EL5221 Discussion: Session 8

Theme-Rheme & Given-New

Discussion date: 10th October 2006

Comment on how information is structured in the following extract, from the beginning of an essay by George Orwell. In your analysis, you should discuss theme and rheme in their relationship to given and new information.

Relevant lecture notes: nos. 15 & 16.

Before you begin your discussion of the passage below, you may want to consider the following.
Theme-rheme analysis has been used, among other uses, for second language instruction; see, for example:
Task 12: Theme and Rheme
Discourse Analysis and Grammar by Fernando Trujillo
Textual Organization of Academic Writing by Duane Leonard & Tiina Hukari
How are considerations found in the above related to the theme-rheme analysis of literary discourse? The following extract from an essay by George Orwell may show a relatively good correspondence between theme with given information, and rheme with new information (except perhaps for the first paragraph you need to proffer an explanation if this is the case). How about literary texts which do not show a relatively neat corresponding association? Can you give an example (either bring it to class or pick an example from the Internet)?

The English Class System

    1     In time of war the English class system is the enemy propagandist's best argument. To Dr Goebbels's charge that England is still "two nations", the only truthful answer would have been that she is in fact three nations. But the peculiarity of English class distinctions is not that they are unjust for after all, wealth and poverty exist side by side in almost all countries but that they are anachronistic. They do not exactly correspond to economic distinctions, and what is essentially an industrial and capitalist country is haunted by the ghost of a caste system.
    2     It is usual to classify modern society under three headings: the upper class or bourgeoisie, the middle class, or petite bourgeoisie, and the working class, or proletariat. This roughly fits the facts, but one can draw no useful inference from it unless one takes account of the subdivisions within the various classes and realizes how deeply the whole English outlook is coloured by romanticism and sheer snobbishness.
    3     England is one of the last remaining countries to cling to the outward forms of feudalism. Titles are maintained and new ones are constantly created, and the House of Lords, consisting mainly of hereditary peers, has real powers. At the same time England has no real aristocracy. The race difference on which aristocratic rule is usually founded was disappearing by the end of the Middle Ages, and the famous medieval families have almost completely vanished. The so-called old families are those that grew rich in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Moreover, the notion that nobility exists in its own right, that you can be a nobleman even if you are poor, was already dying out in the age of Elizabeth, a fact commented on by Shakespeare. And yet, curiously enough, the English ruling class has never developed into a bourgeoisie plain and simple. It has never become purely urban or frankly commercial. The ambition to be a country gentleman, to own and administer land and draw at least part of your income from rent, has survived every change. So it comes that each new wave of parvenus, instead of simply replacing the existing ruling class, has adopted its habits, intermarried with it, and, after a generation or two, become indistinguishable from it.
    4     The basic reason for this may perhaps be that England is very small and has an equable climate and pleasantly varied scenery. It is almost impossible in England, and not easy even in Scotland, to be more than twenty miles from a town. Rural life is less inherently boorish than it is in bigger countries with colder winters. And the comparative integrity of the British ruling class for when all is said and done they have not behaved so contemptibly as their European opposite numbers is probably bound up with their idea of themselves as feudal landowners. This outlook is shared by considerable sections of the middle class. Nearly everyone who can afford to do so sets up as a country gentleman, or at least makes some effort in that direction. The manor-house with its park and its walled gardens reappears in reduced form in the stockbroker's week-end cottage, in the suburban villa with its lawn and herbaceous border, perhaps even in the potted nasturtiums on the window-sill of the Bayswater flat. This wide-spread day-dream is undoubtedly snobbish, it has tended to stabilize class distinctions and has helped to prevent the modernization of English agriculture: but it is mixed up with a kind of idealism, a feeling that style and tradition are more important than money.

Last revised: 10 August 2006.