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Foregrounding Theory in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland

Updated on October 17, 2013

Introduction

Foregrounding is a stylistic device that highlights certain aspects of the text and it was first developed by the Russian Formalists. In their work entitled Foregrounding, Defamiliarisation and Affect, Miall and Kuiken (1994) state that “stylistic variations, known as foregrounding, hypothetically prompt defamiliarisation, evoke feelings, and prolong reading time.” Van Peer also points out that by highlighting certain devices in a literary text, the writer will be drawing the reader’s attention to those devices. In this respect, the writer controls or determines the reader’s interpretation and perception of the work. To sum it up, foregrounding guides the reader to the most important elements of the text.

In their book Style in Fiction, Leech and Short (2007) summarise Bernard Bloch’s argument on the style of a text as follows:

To find out what is distinctive about the style of a certain corpus or text we work out the frequencies of the features it contains and then measure these figures against equivalent figures which are ‘normal’ for the language in question. The style is then to be measured in terms of deviations – either high frequencies or lower frequencies – from the norm

According to Leech and Short, this quantitative method suggested by Bloch can be applied after establishing an understanding of the interrelation of three main concepts. These are deviance, prominence and literary relevance. Leech and Short go on to say that foregrounding can be qualitative and quantitative. Qualitative foregrounding entails a deviation from the convention of the language, while quantitative foregrounding involves a deviance from the expected frequency of a certain feature in the text.

In the case of the novel that I will be analyzing, which is Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the foregrounding elements of the text are the constant use of puns, word-play and the weird logic stated by the characters that Alice encounters in Wonderland.

According to Leech, foregrounding can be achieved via linguistic deviation and linguistic parallelism. One way to convey parallelism is by repeating certain structures to emphasise parts of the text while deviation is when the writer introduces a device which is against the norm of style. Therefore, linguistic parallelism can be said to be unexpected regularity while linguistic deviation is, on the other hand, unexpected irregularity. Leech divides deviation into eight types: lexical deviation, grammatical deviation, phonological deviation, graphological deviation, semantic deviation, dialectal deviation, deviation of register and deviation of historical period.

In the following sections, I will point out which type of deviation is most commonly found in the language structure of word play and logical statements in Alice in Wonderland and how parallel foregrounding can also be applied in such instances. I will then proceed with showing how these foregrounding effects contribute to a sense of defamiliarisation in the novel.

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Logic

The logic in the first, second and fourth extract is mainly foregrounded via graphological deviation, while in the third extract, the foregrounding device is parallelism.

Extract 1

The Gryphon lifted up both its paws in surprise.

“What! Never heard of uglifying!” it exclaimed.

“You know what to beautify is, I suppose?”

“Yes,” said Alice doubtfully: “it means-to-make-anything-prettier.”

The hyphens in this context suggest Alice’s hesitation and doubt as she gives her definition of ‘beautify.’ Each hyphen can possibly stand for the pause that Alice takes after each word. However, if the word ‘doubtfully’ was not included there, it would have been more difficult for the reader to decipher the meaning of the hyphens. The use of hyphens in Alice’s speeches appears quite frequently throughout the novel, and each time the hyphen between each word suggests her lack of confidence and uncertainty as she speaks. Therefore, this feature can be regarded as quantitative foregrounding, as it deviates from the expected frequency.

Extract 2

At last the Mock Turtle recovered his voice, and, with tears running down his cheeks, went on again:-

“You may not have lived much under the sea-” (“I haven’t,” said Alice) “-and perhaps you were never even introduced to a lobster-” (Alice began to say, “I once tasted-” but checked herself hastily, and said, “No, never”) “-so you can have no idea what a delightful thing a Lobster Quadrille is!”

The parenthesis here emphasise the fact that the Mock Turtle takes over the conversation, which appears quite strange to the reader since Alice is a human and she should be the superior one in this case. Her replies here are put as a kind of side comments which suggest that the Mock Turtle is ignoring her or that the two characters are overlapping each other’s speech. Usually, parenthesis are used by writers to add an extra note to what a character had just said or to indicate a character’s thoughts, but in this case, the use of parenthesis marks a deviation from the norm. The logic is so obvious that it sounds strange to the reader and thus it becomes defamiliarised. For example, the logical reasoning in the second extract is correct, as the Mock Turtle doesn’t expect Alice, a human, to have lived under the sea and to have ever met a lobster. However still, the assumptions that the Mock Turtle makes appear to be absurd. Thus, it seems that Carroll states the obvious in order to make the statements sound out of the ordinary.

Extract 3

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.

“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least- at least I mean what I say- that’s the same thing you know.”

“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”

“You might just as well say,” added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, “that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!”

In this extract from the chapter ‘The Mad Tea-Party’, Carroll is creating a play with syntax with the aim of confusing the reader. The most obvious type of foregrounding device in this extract is parallelism, since the sentences uttered by the Hatter and the Dormouse follow the same structure and the repetitive phrase “you might just as well say.” The reasoning of the Hatter and the Dormouse follows a logical sequence, but due to its prominent repetition, this reasoning becomes strange to the reader and therefore it is defamiliarised.

Source

Puns

Extract 1

“Mine is a long and sad tale!” said the Mouse, turning to Alice and sighing.

