Chapter 1: The world is a book: some snapshots

The Confidence Man: His Masquerade
More on the word 'reading'
Observing a character: Cat's Eye
More on the construction of meanings
Opeping up a text: An exemplary discussion
Modes of discourse


1.1. The Confidence Man: His Masquerade.

Herman Melville wrote The Confidence Man in 1857. It is a strange book the action of which takes place on a paddle steamer on the Mississippi River. There are lots of characters in it and these appear to do little more than engage in philosophical debate and swindle each other.

A 'confidence man' is one who manages to inspire trust in another person and then proceeds to steal from or defraud his victim. Central to the confidence man's craft is his ability to deceive through the manipulation of appearances. Putting this another way, the confidence man's aim is to cause his victim to misread a situation.

At the start of The Confidence Man, a stranger boards  the steamer Fidèle at St Louis.

His cheek was fair, his chin downy, his hair flaxen, his hat a white fur one, with a long fleecy nap. He had neither trunk, valise, carpet-bag, not parcel. No porter followed him. He was unaccompanied by friends. From the shrugged shoulders, titters, whispers, wonderings of the crowd, it was plain that he was, in the extremist sense of the word, a stranger.

At the end of Chapter 1, the text continues:

   Though neither soiled nor slovenly, his cream-coloured suit had a tossed look, almost linty, as if, travelling night and day from some far country beyond the prairies, he had long been without the solace of a bed. His aspect was at once gentle and jaded, and, from the moment of seating himself, increasing in tired abstraction and dreaminess. Gradually overtaken by slumber, his flaxen head drooped, his whole lamb-like figure relaxed, and, half reclining against the ladder's foot, lay motionless, as some sugar-snow in March, which, softly stealing down over night, with its white placidity startles the brown farmer peering out from his threshold at daybreak.

Then Chapter 2 begins:

Chapter 2


    "Odd fish!"
    "Poor fellow!"
    "Who can he be?"
    "Casper Hauser."
    "Bless my soul!"
    "Uncommon countenance."
    "Green prophet from Utah."
    "Singular innocence."
    "Means something."
    "Trying to enlist interest."
    "Beware of him."
    "Fast asleep here, and, doubtless, pick-pockets on board."
    "Kind of daylight Endymion."
    "Escaped convict, worn out with dodging."
    "Jacob dreaming at Luz."

Such the epitaphic comments, conflictingly spoken or thought, of a miscellaneous company, who, assembled on the overlooking, cross-wise balcony at the forward end of the upper deck near by, had not witnessed preceding occurrences.

On the basis of the above extract, we can make some general points about reading:

Close reading (individual or group)
The following questions aim to reinforce your understanding of the above statements. They all refer to the quoted passage from The Confidence Man.

  1. Which words in the narrator's description relate to the posture of the stranger?
  2. The expression 'lamb-like' is a simile. Through this simile the stranger is being compared to a lamb through the connector 'like'. What way of seeing the stranger is implied by the use of the simile?
  3. Find other words or expressions used by the narrator that you consider to reflect a particular way of seeing the stranger?
  4. What information about the stranger would the observers on the Fidèle not have access to?
  5. From the list, identify two interpretations of the stranger that appear to contradict each other. Describe as fully as you can how each of these two speakers is interpreting the stranger?
  6. In what way is the dress and body language of the stranger ambiguous, that is, capable of eliciting or drawing forth different interpretations from different readers?
  7. Explain why each of these speakers might have come up with such widely differing 'readings' of the stranger. What might these explanations tell us about the attitudes, beliefs and prejudices of these speakers?

Writing: Remembering a time when you misread
In your learning log, write an account which details:

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1.2. More on the word 'reading'

The word reading, as we have seen, can suggest two different levels of activity. On one level, it can mean getting information from a text. Let's call this Meaning 1. An example would be the statement: 'The man in the cream-coloured suit leaned motionless against the ladder.' On another level, the word 'reading' means interpretation. Let's call this Meaning 2. An example would be the statement: 'The man in the cream-coloured suit was attempting to appear innocent.'

Checking your understanding of the word 'read' (group)
The word 'read' or 'reading' occurs in each of the sentences below. Decide whether their use is an example of Meaning 1 or Meaning 2. Justify your decision.

