Hearing voices : coordinate structures and resurging narrative voices in Alice Munro’s “Friend of My Youth”
Cet article tente d'illustrer comment l'analyse linguistique de la coordination jointe et distributative d'un texte littéraire donne accès à un tout autre niveau du texte. C'est en étendant les frontières des règles grammaticales qui gouvernent ces structures qu'une auteure comme Alice Munro nous permet de saisir, à la fois la complexité de son texte, mais aussi la complexité insoupçonnée des structures coordonnées.
This paper attempts to illustrate how a linguistic analysis of joint and segratory coordinate structures in a literary text enables us to gain access to another level of narrative. It is by working within and without of the grammatical rules that govern this structure that an author like Alice Munro gives us to understand not only the complexity of her text, but also the unassuming complexity of this grammatical structure.
Table des matières
Narration is always at a higher level than the story it narrates. Thus the diegetic level is narrated by an extradiegetic narrator, the hypodiegetic by a diegetic intradiegetic one.
The role of linguistics is to say how and why the text means what it does to the reader or listener and how and why he evaluates it in a certain way.
Halliday and Hasan
This paper will attempt to illustrate the innate capacity of coordinate structures to be receptive nesting places for diverse narrative voices in a literary text. The literary text I have chosen is Alice Munro’s “Friend of my Youth” from the collection of short stories of the same title. On the surface “Friend of my Youth” is the rather sordid story of the Grieves sisters, Flora and Ellie, with whom the narrator’s mother spent a year, when, as a brand new teacher, she was named to a rural schoolhouse in the Ottawa Valley. The Grieves belong to a Bible beating fundamentalist Protestant sect called the Cameronians. The surface story, which I have named narrative 1 (N1), tells of the relationship the sisters weave with their hired man / distant cousin, Robert Deal. Ellie, though it is never said outright, is implied to be slightly mentally disabled. Flora, the more enigmatic of the two, becomes a friend of the young teacher. Years prior to the teacher’s arrival, Robert, Flora’s fiancé, gets Ellie pregnant and marries her. The pregnancy and all the subsequent pregnancies end in miscarriages. Ellie dies and Robert marries the hideous and lustful Nurse Atkinson who had come to care for Ellie as she waned away from cancer. The story thus told could be found in a collection of Harlequin romances. But of course, the story thus told is not the story. In other words, it is not the events, thus related which make “Friend of My Youth” a masterpiece, sending the reader back for multiple readings. What might first appear as a simple mouthpiece for the extradiegetic narrator, telling the story of the Grieves, is in fact a pre-text for Munro to orchestrate a whole choir of narrative voices, enabling her to weave into the very fine texture of her short story another more intricate one, which I have called narrative 2 (N2). We will show how the coordinate structures in “Friend of My Youth” enable Munro to surreptitiously weave these voices into the text.
The first evidence for the role played by coordination1 in our text is the massive use Munro makes of this structure in her short story. For 551 sentences, 294 are built with coordinate structures. For comparison’s sake, a short story of similar length, The Orlov Sokolovs by L. Ulitskya, only has 175 coordinate structures for 405 sentences.
Our main hypothesis is the following. Coordinate structures are expected to follow a definite set of grammatical rules. Our findings have led us to discover that it is by working within and without the margins of these grammatical rules that these structures allow an author like Munro to construct such a complex story.
In order to demonstrate this complexity we shall be working with two types of coordination : joint coordination and segratory coordination. In joint coordination there is one predication for the two elements coordinated and in segratory coordination there are two.
Joint Coordination :
A. John and Mary are married. = John and Mary are married together.
B. Peter and Mary are alike.≠ Peter is alike. Mary is alike.
C. Fish and chips are my favourite food. ≠ Fish is my favourite food. Chips are my favourite food.
D. Robin and George are linguists = Robin is a linguist and George is a linguist.
Halliday and Hasan in their work Cohesion in English (1976 : 8) explain how a text cohesively holds together :
Cohesive relations have in principle nothing to do with sentence boundaries. Cohesion is a semantic relation between an element in the text and some other element that is crucial to the interpretation of it. This other element is also to be found in the text, but its location in the text is in no way determined by the grammatical structure. The two elements, the presupposing and the presupposed, may be structurally related to each other or they may not; it makes no difference to the meaning of the cohesive relation.
