Assumptions of close-reading prose:
1. Writing style is itself an expression of philosophy; or, to put it another way, form contains ideas
2. The formal aspects of writing - diction, sentence structure etc. - may work against the literal sense of the writing - or enhance it.
3. The subtleties of connotation and diction form a layer of meaning which is additional to the surface meaning of the text.
4. Every prose text comes with a host of expections - of genre, writing conventions, and the relationship of speaker and reader. Most (literary) texts operate by defying these rules and expectations.
1. Diction: types of words.
a. Connotative words vs. denotative words: this is a simple distinction in theory; in practice, it requires some judgement to tell the difference between the two. Denotative words refer to a specific referent; connotative language has other associations in addition to its primary meaning. A general word (such as "home") is more likely to have connotative value than specific language (such as "house," which describes a type of building). Understanding connotation is not a science, because it depends on the cultural, conventional associations with the word.
b. i. Genre of discourse: the words: "commit homicide," "blow away," and "murder" all mean to kill someone. They come, respectively, from legal discourse, vocal slang, and everyday (middle style) usage. "Blow away" and "murder" each carry a distinct connotative and emotive value.
Similarly, "happen," "occur," "manifest," and "go down" each have a distinct level of formality. They are similar in meaning but come from distinct genres of discourse: everyday usage (happen), formal usage (occur), philosophical discourse (manifest), and slang (go down). "Happen" and "go down" could be used in speech; "occur" and "manifest," being more formal, would not ordinarily be used in speech.
ii. Modes of discourse: vocal / written / horatory. Literary fiction changes modes frequently. Note the modes of address in this excerpt from Bellow's Ravelstein:
"Although I was Ravelstein's senior by a good many years, we were close friends. There were sophomoric elements in my character as there were in his, and these leveled the ground and evened things up. A man who knew me well said that I was more innocent than any adult had the right to be. As if I had chosen to be naïve. Besides, the fact is that even extremely naïve people know their own interests. Very simple women understand when it's time to draw the line with a difficult husband-when to siphon the money out of their joint back account. I paid no particular attention to self-preservation. You begin, in accordance with an unformulated agreement, to accept the terms, invariably falsified, on which others present themselves. You deaden your critical powers. You stifle your shrewdness. Before you know it you are paying a humongous divorce settlement to a woman who had more than once declared that she was an innocent who had no understanding of money matters."
Bellow begins with literary storytelling, specifying time and relationship. However, he incorporates idiomatic expressions -- "leveled the ground and evened things up" -- that do not belong to the formal mode. "Besides...": he moves into a vocal running style. He uses an embedded metaphor -- "siphon the money" -- and a rhetorical strategy of oppositions -- simplicity vs. sophistication. (See Notes on Composition, below). "I paid no particular attention to self-preservation." (Formal language.) More metaphors: "deaden... stifle." He uses legal/financial language: "unformulated agreement... falsified..." And hyperbole: "humongous divorce settlement..." Vocal, commonplace expression used by the woman he is discussing, not by him: "money matters."
c. Types of technical words. English is rich in technical vocabularies, which need not be technical in the sense of coming from science. Usages are specific to subcultures, academic fields, vocations or industries (e.g. fashion, movie production, marketing), and even political and philosophical belief systems (e.g. market economics; Marxism; Kantian epistemology etc.). The alert reader will be able to decode the way an author draws from various lexicons.
d. In literary studies it is customary to speak of "poetic diction." Poetic or literary language would stand out in casual conversation, is sometimes archaic, and generally rich in connotation. Ordinary or even idiomatic language used for its unusual language has a literary value. Unusual connotations also carry with them double meanings. For instance, in Conrad's "The Secret Sharer" the word "terrific" is used for its connotation of terrifying; in Scott's "The Two Drovers," the word "taxation" is used for its connotation of "taxing" or stress-inducing.
