How does a novel mean?

How do words mean? How do sentences mean? How do novels mean? Without getting into the thicket of these very complex questions, I would say that linguists have developed a considerable (but not complete) understanding of how words and sentences mean. But linguists usually stop with sentences; they don’t ask how paragraphs mean, let alone how stories or novels mean. This is the job of literary critics. In general, linguists don’t talk much to literary critics, and literary critics don’t talk much to linguists. But philology, as I understand it, includes both sides. A philologist has to be something of a linguist and something of a literary critic.

Literary critics have told us a lot about how individual poems and stories and novels mean, and some have given more general accounts of certain aspects of literary meaning. This is not the place for extensive bibliography. I might just mention Percy Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction; E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel; Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction; Susan Lanser’s The Narrative Act; Gérard Genette’s Narrative Discourse; Dorrit Cohn’s Transparent Minds; from a different angle there is also Northop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism; and many recent studies, too numerous to mention. But most of these critics don’t use linguistic methods, and the chasm between linguistics and criticism largely remains.

My own work attempts to bring criticism and linguistics together. I’m getting to the point now where I can make a few claims; these may be wrong; they are certainly incomplete; but I think they are a beginning—a beginning of debate, at least. I don’t yet, however, have anything close to a neat and tidy organization of what I’m trying to say. The topic is immense; it’s like a great forest with no established paths, and it’s hard to know the best place to enter. Perhaps we should make several different forays, with different points of entry, to see which one gets us farthest. But a promising path may turn out to lead only to deeper tangles. We shall see.

I begin with a basic point of theory—though I’m going to try to avoid theory as much as possible. Theory sometimes seems like an endless preparation for a trip that never gets started. On the other hand, a trip with no preparation isn’t likely to turn out well. So here is my minimal bundle of theory. In language, structure can express meaning. That’s it. But small as it is, this claim is really fundamental to what I want to do. The point of this fundamental principle is that meaning isn’t expressed just in words, it is also expressed in the structures of sentences, and, I would claim, in the structures of larger forms of literature.

This claim, I would say, is the fundamental idea of what should have been structuralism. Unfortunately, structuralism wandered off into other thickets, and eventually into what came to be called post-structuralism, which in its extreme forms seemed almost to deny the possibility of meaning anything at all. But I don’t want to get into that mess now, which in any case has become ancient history.

Here’s an example of meaning expressed in structure. Compare these two sentences:

You like coffee, don’t you?

You don’t like coffee, do you?

These are called tag questions. The rule of formation is relatively simple: a positive sentence (“You like coffee”) takes a negative tag (“don’t you”) and a negative sentence (“You don’t like coffee”) takes a positive tag (“do you”). Every speaker of English forms tag sentences without hesitation, but most people have probably never thought about them. Furthermore, the negative tag question (“You like coffee, don’t you?”) expects a positive answer (“Yes, I do”) and the positive tag question (“You don’t like coffee, do you?”) expects a negative answer (“No, I don’t”). These expectations are part of the meaning of the sentences. A neutral question would be just “Do you like coffee?” The form of the question expresses part of the meaning: “I’m asking a question and I’m expecting a positive response” or “I’m asking and I’m expecting a negative response”. Latin, by the way, does the same job with words rather than with sentence structure: the question word “nonne” expects a positive answer, while the question word “num” expects a negative answer. So the same job can be handled by a choice of words in Latin but with a choice of sentence structure in English.

Here’s another example of structural meaning. Consider these sentences:

            John dripped black paint on the bookshelf yesterday.

            It was John who dripped black paint on the bookshelf yesterday.

            It was black paint that John dripped on the bookshelf yesterday.

            It was yesterday that John dripped black paint on the bookshelf.

All of the sentences beginning “It was” use what is called a cleft construction: the simple sentence is divided, or cleft, into two parts; one word of the sentence is picked out and put into the construction “it was X who/that” and the rest of the sentence is then a subordinate clause. The point of the operation is to place the chosen word into a position of prominence, and to emphasize that what you’re talking about is definitely X and not someone or something else. For instance, you might say “It was John who dripped black paint on the bookshelf yesterday” if there has been some question about who did it.

The point of these examples is to demonstrate a general principle: structure in language can express meaning. Someone might object, however, that what I’m identifying as meaning doesn’t really count as meaning. The sentence “John dripped black paint on the bookshelf yesterday” has exactly the same truth-value as the sentence “It was John who dripped black paint on the bookshelf yesterday”, because each is true if and only if John dripped black paint on the bookshelf yesterday; the difference is a difference in emphasis but not a change in meaning. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this objection. I don’t see any reason to limit meaning to truth- values; I could argue the point in detail, but it’s a boring argument, so I will skip it.

Here’s where I’m headed: If we can talk about the meaning of the structure of a sentence, we should also be able to talk about the meaning of a structure of a novel. For a long time there has been an assumption that novels are the form without a form. I can name a lot of critics who have made this claim, more or less directly and emphatically, including, for instance, E. M. Forster, in his wonderful book Aspects of the Novel. I am convinced, however, that novels do have form, and that the form of a novel is part of its meaning. In addition, there is a certain sensuous quality to narrative form, but I don’t draw any sharp line between sensuousity and meaning: thinking and feeling are really just two aspects of a single experience.

There’s a big jump from the meaning of the structure of a sentence and the meaning of the structure of a novel. One way to prepare for that jump is to talk about the meaning of figures of speech, and that’s what I will start to do in my next post.

A Footnote: I am perfectly aware that the word “sensuosity” is not listed in dictionaries, which do, however list “sensuousness”. I don’t like “ousness”. The sensuosity of “sensuosity” is much better than the sensuousness of “sensuousness”. So I will use “sensuosity” and wait for the dictionaries to catch up with me.

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