Strictly speaking, for Halliday and Hasan, coordinate structures do not play a role in cohesion, because according to prescriptive grammar, a sentence cannot begin with coordinate conjunction and cohesion is interested in links that go beyond the limit of the sentence. But our hypothesis points to the contrary. Our hypothesis points to the innate capacity of coordinate structures to establish links, not only within the confines of the sentence, and those of the neighboring sentences, but also in preceding and following parts of the text.
The opening passage of FOMY is composed of 15 sentences, 78 per cent of which contain coordinate structures. There are two interesting things about this passage. The most outstanding one is that it does in no way deal with N1. The opening passage begins thus 2:
(1) I used to dream about my mother,/ and though the details in the dream varied,/ the surprise in it was always the same./ (2) The dream stopped,/ I suppose because it was too transparent in its hopefulness,/ too easy in its forgiveness/.
(3) In the dream/ I would be the age I really was,/ living the life I was really living,/ and I would discover that my mother was still alive./ 4) (The fact is,/ she died when I was in my early twenties/ and she in her early fifties). (5) Sometimes I would find myself in our old kitchen,/ where my mother would be rolling out pie crust on the table,/ or washing the dishes in the battered cream-colored dishpan with the red rim/. (6) But other times/ I would run into her on the street,/ in places where I would never have expected to see her./ (7) She might be walking through a handsome hotel lobby,/ or lining up in an airport/. (8) She would be looking quite well/ ‑ not exactly youthful,/ not entirely untouched by the paralyzing disease that held her in its grip for a decade or more before her death,/ but so much better than I remembered/ that I would be a little astonished./ (9) Oh, I just have this little tremor in my arm,/ she would say,/ and a little stiffness up this side of my face./ (10 ) It is a nuisance /but I get around.
(11) I recovered then what in waking life I had lost/ ‑ my mother’s liveliness of face and voice/ before her throat muscles stiffened/ and a woeful, impersonal mask fastened itself over her features/. (12) How could I have forgotten this,/ I would think in the dream/ ‑ the casual humor she had,/ not ironic/ but merry,/ the lightness/ and impatience/ and confidence/?/ (13) I would say that I was sorry I hadn’t been to see her in such a long time/ meaning not that I felt guilty/ but that I was sorry I had kept a bugbear in my mind/ instead of this reality/ – and the strangest,/ kindest thing of all to me /was her matter-of-fact reply./
(14) Oh, well, she said,/ better late than never/. (15) I was sure I’d see you someday./
Russel Banks says of Munro’s opening passages:
The author puts her hand on your shoulder and invites you into her fictional world. She is friendly, and there is a neighborly quality to her narrative prose. She starts in a small place and universalizes characters and lives that we might otherwise overlook. It is as if you are sitting at a table, and she’s going to tell you a story of what happened a while back, down the street. Her intimate tone is interesting and immediate, and she is relaxed, calm, even inactive, almost seductive. Then, once you are in this fictional world, it becomes more threatening. You realize there are issues of life and death going on, and Munro’s fiction takes hard swerves abruptly. She is able to break off narrative then start it up later, and it’s still connected. (Literature Online, Nov. 2006)
The second interesting aspect of this passage is its prosody. Indeed, it is in the prosody of this opening passage – prosody which owes a great deal to coordinate structuring – that we can find the cohesive factor in the text.
It is of course the opening passage that puts the short-story reader on the track to follow to get to the key. For Joly (2001 :151) the first sentence is the container for the rest of the text. So an opening passage that begins with the notion of “dream”, “illness” “death” and denied guilt is already, to say the least, a loaded passage. But how does Munro do it? How does she link this beginning with the story of the Grieves? To say that she does it only thanks to coordinate structures would of course be an oversimplification. But an analysis of the prosody of this opening passage – will be the first step in our encounter and understanding in how the coordinate structure sets the tune for things to come.
