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Teaching K. A. Porter's "That Tree".


Susan Lanser's poetics of point of view provides sound basis for the unveiling of the deeper layers of significance embedded behind the formal properties of a literary text. By applying her theory to the analysis of Porter's "That Tree", this article alms to yield a practical example of its enlightening use in the classroom.

1. Introduction

In overt opposition to the separation between form and content characteristic of the Aristotelian tradition, theorists such as Wallace Martin (1986), Susan Lanser (1981, 1992) or James Phelan (1996) among others have vindicated their interrelation. Martin asserts that "technique is not simply an auxiliary aspect of narration, a necessary encumbrance that writers must use to convey meaning, but rather that the method creates the possibility of meaning" (1986: 132). Likewise, Susan Lanser states that "aesthetic structure, like all content, is constrained and determined by ideology" (1981: 100) and James Phelan speaks of narrative technique "as a distinctive and powerful means for an author to communicate knowledge, feelings, values and beliefs to an audience" (1996: 18). Such assumptions are the basis for my practices as a teacher of English Rhetoric and Poetics since they underline the relevance of the study of the formal properties of literary texts for their critical interpretation.

I believe that literature should be understood as a communicative process between writer and reader since the former intends, by different means, to persuade the latter to share the perceptual and ideological vision of the world he or she has portrayed. Thus, an elaborate articulation of the author's textual persona clearly contributes to moulding the reader's interpretation of the story. As a consequence, the study of the narrator's point of view becomes a pivotal issue for the exegesis of literary texts as "[point of view] articulates the relationship of the text to ideology itself" (Goode 1976: 218). Ideology is to be understood here as "a socially and politically dominant set of values and beliefs which are not 'out there' but are constructed in the text especially in and through language" (Carter & Nash 1990: 21). Hence, the (real) author's linguistic textual choices clearly contribute to unveil the narrator's ideological stance and to determine the reader's final interpretation. Accordingly, as a teacher of English Rhetoric and Poetics, I try to provide my students with the most adequate tools to undertake the arduous task of a successful reconstruction of the text and, in my opinion, Lanser's theoretical framework serves those purposes. In The Narrative Act (1981) she combines speech-act theory and point-of-view criticism and, despite its formalist heritage, her poetics of point of view presents the necessary theoretical background with which to explore the narrator's "ideological and psychological attitudes toward a given 'content'" (1981: 93). It is for this reason that her theory becomes a valuable tool in my classes as it provides sound basis for the unveiling of the deeper layers of significance embedded behind the formal properties of a literary text.

This was the case when applying Lanser's conceptions to Katherine Anne Porter's "That Tree" (1934). In her short story we are told about a would-be American artist in Mexico impelled by his wife's abandonment to make a career in journalism. The journalist has once the romantic desire of leading a bohemian life in Mexico. However, after his first wife, Miriam, leaves him, he abandons his romantic notions of art and artists and undertakes a brilliant career in journalism. Two wives later, and once he has become a recognized authority on revolutions in Latin-American countries, he decides to take Miriam back but as a mistress rather than as a wife he claims. According to George Hendrick, Porter "has used the story of the journalist as a way of dissecting several fragments of American and Mexican culture" (1965: 51). The application of Lanser's theory to the analysis of the narrator in "That Tree" thus offers a valuable insight into the narrator's ideological and cultural stance toward Mexico, Mexican culture, American heritage and the disengaged American expatriate in Mexico. Hence it is my intention to present in the ensuing section a brief account of Lanser's poetics of point of view and immediately after to yield a practical example of its use in the classroom as illustrated by Porter's narrative.

2. Lanser and her poetics of point of view

Lanser's poetics focuses on the fictionalization of point of view and posits connections between ideology and technique. She states that "some of the most important elements of point of view--the gender of the narrator, the speaker's basis for authority, the narrator's 'personality' and values, and the relationship between the writer's circumstances and beliefs and the narrative structure of the text -were peripheral to most contemporary theories of point of view" (1981: 5). In order to solve this theoretical void, she entangled herself in the development of a literary theory which elaborates on the analysis of the narratorial voice and the relationship between text and social reality. Speech act theory provides Lanser with the necessary theoretical framework to bridge the gap between structural approaches to narrative and the understanding of text as an ideological and aesthetic act. According to her, the ideology of the author will mould and determine the organization of the literary discourse. Lanser's context-bound theory intends to underline the relationship between "the method of narration" and "the basic attitude of the author" (1981: 18). She understands the author as "a textually encoded, historically authoritative voice kin to but not identical with the biographical person who wrote the text" (1981: 153). Her definition clearly evokes the figure of the "implied author" as an image of the (real) author constructed by the text and perceived as such by the reader (Booth 1961, Bal 1981, Chatman 1990).

