Tackling Textuality - with Theory

This article by Peter Barry first appeared in The Use of English Volume 52.1 Autumn 2000.

As teachers and literary critics we have to be able to read tea-leaves as well as texts, including the tea-leaves of the new 'A' Level Specifications. What I read there is a double message, a paradox of intent, if you like. On the one hand (says Paul Norgate of the OCR) 'teachers . . . must be aware of the developing scope of literary studies, and the new emphases which have resulted', while on the other 'the practice of close reading remains central to the study of literature at 'A' Level' (both quotations are from Appendix C to the OCR Specifications). There is a certain ambivalence about literary theory here, and that ambivalence is reflected in what follows.
Firstly, I want to offer a check-list of the kind of operations we perform when we tackle textuality without any particular resort to theory. I will then ask what is missing, and suggest four areas which the traditional approach doesn't quite cover, using a Shakespeare sonnet by way of illustration. This is followed by a brief description of what is meant by deconstructive reading, and the final section an example of such reading is given, using Adrienne Rich's poem 'Transit'.

Firstly, then, what do we do when we interpret a work of literature in the usual 'close reading' situation without making any specific use of literary theory? The following is not comprehensive, of course, but is indicative and representative of the repertoire we draw upon.

  1. We look for some overall structural pattern - that is, something which provides a structural frame or backbone for a whole work.
    We can call these 'macro-patterns' to distinguish them from the smaller-scale patterning referred to later (in point eight). For example, two characters or two couples in a novel or a play may be paired and contrasted throughout. The contrast may be supported by image-patterns linked to each, by speech styles characteristic of each, by symmetrical or parallel plots lines applying to each, etc. Once the structural pattern has been perceived, a whole line of interpretation can be built.
  2. We look for similarity beneath apparent dissimilarity, or vice-versa.
    The two couples may be presented at first as the opposites of each other, but a close reading shows that what at first seemed true is actually untrue. For instance, one couple may be presented as very materialistic and the other as highly idealistic. But in the end events show the idealists to be unyielding and inflexible, while the materialists are seen to be generous of heart and forgiving of human frailty. So they are opposites, but not in the way that first appeared.
  3. We distinguish between overt and covert content - that is, between apparent content and real content.
    For example, e.e.cummings has a poem about driving a car which is actually about making love - it's not a very good poem.(1) Herman Melville has a novel about hunting a whale which is actually about searching for the meaning of the universe. It's called Moby Dick , and it's a very good book.
  4. We distinguish between meaning and significance.
    'Meaning' is like something inside the work, whereas 'significance' is something we perceive in the work, something which is necessarily shifting.(2) If a literary work is regarded as being like the sea, then 'meaning' is like the salt - it's one of the ingredients of the water, whereas significance is like its colour, that is, something that changes with the prevailing light conditions. Here's an illustration: in his book Literary Theory: An Introduction Terry Eagleton says that we can probably be sure that King Lear is not about Manchester United. He should have said that Manchester United is not part of the meaning of King Lear but it may well be part of the significance. King Lear is about somebody who retires, but won't let go. He still wants a hand in team selection: he wants to be able to name his squad of a hundred knights and keep on having a say in running the club (or the kingdom). In other words, the parallel between King Lear and Sir Matt Busby is actually pretty close. It's a play about devolving power and yet trying to hold on to power now why does that sound so familiar? And after all, the play does mention football: Edmund says to Kent 'Out of my way, you base football player'.(3)
  5. We think in terms of genre or literary type - that is, we ask how the literary genre affects the content of the work.
    For instance, in a Renaissance stage tragedy an evil character may openly declare his evil intentions, as when Richard the Third announces 'I am determined to prove a villain'. But we don't conclude that he is a person of unusual self-knowledge and honesty, because this kind of announcement is one of the conventions of the genre; it allows the author to address the audience by proxy through the character, enabling the action to be greatly accelerated (and in a sense, anticipating forms of direct authorial comment on characters which would develop later with the rise of the novel).
  6. We frequently read the literal as metaphorical - that is, especially in reading poems.
    For example, a contemporary poem mentions a 'bullet lodged inside before we knew it was growing'.(4) At first this seems to suggest an assassination by some outside figure. But literal bullets can't grow, and this is the clue which shows that it is actually a metaphorical bullet, and it becomes clear that it is a metaphor for a fatal illness which one of the characters is found to be suffering from. This kind of interpretive move (literal details like bullets read metaphorically) is very common in the reading of poetry.
  7. In spite of this, we read the surface of the work accurately - in other words, we recognise the importance of the precise literal words of the text and do not take liberties with them.
    For example, the poem discussed contains the line 'We were as close as sisters'. It is important for the reader to realise that this means, precisely, two things, (a) that we were like sisters, and (b) that we not sisters.
  8. As readers we look for patterns in literary works. Not over-arching structural patterns this time, but 'micro-patterns', such as, a series of words with the same tone, or register, or flavour.
    Often the significant point is where the perceived pattern is broken, for the item in question must have been chosen either in spite of breaking the pattern or because it breaks the pattern, and is thereby foregrounded. In the same way, if you look at a hundred rows of flowers in a wall-papered room, the only ones which will catch your attention are the ones which are not properly aligned all DIY people know this.
  9. As readers we identify stages and phases within a literary work.
    Some of these are formally marked by divisions into Acts, or Books, or Chapters or Verses. Across these, there is a moment when the exposition-phase slides into the development-phase, and another phase begins when the development has put everything in place for the dénouement or the conclusion. The reader needs to be aware of the moment when the introduction of setting and characters pivots into the first significant incident, or choice, or denial. For example, in Shakespeare's Sonnet 73, which I will comment on in a moment, it is important to decide whether the three images of aging are meant to represent some kind of progression and development or just three static examples of the same thing.
  10. Finally, as readers, we read in linguistic period, aware (among other things) of semantic change (that is, changes in the meanings of words).
    For instance, in Shakespeare's Henry V Falstaff talks about his womb ('My womb undoes me', he says). Do we conclude that he is unmanning himself, or claiming some kind of double-gendered universality. Well, it's tempting (especially if your name is Colin MacCabe) but the explanation is simple. In Elizabethan times the word 'womb' still had its older meaning of 'stomach', and was used of both men and women. Falstaff is simply saying that his large stomach prevents him from being a brave and agile soldier.