  1. Each day he was expected to take a reading from the temperature gauge.
  2. The defence lawyer's reading of the forensic evidence was different from the prosecution's.
  3. She read the newspaper before leaving for work.
  4. The fly-half had an uncanny ability to read the game.
  5. 'I wouldn't read too much into what Belinda said,' her friend said.
  6. He read carefully through the results to see if his horse had won. 

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1.3. Observing a character: Cat's Eye,  by Margaret Atwood

Cat's Eye, by Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, was first published in 1988. It is the story of a girlhood relationship between the narrator,  Elaine Risley, and Cordelia, who bullies her at school and who continues to obsess her even when she is an adult. Here is a description of their teacher.

   My own teacher is Miss Lumley. It's said that every morning before the bell rings, even in late spring when it's warm, she goes to the back of the classroom and takes off her bloomers, which are rumoured to be of heavy navy-blue wool and to smell of mothballs and of other, less definable things. This isn't repeated as speculation or as part of the underwear invention, but as fact. Several girls claim they've seen Miss Lumley putting her bloomers on again when they've had to stay in after school, and several others say they've seen them hanging in the cloakroom. The aura of Miss Lumley's dark, mysterious, repulsive bloomers clings around her and colours the air in which she moves. It makes her more terrifying; but she is terrifying in any case.
  ...Miss Lumley rules by fear. She's short, and oblong in shape, so that her iron-grey cardigan falls straight from shoulder to hip with no pause in between for a waist. She always wears this cardigan, and a succession of dark skirts, which can't possibly be the same one. She has steel-rimmed glasses,
behind which her eyes are hard to see, and black shoes with Cuban heels, and a tiny lipless smile. She does not send children to the Principal for the strap, but does it herself, in front of the class, holding the hand out flat, bringing the black rubber strap down in sharp quick efficient strokes, her face white and quivering, while we watch, wincing, our eyes filling with involuntary tears. Some girls snivel audibly while she does this, even though she isn't doing it to them, but this isn't wise: Miss Lumley hates snivelling, and is likely to say, "I'll give you something to cry about." We learn to sit up straight, eyes front, faces blank, both feet on the floor, listening to the whack of rubber on cringing flesh.
    Mostly it's boys who get the strap. They are thought to need it more . Also  they fidget, especially during sewing. We are supposed to sew pot-holders, for our mothers. The boys cannot seem to do this right; their stitches are large and clumsy, and they stick one another with the needles. Miss Lumley stalks the aisles, whacking their knuckles with a ruler.

Reading a description (individual)
The point of view in this extract belongs to the narrator of the novel, Elaine Risley.

  1. What kinds of information about Miss Lumley does this description contain? (For example, one kind of information refers to Miss Lumley's clothing.)
  2. Our first instinct when we read a description like this is to trust the narrator, especially when they use words cleverly. List possible reasons for trusting Elaine Risley's description of Miss Lumley. Can you come up with some reasons as to why you might distrust her account?
  3. This description is a partial account of Miss Lumley. What kinds of information would provide a more complete account? (We get no information about Miss Lumley's friendships, for example.)
  4. Through this description, readers are encouraged to interpret or construct Miss Lumley in a particular way. How are we being encouraged  or positioned to view Miss Lumley? Begin you answer with the words, 'We are being positioned to see Miss Lumley as...'
  5. Find evidence that the narrator believes that her fellow pupils share her view of Miss Lumley.
Language Tool Kit:
Construction: The word construction highlights the fact that meanings are made and not just found in the act of reading or interpretation. When you construct a meaning, you are viewing something or someone in a particular way that is not neutral or ‘objective.
Position: Your position on something is the way you see it. When a text encourages you to see something or someone in a particular way, it is said to be positioning you.

Extension task: Switching viewpoints (pairs)
Make a note of any solid, factual information from the extract (e.g. the steel-rimmed glasses, the fact that Miss Lumley straps pupils). Imagine that you are Miss Lumley. Building on this factual information, describe how you feel about teaching and your pupils.  When you have finished your description, share it with your partner.

