An individual voice? Grammar and style in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner
The theme of loneliness, of solitude, of alienation from society in this short story needs little introduction: Smith is constantly shown to be standing by himself, in conflict with society and its institutions. The most striking aspect of the story is, however, the creation of Smith’s individual voice, its idiosyncratic style. In this paper, I propose to analyse how this voice is created through the use of specific grammatical features such as pronouns, the presentation of direct speech and reported speech, transitivity structures and the use of non-standard English. The study of precise linguistic features can demonstrate not only how voice is created, but also how some of the short story’s themes, solitude and class-conflict, are reflected in the very grammatical structures themselves. However, I will argue that if precise linguistic observation can explain literary effect, such a study can also raise deeper questions, such as how the story should be interpreted, and in the case of this particular short story, whether it can truly be called a “working-class story”.
Reviewers of Alan Sillitoe’s novella The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner either hail it as an example of working-class fiction, as an illustration of Sillitoe’s “talent for conveying the feel and smell of semi-skilled labour and subsistence-level scrounging in Nottingham” (Roskies: 308), or focus on Smith’s individual voice and its idiosyncratic style. In this paper I propose to study how specific grammatical structures both reflect the narrator’s belonging to a social group, and his idiosyncratic style. I also intend to consider how these structures reflect the basic themes of the story itself: the importance of the individual and his conflict with society and its institutions, and how far one can say that Sillitoe gives an accurate picture of working-class culture. This in turn will lead me to consider to what extent a stylistic analysis can be of benefit to the study of grammatical forms.
The novella takes the form of a colloquial soliloquy by Smith, an uneducated working-class youth from Nottingham. Yet while there are many indications of non-Standard English, few are specifically those of the East Midlands. Modified spelling is used at times to suggest a difference in pronunciation: “I wasn’t” is written as “I worn’t” (23), “You won’t” becomes “You wain’t” (20), “summat” (37) and “nowt” (17) are used for “something” and “nothing”. However these features are common of many Northern dialects, and not restricted to those of the East Midlands. Similarly, the grammatical features are those typical of non-standard dialects in general. They include the use of “them” instead of the deictic “those” as in “them fields” (7) and the absence of concord between subject and verb, thus producing “it don’t taste” (37) for “it doesn’t”, “he don’t deserve” (18) for “he doesn’t deserve”, or “they was” (24) for “they were”. There is also the use of the double negative “I ain’t got no more” (23).
If we turn to examine the lexicon used by Smith, the most striking aspect here is not the use of dialectal words, but of the slang belonging to the criminal underworld of the fifties and sixties: “narks” (27), “cops” (7), “nicker” (21), “clink” (16). One possible exception is the use of “mam” for mother. Another possible dialectal word is “snatched” in “I was snatched to death” (23) although this also is used in Kent, just as “clambed to death” (18) can be found in Lancashire as “clemmed”. Other terms could be more easily classed as Southern in so far as they originate with Cockney rhyming slang such as “loaf” (38) for head.
What then can we conclude from this brief study of the sociolect? Firstly what we have here is a mixture of regional dialect and colloquial speech. Obviously for a writer to reach a mass audience, to venture into forms that depart strikingly from the norm would be a risk. Sillitoe does not attempt to reproduce a faithful linguistic representation of a dialect, but has chosen to focus on certain features of pronunciation, to give the “flavour” of dialect, “cold”, for example, is not written “cowd”, a more typical pronunciation in the East Midlands (Elmes: 140). Other typical East Midlands words such as “mardy” (moody) or “it’s black over Bill’s mother” for “it’s going to rain” are missing. In fact, there is a greater use of the East Midlands dialect in the other short stories belonging to the same collection. Examples here include the elision of “the” as in “clo’es” (133) ; the insertion of /r/ in “I ain’t dun owt ter get ‘it yer know” (74); the use of a lengthened vowel: “’Ow are yer gooin’ on these days?” (172); the replacement of “make” by “mek”: “they gi’ ‘em pills to mek ‘em dozy” (106); the pronunciation of “always” as “allus” (105); the replacement of “self” by “sen” in reflexive pronouns: “messen” (119). Dialectal words and expressions include “happen” in “they’ll ‘appen get ‘em on nex wik” (131) or “you’ll mash your own tea as well” (134) and “Hey up duck” (165).