The question is, how does Munro enable us to hold on to this narrative, which is that of the uneasy relationship between the narrator and her mother, of unhealed wounds and ultimately a story of mourning.
We might have the impression that this intradiegetic voice gives way to a solely extradiegetic one telling the story her mother told her. The huge gap on the page between this introductory passage and the story do signal a breakoff and a new start3. But, this is not entirely the case as the “my mother” references are replete throughout, and though in a radio interview Munro testified to telling her mother’s story, the analysis of coordinate structures throughout the text enables us to hear with increasing clarity the voice of the narrator, ultimately making it her story.4
In his 2001 article, Marc Arabyan explains the link that exists between silent reading and intonation. Arabyan underlines the fact that the written word implies anticipating on the oral reading of a text because reading always precedes the writing of a text. He gives us the following definition:
To write is to anticipate the reading that the reader will perform on the text orally, by taking into account each alphanumeric, punctuation and the setup on the page which will enable him to simulate the contours of the human voice. (2001 : 215 my translation). 5
But as readers, also do the same thing, we simulate the contours of the human voice. As READERS we bring these talents along with us when we read a text.
English is a stress-timed language. In French, on the contrary, it is neither possible nor is it necessary to distinguish four degrees of accentuation, for it is almost always the last syllable that receives the tonic accent. In English, the accentuated syllables of the words will alternate. In French the tonic accent falls systematically on the final syllable and the intonation scheme of French tends to follow the same principle, in that the speaker aims for the end of the sentence. There is thus a regularity in the music of French that is not present in English. Of course it is impossible to imagine that any two readers given a text to read would read it in exactly the same way. But there are certain prosodic characteristics of this opening passage which will help us to understand why, no matter what the alterations brought to the reading, it remains present in the reader’s consciousness and functions a little like a lament. And it is because it remains in his/her consciousness that we are attuned when we are called upon to hear it again further on in the text.
It will not be possible to go into all the phonological details that go into the making of this passage.6 However, to neglect the intonation and rhythmical scheme altogether would be to deprive us of what I have termed the silent prosody of coordination (Hetherington-Blin 2006 : 23-35).
Sentences are divided up into different information units and, as is the case in French, the focus will be on the final element of the unit. A sentence can be normally an intonation unit with the focus falling on the last element, but Quirk et al. (1972 : 73) distinguish four factors that are going to stretch the focus onto different spots in the sentence:
– Nonrestrictive relative clauses
– Vocatives, disjuncts or polysyllabic conjuncts7
– Coordinate conjunctions introducing clauses
Quirk adds that if the sentence is 10 words or more long the focus will subsequently be stretched out on different spots in the sentence. But as Herment-Dujardin (2001) points out, it is not so much the number of words that is important, as how many breaths / pauses we have to take.
Not only are all these factors present in the opening passage they enter in competition with one another. Philip Carr, however, has pointed out to me in a discussion, the coordinate conjunction before the clause will always mark the beginning of an intonation unit.
The fact that English is a stress-timed language implies that the rhythm tends to be isochronal. So, on top of the intonation groups, we must additionally be attentive to the “feet” of a sentence. Cruttenden gives the example of a sentence with 6 rhythmic groups:
(2) What’s the/(5) difference between a/(1) sick/ (5) elephant and a/ (1) dead/ (1) bee?
These six groups have a varying number of syllables which are indicated within brackets, but will have the same length.8 However, Cruttenden points out:
It should not, however, be thought that all the syllables within a rhythm group are of equal duration – a stressed syllable is generally longer than an unstressed one (Cruttenden 1986 : 21)
According to Cruttenden there are four different accents9 that also have to be taken into consideration when dealing with the sentence :
– the nuclear accent which falls on the kernel of the intonation group
– lexical words that are accentuated at a sentence level
– word pitch which implies the accentuation produced by the length and the force of the word
– neutral intensity of the nonaccentuated syllables
When you consider that we have to take into consideration the intonation group, the number of breaths, the pitch, the tone, the varying stress accent, we begin to get a clearer picture of the complexity of the prosody.
