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Theoretical preliminaries to literary text interpretation - Реферат

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Theoretical preliminaries to literary text interpretation


1. Approaches to interpretation of a literary text.

2. Elements of a literary work. Formal and poetic layers.

3. The theory of foregrounding. Foregrounding and automatization.

1. There are two main approaches to the analysis and interpretation of literature:

a) from the standpoint of the author and

b) from the standpoint of the reader.

The first approach is concerned with the study of the factors that have influenced the writer and affected his work of art. Among these factors are: the historical and political situation at the time of creation, the author's philosophical and aesthetic views, the historical situation of the period his work represents, etc. The approach can be traced in the course of History of Literature.

The second approach attaches importance to the study of the text itself and its impact on the reader. It involves the analysis of the elements of the text which evoke definite emotional response and affect the general impression. It is the second approach that we attempt to follow while interpreting literature. In each reader, a literary work evokes some personal associations, images and thoughts.

Recreating the images in his own imagination, receiving the impressions, the reader is at the same time to pass judgements upon them, to get through the images to the author's outlook, to the so-called image of the author reflected in his writings. An interpreter is to get at the writer's message which can be both explicitly expressed through particular language means and only implied through elusive images. The effect a literary text produces on the reader may be ambiguous and diverse.

The message that a literary work conveys is expressed both linguistically and extralinguistically. Every character, every event, every bit of dialogue, every figure of speech contributes to the general effect. To comprehend and interpret a literary work, therefore, one should be sensitive to the author's way of balancing both the linguistic and extralinguistic elements to stir the reader's imagination, touch his heart and excite his mind.

Though the material of literature is l-ge, language items in the context of fiction acquire additional overtones, thus developing a great suggestive power. It mainly depends on the writer's skill and his style. D. Lodge in his book "Language of fiction" (1966) wrote: "Style is the means by which the writer ... ensures that his message is decoded in such a way that the reader not only understands the information conveyed, but shares the writer's attitude towards it".

2. The impact of a literary work, as it has already been stated, depends on all the elements constituting it. N. Sharova considers words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, chapters to be elements of the verbal (or formal) layer of a literary work.

Plot, theme, genre, imagery make up the poetic layer.

The verbal and poetic layers form a unity. Therefore, all the events in the plot, its structure, the characters and scenes, every dialogue and detail, the choice of words, the literary and language devices are related to the inseparable whole. Each of the elements in particular, and all of them in unison contribute to the impact of the whole.

Thus, in the structure of a literary work it is possible to single out two major layers: the FORMAL one and the POETIC one. In each of those there are two levels. The first level of the formal layer consists of lexical, syntactical and phono-graphical characteristics of the text. Components of the first level make up those of the second level. The lexical items together with tropes, key words help to present the described objects from a particular angle of vision (or context). The syntactical means (repetition, inversion, the length and structures of sentences, etc.) indicate poetic details and symbols. Punctuation, concentration of long/short vowels, sound symbolism create rhythmical pattern of the text.

The formal layer, besides conveying logical straightforward information, creates the poetic layer. The latter is largely implicit and carries the message and reveals the emotional-evaluative tone or atmosphere of the text. The first level of the poetic layer includes separate micro-images, implications, associations produced by semantic transposition (tropes) and by connotations of words, details, sound symbolism, rhythm.

Interaction of micro-images, implications, associations in the context of the whole extract forms a certain emotional atmosphere and a particular tone which is the second level of the poetic layer. The tone reveals implied attitude, and the atmosphere reflect the mood.

The basic components of the poetic layer are the implicit macro-images of personages and the image of the author.

The scheme reflects the logic of reading: first the reader perceives components of the form and then, having thought over their interrelations, infers the message.

Scheme of logical structurepresents the succession (or a hierarchy) of the major components of the text.


1st level Lexical Items, Grammatical Means, Phono-Graphic Means

2nd level angle of vision poetic details rhythm

(general, panoramic) symbols


1st level Micro-Images, Implications, Associations

2nd level Macro-Images: Atmosphere, Tone

a) the image of the author/narrator

b) personages' images

The cohesion of the two layers, i.e. of the verbal and superverbal constitutes what is known as the poetic structure of the literary text.

3. What literature is, how it works, and why it is there at all, are some of the main questions that the theory of foregrounding tries to provide answers to. According to the theory of foregrounding, literature – by employing usual forms of l-ge – breaks up the reader's routine behaviour: commonplace views and perspectives are replaced by new and surprising insights and sensations.

The term 'foregrounding' may be used in a purely linguistic sense. It then refers to new information, in contrast to elements in the sentence which form the background against which the new elements are to be understood by the listener/reader. In what follows, this term can be used in the areas of stylistics, text linguistics, and literary studies.

The term 'foregrounding' which was borrowed from the visual arts, the ability of a verbal element to obtain extra significance, to say more in a definite context, was introduced by Prague Structuralists (especially Jan Mukarovsky), who introduced it as a translation of the Czech aktualisace and employed it in the sense of the English 'actualization'. This suggests a temporal category: to make smth actual (rather than virtual).

The English term 'foregrounding' has come to mean several meanings at once.

First of all it is used to indicate the (psycholinguistic) process by which – during the reading act – something may be given special prominence.

Second, it may refer to specific devices (as produced by the author) located in the text itself. It is also employed to indicate the specific poetic effect on the reader. Indeed, when a word (affix, sentence), automatized by the long use in speech, through context developments, obtains some new, additional feature, the act resembles a background phenomenon moving into the front line – foregrounding.

Finally, it may be used as a category in order to evaluate literary texts, or situate them historically, or to explain their importance and cultural significance.

Thus the term covers a wide area of meaning.

Outside literature, so the assumption goes, l-ge tends to be automatized; its structure and meanings are used routinely. Within literature, however, this is opposed by devices which thwart (hinder, interfere with) the automatism with which l-ge is read, processed, or understood.

So a very important notion is the distinction btw 'automatization' and 'foregrounding' in l-ge.

Automatization refers to the common use of linguistic devices which do not attract particular attention by l-ge decoder, e.g. the use of discourse markers (e.g. well, you know, sort of, kind of) in spontaneous spoken conversations. Thus automatization correlates with the usual background pattern, or the norm in l-ge use – it encompasses those forms and structures that competent l-ge users expect to be used in a given context of situation.

Foregrounded ('brought forward') linguistic devices, on the other hand, are usually not expected to be used in a specific context and are thus considered conspicuous – they catch the language decoder's attention (e.g. the use of old-fashioned and/or very formal words such as epicure, improvident, and whither in spontaneous spoken conversations). Foregrounding thus captures deviations from the norm. It is obvious that what is considered as automatized and foregrounded l-ge use, depends on the communicative situation at hand. In technical fields of discourse, for instance, specialized vocabulary items tend to be automatized (e.g. lambda marker in molecular biology), but in everyday communication become foregrounded devices.

The result is some degree of surprise in the reader, and his/her attention is thereby drawn to the form of the text itself (rather than to its content). Cases of neologism, live metaphors, or ungrammatical sentences, as well as archaisms, paradox and oxymoron (the traditional tropes) are clear examples of deviation.

Foregrounded and automatized segments of the text contribute to different types of information, including emotionality of the text and message of it. Discourse can be foregrounded or automatized at different language levels. Therefore, the arrangement in the text is hierarchical. Graphically the relationship between the message of the text and literary and linguistic devices can be represented in the form of the pyramid. At the base of the pyramid there are more basic and logically oriented linguistic devices and forms of the language (foregrounded, automatized forms). On their way toward the apex of the pyramid they form more complex formations and ultimately merge into the message of the text, which is represented by the apex.


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