Sunday, December 2, 2012

Reflections on Adults' Language Use in THE CASUAL VACANCY by J. K. Rowling


My previous four posts have focused on teenagers and their thirst for significance in THE CASUAL VACANCY by J. K. Rowling I will now turn my attention to the adults, who reveal their own thirst for significance in this novel, Rowling's first since her Harry Potter series. While the teen characters seek significance largely through their actions, the adult characters do so largely through their use of language. 

THE CASUAL VACANCY is set in the fictional rural English town of Pagford. A "casual vacancy" on the Pagford Parish Council has resulted from the sudden death of council member Barry Fairbrother, due to an aneurysm. The process of filling the vacant council seat reveals the dark underbelly of the seemingly idyllic town of Pagford. Throughout this political process and the many directly-related and tangentially-related inter-personal interactions that arise, one of the most striking elements is the multitude of ways in which the adult characters use language.

COMMON VIEW OF LANGUAGE. When we think about language, we usually assume that its purpose is to communicate a straightforward message. That is, we have a message we wish to convey to someone else, so we put the message into words that we speak to the other person, and the other person hears our words and receives the message we wish to convey. At least, this is what happens in a straightforward spoken communication when all goes well.

Most of us also realize that other factors can complicate the message transmission process. For example, the message receiver may mis-hear or mis-interpret our words. In addition, our message is conveyed not only through the spoken words themselves, but also through voice tone, facial expression, gesture, and body language - all of which strongly shape the message received and may even contradict the straightforward meaning of the spoken words. Moreover, our past communication history with the other person will influence how the other person understands our message.

Besides all this, people consciously and sub-consciously use language for purposes other than to convey a straightforward message. THE CASUAL VACANCY is a cornucopia of such purposes. Most are related to fulfilling an adult character's thirst for significance.

TO DISPLAY KNOWLEDGE. This can be a way of serving another by sharing knowledge that will be helpful to the other person, and it can be a way of standing out as the one who knows what others don't. Miles Mollison's explanation of the history of Pagford, Yarvil, and the Fields to Kay Bawden, a fairly new resident of Pagford, is largely of the helpful type, although it's also true that Miles' account is colored by his discriminatory attitude toward Fields residents and by his desire to shine as a fountain of knowledge about the area. Kay Bawden's report on the effectiveness of the Bellchapel Addiction Clinic for the Pagford Parish Council is given in a spirit of helpfulness, and it also allows her to shine as someone with important information to contribute to her new community.

TO BE THE FIRST TO TELL NEWS.  A lot of this goes on in the novel. Whenever someone has a bit of news or gossip, that person diligently searches for opportunities to be the first to tell the tidbit to others and to relish their reactions - and even becomes quite anxious lest someone else beat him or her to telling the news first.

TO TAKE REVENGE. A certain amount of talk is revenge talk - talk aimed at making another person uncomfortable but disguised as a seemingly innocent question or a seemingly solicitous suggestion. For example, when Samantha Mollison invites Gavin Hughes and his girlfriend, Kay Bawden, to her home for dinner, she plans what she might say that evening to discomfit Gavin. On page 211, Rowling writes, "Samantha tried to cheer herself up by thinking of nasty questions to ask Gavin. Perhaps she might wonder aloud why Kay had not moved in with him: that would be a good one." (It is clear to Samantha that Kay considers herself and Gavin a couple, but that Gavin is unhappy with this arrangement.)

TO CLASSIFY OR LABEL. Some talk has as its purpose to classify people into categories and label them. Among many in Pagford, the poor of Pagford are considered the "deserving" poor, while the poor of the Fields are considered the "undeserving" poor. On page 224, in a conversation with social worker Kay Bawden, Miles Mollison puts it this way:

"Pagford's full of working-class people, Kay; the difference is, most of them work. D'you know what proportion of the Fields lives off benefits? Responsibility, you say: what happened to personal responsibility? We've had them through the local school for years: kids who haven't got a single worker in the family; the concept of earning a living is completely foreign to them; generations of non-workers, and we're expected to subsidize them--"

Such language classifications and labels allow us to think that we know a whole group of people and to favor or dismiss members of that group based on what we think we know about those belonging to that classification or label.

TO BE SEXY. We see this in Samantha Mollison, who seeks significance in being sexually attractive to younger (much younger) people. Samantha and Miles Mollison have two teenage daughters, so they are probably in their late thirties. Nonetheless, Samantha finds herself strongly attracted to Jake, a member of a rock band on one of her fourteen-year-old daughter's DVDs, a musician in his early twenties. Samantha secretly watches the DVD over and over and buys music magazines with articles about Jake. She fantasizes about being eighteen years old and having sex with Jake. Language about this is evident in its absence: Samantha remains silent about her attraction to Jake, but savors it secretly.