Moreover, in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, there is a lack of consistency. “I wasn’t” (37) exists side by side with “I worn’t” (23), “it don’t” (37) with “it doesn’t (16). Of course it could be argued that as Smith has been sent to Borstal in Essex, some of his East Midlands regionalisms have been knocked out of him. However, it seems more probable that in this short story the aim is less to reproduce the features of the Nottinghamshire dialect than to mark Smith linguistically from those in power. Smith’s idiolect is very different to that of the policeman who questions him, or that of the Borstal governor. The specific grammatical forms and lexicon of his idiolect then need to be seen within the larger context of the novella and how they are used to set him apart from those in authority. In other words, we need to consider the wider social context. This social opposition is portrayed more clearly through another grammatical form: the pronouns.
In a story told in the first person, it is hardly surprising that the first person pronoun should occur as subject “I”, object” me”, or in the possessive form, “my” and “mine”, nor is it surprising that the first person refers frequently to the narrator. The narrator’s preoccupation with himself is reflected by his naming himself as subject of discourse, but also by the semantic content of the verbs that are used: “think”, “feel”, “know”, all these denote mental operations on which the speaker alone can comment. However, what is of greater interest is the fact that this pronoun is rarely used by the other characters. The governor uses it on only a few occasions. Firstly when he tells Smith “I know you’ll get us that cup” (13) and secondly when he promises him “I’ll do all I can for you. I’ll get you trained.” (40). Otherwise, it is striking that instead of using “I”, those in authority use “we”: as the narrator comments “They always say “‘We’ ‘We’, never ‘I’ ‘I’ ‑ as if they feel braver and righter knowing there’s a lot of them against only one” (32). The first person plural “we” refers to the speaker but can also include one or more people, the addressee and/or a third person, so that by using “we”, the speaker hides behind a group identity. For the governor, the use of “we” also underlines the fact that he wishes to present himself and the youngsters as being part of a team.
When the narrator uses the first person plural to refer to the group to which he belongs other than his family, it is frequently the objective case: “us”. The fact that the objective case “us” is used more frequently than the subject case “we” could reflect how Smith sees himself: not as an actor able to influence events but as the one to whom things happen: “I know every minute of my life that a big boot is always likely to smash any nice picnic I might be barmy and dishonest enough to make for myself” (18). Indeed he opposes two categories of people “us” and “them”, in a way that is echoed by Sillitoe’s later essay “Poor People”:
The poor know of only two classes in society. (…) There are them and us. “Them” are those who tell you what to do, who drive a car, use a different accent, are buying a house in another district; (77)
This dichotomy is remarked upon by other writers of the same era1 and notably by Richard Hoggart whose work The Uses of Literacy was published two years earlier, in 1957:
The world of “Them” is the world of the bosses, whether those bosses are private individuals or, as is increasingly the case today, public officials (…) “They” are “the people at the top”, “the higher-ups” the people who give you your dole, call you up, tell you to go to war, fine you, made you split the family in the ‘thirties to avoid a reduction in the Means test allowance, “get yer in the end”, “aren”t really to be trusted,” “talk posh,” “are all twisters really,” “never tell yer owt” (e.g., about a relative in hospital, “clap yer in clink,” “will do y’down if they can,” “summons yer,” “are all in a click (clique) together,” “treat y’like muck.” (62)
However it is debateable whether Smith uses “us” as a means of class identification, or simply to oppose the “in laws” and the “out laws”. He does not seem to identify with others and the absence of “we”, when it could be used to establish class identification, is striking. When Smith first arrives at the Borstal, no reference is made of the others who arrive with him2. At first it seems that the governor is addressing Smith alone: “that’s what the governor said to me” (9) the narrator tells us, and the “you” that follows “We want to trust you” is read as directly applying to Smith. It’s only later with “I hear the barking Sergeant-major’s voice calling me and two others to attention” that we realize Smith was not alone in the governor’s office, but even at this point Smith presents the group as being “me and two others”. The choice of structure shows that Smith isolates himself from his fellow inmates, instead of insisting upon class solidarity.
