2.4 Lexis /Semantic Fields
2.6 Intertextual and Cultural References
In the following text the stylistic and linguistic features of Angus Wilson’s short story Higher Standards will be pointed out and discussed. To complete, a short interpretation based on the results of the linguistic analysis will be provided as a conclusion. But first of all, one should have a look at a few of the most important dates in Wilson’s life:
Sir Angus Frank Johnstone – Wilson being the first British writer confessing to be homosexual was born on 11.08.1913 in Bexhill, Sussex. From 1921 to 1924 he lived with his grandparents in Durban, South – Africa. In 1936 he graduated from Merton College, Oxford with a first in history of the middle ages and the modern era. After having graduated, he started working for the British Museum. His job was interrupted by military service during World War II. In 1949 his first short story collection The Wrong Set was published and in 1957 his second collection A Bit off the Map containing Higher Standards. Since 1963 he was giving lectures and he suddenly became a professor of English literature in 1966 at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. In 1980 Wilson was accepted as a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Before he died on 31.05.1991 he was awarded three honorary doctorates. (Drabble)
The following part will discuss the linguistic and stylistic analysis of Higher Standards. According to Toolan, Verdonk and Stubbs a list of possible patterns used in the short story was created, which are content (who, where), phonology, orthography, lexis/semantic fields, symbolism, inter-textual references as well as cultural references. This examination makes it possible to provide an interpretation based on the linguistic and stylistic features of the text.
The first pattern is to be the content. It starts with the question, how the persons taking action in the story are portrayed and what the story deals with. Higher Standards shows a typical evening in the life of the ‘Corfe’ family who are living in a village. The character which is mentioned first is Mrs Corfe. At first sight, there is no hint to describe her outward appearance. One can only guess how she looks by the description of her character and her behaviour. At the beginning of the story she calls her daughter Elsie and her husband, Mr Corfe for dinner. Elsie’s and Mr Corfe’s appearances are not described as . All one finds out is that Elsie is a local school teacher, who teaches a fourth grade; Mr Corfe is mentally and physically disabled since he had a stroke four years ago. Furthermore, Mr Corfe is said to have been ‘[...] such a splendid lay preacher, [...]’ (Wilson, Higher Standards). That means that Mr. Corfe is or was a religious person and by the way Mrs Corfe talks, one can state that she is a religious person too: ‘Nothing against Pools in The Book [...]’ (Wilson, Higher Standards) and ‘Nasty, ungodly things the Pools.[...] so we’ll have her yellow bonnet back in Chapel next Sunday.’ (Wilson, Higher Standards) Consequently the Corfe’s must be a religious family, for even Elsie’s name carries a religious meaning, namely ‘my god is a vow’ (2. web). One can state, that the portrayed family stands for a majority of lower middle class families in post-war Britain.
Anyway, after Mrs Corfe’s call for dinner, which has always been the same for about 15 years, the three of them take a seat at the overcrowded dinner table. Mrs Corfe serves a ‘grunter’, ‘[...] a traditional dish to which, under the stress of rationing, Mrs Corfe has become increasingly attached.’ (Wilson, Higher Standards) During dinner Elsie rather refuses to eat the ‘grunter’, while her mother is described as a person who loves to eat: ‘Mrs Corfe ate heartily, continually spearing fresh pieces of the “grunter” with her knife.’ (Wilson, Higher Standards) This description of her eating behaviour can lead to the fact, that she must be a rather corpulent woman.
Moreover, Mrs Corfe is running down people during dinner. Elsie cannot stand her behaviour and turns to her father. Her manners towards her mother can be described as rebellious in a subtle way. There are several hints for her behaviour in the story: ‘Elsie’s rejoinder to the implied moral rebuke was aesthetic. She carefully removed one by one from the overcrowded table the many half-empty pots of jam and bottles of sauce without which her mother felt the evening meal to be incomplete.’ (Wilson, Higher Standards) This is just one of the passages, which describe her manners towards her mother.
As Elsie turns to her Father she asks him about his day and he tells her, that he sat at the window and watched the fowls. Elsie’s behaviour upsets Mrs Corfe. She feels betrayed and rather wants to go on with her gossip, so she asks Elsie about her day at school. After Elsie told her, she immediately starts to say malicious things about her pupils and their parents, whereupon Elsie counters with a remark about her mother’s education.
