Applying traditional (Gricean) pragmatic concepts and principles in literary discourse analysis

In this section, I will discuss some of the main objections against the applicability of pragmatic theories to literary discourse. There have been suggestions that it seems impossible to apply the Cooperative principle to literary discourse because it applies primarily to interaction between acquaintances, not intimates or those in disparate power relationships (cf. Cook 1994). As these critics often observe, the maxims are regularly broken in quarrels, when we are repetitive, irrelevant and probably do not pay much attention to the truth. However, it is just because of this nature of interaction that we are aware of a certain norm of cooperative behaviour. In other words, it is because the maxims are infringed that we judge it against a norm of cooperative behaviour. In defence of the project of applying pragmatic principles in literary texts/discourse, some authors see the readers as observers. Black says that readers are “voyeurs” who observe with interest, and “are perhaps prepared to adopt whatever attitudes may be necessary for the willing suspension of disbelief’ (Black 2006: 31). We might not fully accept Black viewing readers as voyeurs (the term raises some unwished connotations and it also implies that the voyeur observes other people secretly, which is not the case of literary works; these are produced with the intention of being openly publicized and read by anyone). However, we can agree with her that (competent and cautious) readers are perhaps interested in small and often unimportant details of characters’ lives. Also, the readers will judge the language they encounter using the same means they would were it to occur in real life. In the following example, consider the ways the speakers are aware of the Cooperative principle’s maxims:

(1) (DL 79)

They did my car in, they drove past so near they scraped all the paint off that side. I saw them do it. I was at my window-just luck, that was. They were laughing like dogs. Then they turned around and drove back and scraped the paint off the other side. They went off like bats out of hell. They saw me at the window and laughed.

As the sample illustrates, the maxims are regularly broken in excited conversations, arguments and quarrels. In this particular utterance the speaker is angry and breaks all maxims of the Cooperative principle, mainly the maxim of Quality and Quantity. Due to his excitement and anger he is repetitive (breaks the Quantity maxim) and irrelevant (breaks the maxim of Relevance). It is also typical of spontaneous spoken utterances to be general and vague, even ambiguous, because the speakers often do not pay much attention to the truth and break the Quality maxim.

According to Cook (1994) the wide range of works regarded as literary, which range from the fairly factual to the fantastic, shows that the question of the truthfulness (i.e. the Quality maxim) of an utterance is irrelevant or unhelpful in the study of literary discourse. Similarly, he sees the quantity maxim as irrelevant, since a literary work has no practical or social function and as such, any and every literary text is too long.

In response to these objections one has to consider the levels of the discourse as well as the notion of literariness. The application of the Cooperative principle and its maxims may work differently on different levels of the discourse. Considering the dialogues, these are analogous to real-life conversation, and thus we are able to apply the maxims as in usual spoken interaction. Considering the discourse of the narrator, the matter is usually more complex. However, the real-life analogy exists too. When telling stories to each other, we function as narrators. Quite naturally, our reasons are different from those of a narrator in a novel, but otherwise the analogy seems to work. Unlike the narration of stories, for interpersonal reasons in spoken discourse, the literary discourse of a novel can clearly create an imposition upon the audience. As noted by Black (2006), the reader may or may not feel adequately rewarded for his effort. Black goes further in developing analogies and sees the relationship between the narrator and the reader as a kind of agreement: “an implied contract we all enter into when we read a fictional work: we may suspend some of our disbelief, but nevertheless we are likely to process the text in much the same way as other types of discourse, though we play the credulous reader” (Black 2006: 32). One can simply say that it is always about the reader’s choice and decision. The length of a literary text is an inherent part of its complex characteristics.

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