These, then, are some of the main ways in which readers and critics engage with literary texts and begin to put forward accounts of what they mean. So, where does it leave us? The situation is this. We will always need these ten elements of interpretation. Literary criticism can never grow out of them, and they can never be superseded. It's impossible to do English without them. It always was, and it always will be.
And yet, equally, they are never enough. What, then, is missing? Well, they mostly look inwards into the text itself, and we also need to look outwards. This necessary looking outwards from the text is why we have and why we need literary theory. The text principles do not contain much that would focus us on the cultural contexts and co-texts of a literary work. Theory can help us especially in considering four major aspects of the relationship between literature and the world beyond, these being firstly, literature and history, secondly, literature and language, thirdly, literature and gender, and finally, literature and psychoanalysis: these will now be considered in turn, using the example of Shakespeare's Sonnet 73:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

The speaker in the poem, to put it delicately, is not as young as he was, and he ingeniously uses this fact to place a kind of scarcity value on himself. He is not going to be around long, so she (or he) had better love him well while he is. There is something very odd about that second line, but for the moment it's the fourth line which I want to concentrate on. What does it mean? At one level, the general meaning is clear. The speaker is old. He is like a bare tree in winter. The birds of summer which used to sit upon those boughs and sing have now gone. It's all very sad. He is feeling sorry for himself, and he wants his lover to feel the same. But that word 'choirs' is like the bullet that grows. It's the point in the poem where the literal and the metaphorical begin to 'deconstruct' each other. For it isn't just a pretty way of referring to birds: it also means literally the choir-stalls in which the monks used to sing Vespers. And those choirs are indeed bare and ruined now, because the monasteries were closed at the Reformation by Henry the Eighth and the buildings were abandoned. All this happened not very long ago (the word 'late' means 'recently', of course) and the metaphor chosen by the poet (the wooden branches are like wooden choir-stalls) evokes all this recent and highly contentious history. Is it a coded reference, a line in which a secret recusant - a closet Catholic - signals regret for the suppression of the old Catholic religion? This would be a very fashionable interpretation today, for there are theories that the young Shakespeare spent part of his youth with a noble Catholic family in Lancashire.(5) Things are now becoming complicated. Instead of being a free-standing literary jewel which we can hold up to the light and scrutinise with our ten principles of interpretation, this little poem suddenly seems to be deeply enmeshed in the history of its time. Of course, we could take a course in Renaissance history and find out all about the monasteries. But it isn't so simple. It isn't just a matter of acquiring knowledge: if the allusion is actually there, the it teaches us that we do not understand what the relationship is between literature and history, for if it is an allusion it is very difficult to know what it is doing in the poem: I mean this literally - not just how and why it got there, but what effect it has on the poem. Baffling yet fascinating questions of this kind are one of the reasons for using literary theory. Here, then, is a whole area which seems much in need of discussion in broad theoretical terms. This, surely, is the kind of gap in our understanding which theory can attempt to fill.

