6.2   Pronoun Aggregates

Pronouns, and their larger aggregate groupings, can reveal much about the view of reality held by the character using them. Although they only carry a minor semantic load, they are used with a high frequency and this very ubiquity makes them important. For instance, it is quite difficult to form a natural sentence without using pronouns, and in normal usage almost every sentence contains one or more. Because they are so common, they are also a very accurate guide to a person's speech. More distinctive words are usually employed less often, and thus they provide a more restricted statistical base from which to draw conclusions, contrary to popular belief. Common words are in fact much more reliable. This fact has been employed over the last twenty years in several notable studies to establish authorship of disputed works, and in attempts to find objective measurements of style 85 . All of these studies have concluded that it is use of the language's function words (a category which includes pronouns) which is the most accurate fingerprint in matters of style.

Pronouns also have a unique function in the language - they function as universal referents. To refer to an object one is forced to use either its name (which quickly becomes tedious) or a pronoun. This means that our use of pronouns delineates our world. This can occur in two distinct ways; firstly, pronouns can be used to point to, or to distinguish entities; and secondly, they can be used to define the relationships between entities. In general, both the You and We group of pronouns can be used in each of these modes, the I group only in the first.

When one comes to consider the semantics of personal pronouns, the basic building block is the I group of pronouns. These pronouns are necessarily inward looking, focused on self, concerned with how an entity perceives itself. This group defines the basic unit, usually a human being, or at the least an entity that is conscious of self.

Moving outwards, the next unit is a group of I's denoted by We. These pronouns are also inward looking, but in this case the object is the restricted universe of companion entities to which they refer. Their focus is the group, and their concern is with the entity's view of the larger social unit, and its place within it. As well as describing a higher level grouping of entities, We also says something about the relationships among the entities contained in the group. It affirms that the entities are not just individuals, but are also part of a whole, linked together.

You as a group contains pronouns that are specifically outward looking, with a direct, face to face emphasis. They are focused on everything that is not self, and so may overlap slightly with the We group. Their concern is with the entity's relationship with the world. They can be used to describe relationships within the group, from entity to entity, as well as to describe relationships between members of the group and those outside it.

The final group is They, another outward looking group. This group contains all the third person pronouns; he, she, it, they, and all their related object and possessive forms. These pronouns can also be used to refer to members of the group, but their emphasis is indirect, avoiding direct communication. This group does not even contain the possibility of intimacy implicit in You. The pronouns in this group were not examined in this study due to the infrequency of their occurrence. In many cases data points were completely missing for characters, groups of characters, or chapters, making plotting the results very difficult and interpretation almost impossible. This very infrequency suggests that this group of pronouns is not very significant in the text, which is hardly surprising. The chapter subtext only contains the dialogue of the six main characters, and as we shall see, they rarely refer to each other indirectly.

As well as having these roles and functions in their own right, the relationships between, and balances in the use of, these groups of pronouns are very important. Their use by a character can reveal much about that character's view of him/herself, of his/her immediate social group, and of the world around him/her.

If we now look at the graphs for the pronoun aggregates (figures 19 - 24), certain broad patterns over the whole text, and significant events within it, can be detected. In the legends, the 'I'-aggregate, I, is denoted by 1 Sing. Agg., the 'You'-aggregate, You, by 2 S/P Agg., and the 'We'-aggregate, We, by 1 Plur. Agg.



6.1  Pronoun Counts Continued
Figure 19: Bernard's use of Pronouns (Aggregated) Figure 20: Louis' use of Pronouns (Aggregated) Figure 21: Neville's use of Pronouns (Aggregated)
Figure 22: Jinny's use of Pronouns (Aggregated) Figure 23: Rhoda's use of Pronouns (Aggregated) Figure 24: Susan's use of Pronouns (Aggregated)

The most obvious overall pattern in these graphs is the ranking according to frequency of usage of the three aggregates. This ranking is a generalization based on the graphs for all the characters, and may not be valid at certain points for certain characters, but on the whole is reasonably accurate.

First of all, we find that I is almost always used significantly more than the two other aggregates. This group of pronouns is associated in one form or another with the character's internal domain. Most often its use is in reference to their thoughts about themselves, but thoughts to do with their effect on others and their position with regard to them can also show up in this measure. It seems clear from the scores for the I group, and a study of their use in the text, that Ego - either having a distinct identity or searching for one - is extremely important to the characters. This obsession with self, and the continual process of definition and redefinition comes through clearly in the high score of all the characters for this measure. Despite this, the characters differ markedly in the details of their self-perception. Bernard, despite a certain outward self assurance, seeks some of his identity in the company of others; "to be myself ... I need the illumination of other peoples eyes, and therefore cannot be entirely sure what is my self" (p. 83). Louis does not see himself as a single being as the others do: "I am not single and entire as you are. I have lived a thousand lives already." (p. 91). This is a reference to his vision of himself as having roots extending back into the distant past. Neville sees himself as he sees everything, "with complete clarity" (p. 93). "I lack bodily grace ... [and] the swiftness of my mind is too strong for my body" (p. 92).