Half an hour after dinner, Elsie goes out to the pillar box, where she meets a few friends from her youth. Only the names of two persons are mentioned, Bill Daly and Jim Soker to the group of young adults called ‘Standard Four’. There is, again, no further description about their appearances, but Bill Daly’s age is mentioned at the end of the story. With the mention of his age, the age of Elsie is implied. ‘Why, Jim was a year older than herself, quite twenty six.’ (Wilson, Higher Standards) So, Elsie must be 25 years old. This being the only hint about her age might imply that the author wanted her age to be kept secret to underline her childish behaviour. She starts to flirt with one of the group, namely Bill Daly. After this very short conversation she goes back home and meets her mother at the front door. Mrs Corfe wants to go out to help an old lady from the village they live in, while the ‘grunter’ turned on Mr Corfe.
The main feature that can be found and which is essential for the interpretation is the repetition of the word ‘standard’, for it is already mentioned in the title Higher Standards. The word ‘standard’ is also connected to Elsie’s job. She is the teacher of a ‘standard four’, which is another term for a fourth grade. Furthermore, Mrs Corfe calls the group of young adults 'standard four', out of which Elsie was torn out and already reached a higher standard than they did. (Späth) ‘Standard’ is also repeated at the end of the story when Mrs Corfe and Elsie meet after dinner at the front door of their house. ‘Well, it’s lucky there are folks with higher standards.’ and ‘You haven’t got a monopoly of higher standards, you know.’ (Wilson, Higher Standards) As a historical reference: The word ‘standard’ might be referred to two events at that time. On the one hand, it could allude to the post-war situation. ‘There was a time, of course, before the war when Elsie had not had “moods”.’ (Wilson, Higher Standards) This post-war situation might be the reason for Mrs Corfe’s ‘[...] stress of rationing [...]’ (Wilson, Higher Standards) Families which were living in that time were unable to afford a higher standard, unless they were rich: ‘Standard’ in terms of lifestyle. On the other hand, the word ‘standard’ might allude to a standard of education.
According to Späth (1999), there had been several discussions during the 1950’s about the ‘scholarship boys’. They had been boys who reached a higher standard of education thanks to a scholarship. Due to their higher education they were unable to fit into their families and former environment and they were also unable to fit into a ‘higher’ class of people because of their origin. In the short story Elsie appears to have exactly the same problem.
In Wilson’s short story several words are highlighted in italic print. It becomes quite clear what is intended with the italic print having a look on the list of these words: crêpe du Chine , that, all, if, pounds, her, our, you, done, could, she, her, our, higher; the majority of these words have something to do with possession. On the one hand, there is ‘[...] the little lemon crêpe de Chine scarf’ (Wilson, Higher Standards) as well as ‘[...] It was pounds then, [...]’ (Wilson, Higher Standards), which describe a real possession. Other words which are stressed bold are possessive - pronouns. These features might indicate a more subtle stress on possession in contrast to the obvious allusions to possession.
2.4 Lexis / Semantic Fields
There are several semantic fields contributing to the meaning and the interpretation of the text. The most obvious – but general- feature concerning this focus is the contrast between the language of the narrator and the language used by the characters in direct speech. The writer’s language appears to be academic while on the other hand the language of the Corfe’s suites more to a lower middle class family. With this Wilson leads the reader consequently through the whole narrative. Additionally, with this contrast he lends irony to the story.
In Higher Standards Wilson uses in certain situations certain vocabulary: the conflict between Elsie and Mrs Corfe, for Example is described with war, and legal vocabulary. The war vocabulary might also allude again to the post-war situation but first and foremost to dramatize the power struggle between the two characters. (Späth)
Although Mrs Corfe’s outward appearance is not being described, she is always connected to some certain semantic fields, which are religion, possession, tradition and food. On the other hand Elsie is connected with education and possession as well.
Within the story one can find several words which might have a symbolic meaning. The meanings of these symbols can be found in the Dictionary of Symbols by J.C. Cirlot.
The first symbol is the colour yellow which is also discussed in the interpretation of Späth. He writes: ‚[...] und drapiert ihr zitronengelbes Halstuch neu – die Farbe Gelb scheint in den Augen von Mrs Corfe als besonders unchristlich konnotiert zu sein, wie