If literature is to be understood as a communicative exchange between writer and reader, the articulation of point of view in narrative will certainly benefit from an elaborate study of the relationship between (implied) author and narrator. Lanser distinguishes three categories operating in the structuring of point of view in discourse: status, the relationship between narrator and speech act; contact, the relationship between narrator and audience; and stance, the narrator's relation to the discourse content or 'message' or narrated world (1981). The goal of this article is to provide the student with the necessary tools to deeply explore the interrelation between form and meaning through the study of "the relationship between the narrator's personality and values and a 'culture text' or set of social and cultural norms against which literary discourse is conventionally read" (1981: 184). Accordingly, I will focus on stance in order to disclose the narrator's system of values and attitudes toward the world portrayed in "That Tree".

3. Stance in Katherine Anne Porter's "That Tree"

Lanser distinguishes four different planes on which stance operates: phraseological, spatial-temporal, psychological and ideological. She states that although the psychological and ideological planes are the most significant, they need to be structured and communicated through the phraseological and spatial-temporal (1981: 184). The particular choices made by the author in these two planes will obviously determine the narrator's psychological and ideological distance from or affinity to each character and event represented in the text. In order to explore the ideological and cultural framework that govern the narrator's relationship with his fictional world, and notwithstanding the artificiality of such a process, a separate analysis of the four different planes is suggested for methodological purposes.

3.1. The phraseological plane

The analysis of the phraseological plane "allows us to distinguish the various voices within the text and various modes by which textual personae may 'speak'" (Lanser 1981: 185). Lanser proposes a spectrum of phraseological possibilities ranging from purely narrative discourse--the discourse of the narrator from his/her own perspective and in his/her own voice--to the direct discourse of the characters (1981: 187). In order to help our students reflect upon the relationship between form and meaning, I suggest the following tasks:

1. Make students focus on the opening sentences of "That Tree"--since they seemingly forebode the figure of an apparently external narrator adopting an ironic distance from the main character--and make them reflect upon the use of deictics.

2. Make them work on the different mechanisms through which the narrator's discourse skilfully manages to arouse sympathy for the protagonist. They could concentrate on:

a. the image of the artist provided by the narrator

b. the role of the prolepsis

3. Make them reflect upon the author's choice of a technique very close to a monologue recorded in a third-person form in order to bolster the polyphony of narrative voices which emphasize the apparently ideological ambiguity of the short story. They should be able to relate this to the dialogic nature of Free Indirect Discourse and see how the alignment of both the narrator's and the character's voices evidently accounts for all the skillful devices employed by the former to arouse tenderness towards the latter and hatred towards Miriam, the woman who questions the former's way of life and value system.

3.2. The spatial-temporal plane

The analysis of the spatial-temporal stance discloses the narrator's position with regard to characters and events. Firstly, in "That Tree" the narrator's spatial perspective concurs with the journalist's spatial frame reinforcing the voice alignment mentioned above. Students should explore the presence of directional expressions and the use of certain ordination markers in order to explore the narrator's spatial proximity to and his psychological involvement with the circumstances depicted in the short story. Secondly, according to Lanser, temporal stance encompasses both the pace of the narration and the temporal distance between the moment of telling and the moment when the narrated events take place (1981: 198).

1. Make students study narrative pacing -i.e. mimesis vs. diegesis--since "the structuring of 'plot' is also a structuring of attitude" (Lanser 1981: 201).

2. With regard to temporal distance, make students realize that the short story exhibits the subsequent view, the classical past-tense narrative, that is, the degree zero for novelistic temporal ordination (Genette 1980: 217). At the same time, make them explore the relationship between focalization and ironic distance since the use of the former permits to present the story from the aloofness that a long strech of time provides and that permits relatively objective judgements over one's own actions.

3.3. The psychological plane

The psychological stance "encompasses the broad question of the narrator's distance or affinity to each character and event [...] represented in the text" (Lanser 1981: 202). Notwithstanding Porter's formal choice of a technique very close to a monologue recorded in the third-person, which calls for the alignment between character and narrative voice, certain issues permit to question such an affinity. Lanser's poetics provides the necessary theoretical framework to study this question. In order to evaluate the narrator's psychological stance make students reflect upon:

1. the quantity of the information conveyed to describe a character or event: comparison between the amount of text devoted to describe the journalist's and the amount of text devoted to depict Miriam's personality

2. the subjectivity or objectivity of such information: how the narrator's use of value-laden lexis provides an image not only of the object described but also of the "describer", i.e. seemingly objective information about the journalist's wife adds new dimensions to our perception of the husband's psychological stance

