Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Whovians v Thaterites

Reading an MA thesis, it strikes me that I've never actively considered the use of relative pronouns and what they mean in an essay. It is – for me at least – more interesting than you might think.

Lots and lots of students use 'that' when they're referring to people, which is plain wrong. When the subject of the sentence is a person, it's 'who' (and 'whom' as the object of a sentence). As in 'Churchill is someone who…' or 'To whom did you give it?'. When it's a thing, use 'that': 'that thing in the corner'.

That's basic grammar. But of course language is always an exercise of power and ideology, even down at this level. The choices you make tell us a lot about the way you see the world. I refer to animals as 'it' whereas my more sentimental pals use 'he' or 'she', which may be sexually accurate but confers rather more agency and consideration on the dumb beasts than I'm prepared to bestow. For me, the pronoun you get reflects the likelihood that I'll be able to have an intelligible conversation with you about Samuel Richardson at some point. Obviously that renders most babies and Conservatives as 'it'.

Miss Havisham: just a string of words

But it gets more complicated when we're talking and writing about literature. I've been sitting here for years crossing out 'that' in essays discussing literary characters (yes, I know I micro-mark and I'm not proud) and replacing it with 'who', like some kind of mechanical grammar-Nazi. Mostly because I am a mechanical grammar Nazi.

Until this week, when I realised that this insistence on 'who' marks me out as some kind of 19th-century humanist romantic who'd never read Propp or indeed any structuralist, post-structuralist or 'linguistic turn' criticism. The who/that divide struck me as the key to literary criticism's twentieth-century struggles. On the one hand, the Whovians, determinedly asserting the claim that literature reflects 'real life', that words can authentically recreate the interior and social contexts of characters: that we can get into other people's heads and explain them to a reader. On the other hand, the Thaterites imply the constructed nature of literary characters: they're simply collections of words on a page. Some texts dishonestly (or arrogantly) pretend to reproduce reality by making us believe that Miss Havisham is a person, while more honest texts openly proclaim their artificiality. And then of course there's the tricksy postmodernist work which tries to have its cake and eat it. Take Pirandello's play Six Characters in Search of an Author, in which the hapless characters of an abandoned text desperately seek an author to release them from the stasis in which they were left:

But don't you see that the whole trouble lies here? In words, words. Each one of us has within him a whole world of things, each man of us his own special world. And how can we ever come to an understanding if I put in the words I utter the sense and value of things as I see them; while you who listen to me must inevitably translate them according to the conception of things each one of you has within himself. We think we understand each other, but we never really do.” 
“Life is full of strange absurdities, which, strangely enough, do not even need to appear plausible, since they are true.”  
Then there's Spike Milligan's novel Puckoon, in which the author's (also a character) legs criticise his/its characterisation and behaviour, thoroughly messing up the real/fictional divide:
'Legs? LEGS? Whose legs?'
'Mine? And who are you?'
'The Author.'
'Author? Author? Did you write these legs?'
'Well, I don't like dem. I don't like 'em at all at all. I could ha' writted better legs myself. Did you write your legs?'
'Ahhh. Sooo. You got some one else to write your legs, some one who's a good leg writer and den you write dis pair of crappy legs fer me, well mister, it's not good enough,'
'I'll try and develop them with the plot.'
It's a dia-bo-likal liberty lettin' an untrained leg writer loose on an unsuspectin' human bean like me'.
Finally, I recently read John Scalzi's Redshirts, an SF romp in which a spaceship crew starts to realise that they're characters in a lazily written Star Trek-like show and develop serious existential angst.

A Whovian treats characters as real people, a Thaterite analyses them linguistically and celebrates the separation of art and what some people still refer to as 'real life'.*

I suspect my students don't notice the that/who divide consciously, and why should they? Now I have, I can tell it's going to nag at me whenever I read or write anything. I don't know if there's anything written on this conundrum: certainly I've never heard it discussed anywhere. What do you think? Is 'that' too cold and mechanical? Or is 'who' a reactionary turn back to Leavis and the humanists? Should we speak of Hamlet or Alice or Ratty as 'it'?

Pressing stuff… I'll leave you with a Gadda sentence sent to me by that excellent author on all things educational, Andrew McGettigan:
"Pronouns! They're the lice of thought. When a thought has lice, it scratches... they get in the fingernails, then… you find pronouns, the personal pronouns.”
*This is reminding me too strongly of another famously bitter war of principle.


chris y said...

Lots and lots of students use 'that' when they're referring to people, which is plain wrong. When the subject of the sentence is a person, it's 'who' (and 'whom' as the object of a sentence). As in 'Churchill is someone who…' or 'To whom did you give it?'. When it's a thing, use 'that': 'that thing in the corner'.

I seem to have read somewhere that transatlantic pedants- Strunk and White and their heirs- use a different rule, which may be what's confusing your students. I can't remember what the rule is, because I thought it was wrong and dismissed it, but it seemed complicated and counter-intuitive.

What's your line on "which"?

The Plashing Vole said...

I don't think my students are reflecting on it at all, just using whatever they've always used.

I wouldn't use 'that' or 'which' to refer to existing human beings, but now think that it's OK for referring to characters if one's discussing their constructed nature.