We shall look at the first sentence. The slashes mark off the information units. The F following the final underlined element signals a fall, the underline the normal end focus bestowed upon the final element of the unit, the stress signs mark off the beginning of the rhythmical feet, and the words in bold character those with intensified pitch
I used to `dream about my mother F/, and though the `details in the `dream varied F/ the `surprise in it was `always the same.
What we have here is simply default intonation. So, on the one hand Munro’s text reads in a very canonical way. On the other, the rhythm of this opening passage, made up of very long sentences thanks in part to polysyndeton (multiple coordination) and asyndeton (coordination via the comma), renders the prosody of this passage more complex.
The rhythm of a long sentence is not less intense than that of a short one, but a sentence like the one we are looking at (where full vowels are dominant but where there is also an onslaught of lenis consonants)10, dream, about though, details, dream, varied, the all contribute to the lingering dimension of the sentence enhanced by the coordinate conjunction. The rhythm contributes – in the same way that “and” does – to put the reader on hold. And functions somewhat like a signal, warning the reader that the end is nigh, but that they must keep in mind all that precedes.11
In the introductory passage (see above) I have measured off the intonation groups taking into consideration Quirk’s rules. Notice however that in order to maintain the tendency in English towards the isochrony that Cruttenden speaks about, the reader is going to have to take an extra long breath for many of the sentences in this passage. Look at what happens to sentence 8 (The number of syllables are marked at the beginning of each group). It is a passage that literally takes your breath away.
(5) She would be looking / (2) quite well /(6) not exactly youthful,/ (10) not entirely untouched by the paralyzing disease/ (6) that held her in its grip/ (10) for a decade or more before her death,/ (10) but so much better than I remembered/ (4) that I would be / (7) a little astonished./
The coordinate structures in this opening passage – syndeton, asyndeton, polysyndeton – contribute therefore to very long sentences thus establishing rhythmical groups that are multi-syllabic, with a stress and accent scheme which help explain the alternative stories Russel Banks was speaking of. On the one hand we have “I’m going to tell you a little story about the Grieves sisters” and on another “the story that I’m really going to tell is about the wounded relationship I had with my deceased mother and the mourning that has not yet been accomplished.”
As Dubois-Charlier and Vautherin have pointed out :
In the interpretation of sentences containing “and” in order to fully understand them, it is necessary to ask ourselves if the terms thus joined form a couple which intervenes as a unity in the action, or on the other hand if the coordinated terms deal rather with participants who are individually concerned by the action (1997 : 55 translation mine).
We are going to examine examples of phrasal coordination other than that of adjective phrases. After commenting on the ambiguity inherent in these structures we will examine how these structures contribute to the surreptitious slipping in of the voice heard at the beginning of the short story and others. Other narrative voices that we will be called upon to hear are :
– the voice of the mother
– the extradiegetic narrator
– the intradiegetic narrator
– the voice of the community
– the unreliable narrator12
Noun phrases can be joined by combinatory coordination – in which case what is predicated for one is predicated for the other: or segratory coordination where it is possible to paraphrase Clause1 and Clause2 (Dik :1968; Girard :1998).
– Joint coordination: John and Mary are married.
– Mutual coordination: Peter and Mary are alike.
– Unitary coordination: Fish and chips is my favourite dish.
In John and Mary are married, the obvious interpretation is John and Mary are married to each other. But, there is nothing preventing an interpretation in which John is married to Karen and Mary is married to Donald, wherein the coordination can be interpreted as segratory.
In order to disambiguate one type of coordination from the other there are various devices that can be used : for example a preposition like between demands a joint coordination
15. Instead of putting the wedding ahead, she put it back – from next spring to early fall, so that there should be a full year between it and her father’s death.
*there should be a year between it
*there should be a year between her father’s death.
16. By the way everyone spoke my mother expected the Grieves sisters and Robert to be middle-aged at least, but Ellie the younger sister was only in her thirties and Flora seven or eight years older. Robert Deal might be in between.
Now, of course, this last sentence is to be understood as :
16 a. Robert Deal’s age might be somewhere between thirty and thirty-seven.
