Powerful speeches

 “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”

Today we’ll look at the effect of language and expectation in an author’s influence over his reader, and to explore the scope of such influence. Though there are a number of other factors worth considering- such as the use of imperatives and the authority of the author- this paper will focus on the aforementioned aspects because of the related nature of their methodology:  the use of presupposed tenets to manipulate the reader’s interaction with a text.

In language, words have an allusive relationship with various concepts and constructs that are not strictly part of their definition: “Calling the atmosphere of an office ‘cool’ conveys a different experience for a listener or reader than calling it ‘cold.’”  In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, Septimus’ confession that he has “committed a crime” doesn’t just invoke the concept of someone who has broken the law, but the broader field of associative images one equates with crime: seedy streets, menacing figures, murder and robbery.  Though his use of the word is sincere, it is used to highlight the irony of war- where one can be praised for committing the most horrendous of crimes.  In this way Woolf can be seen to be shaping the reader’s perception of Septimus by using language to builds associative fields that define both his character and the way he is perceived by a reader.  Every piece of information the audience knows about him is carefully measured to narrow his possibilities; it restricts the reader’s perception of him to certain semantic fields. Roger Fowler asserts that there is a great potential for language to be used a way of controlling one’s understanding via the “relexicalization” of words to emphasise, or in some cases to subtly alter, particular connotations of language over others in order to bring particular ideas to prominence. They lack the authority and legitimacy to simply make commands and are instead reduced to issuing declaratives, surrounded by suggestive language, which compels the reader into a certain train of thought. The reader themselves is “in a situation of helpless ignorance”  and are likely to accept this relexicanization without resistant or even recognition of its occurrence.   By first establishing him as a soldier, Woolf creates a character based on conventional views of the Tommy: a brave, tormented soul, one of “lions led by donkeys.” This particular notion is then strengthened by her use of the archetypical image of Septimus having gone to France to ‘save an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare’s plays and Miss Isabel Pole in a green dress walking in a square.” Furthermore, Woolf herself then makes use of a suggestive declarative by saying of Septimus’ “anxiety”: “The world had raised its whip; where will it descend?” By presenting Septimus as a vulnerable victim of society, Woolf has already shaped the reader’s perception of him to the extent where in the future words are relexicanized by these underlying statements.

It is debatable however, as to whether language can really limit a reader’s interpretation of events into a marginal spectrum of events unified by an underlying theme to such an extent that it becomes an effective singularity.  Whilst this paper does not aim to deny that language has strong associative values, there is an issue with the concept of arranging these values in such a way as to definitively shape a reader’s interpretation. Though authorial intention can hope to lead the reader through language, the prediction and manipulation of a reader’s emotions through the use of its associative spheres is thoroughly unreliable because of two main reasons.


Firstly, language can be seen as a subjective web of interlinking meanings and associations, each defined by their relation to another: in language “there are only differences, and no positive terms”. The lack of any definite definitions means that everything is defined by its context and thus the system is a fluid set of interactions as opposed to a static set of predetermined relations between the signifiers and the signified: they exist in “associative relations”.  An example of this can be seen in adorable. Its root word, adore, is defined as: “1. Love and respect deeply. 2. Worship or venerate (a deity)” However the term adorable has an addition connotation in that it is used as a synonym for the word cute. The impact of this deviance is that adore is reduced in intensity, to the point that its secondary association with a devoted sense of romantic affection is now its prevalent meaning. The interplay between the two also works conversely because the overtones of adore lend adorable a greater strength of emotion and emphasis than cute.   Though they may have differences in meaning, the two cannot be considered separate words because their nature is intertwined in that they each draw aspects of their definition from another.

Secondly, one’s perception of a word’s meaning is deeply affected by their own subjective interaction with language and with the forms of these associations. Does a modern reader appreciate exactly what Austen means when she writes that Mr Weston was “born of a respectable family”?  Their very understanding of the word “respectable” differs from Austen’s because that which is respectable has changed a great deal since Emma’s publishing.  A modern reader could easily be unaware of the social hierarchy that played such a dominant role at the time, or of the requirements to be considered a respectable family. Later on in the text, when a building is described as “respectable” it’s no coincidence that it is also “ample”, and because of that Emma feels: “an increasing respect for it, as the residence of a family of such true gentility.”  Would a modern reader inherently know about these undertones of power and privilege that naturally partner respectability? Furthermore, is respectable to be understood in its social or moral sense? Does Austen mean Mr Watson’s family were wealthy and well placed socially or that they were admirable: the type of family one respected?

January 10, 2018


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