English 270/370: Stylistics Support

The final for this course will include two passages and ask you to give your best stylistic reading of one of them. That will involve doing what we've done over the quarter: extend and apply to specific written texts the knowledge you've been developing.

To help you prepare you have several resources, beginning with your own notes from class. But you also have the explanations given in The Speaker in the Text on the Blackboard.

Moreover, here I supplement those resources with my own Review Notes on passages we looked at over the past weeks. These notes don't cover everything we talked about in class, but they make a start. I first post the passages, then follow that passage with my paragraphs summarizing my own view of these particular speakers.


J. D. Salinger, from The Catcher in the Rye

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They’re quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They’re nice and all—I’m not saying that—but they’re also touchy as hell. Besides, I’m not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything.

Charles Dickens, from David Copperfield

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.

In consideration of the day and hour of my birth, it was declared by the nurse, and by some sage women in the neighborhood, who had taken a lively interest in me several months before there was any possibility of our becoming personally acquainted, first, that I was destined to be unlucky in life; and secondly, that I was privileged to see ghosts and spirits—both these gifts inevitably attaching, as they believed, to all unlucky infants, of either gender, born towards the small hours on a Friday night.

Comments on Salinger: The voice in Salinger’s paragraph is impulsive, youthful, random and free-flowing. It is sarcastic and borderline transgressive, but also unsure of itself, reluctant to share, but full in what he says. Syntax is loose, sometimes simple, sometimes compound sentences, semi-periodic at best—almost stream of consciousness, thought tumbling out as if not fully thought through and therefore in need of instant revision: “They’re nice and all—I’m not saying that—but they’re also touchy as hell.” The speaker is ill at ease, half apologizing for speaking at all (“if you really want to hear about it”). He’s not polished, not all that sure of himself, not reflective so much as babbling—a kind of hemorrhage of discourse (!). Diction is largely Anglo Saxon—the only Latinate words are very common words, like “probably” and “autobiography”; “occupied” may be the most “formal” word in the passage, except for “hemorrhage,” which is there as a kind of hyperbolic metaphor—exaggeration as teenage style register—he only means they’d be very upset. The speaker’s teenager register includes slang and the sort of informal diction characteristic of speech (“touchy as hell,” “have about two hemorrhages apiece,” “goddam autobiography,” “nice and all,” “pretty personal”). He is also speaking as if in conversation with someone—it is a conversational voice, availing itself of what conversations allow, revision, efforts to have rhetorical effect, to portray a certain kind of coolness (i.e., I can swear, I can use vaguely transgressive expressions like “have about two hemorrhages apiece” in regard to one’s parents). Interestingly, the novel ahead will be taken up with telling all of what he here denies that he wishes to relate.

Comments on Dickens: Syntax in Dickens’s passage is periodic, not loose—in fact the whole selection is in periodic sentences. That helps give it a formal air, even as it strives for a level of ironic comment and self-deprecation. A certain amount of Latinate diction, and in places that could have been filled by AS: “In consideration of the hour”; “it was declared,” “any possibility of our becoming personally acquainted,” “I was privileged,” “inevitably attaching.” He also uses passive constructions (“it was declared,” “I was privileged”). All of these syntactic and diction choices elevate the level of formality and connote an educated, practiced and reflective writer; they also are used for humorous effect—they are a form of stylistic hyperbole. He writes/speaks as one who is in control of his life and of his prose, and, at least as far as his having some humor and some ironic distance on his birth, one guesses he is a success in his life, even if he grants that he may not exactly be its hero. Where Salinger’s speaker just pours out his state of mind, revealing his discomfort and fears, Dickens’ speaker is measured, in control, able to create balanced parallel constructions and to gently mock all those present at his birth for their superstitious—and vaguely ridiculous—ways of thinking about his arrival in the world. At the same time, he does open a range of possibilities about his life, and implies that at his birth there were certain mysteries about how successful he’d actually be—opening up the terrain for the narrative to follow.