Examples of neutral vs. poetic forms:
all together / as one
incessant / unceasing
escape / flee
invisible / unseen
branch / bough
girl / maiden
room / chamber
In every case, the first usage is essentially descriptive; the more poetic usage is richer in connotation. Generally speaking, it is more emotive. It is instructive to examine the reasons for an author's choice of neutral or connotative language.
e. Types of verbs: action verbs, linking verbs, auxiliary verbs.
i) action verbs: physical, mental, or conceptual action.
Physical: She expressed her disgust in the strongest language imaginable.
Mental: While to all appearances she liked her roommate, she maintained a persistent sense of disgust through all their dealings.
Conceptual: Her apparent good intentions were subverted by brief lapses that revealed her true feelings of utter disgust.
An author's verb choices create the tone of the work. Verbs create the reality depicted in the text, whether physical, interior, or conceptual. Of interest too is the way an author moves from one verbal mode to another.
ii) linking verbs: These are inactive verbs that put the stress on the predicate. (An important question to ask when analyzing sentences: is the stress on the subject or predicate or modification?)
Janice is a fairly equable individual.
The cat could be a Siamese, judging from its markings.
iii) An auxiliary verb modifies another verb: I was walking to Oxford Town.
"Was" in this case is not a linking verb, because it is followed by another verb. Auxiliary verbs tell the manner of the action in the main verb.
f. Patterns of modification. A sentence is essentially an independent clause or a series of independent clauses. Everything else is modification, giving more information about the subject; about temporal issues affecting action; about the manner of action; about other, related actions; about the speaker's or character's thoughts about the action.
i) When analyzing prose it is useful to look for patterns of modification. Is there a persistent concern with temporal matters? Do digressive clauses express mixed or paradoxical feelings? Do they undermine or case doubt on the action? Complex prose is characterized by heavy modification; the ambiguities and subtleties of meaning are often located outside the subject-predicate structure. For instance, in Douglass's Narrative there is a persistent concern with locating every event temporally. And yet, the descriptions are often less than specific, which shows a tension between the desire for accuracy and - perhaps - the impossibility of providing specific details.
NOTES ON COMPOSITION
Composition is the big picture of prose; our concern here is with micro-analysis. Nonetheless, it is necessary to have a basic sense of big picture rhetoric.
1. Rhetorical strategies. These are not formal modes of argument (cf. the field of logic) or storytelling strategies (cf. the field of narratology). Instead, they are tactics for speaking persuasively in prose. To explain this another way, they are closer to jokes than to arguments. A syllogistic argument may have validity if its basic premises lead to its conclusion. A joke has no validity except to the extent that it makes someone laugh. To that extent it is effective. If rhetorical strategies work, they are effective.
a. Themes or motifs. Any concept that ties a text together and which is referred to throughout a text. "Looking for something lost." Or a specific thing: transitions, light, the seasons.
b. Repetition of key words.
c. Counterpoints (or antithesis). An effective structuring principle in nonfiction or fiction: darkness / light; justice / freedom.
d. False modesty. The author shows vulnerability or a species of self-denigrating charm to put the reader off guard.
e. Imagery. To this I would add: language that engages the senses, including feeling, aural experience, even smell.
f. Metaphor. "My affection for her swelled to such a height I feared I would be toppled by its eventual, inevitable crash." Metaphors are frequently embedded in prose and contain a whole area of content outside the primary meaning of the passage.
g. Framing strategies. "False modesty" is a sub-category of this. There are many effective framing strategies, including misdirection - leading the reader to believe you're speaking about something other than your eventual subject matter.
h. Strategies of voice: irony, hyperbole, sarcasm, emotional directness... The quality of voice is created by diction and sentence structure, and is probably the most important aspect of compositional rhetoric.
i. Paradoxes and oxymorons. These are neat formulations that can be very effective in prose: "I looked at her, startled by her faithless devotion." or "I looked at her, realizing she was at once my savior and my undoing."
j. Parody and allusion. In Roland Barthes' short essays he parodies common formulations and belief systems. Montaigne's essays are rich in allusions to classical literature. (This is a mode of persuasion and a way of forming a bond with the reader.) Woody Allen's short, comic stories occasionally parody trite storytelling conventions. They also include allusions to well-known passages from literature.
k. Mythic overtones. Used to great effect by political speakers like Bill Clinton; manifesto authors like Marx and Engels; founders of new disciplines like Sigmund Freud. Or novelists like Fitzgerald.
