Sunday, December 2, 2012

Reflections on Terri Weedon's Use of Language in THE CASUAL VACANCY by J. K. Rowling


My previous post focuses on the adult characters in THE CASUAL VACANCY by  J. K. Rowling and on the various purposes for which they use language. Most of these purposes involve ways in which these adults seek to enhance their own significance. In this post, I will focus on one particular character, Terri Weedon, and on what I find to be her very interesting and revealing 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.

As this political process and various directly-related and tangentially-related inter-personal interactions unfold, we see that the town of Pagford is divided in its attitude toward the Fields, a poor area to the north over which Pagford has jurisdiction. Many in Pagford regard the poor within their own town as the "deserving" poor, who work and contribute to society, but they see the poor of the Fields as the "undeserving" poor, who do not work but drain society of resources. The poor of the Fields are considered as lazy free-loaders and their children as undisciplined trouble-makers.

TERRI WEEDON. Terri Weedon is one of the "undeserving" poor of the Fields. Terri, in fact, is particularly "undeserving." She is a heroin addict who has cycled through the Bellchapel Addiction Clinic more than once, only to return to her drug habit. She is a prostitute. She is the mother of four children. Her eldest two were removed from her home and raised by others. She lives with her sixteen-year-old daughter, Krystal, and her four-year-old son, Robbie, and her fitness to care for them is highly questionable. Krystal often escapes the chaos of her own home life by spending the night at the home of her friend, Nikki. Robbie, at four, is still wearing diapers and is frequently absent from the nursery school where he is enrolled.

As far as I can see, Terri doesn't use language very much. She rarely initiates conversation, and she gives very brief replies when asked a question. Terri seems to have learned that language can entrap you, but that two uses of language serve as a defense: denial and agreement, each with its specific context for use.

DENIAL. When speaking with someone whom she perceives as an accuser, often a social worker who is trying to ascertain whether Terri is staying off illegal drugs and caring properly for Robbie, Terri simply denies having done anything that the social worker would not approve of. The denial is automatic and sometimes nonsensical. For instance, Terri may be clearly under the influence of heroin, yet she will steadfastly deny having taken any. Below is an example of Terri's knee-jerk denial in a conversation that includes Terri, her sixteen-year-old daughter Krystal, and social worker Kay Bawden. I have excerpted the words of the conversation from pages 109-110.

KAY: Terri, you'd used when I arrived yesterday, hadn't you?
TERRI: No, I fuckin' hadn'! Tha's a fuckin' -- you're fuckin' -- I ain' used, all righ'?
KRYSTAL: You fuckin' --
TERRI: I ain' fuckin' used, you ain' go' no proof --
KRYSTAL: You fuckin' stupid.
TERRI: I ain' fuckin' used, tha's a fuckin' lie. I never fuckin' did, righ', I never --

Hoping to find a way to keep Terri in the Bellchapel Addiction Clinic's program, Kay says, "I think the only way you can possibly avoid being thrown out . . . is to admit, up front, that you've used, take responsibility for the lapse and show your commitment to turning over a new leaf" (page 112). Rowling then explains, "Lying was the only way Terri knew to meet her many accusers" (page 112), and "She seemed to be trying to take in what Kay had said to her: this bizarre, dangerous advice about telling the truth" (page 112).

AGREEMENT. On the other hand, Terri never says no to a demand or a request. When a social worker gives instructions, Terri agrees to follow them. When Obbo, a drug dealer and pimp of Terri's acquaintance, makes a request that involves breaking the social worker's instructions, Terri agrees to do whatever Obbo is asking. The agreement to requests and demands is just as automatic as the denial of accusations.

When Kay Bawden, the social worker, agrees to try to keep Terri in the Bellchapel Addiction Clinic's program, Kay also says, "But, Terri, as far as we're concerned, I mean the Child Protection team, this is serious. We are going to have to monitor Robbie's home situation closely. We need to see a change, Terri" (pages 112-113). To this, Terri typically responds, "All righ', yeah" (page 113).

Just as typical is this conversation on pages 409-410, several weeks later with Obbo:

     "Listen, said Obbo, "couldja keep a bit more stuff for me fer a bit?"
     "Kinda stuff?" asked Terri, prying Robbie off her leg and holding his hand instead.
     "Coupla bags o' stuff," said Obbo. "Really help me out, Ter."
     "'Ow long for?"
     "Few days. Bring it round this evenin'. Will yeh?"
     Terri thought of Krystal and what she would say if she knew.
     "Yeah, go on then," said Terri.
     She remembered something else, and pulled Tessa's watch out of her pocket. "Gonna sell this, whaddaya reckon?"
     "Not bad," said Obbo, weighing it in his hand. "I'll give yeh twenty for it. Bring it over tonight?"
     Terri had thought the watch might be worth more, but she did not like to challenge him.
     "Yeah, all righ' then."

DENIAL AND AGREEMENT. Denial. Agreement. Denial. Agreement. This seems to constitute the bulk of Terri Weedon's language repertoire. She seems to use language largely for two purposes: to defend herself against others, and to place or keep herself in others' good graces.

In other words, Terri's language has little or no relationship to the truth of the matter under consideration. Whether or not Terri has used heroin, she will deny using it when questioned. Whether or not Terri intends to follow a social worker's instructions, she will agree to do so when instructed. The only way to understand most of Terri's language use is as defense or acquiescence, not as expressing any sort of truth about what she has actually done or what she actually intends to do.

It certainly seems important for people in positions like that of social worker to understand this kind of "communication" dynamic and to recognize when they may be dealing with it.

My consideration of language in this post and the previous one suggests that I might benefit from paying more attention to my own language use. Do I use language to express the truth, or at least my truth? Do I ever attempt to hide the truth by my use of language? Do I ever use language to manipulate? Good questions.

My next post will be my final post on THE CASUAL VACANCY by J. K. Rowling. I will examine a relationship I see between Rowling's novel and an idea I've learned about from the philosopher Jean Houston. Jean Houston speaks of the mathematical concept of fractals and how fractals apply to our lives. In particular, I will examine the fractal pattern of abandonment in the life of Rowling's character Terri Weedon.

No comments:

Post a Comment