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1.4. More on the construction of meanings

So far, we have been identifying some of the processes which occur in the act of reading: the gathering, sifting and weighing of information, and the construction of meanings. Printed below are two extracts from poems:

South of my days' circle, part of my blood's country,
rises that tableland, high delicate outline
of bony slopes wincing under the winter,
 low trees blue-leaved and olive, outcropping granite--
clean, lean, hungry country. The creek's leaf-silenced,
willow-choked, the slope a tangle of medlar and crab-apple
branching over and under, blotched with a green lichen;
and the old cottage lurches in for shelter.
                              From 'South of My Days' by Judith Wright

Across the moonlit bay low roofs
hunch in the hills; on this side
the legal town -- white walls, terraces,
the luminous spray of cherry trees
in bloom, the spring night strolling
among swept paths, weeded corners,
fresh turned earth.
                              From 'Wellington Letter: XII' by Lauris Edmond

The first is by an Australian poet, Judith Wright, who was born in 1915 and first published in the 1940s. The second is by a New Zealand poet, Lauris Edmond, who was born in 1924, and who began having work published in the 1970s. Read the extracts carefully, then turn to the exercises below.

More reading of descriptions (group)

  1. Reread silently and slowly the Judith Wright extract. Try to see the scene clearly and in detail as you read. Then put away your copy of the poem and complete the following note-making tasks:
  2. Now reread the Lauris Edmond extract. Complete the same tasks as you did with the Wright extract.
  3. Share your notes with other members of your group. Then consider the following questions:

Writing and sharing the act of description (pairs)
Write a detailed description of a place you know well. Show it to a partner. Ask them to read your description carefully and then to write down details they found themselves adding to your description out of their own imaginations and recollections.

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1.5. Opening up a text: An exemplary discussion

The word 'text' is defined in the dictionary as 'the wording of anything written or printed.' However, it is interesting to note that the original Latin word textus meant something woven -- a web. In this book, we are going to view a text as any product of the purposeful shaping of language that can be read meaningfully.

Language Tool Kit
Text: A text is any product of the purposeful shaping of language that can be read meaningfully.

The following poem was first published in 1897 in a collection of poems called The Children of the Night. The writer was the poet Edwin Arlington Robinson, who was born in 1869 and died in 1935.

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favoured, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
'Good-morning,' and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich,--yes, richer than a king,--
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
and went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

I first came across the poem in an anthology of American poetry (published by Oxford University Press) that I had to buy when I was a university student. The book that is open on my desk at the moment is E.A.Robinson: Selected Early Poems and Letters,edited by Charles T. Davis, which was published in New York in the early 1960's. I'm using it because it provides me with a chronology of Robinson's life, some extracts from his letters and notes on the poems. I'm making these points in order to emphasise something really important: writers and readers don't exist in a vacuum.

Robinson wrote this poem in the 1890's while living in Gardiner, in the state of Maine, USA. He was very poor. His father had died in 1892. The family had suffered huge financial losses in 1893 and his mother had died of 'black diphtheria' in 1896. From Robinson’s letters, it is clear that he felt burdened by a sense of financial failure. Yet, at the same time, he questioned his own society’s emphasis on material wealth.

Writing exercise: locating yourself in a culture (individual)
In your learning log write a brief account of your own socio-cultural environment. The following pointers can serve as a guide.

If you regularly work in groups, share or pool your accounts. How much agreement is there between them?

a) Context of situation/Context of culture
What we have been emphasising here is that writing and reading exist in context. Factors which affect choices a writer makes include:

We call these factors collectively the context of situation.

The context of culture refers to the wider socio-cultural context whose values affect the way we read and write. The account you wrote of your socio-cultural environment above is a description of your own context of culture. As we shall see, this context inevitably affects the readings we construct. This is because our culture gives us a version of reality – a way of seeing things. But, of course, we’re so used to seeing things in ways our culture determines that we come to think of this version as normal -- until we’re challenged to see things through other people’s eyes.

Language Tool Kit:
Context of situation: The immediate environment of a text which shapes its subject matter, purpose and function.
Context of culture: The wider socio-cultural environment, whose values, attitudes and assumptions affect texts.

'Richard Cory': Reading to write (individual)
Reread 'Richard Cory'. This poem clearly tells a story. Retell the story in your own words. You might even begin with the formula, 'Once upon a time...'. Having completed  your retelling, sum up the subject matter of the poem by completing the formula, 'The poem is about...'. Don't write more than one sentence.