2. The logic of composition: hypotaxis, parataxis. In traditional prose, paragraphs are organized by the ideas they discuss. These ideas may not be explicitly stated in the paragraph. They are often closer to topics than beliefs or statements (although a paragraph can be organized around an assertion). There is a logic to the way a writer moves from paragraph to paragraph, and often some paragraphs are subordinate to others; for instance, a series of paragraphs may represent supporting points for an assertion made in an earlier paragraph. Or paragraphs may be arranged as chronological events. In any case, they will have an explicit (hypotactic) or implicit (paratactic) logic.
COHESION IN PROSE
Poetry has meter, rhyme, alliterative techniques, and - most importantly - the line to lend it cohesion. Cohesion is what gives a text a sense of consistency or wholeness. The most basic type of cohesion is repetition of whatever type.
In general, repetition is used as a persuasive technique. Like all rhetorical styles, however, it may be used ironically or as a parody of classic or formal writing.
1. Textual versus sounded cohesion. The following sentence has textual cohesion that is not reflected in its sound - due to the repetition of the letter "g."
"Gary might have bought some top-flight freight instead of the ignoble choices he made."
English phonemes such as "ough"=/aw/; "eigh"=/ay/ contain silent letters. On a written level, the sentence has added cohesion due to the repetition of the letter "g." This creates an awareness of the distinction between the textual and aural components of the text.
2. Types of sounded cohesion in prose:
c. rhythmic repetition (stresses)
e. repetition of word-patterns
f. repetition of specific words
g. homonyms - use of similar-sounding words
h. repetition of consonant sounds within words
3. Semantic cohesion. Well-written prose makes judicious but often liberal use of repetition, using series of parallel clauses and parallel sentence structures - and so on. In that this involves a repeated meaning or concept, it adds cohesion to the work.
"It was the best of times; it was the worst of times." The opposition of "best" and "worst," in addition to the repeated phrases, gives this a rhythmic, persuasive quality.
4. Rhythm in prose. Although prose lacks the line breaks of poetry, it makes use of stresses, unstressed syllables, and pauses. These rhythmic patterns underscore and determine the meaning in many ways - dependent on the particular passage. In most cases, there are repeating patterns of stress; the close reader should seek out such patterns.
For example, this is a passage from Virgina Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway.
"WHAT a LARK! // WHAT a PLUNGE! // For SO it had ALways SEEMED to HER,/ WHEN,/ with a LITtle SQUEAK of the HINges,/ which she could HEAR NOW,/ she had BURST OPen the FRENCH WINdows/ and PLUNged at BOURton INto the OPen AIR. / How FRESH, / how CALM,/ STILler than THIS of COURSE,/ the AIR WAS in the EARly MORning;/ like the FLAP of a WAVE,/ the KISS of a WAVE,/ CHILL and SHARP and YET/ (for a GIRL of eighTEEN as she THEN WAS)/ SOLemn,/ FEEling as she DID,/ STANding THERE at the OPen WINdow,/ that SOMEthing AWful was ABOUT to HAPpen..."
Much of the rhythm in this passage comes from the repetition of similar stress patterns either within a phrase or between consecutive phrases. The pattern of repetition is introduced in the first two sentences, each consisting of a single phrase identical in syntax, syllable structure, and stress. The fourth and fifth setnences each likewise begin with paired parallel phrases, in which likeness of stress pattern accompanies virtually identical syntactic and syllable structure.
As a prose analyst you will need to discover how the rhythm, in itself, contains meaning or alters the meaning of the text. It will be easier to analyze rhythm if you have some experience with verse prosody.
CONTEXTS OF PROSE
1. Prose, unlike poetry, must be analyzed with careful awareness of its context. A poem, rightly or wrongly, is often viewed as a self-standing text. Prose fiction or nonfiction is assumed to be more explicitly purpose-driven, and often assumes knowledge of the author's reputation and biography. These things must be taken into account when interpreting a text.