“It is a long tail, certainly,” said Alice, looking down with wonder at the Mouse’s tail; “but why do you call it sad?”

And she kept on puzzling about it while the Mouse was speaking, so that her idea of the tale was something like this:-

                Fury said to a mouse,
                  That he met in the
                         house, 'Let us
                            both go to law:
                             I will prosecute
                           you. Come, I'll
                          take no denial;
                        We must have
                      a trial: For
                    really this
                  morning I've
                nothing to do.'
                    Said the mouse
                          to the cur,
                            'Such a trial,
                               dear Sir, With
                                   no jury or
                                 judge, would
                                be wasting
                            our breath.'
                         'I'll be
                    judge, I'll
                  be jury,'
                Said cunning
             Old Fury:
                'I'll try
                  the whole
                    cause, and
                        condemn
                            you
                              to
                               death.'


This is the most prominent pun found in the book. In this extract, the link between deviance and prominence is quite noticeable. In fact, the reader does not have to be entirely attentive to realize that the form of the poem is deviated from the norm. The foregrounding of this pun is conveyed through both parallelism and deviation. In the former, the words ‘tale’ and ‘tail’ are repeated more than once in order for the pun to stand out from the rest of the text. The poem, which is categorized as an emblematic verse since it takes the shape of a tail, can be classified as graphological deviation.

Although the reader is familiar with the shape of a tail, we still find the structure of the poem unusual as it is a deviation from the norm of poetic style and structure. Consequently, the structure of the poem can be considered as qualitative foregrounding. Carroll formats the lines in such a way that he projects the image that Alice has in her head. In my opinion, by trying to familiarize the readers with what is going on in Alice’s head, Carroll is also creating a defamiliarisation effect.

In his famous essay Art as Device, Shklovsky writes about the laws of perception (interpretation) in art. He maintains that the sense of routine (habituation) tends to dull our perception. According to Shklovsky, the function of art is to defamiliarise, that is, to make habituation unfamiliar. Shklovsky termed this depersonalization technique ‘ostranenie’. He stated that art exists to make us feel things. In order to achieve this, the Russian formalists defamiliarised language to make the audience or readers of a literary artifact see common things, that are usually taken for granted, in such an unfamiliar way that their perception of the familiar becomes enhanced.

Extract 2

“But they were in the well,” Alice said to the Dormouse, not choosing to notice this last remark.
“Of course they were”, said the Dormouse; “well in.”
This answer so confused poor Alice, that she let the Dormouse go on for some time without interrupting it.

This other pun which confuses Alice is also foregrounded with the repetitive use of the words ‘well’ and ‘in’. Just like in the previous extract, the reader can easily spot the play on words as they are foregrounded via parallelism. In this instance, I would say that the pun is used deliberately to confuse the readers, whereas in the following extract, the pun is used to highlight a witty remark.

Extract 3

'And how many hours a day did you do lessons?' asked Alice, in a hurry to change the subject.

'Ten hours the first day,' said the Mock Turtle: 'nine the next, and so on.'

'What a curious plan!' exclaimed Alice.

'That's the reason they're called lessons,' the Gryphon remarked: 'because they lessen from day to day.'

In this extract from the chapter ‘The Mock Turtle’s Story’, the pun on the words ‘lessons’ and ‘lessen’ achieves prominence through the use of parallelism since the Gryphon makes use of both words in the same sentence. In this case the reader instantly understands what Carroll is trying to say.

Another interesting observation is the pun on the Mock Turtle’s name. The name of this character is taken from the name of a popular Victorian dish, which was the mock turtle soup. This pun shows up in the same chapter:

Then the Queen left off, quite out of breath, and said to Alice, "Have you seen the Mock Turtle yet?"

"No," said Alice. "I don't even know what a Mock Turtle is."

"It's the thing Mock Turtle Soup is made from," said the Queen.

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Conclusion

There are plenty of other wordplay examples in the novel. In fact I would say that the main foregrounding technique of these wordplay episodes is quantitative foregrounding, since they appear frequently throughout the novel. In this respect, one could also conclude that the foregrounding of wordplay, which includes puns and strange logic, is achieved via parallelism, since their regularity in the novel is not what the readers usually expect to find, especially in novels written during the Victorian era.

After looking at Carroll’s foregrounding techniques, one should consider the cultural and historical context in which Carroll was writing so as to highlight the literary relevance of the author’s style. Besides Alice in Wonderland, Carroll wrote several books dealing with logic, philosophical debates and mathematics. These issues, which were very controversial to certain Victorian conventions, are reproduced in the adventures of Alice in Wonderland.

Hugh Haughton, the editor of the Penguin Classics edition, believes that Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is made up of ‘fascinating questions about meaning’ (Penguin.com, 2010). Throughout the novel, Carroll toys with puns and games with language, which tend to confuse both reader and the young Alice. However, these games with words and logic seem to draw attention to some contradictions and inconsistencies in the English language. The strange logic and reasoning of the characters that inhabit Wonderland are also challenging the reader’s common sense. As the adult readers encounter the various puns, instances of word play and the unconventional narrative style of the novel, they can either give in to what is considered by the Lobster-Quadrille as nonsense and meaningless logic, or like Queen Alice, the readers may try to interpret and decode the meaning of each word play.

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