Reciprocal verbs are all verbs that demand joint coordination and in this case there is always the implicit understanding of to one another / together.
17. Soon he and Flora were engaged [to one another].
18. “You have in all probability heard,” wrote Flora, “that Robert and Nurse Atkinson have been married [to one another].”
Once the couple is established by the context, in any further mention the reader can easily identify the coordination as being joint with an implicit understanding of “together” to be read between the lines.
19. The division had been made, of course, in the expectation that Robert and Ellie would have a family [together], and they would need the room.
20. The father made Flora and Robert [together] set the wedding date a year ahead, and after he died they did not move it any closer.
Since the couple Flora and Robert has already been established by the context, there is no difficulty identifying it as a joint coordination.
The verb correspond is another verb that spontaneously implies two participants :
21. She [the narrator’s mother] and Flora stopped corresponding with one another.
And in the following, the characteristic ‘joint’ of the coordination has also been firmly established by N1.
22. Ellie’s share, left to him and Nurse Atkinson to enjoy themselves with, the shameless pair.
There is to all evidence, no ambiguity in these sentences. Robert and Ellie, and Robert and Nurse Atkinson are fully established couples. Quirk et al. tell us that one thing that can help us decide whether we are dealing with one type of coordination or another is to find a cover term. Munro has conveniently provided us with cover terms which help us identify the jointness of the coordination – Ellie’s share and the shameless pair in this last example.
In segratory coordination, the coordinated elements are not to be considered as a couple and it is possible to paraphrase the sentence by breaking it up into two clauses. In the case of this type of coordination, both is either present or implied in the sentence.
23. Flora and Ellie were both dark-haired, dark-eyed women, tall and narrow-shouldered and long-legged. = Flora is dark-haired…. Ellie is dark-haired…..
When there is no term to disambiguate, the context will usually come to our rescue and enable us to decide which kind of coordination is being used. But we shall look at our examples once again to see how Munro exploits this characteristic of coordinate structures to weave a web of ambiguity which will serve as the fibre of N2.
Let us examine once again our previous examples.
Through the context, the reader who has been following the story easily identifies the following coordination as being joint :
24. (And of course she has made over the farm to Ellie and Robert, of course he has inherited it, and now everything belongs to Audrey Atkinson.) (between brackets in the text)
In this imagined rendition (i.e. it is the narrator imagining how her mother would have told the story, if she could have fulfilled one of her dreams, i.e. to become a writer) the coordination here enables the narrator to join three distinct moments of N1.
24a. (And of course [when Ellie and Robert got married] she [Flora] has made over the farm to Ellie and Robert, and [then Ellie dies] of course he has inherited it, and [Robert and Audrey Atkinson get married] and now everything belongs to Audrey Atkinson.)
It is by filling in the blanks – where Robert appears each time – that this merry-go-round of couples begins to come into focus and enhance the question that Dubois-Charlier and Vautherin invite us to answer – what indeed authorizes us to talk of couples.
16. By the way everyone spoke, my mother expected the Grieves sisters and Robert to be middle-aged at least, but Ellie the younger sister was only in her thirties and Flora seven or eight years older. Robert Deal might be in between.
The interpretation of this sentence is clear enough as I suggested above. But another interpretation is also possible:
16a. Robert Deal might be in between Ellie and Flora.
It is perhaps pushing things a little to conclude that we are to interpret this as a tongue-in-cheek insinuation that these three were into unorthodox practices, but it is in these gaps that Munro not only enables us to play our role of active readers by inviting us to fill them in, it is also in these gaps that she constructs the space in her text which enables other narrative voices to be heard.
Even in a sentence as unassuming as the one that follows, Munro is in fact taking one of the “swift turns” that Banks was speaking of above.
17. Soon he [Robert] and Flora were engaged.
The interesting thing about this sentence is that it is found well after the story has begun and that Robert was introduced at the beginning as being married to Ellie! So when we come to this sentence we go back for a second read. Of course we do not interpret it as he was engaged to Ellie and Flora was engaged to someone else. But N1 has been telling us a completely different story up until now. This coordinate structure invites us to take a closer look. The narrator is not telling the story the way her mother told it to her, most probably in chronological order. She is telling her own story, and though it is not yet the same voice we heard at the beginning of the narrative, it is not simply the detached extradiegetic narrator telling a tale.
