Approaching prose fiction
Approaching prose fiction

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Approaching prose fiction

2.7 Style and language

What do we mean when we talk of a particular writer's style? It might help us to think of style as a way of organising and expressing narrative unique to the writer, as distinctive and personal a characteristic as the writer's handwriting or the prints on the fingers holding the pen. Just as no two sets of fingerprints are alike, so no two writers are alike. Writers write in a style that reflects their individual view of the world.

The word ‘style’ can generally be used to encompass the various literary devices that authors combine to convey their themes and the content of their narratives. Some of those devices, such as narrative perspectives and the representation of character have already been discussed, so I want to focus here on the language writers use and the effects of that language.

Activity 7

Please read the attached extract from a short story, ‘Kew Gardens [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ’ (1919), by Virginia Woolf. How would you characterise the descriptive language Woolf uses here and the way in which she presents the thoughts and speech of her characters?


The descriptive language of the first and final paragraphs is intensely detailed. Various human figures pass by and butterflies flit from flower-bed to flower-bed – a scene we can easily visualise. But Woolf s use of terms such as ‘curiously irregular’ to describe the movement of the humans and ‘zig-zag’ to depict the flight of the butterflies suggests a sense of vagueness and randomness. The change of focus, from the general scene to the positioning and attitudes of a man, a woman – he ‘strolling carelessly’, she moving ‘with greater purpose’ alerts us to anticipate that they will be the subject of what is to follow. Would you agree that there is almost a filmic quality to this narrative description. When I read this I imagine a camera panning across a wide screen before closing in on the two characters. The final paragraph of the extract, which describes how the husband and wife and their children ‘diminished in size […] as the sunlight and shade swam over their backs in large trembling irregular patches’ seems to me to suggest a gradually dissolving image, such as we might see when a film deliberately loses focus. In spite of the plethora of detail and description, then, I feel there is nevertheless a somewhat impressionistic feel to Woolf's scene-setting.

Did you notice how a similar ‘blurring’ effect seems to result from the second paragraph's shifts, first to the man's internal consciousness, as we are given access to his thoughts, and then to direct speech right at the end of the paragraph: ‘Tell me, Eleanor, d'you ever think of the past?’ There is only a dash to denote this second shift; on a first reading we may not even notice that Woolf has moved from a depiction of thoughts to the representation of speech.

And what of the conversation between the man and woman? Does this strike you as a naturalistic representation of dialogue? Probably not, I would suggest. There is something artificial and heightened about the woman's speech in particular:

‘Doesn't one always think of the past, in a garden with men and women lying under the trees? Aren't they one's past, all that remains of it, those men and women, those ghosts lying under the trees … one's happiness, one's reality?’

We might think that no-one would really speak like this, or relate a memory of ‘the mother of all my kisses all my life’ in quite such a mannered fashion. Only with the brisk command to her children – ‘Come Caroline, come Hubert’ – does the woman's speech appear naturalistic. I think it's safe to assume that this is not merely bad writing on Woolf's part; she has chosen her language and her means of representing it for a reason. Indeed, it may seem as though the language itself, rather than the actual narrative, is the main focus of this piece of writing. Woolf was one of a number of authors in the early twentieth-century who sought new ways of writing, challenging the conventions of previous generations that gave a primacy to realistic and naturalistic representation and foregrounded narrative events; stories that had a beginning, middle and end, a strong sense of closure, and a fixed authorial point of view. The narrative, such as it is, of Woolf's story ‘Kew Gardens’ is episodic rather than linear, and is a good early example of a style of writing that later came to be labelled ‘Modernist’ (James Joyce, whose opening to Portrait of the Artist we looked at earlier was another dominant figure in this movement). We could say, then, that ‘style’ seems to take precedence over subject-matter in writing such as this, and I hope you can see how Woolf's particular use of language contributes to this.

Activity 8

Now look at another extract; the closing section of a much more recent work, a short story, ‘Gazebo’, by the American writer Raymond Carver. Think again about the questions I asked you to consider in Activity 7 before reading the Woolf extract. How does Carver's style differ from that of Woolf?


The language is minimalist, pared down to the absolute basics, and heavily dialogue-led. We are given no indication of speech intonation; the only verb used to describe the dialogue is the verb ‘to go’, which gives us no clue as to how the words are spoken. This breeds a sense of uncertainty in the reader, I think, and as with Woolf's elevated tone and language this strategy is deliberate, I would suggest. Although the story is narrated in the first-person I get a strong impression that the narrator, Duane, does not fully understand the situation he is describing: ‘I pray for a sign from Holly. I pray for Holly to show me.’ Similarly, the sparseness of Carver's writing leaves the reader in a state of uncertainty. Although the dialogue is, I think you'll agree, much more colloquial and naturalistic than that of Woolf's characters, there seems to me to be a great deal left unsaid, and a sense that the two characters, while conversing, are not communicating. This is, I would argue, a direct consequence of Carver's choice of style and language.


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