Jinny is completely self-centered, and in her eyes her identity is inextricable from her physical appearance: "I can imagine nothing beyond the circle cast by my own body" (p. 92). Rhoda has no stability within her; never sure of what she is becoming, she is the "foam that sweeps and fills the uttermost rims of the rocks with whiteness" (p. 77). Susan too is not always sure of who she is: "I think sometimes I am not a woman, but the light that falls ... on this ground" (p. 71). A practical country girl, and later a farmer's wife, her identity seems more rooted in what she does than in who she is. This finding of the dominance of ego as a subject of preoccupation, revealed here by pronoun usage, has distinct ramifications for the characters' internal reality within the text. The characters could be merely mouthpieces for some ahuman voice, but then why their obsession with self-definition and internal experience? The characters could be identical, and their names but labels, but then why the necessity for any difference in the views of self? The characters could be barely distinguishable, two-dimensional aspects of one overmind, but then why are their views of self and their preoccupations so very different? (The different views of self could conceivably express the over-mind's ambivalence towards its own self-hood, but the extremely high I scores weigh against this). Surely only fully developed entities, conceived as or conceiving of themselves as unique, would be so concerned about who they were, or who they were becoming.

Next in the overall rankings, but some way after the I group, comes the We group. This group of pronouns expresses identification with the other characters, a feeling of solidarity. Although these pronouns may not stand out as vividly in the text as the I group, or seem particularly important, by their use they create an intangible link between the members of the group, even if they are not consciously aware of it themselves. The continual and casual use of these pronouns demonstrates the relationship, and affirms their union, more strongly than any specific expressions of their feelings ever could. The pronouns in this group are almost invariably used for the purpose of relating to the septet or sextet of characters, or for identification with it. "How proudly we sit here" (p. 101) says Jinny at the dinner in chapter IV, and this sums up well the feeling of joyous union conveyed by and through these pronouns. This almost exclusive use of these pronouns for the purpose of relating to members of the group is not surprising, as the group of seven or six is the only group of any substance in the book that the characters could belong to, thus severely curtailing any other possibilities for their using we, our, or us. (Although presumably the characters also belong at various stages of the book to families, school groups, and the like, the references to this other type of group membership are rare).

The last group of pronouns is the You group. Although they generally rank lowest, their position is much more difficult to explain because, unlike the I and We groups, they are used in a large variety of ways. Perhaps their most common use is in rhetorical statements such as this by Neville: "What have you made of life?" (p. 150). These statements are usually addressed to other members of the group, or the group as a whole. Another common use is in descriptions of other characters, or of the inhabitants of the shadowy half-world in which the characters live and move and have their being.

This plaintive cry from Rhoda may serve as an example: "Oh human beings ... you smelt so unpleasant" (p. 145). Very occasionally they are used for direct communication, as in this snippet of soliloquy with Neville speaking, and Susan (presumably) listening: "I do not want to hurt you ... I am merely 'Neville' to you" (p. 151). Another rare use for the pronouns by the characters is to refer to self: "So, Bernard (I recall you, you the usual partner in my enterprises)" (p. 135). This particular use of the pronouns is, as the quote suggests, almost completely confined to Bernard. The last and most infrequent use is to address others, as in this fragment involving Bernard talking to a man in a restaurant: "I met you once ... on board a ship" (p. 168). The low position of this group of pronouns on all the aggregate charts reveals the infrequent use of the You pronouns in the text. One reason for this is the paucity of direct relationships between individuals in the novel, which is then reflected in the sparse communication between characters. This is probably not a major contributing factor, as this use of the pronouns does not constitute their chief manifestation in the text. It is the other uses of the pronouns that make up the bulk of the score, and because these also occur so infrequently, the overall scores tend to stay low.

The dominance of I has already been commented upon. As for the preponderance of We over You in the characters' pronoun usage, this demonstrates that for the individual characters identifying with the group as a whole is more important than relating to the individual members of it, or to other people in general. The characters, while still remaining distinct personalities, relate much more strongly to the other members of the group, as a group, than to anyone else.