TO CONTROL THROUGH FEAR. We see this in Simon Price and his abusiveness. Simon belittles his wife and two sons, calls them names, threatens them, and even sometimes physically strikes them. He gets his way in his family because he keeps his wife and sons in terror of his rages.

TO UPHOLD EXPECTATIONS. We see this in a very interesting way with Gavin Hughes in his relationship with Kay Bawden. Kay has moved to Pagford to further her relationship with Gavin, who really doesn't want to become entangled with Kay. But Gavin is given to fulfilling expectations, so he nearly always says the expected thing. When he feels that he is expected to compliment Kay or ask her out or respond to her affection, he does so - with the predictable result that he strengthens Kay's ties with him. Wanting to extricate himself from this relationship, Gavin succeeds only in strengthening it because he cannot bring himself to stop the forward flow of events, a flow to which he actually contributes by saying and doing the expected thing. He cannot manage to do the UNexpected thing of simply speaking out directly and breaking up with Kay.

TO STRENGTHEN ONE'S BODY IMAGE. I'm not quite sure what to call this purpose, so I've called it "to strengthen one's body image." This is what we see with Howard Mollison's obesity. Howard's physician, Dr. Parminder Jawanda, tells him plainly that his health problems are due to his obesity and would disappear or diminish greatly if Howard would adopt simple healthy lifestyle changes. Howard refuses to do this because of what he tells himself about his obesity. On page 348, Rowling explains what Howard tells himself.

After his father had left, his mother had sat him at the head of the table, between herself and his grandmother, and been hurt if he did not take seconds. Steadily he had grown to fill the space between the two women, as heavy at twelve as the father who had left them. Howard had come to associate a hearty appetite with manliness. His bulk was one of his defining characteristics. It had been built with pleasure, by the women who loved him, and he thought it was absolutely characteristic of Bends-Your-Ear [Dr. Parminder Jawanda], that emasculating killjoy, that she wanted to strip him of it.

Howard also notices that thin people have health problems, too: "Look at the Hubbards' boy: built like a beanpole, and shocking asthma" (page 348). Howard uses language to justify his obesity and the unhealthy behavior that keeps him obese.

TO EMPATHIZE. Toward the end of the novel, something very interesting happens in the relationship between Colin Wall and his adopted teenage son, Stuart, or Fats. Colin suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder, and his mind often accuses him of things he hasn't done. He obsesses that he may be guilty of one crime or another that he absolutely has not committed. He is tortured with guilt for things he has never done. Fats despises his father for this weakness. The relationship between Fats and his father is acrimonious.

However, Fats eventually has his own encounter with guilt. While Fats and his classmate Krystal Weedon are having sex by the river, Krystal's four-year-old brother, Robbie, falls into the river and drowns. Robbie was supposed to be in the care of Krystal and Fats at the time. When the police arrive and Robbie is pulled from the river, Fats runs away. As a result, he is overcome with guilt, which is compounded by the fact that Krystal herself, upon seeing that Robbie is dead, storms home, barricades herself in the bathroom, deliberately injects herself with an overdose of heroin from her mother's supply, and thus dies by her own hand.

Interestingly, it is Fats' guilt that opens communication and ultimately reconciles Fats with his father, who understands guilt intimately. On page 495, Rowling explains:

In the gloomy, familiar sitting room, where Fats had confessed to his parents that he had exposed his father's illness to the world [in an anonymous Internet post on the Pagford Parish Council website]; where he had confessed to as much as he could think of, in the hope that they would conclude him to be mad and ill; where he had tried to heap upon himself so much blame that they would beat him or stab him or do to him all those things that he knew he deserved, Colin put a hand gently on his son's back and steered him away, towards the sunlit kitchen.

I think I love this language use the best. It is a way of turning pain to good. Because Colin understood guilt so well through his mental obsession, he could reach out to his guilt-ridden son in love, communicate understanding to him, and speak words of true comfort, essentially saying, "I will use my experience and my pain to help and comfort you."

This post has examined nine uses of language, each related in some way to the thirst for significance on the part of the adult characters in J. K. Rowling's A CASUAL VACANCY. My next post will examine one additional use of language, employed mostly by Terri Weedon, who is a heroin addict, a prostitute, and the mother of sixteen-year-old Krystal and four-year-old Robbie.

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