Pragmatic Aspects of Literary
PALA: The Poetics and
Pragmatic Aspects of
In this paper I will examine some changes the
Gricean Maxims undergo in written communication with particular
emphasis on literary communication.
The idea of applying Gricean Maxims to the analysis
of literary texts has been developed most fully in van Dijk's
Pragmatics and Poetics and Pratt's Toward a Speech Act Theory o£
Van Dijk states that all Gricean Maxims are violated
in literary communication, that the speaker ‘opts out’ from the
contextual principles of ordinary conversation and that the
‘Cooperative Principle’ does not hold. He proposes the so-called
Cooperative Principle from which the four literary counterparts of
the Gricean principle are derived (1977, pp. 46-54).
Pratt (1977, pp.173-74) also notes the conspicuous
difference in communication on the levels of author-reader and
hero-hero. She shares Ohmann's (1971, pp.241-54) view on
speech acts of the latter level as ‘mimetic’ or ‘imitation speech
acts’ and states that what counts as a lie, a clash, an opting out, or
an unintentional failure on the part of a fictional speaker (or writer)
counts as flouting on the part of the real-world author. The
implicature involved as the result of flouting is that the non-
fulfillment is in accord with the purpose of the exchange in which
the reader and author are engaged.
Below I present my view on how the Cooperative
Principle and Maxims work in literature.
At first glance it might seem that the Maxims of
Quantity, Relation and/or Manner are violated in literary texts by
definition: they can be full of reasonings and descriptions which are
not directly connected with the plot and may be regarded as
irrelevant or uninformative. On the other hand they may appear
significant and relevant with respect to the general message of the
author. The only reasonable way to treat this contradiction is first
to take into consideration the presupposition which is implicit in
every published literary text, namely, that the author wants to
communicate; otherwise his/her work would not appear on paper.
Taking for granted that the author observes the
Cooperative Principle we should also take for granted the author's
point of view on what s/he considers appropriate, relevant or
informative for the purposes of communication. The author says as
much on the subject as s/he thinks to be sufficient, and we cannot
doubt his/her choice since, normally, we cannot doubt his/her
desire to cooperate.
Maxims of Quantity, Relation and Manner (especially
the third Submaxim - ‘be brief’) as related to literary
communication cannot be prescriptive in stating the upper and
lower boundaries of informativeness and brevity.
So, in my opinion an author never opts out; s/he
does cooperate and has evidently proved it by having the book
published. Nor can we say that the Maxims are violated because,
as we have stated above, all the deviations are within the author's
intention and necessary for the tasks set out by the author in the
given literary work. The reader is never misled, which is often the
case with the violation of Maxims in conversation.
It also seems impossible to treat all the deviant
cases as flouting, because, for example, lengthy descriptions of
nature in a book do not normally give rise to any implicature. What
Pratt regards as implicature engendered by flouting of Maxims is
rather one of general presumptions readers have when they take a
book of fiction and start to read it:
1) The author cooperates.
2) Hence, everything the author says in a
book is within the global purpose of communication.
3) The readers are dealing with the piece of
literature, and so they must suspend disbelief.
Grice himself seems to have foreseen some
limitations of his approach. In formulating his Quantity Maxim he
emphasises one very important reservation: ‘Make your
contribution as informative as required (for the current purposes
of the exchange)’ (Grice, 1975, p.45). All the apparent
contradictions in applying Grice's Maxims to literature can be
resolved if the starting point of analysis is the purpose of literary
Of great help here would be the goal-oriented
approach, suggested by Leech (1983). Leech regards language
activity as goal-directed, where multiple goals combine
sequentially and simultaneously with one dominating major
supraordinate goal. Leech's goal-oriented model of discourse
includes the following binary oppositions of goals:
1) dynamic goals (goals with the function of
changing the environment including the psychological
state or attitude of the addressee) and regulative goals
(with the function of preventing the environment from
changing); 2) coexisting goals (which may be in
competition or in conflict);
3) subordinate goals and supraordinate goals
(one serving as a means to another);
4) long-term goals (persisting through a
whole discourse or section of discourse) and short-term
goals (which may, for example, be confined to a single
sentence or utterance);
5) major goals and minor goals (i.e. some
goals are more important than the others).