Thus I would argue that in this story the use of the first person by the narrator emphasises the individual not class membership and stands in stark contrast to the first person plural used by those in authority who do clearly identify themselves as a group.
Potentially ambiguous in so far as it can refer to one or several people, the second person is usually presented by grammars as belonging to the same spatial-temporal system as “I”, while the third person is situated outside this privileged speaker-addressee relationship.
The use of “you” within this text can be analysed on two levels, as it occurs within the representations of direct speech, where it clearly refers to a fictional “you”, and as it occurs within the narrative itself. It is the latter that will be examined first.
From the outset, Smith seems desperate to try to establish communication with the reader, continually assuring them that he is being honest: “To tell you the truth” (7), “I'm telling you straight” (7), “what I say is true right enough” (13). This initial use of “you” seeks to create a relationship with the reader, to draw them into the story. This is increased at other moments by the narrator seeking to capture the reader’s attention by asking questions: “I suppose you think this is enough to make me cry” (9) or by using phatic communication, making sure that the addressee is still listening, that the channel of communication is still open, for example: “it’s true you know”(14), “well” (14), “still there it is” (16) , “but you see”(20).
The narrator also poses as a teacher, seeking to inform and instruct the reader: “you’re wrong and I’ll tell you why” (8), or “if any of you want tips about running” (41). At other moments, the use of rhetorical hedges, adverbs of uncertainty such as “perhaps”, modal auxiliaries such as “may” and “might” reveal a narrator trying to establish a relationship with the addressee based on equality.
This evidence appears to contradict what we said earlier about language being used to enforce the theme of Smith’s isolation. At every turn, he seeks to build up a relationship with the reader, suggesting he is not as isolated as he at first appears.
However things are not quite that simple. Firstly, the speaker addressee relationship is complicated by the fact that this is a story, a written text. The “you” is as much a fictional construct as the first person narrator. Smith cannot be sure that anyone will ever read his story, and in any case the speaker‑addressee relationship is not the usual reversible one of dialogue. The only response the reader can give will be outside any exchange with the narrator. Secondly, our commentary so far gives the impression that “you” refers to a clearly identifiable “reader” but again it is not that simple. It is not even clear who the reader is. Smith hopes, at the end of the story, that the governor will one day read his work, “I’d like to see the governor’s face when he reads it, if he does, which I don’t suppose he will” (54). However it is impossible to interpret “you” throughout the story as referring to the governor. It is not possible either to interpret “you” as referring consistently to the “pal” he will give the text to, should he be arrested. Moreover, at other points in the story it is obvious that “you” cannot refer to the reader at all:
“It was hard to understand, and all I knew was that you had to run, run, run, without knowing why you were running, but on you went through fields you didn’t understand and into woods that made you afraid, over hills without knowing you’d been up and down, and shooting across streams that would have cut the heart out of you had you fallen into them.” (43)
While traditional presentations of the pronouns present “you” as excluding the speaker, it would seem from these examples that, on the contrary, “you” is more clearly identifiable with the narrator, his internal thoughts, and the potential dialogue reads more like a monologue. It is possible to interpret the use of “you” as a means used by the speaker to distance himself from the event, or as a desire to encourage empathy. Whatever interpretation one makes here, the use of “you” goes beyond the simple opposition of speaker-addressee.
Furthermore, at other points in the story Smith places “you” unequivocally as being among the in‑laws: “In‑law blokes like you and them”(10). In this example Smith places “you” with the third person, in other words an object or a person who in fact does not belong to the speaker-addressee relationship. By reducing “you” to third person status, the narrator eliminates the addressee from playing a role within the speaker-hearer relationship. Thus the relationship which is created on one level is denied on another and the law-abiding reader is distanced.
The use of “you” in direct speech in this novella shows that there are very few dialogues resulting in effective communication, and very few instances of turn-taking in the speaker addressee relationship.