And what about :
22. Ellie’s share left to him and Nurse Atkinson to enjoy themselves with, the shameless pair.
No ambiguity here, but we should notice that the narrator designates them via a cover term – “a pair”– modified by “shameless”, which on top of everything is placed at the end of the sentence and hereby gaining what is known as end-focus. If Robert and Nurse Atkinson have attained the status of couple, they have attained a whole new status in this sentence as being “a pair”.
So what about the pair?
The Oxford Dictionary of English confirms the use of the pair as a possible synonym for couple; but in the examples given in the dictionary “pair” is always preceded by an attributive adjective i.e. silly pair, or an adverb they make quite a pair, or to designate objects: a pair of scissors, gloves, pyjamas etc. So when “pair” is used to designate a couple, there is always a modal quality to it.
What at first glance appears to be the mother’s voice, is in fact the imagined voice of the narrator’s mother. But the use of the pair, this disambiguator of joint /segratory coordination, in introducing a modal commentary, is in fact a subtle way for the narrator to comment on the rather close-minded way she perceived her mother to be. She becomes here the unreliable narrator. Thus, in this passage we have :
– the voice of the mother who is the mouthpiece for the “community”.
– the narrator and the narrator’s rendition of her mother when she was 15.
What interests us here is the fact that through the analysis of this disambiguator we catch a glimpse of the other narrative, N2 – and it is through the uneasy relationships between Flora, Ellie, Robert, and Nurse Atkinson that the narrator lets slip in the uneasy relationship between her and her mother.
The verb correspond, like engage, marry, etc. is also a verb that implies two participants
26. She and Flora stopped corresponding.
But if for engage and marry the diverse narrative voices imply a possible third party, the verb correspond functions differently. Flora indeed stops corresponding with the mother after the latter writes a commiserating letter to Flora whom she considers to have been ditched a second time – this time for Nurse Atkinson. So another couple, the one of the mother and Flora, break off.
27. Not long before she died, but when I was still at home, my mother got a letter from the real Flora.
The mother can no longer correspond because of “the paralyzing disease that held her in its grip for a decade or more before her death” (see introductory passage above).
28. Her fine legible handwriting, her schoolteacher’s handwriting had deteriorated, and she had difficulty holding a pen. She was always beginning letters and not finishing them.
The mother therefore sets off on a correspondence that is not only unique, but that goes nowhere. A verb that normally needs a couple has its usage modified by the narrative to one painfully solitary participant.
29. I remember seeing one letter that started out Friend of my Youth. I don’t know who it was to.
Friend of my Youth is in italics in the text with upper case letters.13 As far as the coherence of a text is concerned, this reference is remarkable. Not only does it send us back to the title of the short story, it sends us back to the title of the whole collection. We can surmise that the interrupted correspondence has been taken up by the narrator and it has taken on the form of a short story.
In analyzing joint and segratory coordination we can catch a glimpse of how Munro uses the inherent ambiguity in these structures to allow other narrative voices to express themselves and create a much greater complexity than the story of the Grieves would first imply.
If in structures as unassuming as joint and segratory coordination, Munro manages to introduce a certain degree of ambiguity, she confirms this in all the other ways she plays with the other coordinate structures throughout the text (Hetherington-Blin 2006).
In telling the story of the Grieves sisters, the narrator has been able to tell the story of her own grief. The lament heard in the opening passage resurges throughout the text, joining in with other narrative voices. It is in the study of the various aspects of coordination that the lament comes in louder and clearer.
The one constant in “Friend of my Youth”, from page 2 right through till the end, is the character of Flora Grieves. And the word “grieve” can also give us a clue as to one of the sources of ambiguity in the short story.
It is perhaps not superfluous to mention that Flora Grieves can be read as “Flora is in mourning.”
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Université Paul Valéry Montpellier III - EA 741 Études des Pays Anglophones