‘Richard Cory’: Group discussion

  1. How much agreement is there with respect to your descriptions of the subject matter of the poem?
  2. Could Robinson have used another form of text (e.g. a personal diary) to express the subject matter of his poem?
  3. Give some examples of alternative text-forms or genres which he might have used.
  4. Do you think this poem is addressed to a particular audience or a general audience? Justify your decision (or decisions, if your group can’t reach a consensus on the matter).
  5. What do you think Robinson's purpose was in writing the poem? What kind of impact do you think he wanted to have on his reader? (The following list of verbs might help to focus your thinking: to entertain, to amuse, to caution, to communicate a  feeling, to present an argument, to tell a story.)

b) Voice, Persona and Tone
In the last section, I used the word 'Robinson' in a rather general way to denote the writer of the poem 'Richard Cory'. Given the fact that he died in 1935, it's no longer possible for us to cross-examine him on his purposes and intentions. We can, of course, attempt to reconstruct his life through biography and work out his intentions on the basis of close reading, but we can't forget that these are ultimately acts of imaginative recreation or interpretation.

What goes on when you read a text? Do you look at a text with your eye or hear it with your ear? Try reading 'Richard Cory' silently, but try to hear a voice in your head. Maybe the voice has an American accent.

If we ask the question, 'Who's speaking?' with respect to 'Richard Cory' we might come up with statements such as: 'He or she is a townsperson. He or she appears to work hard and is not well off. He or she is not a close friend of Richard Cory but appears to envy him. He or she has had a strong reaction to Richard Cory's suicide. He or she is speaking on behalf of other townspeople.' As we answer these questions, we begin to construct for ourselves a speaker and a voice.

We don’t need to identify this voice with the writer Robinson. The term for this voice is persona or mask.  The word mask suggests that the writer can hide behind this invented persona. The writer we sense behind his or her persona we might call the implied writer or author, because his or her presence is implicit. In reading a literary text, it is crucial to keep clear the distinction between the implied author and their personas.

As with any voice, we can identify a tone. When we talk to each other we can, for example,  sound comforting, irritable, interested, agitated, angry and loving. What determines tone is the attitude a speaker has towards their subject matter or their audience. A parent whose child has not arrived home at an agreed hour may sound generally agitated, but their tone will vary in speaking to their spouse, the police and to the errant child when they do finally arrive home.

Language Tool Kit:
Voice answers the question 'Who's speaking' behind or through a text or utterance. When a voice cannot readily be identified with the writer of a text, it can be termed a persona or mask.
Tone is a characteristic of voice and is indicative of an attitude to a person, thing, institution, idea or set of ideas.

I have suggested that the persona in the poem 'envies' Richard Cory. You will notice that the word 'envy' doesn't actually occur in the text. Quite rightly, you will say that that is my interpretation -- my reading of the speaker's tone -- and ask me to justify it. To do that, I would need to go back to the text and to close in on the language it uses.

c) 'Richard Cory': closing in on the text (group)
As you work through the following tasks, justify the decisions you make. (Of course, as you hear arguments from other group members, you can always retain your right to modify your position on a matter.)

  1. Make a copy of the poem. When you have done so, circle words or phrases that you find yourself needing to clarify or interpret. (Likely words include: 'gentleman', 'crown', 'quietly arrayed', 'human', 'fluttered pulses', 'glittered’, ‘richer than a king', 'admirably schooled', 'grace', 'light' and 'calm'.)
  2. The primary meaning of a word – that which you'll find when you look up a dictionary – is called its denotation. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionaryhas five different meanings for the word 'gentleman'. The first reads: 'A man of gentle birth; prop., one entitled to bear arms, though not noble, but also applied to any person of distinction.' More important to our purposes are the associated meanings and suggestions implied by a word. We call these meanings a word's connotations. As we shall see, these culturally determined connotations will affect the way different readers interpret the word 'gentleman" ' in the text.
  3. Discuss and write down the connotations of other words circled in Q1. Identify the connotations which appear to be favoured by their place in the text itself. (In particular, how did you interpret the word 'human' and the expression 'waited for the light'?)
  4. On the basis of the connotations you listed in Q3, how would answer the question, 'What tone of voice do you pick up in the persona? What is their attitude towards Richard Cory and the fact of his suicide?'
  5. Most of the words listed in Q1 are termed content words by linguists. These words – nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs – have a meaning even when separated from other words. Function words – pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions and determiners – are so called because they establish connections between content words. In using the word 'function', you will be asking the question 'What work or job is this word or expression doing?' As a hint, consider the fact that function words play an important role when we are arguing a case.What do you consider to be the function of:
  6. Finally, what position is the persona adopting with respect to Richard Cory's fate? Putting this another way, is the persona drawing some kind of conclusion or moral on the basis of the story they have told?