Turning now to literature and language brings us back to that peculiar second line. What is odd about it, of course, is the peculiar order in which the words occur. In the memory the line is nearly always misremembered as 'yellow leaves, or few, or none' but Shakespeare actually says 'yellow leaves, or none, or few'. This seems to violate the natural word order, which would follow the logic of a phrase like 'going, going, gone' where a process of gradual diminishing is followed through until there is nothing left at all. This one example of the way English words occur in a pre-determined order; we put the knives and forks on the table, not the forks and knives. A phrase like 'going, going, gone' has the logic of a count-down - three, two, one, zero'. That is the ways the words collocate, as a linguist would say; so the phrase 'yellow leaves, or none, or few' violates an expected and logical pattern. And of course, it isn't done to accommodate rhyme or metre, since neither is a rhyme word and both have a single syllable, so swapping them round doesn't make any difference to the metrical structure of the line. So it seems that what is happening is that underneath the main current of the language another current is running in the opposite direction. The speaker is saying that he is past it, but then hints, with a nudge and a wink, that he isn't, quite, and this is indicated by the unexpected order of the words. This underlying counter-current of language can often be sensed. Language seems to have a natural tendency to undermine and contradict itself, to be one thing on the surface and another beneath. When a teacher says to a child 'Is that your coat on the floor?' it isn't a question, it's a command: it means 'pick it up'. Reading literature well is often a matter of picking up these counter-currents, these points where language undermines itself, runs against its own grain, carries along its own opposite in its slipstream. An example I am reminded of is when the Duke of Edinburgh recently withdrew his royal patronage from Harrods. I'm told that the sign in the shoe department which used to say 'Shoe-makers to His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh' was altered to read 'Cobblers to Prince Philip'. That second phrase says one thing, but, of course, means something else. Beneath the surface-current of its meaning (which is respectful and reverential) another current runs in the opposite direction, and is anything but that. Deconstructive reading is a kind of dowsing tool which is designed to pick up that counter-current that runs beneath the linguistic surface. In the first line, then, the speaker says 'That time of year thou mayst in me behold'. Is there a hint of optionality, as it has been called, in that word 'mayst', so that he is saying, 'Well, you could look at me like that'.(6) This notion of the undercurrents and cross-currents of language, then, opens up another area where we seem to need theory; it is the area of the investigation of the relationship between literature and language, and the often strange characteristics of language itself.

A third area for theory is that of the relationship between literature and gender. In the case of this poem, the gender issue is pretty stark. We might ask the question, what are the signs in this poem that it is written by a man rather than a woman? (This is very often a good question to ask). One sign, I think, is the fact that as a ploy in the seduction process the speaker draws attention to his relatively advanced age. Could a woman speaker in a love poem associate herself with images of late autumn, sunset, approaching death, and dying embers? It seems unlikely. The male speaker takes advantage of a set of implicit cultural stereotypes whereby age in men connotes experience, the idea of being a man of the world, notions of characterfulness, and hidden depths. No such positive stereotypical associations would be available to a woman speaker. Once again, the problem of the precise nature of the relationship between literature and society word and world is problematised, in this case how literature relates to gendered social norms. But clearly, there is a relationship of some kind and it is active in this poem. In this regard, we again seem to need theory, a theory which can look at the relation between literature and gender, and explicate (meaning, literally, to unfold) some aspects of the connections between them.