(Leech, 1983, pp. 145-150)
I will now analyse the applicability of Gricean
Maxims to literary communication, employing this goal-oriented
In failing to observe this Maxim the author can be:
1. completely uninformative;
2. not sufficiently informative;
3. excessively informative.
Complete uninformativeness in a text can be a
requirement of genre - the simplest case would be puzzles, riddles,
Take the following text:
Three lads living in the same street each
have a pet cat of a different colour. Bobby lives at a house
with a higher number than Shane's. Philip's cat is named
Fluff their house number is not seven higher than the one
at which the marmalade cat lives. Ronnie owns the black-
and-white cat. Rajah, who is not the tabby cat, is not
owned by the boy who lives at no.12. From the clues
given above can you name each boy's pet and give its
colour, and say at which number in the street they live?
Evidently the major goal here is not to inform but to
entertain the readers, making them work out the answer. So,
here we deal only with partial violation of the Maxim of Quantity.
More sophisticated genres such as detective stories and thrillers
operate on the same principle. Here he Maxim of Quantity is
violated on the level of the subordinate goal, he supraordinate
goal being to build up and maintain suspense. In one of Agatha
Christie's stories, for example, this is done by means of describing
the consecutive, inexplicable deaths of twelve people. By the
twelfth murder the readers are completely intrigued. All the
necessary information is given at the end of the story and the
partial violation of the Maxim of Quantity has a clear ‘aperitif’
function, to use Barthes's term. Partial violation here means the
violation of the Maxim on discrete parts of the text which can be a
subordinate short-term goal of the author.
Another instance of partial violation of the
Maxim of Quantity can be found in coded texts - passwords,
ciphers, some mystic and religious texts, instances of the so-
called Aesop language. The addressers are totally uninformative
and really mean to conceal information, being motivated by
different extralinguistic rather than linguistic reasons. But in this
case there is partial violation of the Maxim of Quantity - the
addresser wants to cooperate with a very restricted group of
people. The Maxim is violated with some addressees and
observed with others, the initiated. Text is informative only for
them and not informative for all the rest. This non-fulfillment of a
Maxim is often the result of a Clash between the Quantity and
Quality Maxims. Under certain conditions the addresser cannot
be fully explicit, clear and truthful at the time. In this case the
addresser has two coexisting major goals: to impart the
information to the initiated and at the same time to conceal it
from the rest. ‘The initiated’ may imply members of the same
religious or mystic brotherhood, people of the same political
beliefs or any other group of people who, for whatever reason,
cannot speak out overtly.
Consider the following piece of text:
Tall tree, spy-glass shoulder, bearing a point
to the N. of N.N.E.
Skeleton Island E.S.E. and by E.
The bar silver is in the north cache, you can find it
by the trend of the east, etc.
This is the coded message from R.L.Stevenson's
Treasure Island. This piece represents partial violation of the
Maxim of Quantity - partial in both senses - it is violated only
within a part of the text and only with those addressees (both
fictional and real) who are not familiar with the code.
However, with the readers' presumption of a
cooperating author it will never be mistaken for a breach of the
Cooperative Principle. This piece of text only serves to intrigue the
readers and make them read on in anticipation of an explanation.
The short-term goal of the author is to break the Maxim of
Quantity; long-term, to spur the reader into reading on. The
former goal can also be described as subordinate, the latter, as
The addresser can restrict the audience to a very
small group of people. Nevertheless this cannot be called
violation. An extreme example can be found in one of the
Lermontov's poems. One of the most moving pieces of
Lermontov's lyric has an acronym as a dedication. An eminent
Russian literary critic, I. Andronnikov, has devoted several years
of research and an exciting book, The Enigma of...., to decoding
the addressee of this poem. There appears to be a romantic love
story behind these initials that adds much to an understanding of
the content of the poem. Evidently, Lermontov intended this
poem to be fully understood only by his beloved. Although the
poem was published during the poet's lifetime its main addressee
was only one person.
These cases of partial violation of the Quantity
Maxim often result in the violation of the Maxim of Manner -
and, specifically, of Submaxims 1 and 2 - ‘do not be obscure’ and
‘do not be ambiguous’. The following passage involves all the
instances of non-fulfillment of the above-mentioned Submaxims:
The King Triumphant. Blessing the Bodies
Manifests the Catholics Pure Consolation together with his
Servants in Perpetuity the Majesty of the Rector Devotedly
This is a coded message. In 1499 a Benedictine
Abbot, John Trilheim, devised a cipher where every letter of the
alphabet was coded by a word of a religious meaning. When put
together the words composed a somewhat obscure religious text,
which sounded like a passage from a sermon or an old, religious
book. The real message could have been understood only by a
small group of monks familiar with the cipher. The text given
above means: Do not use the bearer.