Language Tool Kit
Denotation: the primary or dictionary meaning of a word.
Connotation: the associated meanings or suggestions implied by a word.
Content words have a meaning even when separated from other words.
Function words are used to establish connections between content words.
Function: When you talk about the function of language or of a linguistic feature, you are referring to the work it is being asked to do.

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1.6. Modes of discourse
A discourse is a recognisable category of language which operates according to a set of rules covering such things as subject matter, style, participants and the view of the world implied by the language used. 'Narrative', 'description' and 'argument’ are examples of modes of discourse. It will be apparent from the preceding discussion that more than one mode of discourse can operate within a single text.

Language Tool Kit
A discourse is a recognisable category of language operates according to an identifiable set of rules or conventions.
A mode of discourse is a broad way of using language and is related to a particular function. Descriptions primarily describe persons and things. Narratives primarily tell stories. Arguments primarily put forward cases for certain positions.

Richard Cory' can be thought of as a narrative. It has a narrator (a townsperson), a setting (small-town New England in the 1890's), a central character (Richard Cory) and a plot. (A wealthy man unexpectedly commits suicide; the townspeople have to reassess their values in coming to terms with this startling event.) We will be looking at narrative in some depth later in this book.

It can also be thought of as arguing a case. From the perspective of the persona, the case might be set out as follows:

You'll also notice that the second statement somewhat modifies the first one. (Hence the use of the conjunction 'but'.) It's almost as if another speaker has interrupted and said, 'Hey, but have you thought of this angle?'  The third statement is a kind of synthesis of the first two statements. I might argue that this is the major position of the poem. And, of course, you have the right to challenge me on that.

Language Tool Kit
"Argument can be taken to be a process of argumentation, a connected series of statements intended to establish a position and implying response to another (or more than one) position, sometimes taking the form of an actual exchange in discussion and debate, and usually presenting itself in speech and/or writing as a sequence or chain of reasoning."
Richard Andrews, Teaching and Learning Argument, Cassell, 1995

Finally, I don't want to pretend that the narrative and the argument I have constructed here are somehow magically in the poem waiting for me to prise them out. They are meanings I have constructed on the basis of active reading.

Extension activity: individual research
Around 70 years after Robinson published his poem, Paul Simon wrote the song 'Richard Cory' which he and Art Garfunkel recorded on their Sounds of Silence album in 1966.

You'd have to say that more people have heard of Simon and Garfunkel than would have heard of Edwin Arlington Robinson. Yet without Robinson's poem, Paul Simon's text would not have come into existence. One of the points this book makes is that texts exist in relationship to other texts. The meaning you draw from Paul Simon's song will be affected by your reading of Robinson's poem. The acknowledgement that texts exist in the context of other texts is called intertextuality

Language Tool Kit
Intertextuality: A recognition that texts (and the meanings we make of them) exist in the context of other texts.

Once you have located the Paul Simon song, answer the following questions:

  1. What narrative features of Robinson's poem does Paul Simon retain? Consider such things as narrator or persona, setting, character details and plot.
  2. We get a fuller picture of Richard Cory in Paul Simon's song. Why do you think that is? What purposes does this change serve?
  3. In what way or ways, is Simon's Richard Cory character different from Robinson's?
  4. In what way or ways, is Simon's persona different from Robinson's?
  5. Simon's song has a refrain ('But I work in his factory...' and so on). What is the effect of this repeated element?
  6. Argue a case for or against the statement that: the argument to be constructed out of Simon's song is different from the argument to be constructed out of Robinson's poem.

Chapter summary:
This chapter has made the following key points:

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