The final area is the relationship between literature and psychoanalysis, which we can open up by asking what exactly the speaker's strategy of seduction is in this poem. The answer, I think, is that the strategy seems to be what we might call 'pre-emptive': he himself says that he is getting old, to pre-empt anybody else saying it, boldly bringing the tricky question of age into full view himself. He does this especially in the dark and gloomy image of approaching night in the second quatrain, which mention twilight, then 'after sunset', then the last glow removed by 'black night', then death sealing everything up as in a tomb. Surely, we think, it's all over for this man. But in the next quatrain (lines 9 12) he draws back from this sombre image of total extinction, and suddenly we have images which suggest a re-kindling a glowing fire, youth, being consumed by something. Suddenly the deathbed is suffused by images of residual passion, residual potency and remember that for the Elizabethans the words 'death' and 'dying' always carried a secondary sexual meaning connected with orgasm. The 'going, gone, going' pattern of line two is repeated in the larger pattern made by the three quatrains, where the last one actually steps back from the extreme statement of the second-to-last. What is working here, then, is a psychological process: often, the best way to conceal something is to reveal it, to hide it in the open, as is sometimes said.(7) If both parties to an exchange are aware that something is being left unsaid, then it will appear in everything which is said. The auditor of the poem, whether it's male or female, is thinking 'But he's too old for me'. The speaker knows this, so he speaks that thought, and then he plants a little doubt about the truth of it, with his suggestive references to the few leaves which still remain, the sap which still flows, the fire which still glows, the passion which still consumes. These mental processes are ones which psychoanalysis knows all about, and here again is another area in which theory can operate, that of the relationship between literature and psychoanalysis.

So far we have made a general case for using literary theory, arguing its compatibility with many elements of our traditional literary training. I'd like to take another example now, and take just one of the four categories in more detail, namely the second, the one about the relationship between literature and language. The reason for taking this one is that it enables us to think about deconstructive reading, which on the one hand has been a powerful tool in literary theory, but on the other has clear affinities with the kind of intensive close reading which we have always practised. To be precise, there is a clear line of continuity between Empson's seventh type of ambiguity and deconstruction.(8) So, what is deconstruction? In Terry Eagleton's well-known definition it is 'reading the text against itself' and 'reading against the grain', 'knowing the text as it cannot know itself' (see Literary Theory: An Introduction), thereby revealing fault-lines (a favoured word) of doubt and contradiction within it. For Barbara Johnson, in another often-quoted phrase, deconstruction is 'the careful teasing out of the warring forces of signification within the text' (see her book The Critical Difference). As J. A. Cuddon suggests, in A Dictionary of Literary Terms, this may result in the discovery of multiple and contradictory meanings, so that a text 'may betray itself', to use the emotive, hyped-up language which is often found in deconstruction. Other terms which are often used to describe deconstruction are 'textual harassment', and 'oppositional reading'. The process of deconstructing a text often involves fixing on what looks like an incidental detail - such as a particular word, or a particular metaphor - and then bringing it in from the margin of the text to the centre. In this way the text is 'de-centred' by the reading process, and the overall effect is often perverse, obsessive, manic, or even apparently malevolent towards author and text, reader and literature. If we think of the text as a cat, then old-style close reading involves stroking the cat so that it purrs and curls in upon itself contentedly feeling good. Deconstructive reading is like stroking the cat the wrong way, against the grain of the textual fur, so that the cat bristles and hisses, and the whole situation becomes less predictable. The close-reader aims to show a unity of purpose within the text: the text knows what it wants to do, and having directed all its means towards this end, it is at peace with itself. By contrast, the deconstructor aims to show that the text is at war with itself, and that it is characterised by disunity rather than unity. So the deconstructor looks for such things as, firstly, contradictions, secondly, linguistic quirks and aporia, thirdly, shifts or breaks (in tone, viewpoint, tense, person, attitude, etc.), and finally, absences or omissions.

So how does this kind of reading look in practice? I will give a mini-example and a longer example 'Oread' is a tiny poem by the American Imagist poet 'HD' (Hilda Doolittle, 1886 - 1961). It reads in full:

Whirl up, sea -
Whirl your pointed pines,
Splash your great pines
On our rocks,
Hurl your green over us,
Cover us with your pools of fir.

