Pattern is meaning: on the style of *Lolita*

On of the most evident sources of irony in Lolita is coincidence. What Humbert Humbert sees as “those dazzling coincidences” (31) are obviously not coincidences–the text (or, if you prefer, Nabokov) knows that, and we know that. In other words, Humbert tells us he sees coincidence and we know that the text is saying, between the lines, “don’t trust this guy.” In other words, Humbert Humbert is an unreliable narrator, because his interpretation of things is evidently different from the interpretation that the text itself asks us to make. This even though Humbert is the one narrating the text. We have to read between the lines, and the issue of coincidence is one of the easiest places to see where Humbert’s account is not the same account as the novel’s itself.

What do these coincidences mean? Well, it’s hard to say exactly, but this is a perfect chance for me to air one of my mantras of literary analysis: Pattern is meaning. What that meaning is remains to be determined, or not. But pattern means. Those in the sciences may find this easier to swallow than others, perhaps.

Pattern is everywhere in Lolita. You only need to look at the first paragraph to see a remarkably patterned prose:


(Source: Vladimir Nabokov. The Annotated Lolita. Ed. Alfred Appel. New York: Vintage, 1991. 9.)

What does this textile-like pattern of sounds mean? Well, I don’t know if it has a meaning in the sense of a solution hidden behind appearances. But it means. No doubt someone could analyze the pattern and find ways in which it fits a larger reading of the novel. Who knows? Let me know if you do.


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Apostrophe’s (I mean, apostrophes)

I’ve noticed in the last few years that many students have trouble with the use of the apostrophe (‘). The difference between “its” and “it’s” and “whose” and “who’s” is an age-old problem, but what seems new to me is a tendency to omit apostrophes altogether (for example, writing “My fathers boat” instead of “My father’s boat” or “doesnt” instead of “doesn’t”). If this applies to you, or if you’re not 100% how to use apostrophes, you could begin by looking at this brief but effective post on “Hyper Grammar.”

My prediction is that the apostrophe is on its way out. English spelling evolves, and this loss seems to me inevitable. Be that as it may, for the moment, it is still important to know how to use this punctuation mark correctly. Why? Well, in a sense, it’s the same as any spelling convention. Why does it matter if we spell T.S. Eliot with two tees (Elliott), as about half the class did in their assignment? I mean, after all, everyone knows who it is we’re talking about? I think the reason it matters is perhaps unfortunate, but it’s a reality. If you don’t know how to use apostrophes correctly, there is a chance that it will mark you negatively for at least some readers. Learning how to do it right is therefore of pragmatic importance, even if you can communicate just fine without it. To cite a plausible example, if you write a cover letter for a job, and you misuse apostrophes in it, there is a chance that the employer will take this as a sign of carelessness or inattention; most employers may not care, but why take that chance? Knowing how to write correctly is an excellent way to stand out as a detail-oriented person who cares about doing things right–and this will stand you in good stead in school as well as in professional life. In a sense, getting the grammar right is the same as making sure you format your essays or resume correctly.

Next topic on matters of grammar and style sentence fragments beginning with the adverbs “Although,” “though,” or “while.” Coming soon….

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Virginia Woolf: what is she up to in *To the Lighthouse*?

Anyone who’s even glanced at *To the Lighthouse* knows that Woolf was trying to get away from plot. In the first few pages alone, we find ourselves looping over and over again over the same dialogue. Sometimes it’s the same words, but heard by different people each time; sometimes it’s literally a repetition. Why would Woolf write like this?

More than many of her contemporary novelists (James Joyce comes immediately to mind, though there’s also Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce and many others), Woolf was a theorist of the novel as well as a practitioner of the art of fiction. In her essays, the theory is front and centre. But even her novels are theoretical, though not explicitly: they are theoretical in the sense that her style embodies a particular theory of fiction. And not surprisingly, her theory of fiction saw plot as an unnecessary element of fiction–even a dangerous element. In her 1926 essay “How Should One Read a Book?” Woolf says this more or less explicitly:

The thirty-two chapters of a novel … are an attempt to make something as formed and controlled as a building: but words are more impalpable than bricks; reading is a longer and more complicated process than seeing. Perhaps the quickest way to understand the elements of what a novelist is doing is not to read, but to write: to make your own experiment with the dangers and difficulties of words. (Essays of Virginia Woolf, vol. 5: 1929-1932. Ed. by Stuart N. Clark. London: Hogarth Press, 2009. 574.)