The narrator admits himself that he is not particularly loquacious, informing the reader “The only reason I was pals with (Mike) was because I didn’t say much” (25). At the end he says he has “something up (his) sleeve (he) wouldn’t tell to a living soul”(54), again emphasizing his solitude. Furthermore, there are few instances of dialogue. What could be presented as a dialogue is instead presented as reported speech: “We talked about the dough we’d crammed up the drainpipe. Mike thought we should take it out and both of us do a bunk to Skegness or Cleethorpes” (35). At other times, even the idea of reported speech is undermined: “I told myself I’d get a coat soon if it was the last thing I did. Mike said he thought the same about himself” (24). This instance of reported speech is further complicated by the fact that the verb used “I told myself” suggests the words were not said aloud to Mike, although the sentence that follows suggests Mike replied. Or there is the narrative report of a speech act, as in the case of the interviews with “the four-eyed white-smocked bloke with the notebook”, where only the sense of what was said is given but not the exact words that were uttered.
The one real exchange between Mike and Smith is short and to the point. This occurs when they spot the open window at the bakery. However, it is Mike who initiates the exchange by asking questions: “See it?”, “But what about the wall?”, “Will you be able to reach?” (24). Mike is the one seeking to establish contact. Smith replies with imperatives: “let’s get cracking”, “on your shoulders”, “leave it to me”. In other words he does not expect Mike to answer, only to act. Imperatives, unlike assertions, admit no further exchange.
Other dialogues that feature in the short story are imaginary such as the scene with the stolen money‑box and the policeman, or even hypothetical: “I’ve thought of telling the governor all this” (18). Even dialogues on the television are reduced to having the sound turned down: “I'd turn the sound down and see his mouth move like a goldfish or mackerel or minnow” (22). The same image is used to describe all the “potbellied pop-eyes” who have come to watch the race: “ a row of goldfish mouths opened and wiggled gold teeth at me” (39), suggesting that once Smith does not listen to what is said, thus undermining the speaker-addressee relationship.
But by far the most interesting and the longest dialogue in the story is the one between the police inspector and Smith, which clearly demonstrates that asking questions is one means used by authorities to dominate others. In Style and Fiction Leech and Short point to how the policeman uses negative tag questions, such as: “Well you know where Papplewick Street is, don’t you?”, or “You know there’s a baker’s half-way down on the left-hand side, don’t you?” (31) to which the answer should be confirmation: “Yes I do”, but Smith refuses to be manipulated into endorsing the presuppositions that the policeman’s questions encode. Once again, it is difficult to examine the grammatical form without taking into account the specific social relationship that is being established. The policeman’s questioning demonstrates how grammatical structures can be used to control and constrain, to place the addressee in a specific role. It is for the policeman to ask the questions and Smith is to reply. If he does not then he must accept the consequences: “You’ll get five years in Borstal if you don’t give me a straight answer” (32).
Yet Smith refuses to submit. He either replies by asking questions himself, so that “Where were you last Friday night?” (31) elicits “Was I at the baker’s you mentioned? Or in the pub next door?”(32), or refuses to give a simple affirmative answer to “Have you got a television?” He therefore flouts the maxims of quantity as laid down by Grice, either by providing more information than is required or by refusing to provide enough information. At another point, Smith refuses to accept the role being assigned to him by adopting a conversational tone. This conversational tone treats the policeman as if he were a peer thus undermining his superior position as representative of the authorities and his attempts to control the dialogue. In a normal police interview, it is not for the interviewee to take turns except when answering a question. However Smith not only instigates the conversation at times, he also takes the topic of discourse and makes it his own. The policeman presents the giving of information by the individual to the authorities as a contract or exchange: “Tell me where the money is, and I’ll get you off with probation.” (33). Smith himself turns this idea against the policeman by proposing his own arrangement: “I’ll do a deal” (34).