'Oread' is a poem which has already deconstructed itself. The title 'Oread' means 'Prayer', but the poem is an emblem of the impossibility of reading, and an embodiment of the Derridean dictum that there is nothing outside the text. The deconstructive malevolence splits the title thus: 'O/Read' and then shows that it is impossible to say what we are reading. Is it a description of a stormy sea which presents that sea through the metaphor of a wind-tossed pine forest? Or is it a poem about a wind-tossed pine forest which describes it using the metaphor of a stormy sea? It's impossible to say. Or rather, it's about neither. It's about an object which is pure textuality, which only exists in language; it a sea/pine-forest, or a pine-forest/sea. Here is a poem, then, which actively resists reading. For a more sustained example we can take Adrienne Rich's poem 'Transit':

When I meet the skier she is always
walking, skis and poles shouldered, toward the mountain,
free-swinging in worn boots
over the path new-sifted with fresh snow
her graying dark hair almost hidden by                                                  
a cap of many colors
her fifty-year-old, strong, impatient body
dressed for cold and speed
her eyes level with mine

And when we pass each other I look into her face
wondering what we have in common
where our minds converge
for we do not pass each other, she passes me
as I halt beside the fence tangled in snow, she passes me as I shall never pass her
in this life

Yet I remember us together
climbing Chocorua, summer nineteen-forty-five
details of vegetation beyond the timberline
lichens, wildflowers, birds,
amazement when the trail broke out onto the granite ledge
sloped over blue lakes, green pines, giddy air,
like dreams of flying

When sisters separate they haunt each other
as she, who I might once have been, haunts me
or is it I who do the haunting
halting and watching on the path

how she appears again through lightly-blowing
crystals, how her strong knees carry her,
how unaware she is, how simple

this is for her, how without let or hindrance
she travels in her body
until the point of passing, where the skier
and the cripple must decide
to recognise each other?

Some contradictions, firstly, are easily picked out: there is a literal flat contradiction between line ten, 'when we pass each other' and line thirteen, 'we do not pass each other. There is a perceptual contradiction in the 'graying dark hair' of line five - can it really be both at the same time, and in any case, if it's almost hidden by a cap how can the speaker know either way? In line seven the 'fifty-year old, strong impatient body' again seems a perceptual contradiction, for the image of youthfulness implied by the 'strong impatient body' sets up contradictory connotations to those of the phrase 'fifty-year old'.
Secondly, the linguistic quirks and aporia are those points in the poem where the language itself (rather than the perceptions) seems to be behaving oddly. For instance, in line nine, is 'level' an adjective or a verb? If the former, the meaning is fairly mundane they are roughly the same height if the latter, the effect is more dramatic; the other's eyes level and lock with those of the speaker, tracking and maintaining the eye contact as she moves. In lines 24-5: Are the two figures sisters or not? The line seems to mean that they are paired like sisters, but they are not sisters. The speaker's reference to 'she, who I might once have been' is also ambiguous; it could mean 'she, whom I once had the potential to become or to be like', or 'she whom I might have been like, had I chosen to be'. On the other hand, it could mean 'she, who I perhaps once was (or once was like)'. Then in line 34: the phrase 'must decide' is a linguistic non sequitur: 'must' implies obligation and 'decide' implies choice. It makes sense to say 'You must decide' or 'You must leave him', but it doesn't make sense to say 'You must decide to leave him'. This is indicative of a deeper confusion in the poem between obligation and choice, which is compounded at the end of the poem by placing a question mark after something which isn't a question. Further, is the cripple in 34 literal or metaphorical? The speaker is moving along paths on and by the ski slopes, 'halt(ing)' in lines 14 and 27, which, of course, implies movement. In what sense, then, is the speaker to be thought of as a cripple?
Moving now to the shifts in person/attitude, etc.: in the first two stanzas the figure described seems to be a stranger, someone unknown ('the skier'), though strangely the speaker knows her precise age and knows the colour of her hair even though she is wearing a cap. The speaker speculates about her, as one might about a stranger ('wondering what we have in common', line eleven). In the third stanza, however, she seems to become a remembered person ('Yet I remember us together', line 17), with whom the speaker has shared significant moments in the past. Then in the final stanza she seems to have become an apparition, associated with haunting, and materializing in a quasi-mystical way through the snow ('she appears again through lightly blowing/ crystals', line 28). The differences between these three versions of the skier are so fundamental that the word 'shifts' hardly does them justice.
Finally, the absences and omissions: Again, these are fundamental. Who is the skier? We are never told. At the centre of the poem, then, is something left out, something withheld . Are these two roles ('the skier' and 'the cripple', lines 33-4) two aspects of the same person? The reader should resist the temptation to 'recuperate', or 'narrativist', or opt for the simplest reading, in which two sisters' lives move onto different 'paths' when one is crippled in a climbing accident and her subsequent life poisoned by sibling envy). The skier seems to connote an alternative self, a self-that-might-have-been, by whom the real self is haunted. The potential self seems to have a degree of hostility towards the actual self (the scenario of Henry James's ghost story 'The Jolly Corner'), and the self's awareness of this being seems to deconstruct the confident boundaries of her subjectivity. The deconstructive reading seems to enhance the perceived strangeness of this remarkable poem. We are left, then, with a poem that seems to be fighting a civil war with itself. There is no secure, overarching vantage-point from which it all makes sense. The cat of signification isn't purring anymore. Deconstruction, of course, believes that it is characteristic of all language to fight itself in this way, so that any poem, when subject to deconstructive enquiry, would reveal such symptoms to some degree (though obviously not to the same dramatic extent as 'Transit', a poem which I chose as my example because it lends itself so well to this approach.
Literary theory often intensifies the difficulties of reading, and constantly throws up more problems than it is capable of solving. So why do it? Two reasons come at once to mind. Firstly, the complexities it gets itself knotted up in really are there. And secondly, trying to unravel them is enlightening, and sometimes even fun.