In her most famous essay, “Modern Fiction” (1925), Woolf makes the same point even more memorably:

Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions–trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that, if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it. Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. (Essays of Virginia Woolf, vol. 4: 1925–1928. Ed. Andrew McNeillie. London: Hogarth Press, 1994. 161)

Woolf believed that fiction had a responsibility to get at “life,” a vague term she was, it seems, intentionally vague about defining. She objected to realist novelists who sought to show a person by meticulously listing the physical attributes of their clothes, body and surroundings. This she called “materialism,” as opposed to the “spiritual” writing she strove for. Life, she says, “is not a series of gig-lamps, symmetrically arranged”: is isn’t plotted, or linear, or built on increasing then resolving tension. In A Room of One’s Own Woolf writes about the need for women writers to “br[eak] the sequence” of plot. And the narrative loops, the changes in point of view and the in-depth revelations of characters’ minds are all ways in which Woolf herself breaks the sequence. She seeks to follow the curves of the mind, and of emotions.

In her essay “Is Fiction an Art?” (a review of the book of criticism by her friend E. M. Forster, author of A Passage to India and Howards End), Woolf gives us yet another view of the same desire to use the novel form in order to do something new:

The novelist might be encouraged to be bolder. He might cut adrift from the eternal tea table and the plausible but preposterous formulas which are still supposed to represent life, love and other human adventures. But then the story might wobble; the plot might crumble; ruin might seize upon the characters. It might be necessary to enlarge our idea of the novel. (Essays of Virginia Woolf, vol. 5: 1929-1932. Ed. by Stuart N. Clark. London: Hogarth Press, 2009. 463.)

Enlarge our idea of the novel she does…. But I wouldn’t want to give the impression that Woolf is a theoretical novelist in the sense that she starts with a theory, which she then puts into practice. She didn’t approve of such a procedure, as she writes in her essay “Freudian Fiction.” The new disciples of Freud, she thought, were writing novels to put Freudianism into fictional form, and she saw this as a misguided use of psychology to solve the problems of character motivation. In her preface to her novel Mrs Dalloway (1925), Woolf explains what kind of theoretical novelist she is. She did not write the novel following a plan, blueprint or idea; instead, she gorgeously writes,

the idea started as the oyster starts or the snail to secrete a house for itself. And this it did without any conscious direction. (Essays of Virginia Woolf, vol. 4: 1925–1928. Ed. Andrew McNeillie. London: Hogarth Press, 1994: 549)

In other words, the novel generated its own theory as it was composed, reflecting but not necessary following Woolf’s conscious theoretical ideas.

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On Prosody

First, in response to the connection Emily made in tutorial between the lines “And I will show you something different from either / Your shadow at morning striding behind you / Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you” and a John Donne poem, here is a link to Donne’s (as usual) gorgeous and dense poem “A Lecture upon the Shadow” (1635).

Thanks for that connection, Emily.

Onto prosody, a bit of misleading name: it isn’t the science of prose, but the science of poetry.

Anyway, T.S. Eliot gives us an excellent opportunity to pick up or review some basic elements of prosody; like any specialized lexicon, it can easily steer into esoterica. But used correctly it can turn a so-so analysis of a poem into something truly inspired. Why? Because thoughts are not separate from the words we use to articulate them. So if you have precise, specific words at your command, then you can have thoughts and come up with interpretations that might be impossible without those words (this goes for any field, including literary analysis but also mathematics and business administration).


What is the difference between poetry and prose? As far as I can tell, the only objective difference that can consistently be maintained between them is that poetry, unlike prose, has line-breaks.

So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow

might be prose or poetry. What is poetic about it in this arrangement? Well, for one thing, even though the poem I’ve taken this from is considered to be free verse, there is an evident, regular metre here (broken only at the end);


But it might be prose in the sense that it’s hardly “poetic” in its subject matter or expression. By contrast, To the Lighthouse, which is definitely a work in prose, is far more “poetic” in its language. Now here is the clause above as William Carlos Williams wrote it:

So much depends


a red wheel


This line is highly enjambed (from the French enjamber, which means to step across): that is, a single syntactical unit (the clause) is broken up by line breaks. To give a comparative example, here are some lines from a poem I wrote for a creative writing exercise some years ago:

With Ruth gone

who can say

I’m ruthless?

With Ruth


who can

say I’m ruthless?

