Literary Stylistics:
Lecture Notes no. 22

Pragmatics and the Analysis of Literature I

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Readings: Note
Preliminary Observations
        Semantics and Pragmatics
        Meaning in Context
        A Linguistic Discipline?
        Importance of Speech
        Difficulty in Analysing Context
        Problem of Intended Meaning

A Note on the Readings

Essential reading for this lecture is:

Chapter 6 of Elizabeth Closs Traugott and Mary Louise Pratt's Linguistics for Students of Literature (New York: Harcourt, 1980).
Traugott and Pratt give a good but brief overview of how speech act concepts can be used in literature. In relation to the next two lectures however, some of you may find their treatment of pragmatics rather elementary or too brief; at any rate, it is rather limited, as it deals primarily with speech acts, and the discussion of the cooperative principle is too short, and -- as their book was published before Leech's book on pragmatics -- there is no discussion on the politeness principle. You may therefore want to supplement your reading by referring to the relevant chapters or sections of one of the following books, which give a more detailed treatment of the topics, but not necessarily in relation to literary works:
Malcolm Coulthard, An Introduction to Discourse Analysis 2nd edition (London: Longman, 1985);
Geoffrey N. Leech, Principles of Pragmatics (London: Longman, 1983); and
Stephen C. Levinson, Pragmatics (Cambridge: CUP, 1983).
There are of course books and articles which deal directly with the use of pragmatics in literary analysis (some of which are listed in the reading list issued to you before or at the beginning of the academic year), but many of these assume a prior knowledge of pragmatics on the part of the reader, and it is suggested that you go through Traugott and Pratt's chapter, and the relevant chapters or sections from one of the books mentioned above, before reading them.

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Pragmatics and the Analysis of Literary Works:
Some Preliminary Observations

Pragmatics and Semantics

The next three topics that we are going to deal with have to do with pragmatics. Pragmatics, as you know from your discourse analysis or text and knowledge course last year, is quite often contrasted with semantics. The discipline in fact came into existence due to the realisation that formal semantics was not a sufficient instrument for the analysis of meaning in language. As some of you may know, semantics is conventionally taken to be the study of meaning in language per se, whereas one definition of pragmatics is is that it is the study of linguistic meaning in context (although ethnomethodology, if it is to be taken as a branch of pragmatics, does not attempt to take contextual factors of discourse structures into consideration).

Meaning in Context

However, the distinction between semantics and pragmatics based on meaning in language and linguistic meaning in context, is not always clearcut, and there are some borderline cases where one is not sure if a meaningful feature of language should be analysed in terms of semantics or pragmatics or both. There are also some linguists who believe that the distinction between semantics and pragmatics is an unnecessary one, as many of the issues in pragmatics can be dealt with within semantics, which to them, should be defined more widely. Halliday, for example, in spite of his belief that meaning in language should be analysed in context, holds the view that a separate pragmatic component in linguistics is unnecessary, as many of the issues in pragmatics can actually be dealt with within the semantic or grammatical framework of his linguistic approach (eg. Halliday's treatment of speech acts in relation to grammatical metaphor, which we have seen in the previous lecture).

A Linguistic Discipline?

However, some other linguists hold the view that strictly speaking, pragmatics is not a linguistic discipline, and linguists, if they are interested in meaning in language, should thus not study it. To them, meaning, if it is to be approached linguistically, should be analysed within language, and not in relation either to extra-linguistic contexts -- as in some branches of pragmatics -- or to surface structural features -- as in ethnomethodology (which incidentally, we won't be doing in our course, as it is more productive and easier to do an ethnomethodological analysis of conversational interaction when it occurs naturally, when compared to the artificial conversational interaction created in literary works).

Importance of Speech

A major part of pragmatics has to do with speech events and speech in general. Although the pragmatics of written language does exist, it appears that speech is paradigmatic in pragmatics, and written language is less significant. As a corollary to this, the interpersonal meta-function of language appears to be more important than the other meta-functions, although we must indicate here that the other meta-functions of language do also play a part; for example, the ideational metafunction (when viewed in terms of the addresser's or addressee's intentions), although not linguistically or grammatically realised in the strict sense, does seem to be a factor in the analysis of both speech acts and Gricean implicatures, and we can mention here that in addition to the interpersonal metafunction, the textual meta-function (in terms of adjacency or more holistic discoursal patterns) does play a part in the ethnomethodological approach to discourse, as this approach puts a high premium on the structure of discourse, at the expense of speakers' intentions, and the sociocultural framework of interpersonal interaction. Due to the importance of the inter-personal meta-function in pragmatics, it is usually more productive, in my view, to pragmatically analyse interactive dialogue in literary works.

Difficulty of Analysing Context

I have said earlier that one of the definitions of pragmatics is that it is the study of meaning in context. This definition plays a very important part in our study of the use of pragmatics in the analysis of literature in this and the next lecture. Context however, as you may have realised, is something difficult to pin-point. Although the context or contexts of the language of literary works does or do appear to be 'there' in the text, this may not always be the case, and the understanding of literary works may actually be dependent on cultural contexts which cannot actually be found in the text (a problem which I am sure you have already noticed in some of the passages that you have analysed in this module). The contexts of meaning in literary works may, in effect, be more elusive than those of spontaneous speech. Other features which may either be scant or absent in written literary texts, are the paralinguistic and kinesic elements or indicators which may help us to disambiguate or clarify the more exact meaning of some utterances.

Problem of Intended Meaning

One reason for trying to look at paralinguistic and extra-linguistic clues in order to put meaning in context, has to do with the attempt to get at the intended meaning of an utterance. This is a dominant consideration in some approaches in pragmatics, especially in the analysis of speech acts and implicatures. However, one may face serious philosophical and linguistic difficulties in trying to arrive at the intention of what has been uttered. The intended meaning may not have been realised in the text. Perhaps more importantly, the intended meaning may not be realised in the minds of the addressees or, as in the case of literary works, in the minds of the interpreters or readers of the text. In this regard, authorial intention may be a problem in literary criticism, especially where there is a disjunction between intended and realised meanings. Some literary critics have labelled the attempt to arrive at the intention of the author the intentional fallacy. Whether we agree or disagree with the intentional fallacy, it does appear that the attempt to do a pragmatic analysis of authorial intention is not usually a viable task, and it is usually more practical to analyse a character's or, possibly, the narrator's intention(s) in the pragmatic analysis of a literary work. In relation to character's or narrator's intentions, one does not usually bother about completely invisible intentions, but one analyses those intentions which are at least apparent from the contexts available from or suggested by the text.

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Texts to Analyse

Extract from D.H. Lawrence's Daughters of the Vicar
Another text, in hard copy, will be given during the lecture


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Last revised: 25 December 2010
© Ismail S. Talib 1995-2008.

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