draw on the patterns listed above or come up with patterns of your own.)

Chapter Summary

This chapter has made the following key points:

  • A novel can be used to shed light on the life and cultural background of the novelist.
  • The reception of a novel tells us something about the receiving audience. Disposition affects reception.
  • Culture is not a simple term.
  • An ideology is a systematic way of making sense of the world.
  • When we adopt a position on an issue we are often consciously or unconsciously subscribing to an ideology.
  • Point of view is the perspective from which events of a story are presented.
  • A perspective includes a way of seeing reality.
  • Style is not neutral. It also implies a way of seeing.
  • The novel setting is more than a place and a time. It implies a complex social reality within which the action takes place.
  • ‘Nature’ in novels usually means a way of viewing the natural world.
  • Characterisation is one way of manipulating ‘reading position’.
  • Telling and showing are two broad means of characterisation.
  • Plot, point of view and motif are three broad ways of structuring a novel.
  • Cultures tend to privilege certain kinds of stories. 

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