It’s not great poetry, I’ll admit. But it’s a good illustration of various degrees of enjambment. In the first stanza, there is arguably no enjambment at all: each line is a syntactical unit with its own complete logic (even if only the third line could actually stand as a complete sentence). The second stanza is highly enjambed: line breaks separate words that syntax would want to keep together. The experience of reading the two stanzas is very different. One way to explain this is that a line break is a kind of punctuation; and like a comma or semi-colon, moving a punctuation mark into different places in a sentence can create very different meanings–for example, see this). You can see this effect of enjambment in action in the opening of The Waste Land:

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

             –T.S. Eliot. The Waste Land, Prufrock and Ohter Poems. New York: Dover, 1998. 31.

With no enjambment, the lines would look like this:

April is the cruellest month,

Breeding lilacs out of the dead land,

Mixing memory and desire,

Stirring dull roots with spring rain.

This version is not enjambed; it is end-stopped, meaning that the line-breaks coincide with a break in syntax. It still works as poetry, but I’d say that the enjambment in Eliot’s version creates a kind of tension between the poetic form and lyrical expression of the lines (which is much more emphasized with the enjambment removed–note that pop songs very rarely use enjambment for this reason) and the more prose-like aspect of the passage, which is the continuous, argument-like nature of the nature (paraphrased, it might say “April is like this: for example…”) . Importantly, too, the enjambment creates a far more complex rhythm (this is not necessarily a good thing, but here I’d say it suits Eliot’s purpose). To see similar comparisons, you could read one of Shakespeare’s sonnets besides one of Milton’s (the former tends to use little enjambment, the latter a lot). The most enjambed passage in The Waste Land is


“You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember

“Nothing?” (Ibid. 34)

Here you can clearly see one of the great effects that enjambment can create, which is a temporary ambiguity in meaning that persists in the reader’s mind even after the ambiguity has been resolved. The end of the second line above, “Do you remember” leaves us temporarily thinking that the woman is asking about whether the man remembers a particular event in their past, say, or something like that. And it’s only once you move to the next line that you realize the full statement is not “Do you remember?” but, rather, “Do you remember nothing?”–these are rather different things to ask someone, to say the least. But enjambment allows the two readings to exist simultaneously.


Meter indicates a regular rhythmic structure to poetic lines, and its presence or absence is essentially the difference between traditional verse and free verse (though other elements, like the absence of rhyme and the absence of regular stanza structure, is also fairly characteristic of free verse). In English, metric is measure mainly by the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllabus (some other languages use pitch or syllable length instead of stress to dictate meter). Recognizing which syllables are stressed can be difficult at first. So here’s brief illustration:

The noun “object” (as in “a solid object”) puts the stress or accent on the first syllable: OB-ject.

The verb “object” (as in “we object to that example”) stresses the second syllable: ob-JECT.

The name “Mary” sounds very different from the name “Marie” mainly because of the positions of the stressed syllable: MA-ry versus Ma-RIE. Same with DA-niel versus da-NIELLE.

With single words like few syllables, figuring out where the stress is is pretty easy; with longer words or groups of words, some of the work of scanning (assessing the meter) becomes more difficult and, to a certain extent, subjective.

As a French speaker, I’ve always struggled with pronouncing the word “quantitatively.” Why? Because I’m not 100% sure where to put the stress because there are so many syllables to choose from–and, to make matters worse, because there are two syllables that are relatively stressed, though one is more stressed than the other: QUAN-tiTA-tive-ly. The first and third syllables are stressed, but the main stress is on the third.

Poetic metre is more than just the rhythm of individual words, of course: it is measured by the line. So prosodists typically parse out syllables in groups of two or three, and these groups are called feet.

For our purposes, we need only consider a few of the possible configurations. We’ll encounter three kinds of two-syllable feet: the iamb, the trochee, and the spondee.

Iamb: unstressed syllable followed by stressed syllable: ma-RIE.