The other conversations with authority concern those with the governor. Once again, the grammatical forms illustrate how those in authority seek to impose their power. It is the governor who initiates and ends the conversations, who offers paternalistic praise with “Good lad. Good show. Right Spirit. Splendid” (39). He also tries to control Smith through his use of language, but in this case it is through seeking Smith’s consent. The Governor also wants an exchange: “ 'We want hard honest work and we want good athletics,' ” he said as well. “ 'And if you give us both these things you can be sure we’ll do right by you and send you back into the world an honest man.' ” (10) and “ 'Get that cup for us today and I’ll do all I can for you ' ” (40). Paradoxically those conversations with the governor are the ones where Smith “plays ball”: he agrees outwardly with the speaker, thus misleading the governor but he is in fact violating the maxim of quality, as Smith makes it quite clear to the reader that he is only giving the Governor the answer he wants.
The total absence of successful dialogues intensifies the theme of alienation within the story: there is no reciprocal relationship established, no real turn-taking. However it also calls into question the theory of communication as obeying some general principle of co-operation. Certainly there is no evidence of co-operation in the constant power struggles between Smith and the authorities, which suggests that the principle of co-operation cannot be taken as a general principle to be applied to all forms of discourse. As Norman Fairclough remarks: “Cooperative interaction between equals (has been) elevated into a prototype for social interaction in general, rather than being seen as a form of interaction whose occurrence is limited and socially constrained” (1989: 10). The dialogues in this short story demonstrate that the co-operative principle is only valid in specific contexts but cannot be taken as an ideal form, and is certainly not applicable in a context where both speaker and addressee are struggling for control.
The grammatical forms studied so far reveal a basic struggle for power between the individual and the authorities. Smith refuses to accept the personality and set of values that the governor wishes to impose upon him, as represented by the race. As Sillitoe writes in his essay entitled “Sport and Nationalism”:
as soon as a man participates (…) he loses his individuality and becomes part of his nation. (…) in the totalitarian state, sport is used to drill and make the individual subservient to the totalitarian system. In a so‑called democratic state, competitive sport is used for the same ends, in the same way, but so that the participants appear to be competing primarily for themselves and not their country. But as soon as they enter that stadium or arena they are just as much representatives of their country as are those who belong to a totalitarian system (1975: 87).
It is surely not by chance that both the governor and the policeman, figures of the establishment, have Hitler-style moustaches!
In many ways language is as much a social system as state sport. If Standard English is the variety used by the state and the authorities, then Smith’s use of non-standard English can be viewed as yet another way in which he asserts his individuality. Just as Smith refuses to win the race, and by so doing asserts his individuality, so too he reinvents language patterns and bends the rules. Individualism, self-assertion can firstly be found in the way Smith reinterprets the semantic value of words as in his reflection on what it means to be honest and the fact that his kind of honesty is radically different to that of the governor. “I know what honest means according to me and he only knows what it means according to him” (15). Such reasoning undermines dictionary definitions of a word, the idea that meaning is invariant, suggesting instead that meaning is a shifting concept, less easy to grasp than we may at first imagine. Differences in ideology result in differences in meaning.
In so far as any individual is subservient to the grammatical rules and social conventions of language, Smith makes frequent use of stock phrases and clichés: “To get on like a house on fire” (7), “There’s no love lost between us” (8), “kick the bucket” (10), “as dead as a doornail” (14), “living like lords” (35). Yet, the existence of such constraints does not exclude creativity. Smith reinvents these clichés and by doing so he challenges the fixed static images imposed by the language. Deviation is achieved through unusual collocations as with “varicose beanstalks” (39) or “lace-curtain lungs” (39).. If Smith has a highly repetitive vocabulary (and some critics have seen this as reflecting a lack of education) it is very much repetition with variation as with the use of “pop-eyed” and “pot-bellied” which are used to qualify various nouns. There is also a decided preference for alliterative combinations, as in “gangrened gaffer” (49), “tash-twitching” (13) and “plush posh seat” (20), the last two being reminiscent of tongue twisters and revealing a desire to play with language. Moreover, if Smith makes use of commonplace animal comparisons such as “pig-faced,” he also creates new ones such as “jumped-up jackdaws”, “cutballed cockerel” (19), and coins other compounds such as “lace-curtain lungs” (39). It is in fact in the use of compounds that Smith shows his greatest creativity, structures that obey fixed grammatical rules yet accept a high degree of inventiveness on the part of the speaker.