1. 'She being Brand// -new', pp. 15 - 16 in e.e. cummings: Selected Poems 1923 - 1958 (Faber, 1960).
2. The distinction is put forward in Validity in Interpretation (E.D.Hirsch, Yale, 1967).
3. This response to Eagleton on Lear is Ken Newton's; it originally appeared in an article entitled 'Interest, Authority and Ideology in Literary Interpretation' in British Journal of Aesthetics, 1982 (Vol. 22, pp.103-14), and in expanded form in his book In Defence of Literary Interpretation: Theory and Practice (Macmillan, 1986).
4. See 'The Forked Tree' in The Peepshow Girl (Marion Lomax, Bloodaxe, 1989)
5. This line from the sonnet was discussed by William Empson as the first literary example in Seven Types of Ambiguity. Empson (in 1930) saw in it 'ruined monastery choirs' (among much else), and the line had already been read in the nineteenth century as evidencing a nostalgia, at least, for Catholicism. Shakespeare's Catholic and Lancashire connections were discussed in E.A.J.Honigmann's Shakespeare: the Lost Years (Manchester University Press, 1985, 2nd edn. 1998), and developed in a TLS article entitled 'Shakespeare and the Jesuits' by Richard Wilson (19 December, 1997). Park Honan's biography Shakespeare: a Life (OUP, 1998) accepts and incorporates these findings. (I am grateful to my colleague Andrew Hadfield for help with these details).
6. My reading is endebted to Roger Fowler's chapter 'Language and the Reader: Shakespeare's Sonnet 73' in his book Style and Structure in Literature, Basil Blackwell, 1975.
7. This paradoxical trope is, of course, the driving force of Edgar Allan Poe's famous detective story 'The Purloined Letter', a tale which fascinated Derrida and Lacan, and for which the literary theory establishment developed something of a fixation in the 1980s. See The Purloined Poe: Lacan, Derrida and Psychoanalytic Reading, ed. John P. Muller and William J. Richardson (Johns Hopkins U. P., 1988), which usefully rounds up and comments on this material.
8. Elsewhere, I suggested that there are seven types of continuity between them (THES, 2 July 1993, 'English since the theory wars').

This article appeared in The Use of English Volume 52, Number 1, Autumn 2000.
Copyright: English Association 2000

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