Another example is obscure Masonic text. Some of
the words, denoting principal concepts of Freemasonry, cannot be
made public; others are highly symbolic and cannot, by strict
Masonic regulation, be explained in public. This second example
also involves the non-fulfillment of Maxims of Quantity and
Esoteric Significance of the C... T...
One reason for the concealment of esoteric
truths is that whilst of almost immeasurable value to the
sincere and officially-guided aspirant, for one who is
neither completely sincere and altruistic, nor under correct
guidance many such truths are distinctly dangerous in
their full esoteric meanings. The c... t... is an example
since like all objects associated with the Mysteries... they
symbolize the coiled-up kundalini which moves in a
serpentine path and through the Chakras...
These texts represent the Clash of Maxims of
Quality, Quantity and Manner where the two latter are
sacrificed for the sake of the former.
Texts may also appear to be uninformative as a
result of Opting out. For the analysis of literary communication I
would suggest a distinction between overt Opting out and covert,
‘quiet’ Opting out. The former is rather rare because, as has
already been stated above, the writer is expected to
communicate. The writer's explicit refusal to write any more (as
was the case with Truman Capote) can, probably, count as overt
Opting out. The latter can be exemplified by texts which were not
originally intended for any addressees at all - for example drafts
or parts of a novel the author never intended to publish or
personal diaries published posthumously. All these texts are
usually accompanied by extensive commentaries when they
appear in print to supply the missing information or clarify some
points. In such cases it could again be argued that there was no
intent to communicate on the author's part (or, at least, only to
2.2. Not sufficiently informative
A second case of non-fulfillment of the Maxim of
Quantity is when the addresser is not efficiently informative. Take
Umberto Eco's novel Il Nome della Rosa. Are all potential readers
of it able to catch all the allusions - historical and intertextual - in
which this text abounds? Clearly the novel may appear abstruse
in many ways to the average reader. It is also evident that the
author wishes to communicate with readers who belong to an
intellectual elite and share a common background knowledge with
the author. This text is slightly different from the cases mentioned
above - the CP is not broken here. The range of possible readers
is not rigidly encompassed and understanding depends more on
the background knowledge of the addressee than on the
knowledge of special clues or passwords.
These points can also be vividly illustrated in the
poetry of Grienberg. If we take, for example, his poem Iron Horse
we find that commentary to it consists of 30 entries, among which
Edward Carpenter: contemporary disciple of
Whitman, British educator-poet...
Homer: poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti's late
sizable black dog, subject of several popular poems.
Sahasrarapadma: seventh chakra, ‘thousand-
petal lotus’ at skulltop.
Gavin Arthur, Bay area astrologer, grandson
of US President Chester A. Arthur had slept with
Carpenter, who had slept with Whitman, according to
written testament entrusted to author.
Mr. Cummings and Mr. Vinal: e.e.cummings
wrote much-anthologised poem mocking lesser poet H.
The woman in the red dress: the woman who
‘informed’ on ‘Public Enemy No.1’, John Dillinger, leading
FBI agent to the movie house where he was cornered and
Xochimilco: ancient floating gardens Mexico
City, where Kerouac Orlovsky and the author met a party
of Mexican ballet boys in a sightseeing boat.
Shri Ramana Maharshi: 20th-century South
Indian ascetic saint, etc., etc.
The above-mentioned cases should also be classed
as a partial violation of the Maxim of Quantity.
In not sufficiently informative texts the Quantity
Maxim can also get flouted. By this means the author gains the
effect of text implicature. In his novel A Maggot, John Fowles
gives insufficient information about the main character's
disappearance. However, he gives several very ambiguous hints
on what could have happened to him and why. This ambiguity is
not resolved even at the end of the novel - Fowles leaves the
readers to unravel the mystery themselves and to make their own
conclusions. The author's supraordinate goal in the novel is to fire
his readers' imagination as well as to cause them to reflect upon
life's priorities without providing a wealth of information on the
The addresser can be excessively informative on