Another discernible broad pattern in the pronoun aggregates is in the relationships between the different aggregate scores. Only the correspondence between the use of I and We will be examined here, for two good reasons - it is the only good general pattern involving a majority of the characters, and it involves the two highest aggregate scores, thus covering the major semantic themes.

The relationship is quite striking. If one looks at graphs 19 - 24, it can be seen that I correlates negatively with We for all the characters except Susan, for whom the correlation is positive. A negative correlation means that the two variables will tend to have opposite values, such that when X is high, Y will be low, and vice versa. A positive correlation means that if X is high, Y will be too, and vice versa. Leaving the anomalous position of Susan aside for the moment, this pattern accords well with what we might expect. If a character is looking inward, contemplating him or herself, introspecting, and thus using I more than normal, then his balance between I and We will shift in favour of I. Conversely, a period when the group was together, and inter-relating, would leave little time for introspection, and thus the balance would shift the other way. As we have seen, this balance can tell us much about a character's integration of his/her own internal vision, and his/her relation to an external reality.

Five of the characters fit the expected pattern fairly well. How then do we explain Susan? Is this general pattern not true for her, and if so, why not? In fact, the pattern does hold, but at a much less significant level, and for good reasons. While the counterpoint relationship between I and We is a good functional generality, in the case of Susan this is overriden by her enduring vision of herself as both part of the group, and yet at the same time fundamentally different from it. While inextricably linked to the group by ties of love, affection, shared experience, and duty, she craves at the same time solitude and a space for herself. She detests crowds of all kinds, and aware of this, muses "I cannot ... mix with other people" (p. 71). Despite her education and her stay at a finishing school in Switzerland, she is very conscious of herself as a unpolished country girl made of loam and willow: "I am the seasons ... the mud, the mist, the dawn" (p. 71). She is also vividly aware of the contrast between herself and the satiny and glittering socialite Jinny, and of how Jinny views her: "I feel her derision steal around me ... and light up unsparingly my shabby dress, my square-tipped finger-nails" (p. 87). And yet, despite all this, when the group meets together she is drawn to join them. Vulnerable and hard, loving and fell, who is to say whether she has achieved a balance between her interior reality and external relationships, or merely an uneasy tension? Initially, I think, she feels the tension, particularly in chapter IV. Her comments on the setting for the meal reveal an uneasiness, and a feeling that she is out of her proper environment. Later (certainly by chapter VII) the situation has changed. She views her life with a fair degree of inner peace: "sometimes I am sick of natural happiness ... but for the most part I walk content with my sons" (p. 136, 7). Whether balance or tension, this co-occurrence of these two disparate elements in her life is reflected in the synchronicity of her use of I and We. It should also be pointed out that in addition to this synchronicity, Susan's use of the I aggregate remains consistently high. Although sometimes surpassed by other characters, it remains highest overall. This ties in well with the large amount of time she spends in thinking about herself, both as an individual, and as a member of the group.

The final step in examining the pronoun aggregates is to look for any anomalous points on the graphs, to see what they might say. Several points present themselves as worthy of further consideration.

Five of the characters (excluding Susan) show a local drop in the use of I in chapter IV, coupled with a rise in the use of We for all the characters. This result should not surprise us, as this chapter contains one of the climactic scenes of the book. The characters are gathered at a restaurant to farewell Percival before he leaves for India. All of them, in one way or another, love him or are in love with him. As a group, a "seven-sided flower" (p. 91), they are perfected, and in their meeting together they are joined and become in some mystical way One. Their individuality is subsumed and their egos blend into the group ego. Communally they review the past, and then celebrate their mutual present. Linked together into a gestalt, their senses broaden and even the light appears somehow richer. Bernard is moved sufficiently to foretell the future. In the stillness of the moment they seem to transcend space and time, and there are both mystic and mythic elements in the speech of Louis and Rhoda, as they talk of savages and sacred processions. As the six are joined in this "globe whose walls are made of Percival" (p. 104), they feel a peace and love, and a sense of destiny. Little wonder then that in this atmosphere, their use of We increases markedly as they talk of themselves not as individuals but as one. For the same reason the use of I falls - with the exception of Susan. Although she is part of the group, and is secure in her place within it, she does not feel comfortable in the environment which surrounds them. She detests the "futility of London" (p. 85).

She feels out of place in the restaurant - "the smell of carpets and furniture and scent disgusts me" (p. 94). She feels dingy in comparison to the smart social set represented by Jinny - "I hate Jinny because she shows me that my hands are red, my nails bitten" (p. 95). While still part of the group and involved in their mutual celebration of Percival and of each other, she feels awkward and out of place. She devotes her main soliloquy not to extolling the joys of the group but to affirming herself, and to emphasizing her otherness, almost acting as a counterweight to the overall mood.