2. The social contract: all prose writing entails an unspoken agreement between the author and readers. These are the expectations determined by genre and circumstances of publication - they are also set up, to some extent, by the beginning of the text. The author does the following things:
i) identifies himself as well as his readership; ii) promises to do something - tell a certain type of story, make an argument, amuse and entertain, alert the reader to a pressing concern; iii) establishes a bond between herself and her reader. Understanding author / reader relationship requires subtle reading of both the cultural context and the opening passages of the text.
A further note: these expectations, often, are made to be broken; the author adds interest to the text by failing to follow through on this "agreement."
iv) The believing or doubting reader. An imporant aspect of the author-addressee relationship is the degree to which the speaker asks and expects the reader to give him the benefit of the doubt. In minimalist and modernist prose the reader accepts a good deal of the responsibility to construct the text's meaning or the story's events. Otherwise, a writer may take on an inordinate "burden of proof" to persuade the reader or articulate the content of the piece explicitly.
3. The expectations of time period and genre. This is an extension of the social contract. Most prose writers are either conforming to or working against literary conventions, which determine expectations for language, storytelling strategies, conventions of genre, authorial presence etc. You can't interpret these without considering the cultural context in which the work was published.
4. Establishing a universe of discourse. The meaningfulness of written language is dependent, to a great extent, not on what is literally said on the page, but on the assumed knowledge shared by speaker and reader. Part of the writer's "social contract" with the reader consists in his/her cues as to the spatial and temporal frames of reference of the text.
a. Spatial frame of reference. Where is the speaker or main character? The place may not be specific, but a writer nonetheless leaves an impression as to the nature of the place. Descriptions that involve directions ("to the left, there was a ficus plant") can only be understood in reference to the speaker or main character. As always, experimental or ironic writers can create a deliberate lack of clarity as to the location of the speaker/character.
b. Temporal frame of reference. This can be a historical time and place, or even the future, or simply a nonspecific "now." Within that "now," it can be a time of day or of the week ("late Tuesday afternoon").
c. Shared domains of knowledge. The speaker identifies his listener and him/herself mainly through assumptions about what that listener would know or believe. ("He was the kind of tousle-haired, no longer young fool you tend to meet in the Arab Quarter.") This alliance, or assumption of shared knowledge and beliefs, can of course be used ironically. All literature is built on assumptions. You must ask: what kind of person would have these assumptions? What kind of reader would share them? (Much of what the speaker and reader know in common is merely ordinary beliefs and assumptions; this is why a story by Hemingway or Lawrence can carry such a rich subtext beneath its terse surface.)
d. Point of view. Who is the speaker? And what does the speaker know? How should we understand what the speaker appears to know - should we take it lightly or seriously? In the beginning of The Great Gatsby, Nick, the narrator, announces his goals for the summer, which were to read: "to establish myself as that most limited of specialists, the well-rounded man. This isn't just an epigram -- life is much more successfully looked at from a single window, after all." This paradox, that a broad view is too limited and a limited one revealing, comes to define Nick. He also locates himself as an anonymous fellow who had decided that "the stock market could support one more man" and in terms of the part of Long Island to which he has come to stay, a geographical anomoly both limited and broad. Through the novel Nick seems to miss obvious facts and to know others that would be hard to divine. We believe it, though, because Nick has established his point of view as somewhat inconsistent, like someone who looks through both ends of a telescope. A nonfiction speaker establishes his point of view in social terms, ordinarily: identity, beliefs, perspective, agenda, purpose.
INTERPRETING STYLE: SENTENCES
1. First question to ask: where is the action? who (or what) is doing what to whom? In literary fiction the subject-predicate structure is often concealed or buried.
2. Basic writing styles: periodic and running; hypotactic and paratactic; descriptive style and action style.
3. Hypotaxis involves an assumptive logic. This means that the hypotactic style which subordinates one idea to another idea, is driven by conventional assumptions. These assumptions can be used ironically.