Iambic line: ma-RIE | ma-RIE | ma-RIE | ma-RIE | ma-RIE

The line above has ten syllables and five iambic feet; it is called iambic pentameter (penta- = five); if it had one foot less, it’d be called iambic tetrameter (tetra- = four). Now for real examples:

was THIS | the FACE | that LAUNCH’D | a THOU | sand SHIPS?

from Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1604)

i WANT | to LIVE, | i WANT | to GIVE |

i’ve BEEN | a MI | ner FOR | a HEART | of GOLD

from Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” (1971)

One thing you can see from the Neil Young quotation is that stress is not absolute, but rather relative. In the last quoted line, the word “FOR” is stressed relative to the second syllabus of “miner” and to “a.” But in the line “For HE’S | a JOL | ly GOOD | FELlow” the word “for” is unstressed relative to “HE’S.” You can also see a metrical inversion in the last foot of the jolly fellow song, where the last foot is not unstressed-stressed but stressed-unstressed, also known as a

Trochee: stressed-unstressed: Ma-ry

Trochaic line: Ma-ry | Ma-ry | Ma-ry | Ma-ry (this is trochaic tetrameter)

For a real example:

DOUble | DOUble | TOIL and | TROUble

from Shakespeare’s Mcbeth

Spondee: two stressed syllables. This is not really a common foot–or at least it’s not really possible to write using several sequential spondees. Why not? Well, because stress is relative, so even when you have two strong syllables side by side, one will be more stressed than the other, and you’ll have something either trochaic or iambic. But once in a while you get what seems to be two more or less equally stressed syllables in one foot: KILL BILL, for example, is a spondee, while ARgo is a trochee and the TRIP is an iamb.

CRY! CRY! | TROY BURNS, | or ELSE | let HE | len GO

–from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida

The first two feet are arguably spondees (I say arguably because you could argue that even the two “CRYs” in a row have different stresses). You can see it gives the otherwise iambic line an urgency that is consistent with the threat expressed in the line.

Three-syllable feet. There are many variants here, but the most common are anapests (unstressed-unstressed-stressed) and dactyls (stressed-unstressed-unstressed).

Anapests: in the END | he is DRUNK | and de-PRESSED

Dactyls: JON-a-than | MAR-tin and | JESS-ie are | LIV-ing in | MAN-ches-ter

I focus on just these two because other three-syllable feet, in English at least, are not so different from a familiar two-syllable foot with an extra syllable. So an amphibrach (unstressed-stressed-unstressed, for example to-RON-to) is almost an iamb (to-RON) followed by the first half of another iamb (to). Also, let’s not get too complicated here.

As a challenge, you might try scanning a few lines from different parts of “Prufrock.” Having found several lines using different meters (or no obvious meter at all), read ’em aloud to see how differently they sound.

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T. S. Eliot reads *The Waste Land*

I’ve always loved this poem, but it was only after hearing Eliot read it that I got it. I don’t mean that it made sense, or that I’d figured out its hidden order, or anything like that. I just mean that I sensed, for the first time, that I was encountering it as it should be.

Anyway, if you have 23 minutes, here’s the poem, read by the man himself.

A great online resource about this poem is the website He Do the Police in Different Voices, which includes this online version of The Waste Land–complete with colour coded voices and other cool features. The website, by the way, is designed and administered by Dr. Adam Hammond of UofT.

Finally, here’s a link to Eliot’s famous essay on James Joyce’s Ulysses, another landmark literary work of 1922, but which Eliot had been reading earlier, as it came out in small literary magazines. His argument about Joyce’s novel, some people say, is probably a better analysis of his own goals in The Waste Land than it is of Ulysses. In any case, it is a very clear statement of what sort of order and shape Eliot imagined hiding below the surface chaos of his poem.

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Life is not a narrative, but

the only means we have of describing and understanding life is through narrative. The same is true of history, scientific theory (and studies), and basically everything, no?

Here is a similar statement, expressed rather differently, from Martin Page’s recent novel L’apiculture selon Samuel Beckett (Apiculture according to Samuel Beckett. Editions de l’Olivier, 2013), in which the writer Samuel Beckett is a character. In this novel, “Beckett” says

It’s thanks to an attack that I met Suzanne [Beckett’s real-life life partner], before the war. On the Avenue de la Porte d’Orleans, a man stuck a knife in my breast and Suzanne, who was just getting out of a concert, came to my aid. It made me think about chance and necessary meetings. A knife strike nearly killed me and did, in fact, completely overturn my life. I then understood that Art is also a crime, but a crime against reality. With its incessant transformations, Art recreates the world’s and society’s constitution, just as murder recreates a person’s body. A work of art puts you out of breath, increases your heart rate, changes your relations with forms, colour and sound. It doesn’t change us to the point of killing us. But reality as we knew it hitherto dies, to be replaced by a new reality–more complex, stranger. And more beautiful, too. (Martin Page. L’apiculture selon Samuel Beckett. Paris: L’Olivier, 2013. 85-86. [Passage translated by Daniel Aureliano Newman.)