A somewhat similar pattern also occurs in chapter VIII. Here, the use of I is sharply reduced for Bernard, Louis, Jinny, Rhoda, and Susan, while rising slightly for Neville. At the same time, the use of We increases for all the characters. The reasons are also similar. Another meeting is taking place, at Hampton Court this time; only six characters are present as Percival has been dead for some years now. This time, though, the meeting of minds is not so easy. The characters are middle-aged now, they have grown apart. The edges to be joined are "ragged edges, raw edges; only gradually ... does meeting become agreeable" (p. 149). Only gradually does the food and drink blunt the "sharp tooth of egotism" (p. 159). The seven-sided flower of chapter IV has become six-sided, and in so doing, the bloom has faded. The explanation for the pronoun usage is the same as before. This time it is not Susan who is the odd one out; her use of I is low because her explanation of herself to Neville which occurs in her main soliloquy is couched mostly in oblique terms, with not a lot of direct reference to herself. Neville, on the other hand, indulges in a long soliloquy, talking in an attempt to "impress Susan" (p. 150). He compares himself to her, and in examining himself, raises his use of I.

A third irregularity is a peak in the use of I in chapter VII for all except Neville. This is caused by greater than normal introspection among the characters. In this chapter they have all, in one way or another, reached the peak of their existence and realised that their youth has passed. They examine their lives and remember Percival and the part he played in their lives. Bernard is still "making notes in the margin of [his] mind for some final statement" (p. 135). He fits Percival into the pattern of his life as a thing past; "I have lost friends, some by death - Percival" (p. 132). Louis is now a successful businessman, able to sit at the right hand of a director ... immensely respectable" (p. 142) For him, in keeping with his mythic ethos, Percival is visualized as an archetypal symbol of youth and growth, a nature-god "flowering with green leaves" (p. 144), cut down in his prime and "laid in the earth with all his branches still sighing in the summer wind" (p. 144). Neville continues his academic existence, punctuated by reveries, still seeking Percival in the visits of yet another male lover - "Come closer, closer" (p. 142). His infrequent use of I is due to the obliqueness of his soliloquy, and his use of constructions such as "we are", "they say", and "one must" 86 . Jinny sees the end of her attractiveness and desirability approaching, but refuses to accept defeat - "I am no longer young ... But I will not be afraid" (p. 137). She is pragmatic about her ability to survive, and about her past life - "Percival died. ... I still live" (p. 137). Rhoda continues her pilgrimage of the soul, this time in Spain. She is more tired now, less able to pretend to be like everyone else. A lassitude of spirit has come over her; "the wave has broken; the bunch has withered" (p. 146). She "seldom think[s] of Percival now" (p. 146) Susan has reached the "summit of [her] desires" (p. 135). She has had "peaceful, productive years" (p. 135) and is content to stay with her children on the farm amid the flow of the life of her small village. She only thinks sometimes of the days of her youth, and of "Percival who loved me" (p. 137). All of them take stock of their lives and consider their condition, almost as if preparing themselves for their second and last meeting together. The conclusions they come to are as different as their characters, with the only constant element being some reference to Percival. Just as he was the present centre of their first dinner in chapter IV, so he is the absent focus of their thoughts before this coming meeting.

In general there seem to be elements, both similarities and echoes, in Percival's portrayal in this novel that remind one of aspects of Christ. For instance, they are both present at a last meal before going to their deaths. This meal is a celebration of themselves. The characters can almost be said to worship Percival, and they all love him, as the disciples loved Christ. They are both the foci of their respective groups. In chapter IV, the characters are joined together or fused in Percival, united in "this globe whose walls are made of Percival" (p. 104), in much the same way as christians are said to be united in Christ. In chapter VII, Percival is very much present in the minds of the characters at the second meal, in spirit, if not in flesh, just as Christ was after his death and ascension.

It is hard to know what to make of these parallels. Given that Woolf was a confirmed agnostic, they are unlikely to be deliberate. Perhaps the most likely explanation is that this 'secular Christ' is the surfacing of a deep societal symbol, unconsciously absorbed and therefore not easily amenable to conscious detection on the part of the user.

Previous Next
[ Skip to Next Chapter ] [ Table of Contents ] [ E-mail Author ]

©Andrew Treloar, 2015. W: http://andrew.treloar.net/ E: andrew.treloar@gmail.com

Last modified: Monday, 04-Sep-2017 16:31:01 AEST