"Having survived years of substance abuse and crippling depression, she was finally ready to take charge of her life."
To believe and understand that hypotactic sentence, you have to accept its logic and assumptions. Writers like Roland Barthes use hypotaxis, ironically, to parody glib, conventional assumptions. Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar, for the most part, uses hypotaxis in a straightforward manner.
Barthes has a complex bond with his reader; he and his reader are mocking conventional ways of thinking. Plath's relationship to her reader is one of sympathy.
4. The author of paratactic writing is more withdrawn; she leaves the reader to work out the logical links between parts.
"Sleep came slowly to him that night; morning seemed to hardly interrupt the night; noon declared itself shyly in the overcast day; night came again unaccompanied by sleep."
In a sense this author is more present, though, since she has obviously calculated the relationship between events.
5. Sentences that emphasize the subject, either through a series of noun phrases,create a sense of emphasis, as well as a suspensive effect. Again, this effect can be used ironically.
"COMPLACENCIES of the peignoir, and late coffee and oranges in a sunny chair, and the green freedom of a cockatoo upon a rug, mingle to dissipate the holy hush of ancient sacrifice."
A peignoir is a dressing gown. The sentence fully creates a scene before delivering the verb. "The Communist Manifesto" is full of front-loaded sentences, used to create persuasive emphasis. Nabokov uses these sentences ironically, playing on conventional rhetoric.
6. Noun-style sentences take the emphasis away from action and place it on description. The suitcase-style sentence packages this description in a global statement.
"It is widely recognized that substance abuse is a lifelong condition whose symptoms (drinking) can be controlled but whose cause (compulsion) can never entirely be alleviated."
Description style sentences often use forms of "is." They create a (possibly false) sense of objectivity, concealing the author's presence and point of view.
7. Running style places the author and/or character in the present moment. This is a different, more immediate, less calculated-seeming form of authorial presence. Of course, it is just as calculated as a deeply suspensive sentence.
8. Reversed (18th century) or digressive (Jamesian) sentence structures. Both styles are suspensive and serve to put the emphasis on something other than the subject and verb. The following sentence uses reversal (of subject and object, putting the object first) AND the digressive style.
"Natural objects, evoking a certain rhythm of order, men in the youth of the world, driven by the most occulted of instincts, sing and dance to imitate."
The sentence structure is: men sing and dance to imitate natural objects. This very suspensive reversed style puts the emphasis on qualifications and observations. Generally speaking, digressive sentences place the emphasis outside the noun and verb; 18th century sentences create an elegantly suspensive effect, putting the verb late or last.
9. The scholarly sentence uses an abstraction, or something that is not an entity, as its subject. This creates a sense of objectivity and detachment. Authors use it when they are saying something that might otherwise raise objections!
Happiness is where you find it.
Anti-liberalism has always been framed by its proponents across the political spectrum as a form of liberation; in fact, it is a form of enslavement. (Sounds authoritative, right?)
Or, using a gerund, a participial can been the subject. Swimming in the ocean at night is sexy but dangerous, as the first scene of Jaws amply proves.
Using an infinitive as subject: To think is human; to act is divine; but to act after having taken thought, that - is the greatest thing of all. (The parallel structure of this sentence adds to its persuasiveness.)
Any part of a sentence can be nominalized, made into the subject: The fact that anti-liberalism is framed as a form of liberation is the first clue to its nature as a form of authoritarian tyranny.
10. Cumulative sentences are the coolest type; they create a sense of building intensity. While the parts of a hypotactic or paratactic sentence are tied together by some sort of explanatory logic, the major logic of a cumulative sentence is the principle of addition.
He sat in the old Dodge, an old duffel bag on the seat next to him, a feeling of dread guiding him as he turned the key in the ignition, the cold metal burning his fingertips, the sound of the engine grinding unpleasantly, the bag within an arms reach, a short reach to open it and take out the '38 revolver buried inside.
Each addition modifies a different part of the sentence, creating a series of levels - as explained in Lanham.