In this passage, Page’s character Beckett takes up a cause we normally associate with another Irish playwright, Oscar Wilde, whose essay “The Decay of Lying” made essentially the same point. Between the lines of Beckett’s words here, though, is a warning that art’s crime against reality is not necessarily a positive protest against the way things are. His phrasing allows us to read the passage also as a warning against the artfully reconstituted “realities” of political or personal opportunism and hatefulness (indeed, he has, in the previous pages, been railing against Fascism). It is, I think, a call to arms about the power of art, including narrative in its manifold forms, both an invitation to use it and a caution against its abuses. In other words, he seems to suggest that art, including the stories (fiction and nonfiction) we tell have consequences in this world, and that we must be careful and responsible storytellers and careful and attentive readers of stories–again, fictional and not.

On that note, I will say goodbye. If you’re so inclined, check out my my new course blog, on literature and film. I have greatly enjoyed our course, intense as it has been, and hope that even if you don’t go on to be a literature student, that the ways that we’ve encountered narratives will serve you in your future studies and lives.

Best of luck on tomorrow’s exam!


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What do you absolutely have to know?

No, this isn’t one of those deep philosophic questions; I’m referring very pragmatically to the upcoming exam. We’ll go over this in detail on Monday, but here are a few things that you must know (and by “know” I mean that you should not only understand the terms, but that you can explain them and use them to make your answers stronger: it’s one thing to know what “third-person narration” is, but a much better thing to be able to talk about some of the implications of third-person versus, say, first-person narration). For definitions, see the Glossary.

Also, best to mention here that I won’t be in the office on Tuesday morning.

Here’s what you absolutely need to know:

– the difference between “story” and “discourse”

– the basic constituent elements of Narrative–the short list of elements that make a text a narrative

-the fact that a narrator is not exactly the same thing as the author, even in autobiographical narratives

– the five or so most common narrative voices. You also have some ability to talk about how a particular voice influences the meaning of a passage/text (it isn’t enough to claim that “voice influences meaning”– this is an empty statement, a truism; you must be able to explain what kind of influence, depending, of course, on the particular passage at hand). Being able to tell apart first- from third-person narration is a basic expectation, as is being able to tell apart very different types of third-person narrators (particularly objective vs omniscient).

– the most used technical terms in the glossary. The more certain technical terms and concepts came up in the lectures and blog-posts, the more likely it is that you will find them useful to know and understand for the exam. To give a quick hypothetical example, you’re far more likely to benefit from understanding what an “intertext” is (it’s a term that’s frequently arisen in class) than a “paratext” (which has never come up in lecture).

Obviously, these are not the only things you need to know, but they are the basic essentials. There are also something things you don’t necessarily have to know. I’m not saying knowing these things can’t be useful; I’m just saying it’s not necessary. You don’t need to know

– any quotations by heart. You can and in some cases must refer to specific instances in a book, story or film, but obviously you’re not expected to be able to quote it exactly. A paraphrase should suffice, or a specific word if that particular word is relevant.

– details like authors’ birth/death dates, place of birth, other works, scandals they were involved in, etc…

– anything about the many texts that I may have mentioned but that weren’t on the syllabus (“Books and Schedule”). Though I often referred to Lolita, for example, you aren’t expected to know anything about it for the exam. As a freebie, you can rest easy that there is nothing on the exam related to the David Eagleman and other time-perception articles, or one the scholarly articles we discussed last week.

– full names or exact spellings. For the passage identifications, you will have to name the author and the title of the work, but as long as these are unambiguously specific and correct, it’s okay if you give only the last name (e.g., “Hemingway” instead of “Ernest Hemingway”), though first name only is a bit more problematic. It’s also okay if you misspell the name or title  somewhat (e.g., “Ondatche” is close enough to “Ondaatje” to be unambiguous, or “Alexi” instead of “Alexie”). Do be careful with the spelling of technical terms, for some misspellings can be confusing or even misleading. For example, writing “vocalization” when you mean “focalization” is likely to be read as a mistake, because “vocalization” seems to refer to the activity of “verbalizing,” which is what the narrator (the “verbalizer”) does, not the “focalizer.”

Best of luck with your studying. Remember that you are encouraged, for Monday, to submit answers to the mock exam questions I posted last week.

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