How can this study suggest ways in which stylistics can be of benefit to the study of grammatical forms?
Firstly, certain themes of the story are reflected in the choice of specific grammatical structures, notably the theme of loneliness or alienation. Far from being separate from the main themes of the story, the language patterns reinforce them. Smith may be the subject of most of the verb clauses within the text but he is rarely an actor in the full sense of the term, rarely portrayed as interacting with others. He may be the sayer of most verbal processes, but there is little effective communication between him and the various characters, again adding to the theme of alienation. This leads us to question the theory that what we have here is a working class short story, for the emphasis on the individual undermines any idea of class consciousness. As we saw earlier the use of social dialect is minimal.
Secondly, by studying the various grammatical structures in context, we have seen that abstract systems are in danger of becoming too fixed, too abstract to account for the ever-changing use structures such as the pronouns are put to. “Language is only at best systematic (…). The system is abstracted by the linguist from a messy collection of words, phrases, sentences or discourses, which are at best partly regular, never fully systematic” (Lecercle 2004: 86). While the study of microsystems may shed light on the use of certain grammatical forms, the use of language by the individual speaker is forever challenging the notion of such a system. Binary opposition of the pronouns for example is too simplified to render the complexity of the use of “you”. The notion of an East Midlands dialect is an abstract idealised form that will be manifested in a number of individual ways but will never be used in its entirety by an individual speaker. By studying grammatical forms in a wider context, we become aware that they are dynamic, just as the meaning of “honest” is dynamic. As Fairclough points out: “the arbitrariness of meaning systems is hidden” in dictionary definitions (1989: 95).
Thirdly, the study of the grammatical features of this story has inevitably led us to study how language interrelates with social relationships, with power relations. Grammatical forms, semantic meanings are not fixed forms, but part of a social process. It has been impossible to study the use of pronouns, of dialectal forms or even compound adjectives, without relating such forms to wider issues, such as the social and historical context in which they are produced.
Finally, the oppositions to be found in this short story between Smith and those in authority suggest a way of considering language itself and the interplay between the individual user and the linguistic system. As an individual, Smith inevitably uses language determined by grammatical rules and social norms, but his idiosyncratic use demonstrates that he is free to bend these rules. As such the character and the attitude he shows to language illustrate the kind of individualism that Michael Toolan argues for in Total Speech, that is:
Individuals necessarily living in and through collectivities but remaining in certain respects individual agents. Not free, not necessarily unitary or unaffected by class, race, and gender contradictions, etc., and not autonomous, but nevertheless in crucial respects individually responsible, accountable, and enabled. (1996: 317)
If in recent years there has been a decided move away from using fabricated utterances to illustrate a grammatical point to the use of utterances taken from texts both oral and written, the danger still remains of studying these utterances in isolation. Such examples will risk being devoid of the wider dynamic social context that stylistics can offer. Extracted from their context, such examples become static and are in danger of offering an idealized simplified view of a grammatical form. If stylistics can help us come to a deeper understanding of grammatical forms it is in the possibility of situating them within a broader perspective.
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FAIRCLOUGH, Norman, Language and Power. London: Longman, 1989.
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LECERCLE, Jean-Jacques & Denise RILEY, The Force of Language. Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
LEECH, Geoffrey & Michael Short, Style in Fiction. London: Longman, (1981), 1990.
ROSKIES, D.M., “'I’d rather be like I am' Character, style, and the language of class in Sillitoe’s narratives,” Neophilologus 65, 1981, 308-19
SILLITOE, Alan, The Loneliness of the Long distance Runner. London: Flamingo, (1959) 1994.
_____________. Mountains and Caverns: Selected Essays by Alan Sillitoe, London: W.H. Allen, (1972) 1975.
TOOLAN, Michael, Total Speech. An Integrational Linguistic Approach to Language. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1996.
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