3. the internal or external vision through which those textual persona are seen: use of focalization, a narrative mode which emphasizes the narrator's proximity to the character-focalizer and which distinctly accounts for the psychological function of foregrounding one character's feelings and emotions and limiting our perceptions of the fictional world to those of his cognitive system (Genette 1980, 1988, Bal 1991, Phelan 1995, Jahn 1996, Peer 2001)

4. the depth of vision by means of which both individuals are portrayed

3.4. The ideological plane

The polyphony of textual voices in Porter's short story is the formal refractor of an attitudinal and ideological polyphony. In a contextual framework in which ambiguity seems to be the dominant force, the narrator's and the journalist's together with Miriam's voice struggle to orchestrate the author's conflicting views with regard to American and Mexican values and the respective national conceptions about politics, art, sex, and personal relationships. William Nance speaks of the narrator and his estranged wife "as a composite character embodying opposing forces within the author" (1964: 7). By focusing on this particular twofold contrast, Nance suggests the discontinuous alignment of the narrator with only two different textual voices--the journalist's and his wife's- and obviates the antagonistic outlook present in the former's chronicling of events. The journalist's ideology presents what can be initially considered as a series of internal contradictions promptly solved by resorting to the necessary distinction between the younger and the older journalist's ideological position that the study of the phraseological, spatial-temporal and psychological stances encourages.

1. Make students concentrate on the analysis of the dialogic confrontation between: the younger journalist's romanticized view of Mexico as the ideal place to cultivate one's artistic personality and the older journalist's sceptical vision toward his younger self's artistic beliefs

2. Once the apparent contradictions in the journalist's discourse have been solved, students should revert to Nance's consideration of the American couple as the embodiment of the author's ideological dualism. In order to undertake such a task, the following aspects should be taken into consideration:

i. How the expression of ideology is sometimes implicitly embedded in a deep discourse level through value-laden lexis: I would suggest a detailed analysis of the cafe episode. This scene ostensibly emphasizes the irreconcilable ideological distance between the journalist and his wife. Moreover, it serves as a vehicle for the collision between the former's acculturation and assimilation of Mexican customs and ethics and Miriam's defence and preservation of her own social and cultural values.

ii. How 'content' relates to the culture text:

a. Make students elaborate on Miriam and the journalist as pivotal embodiment of the two poles of a conflict which opposes American heritage and the Puritan tradition and Mexican artistry and social transgression.

b. Make students work on the ideological clash between the journalist and his wife as a metaphorical incarnation of the former's internal struggle between his American roots and education and his irrational desires to become an artist disengaged from society and responsibilities.

iii. How the position of power and authority is held by the particular voice.

Make students reflect upon the following aspects:

a. At the end of the story, can we speak of a "triumph" of American heritage over Mexican culture? Reason on the word "triumph" in the light of the following interpretation of the story: "'That Tree' is the story of the failure of a man and a woman to live up to their own standards and to honour their ideals. While the journalist surrenders to social requirements by overlooking his romantic perspectives as an artist, Miriam yields to traditional conventions of woman and marriage in society by renouncing her dignity as an individual".

b. Free Indirect Speech can be employed for several purposes. Make students consider the alignment of the narrator's and the protagonist's voices firstly as an iconic representation of a clashing of dissenting voices and secondly as a vehicle of irony to expose the implied author's disapproval of the journalist's ideological stance.

Lanser's theoretical core provides a most adequate and valuable framework for the bolstering of the deeper layers of significance hidden under Porter's elaborate articulation of narrator, characters and events. As we have seen, the phraseological, spatial-temporal, psychological and ideological stances juxtapose to implement similar perceptions and reinforce the textual ideology. Although the polyphony of voices seems to iconically represent the conflicting views of the implied author's position and underscore the ambiguity of the text's final exegesis, the ironic distance between implied author and focalizer finally obliterates any trace of ambiguity and bolsters a disapproving reading of both protagonists' ideological position.


Bal, M. 1981. "Notes on Narrative Embedding". Poetics Today 2: 41-59.

--.1991. On Story-Telling. Essays in Narratology. Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press.

Booth, W. 1961. "Distance and Point of View". Essays in Criticism 11: 60-79.

Carter, R. & Nash, W. 1990. Seeing through Language. A Guide to Styles of English Writing. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Chatman, S. 1990. Coming to Terms. The Rhetoric of Narrative and Film. New York: Cornell University Press.

Genette, G. 1980 (1972 in French). Narrative Discourse. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

--1988 (1983 in French). Narrative Discourse Revisited. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Goode, J. 1976. "Women and the Literary Text", The Rights and Wrongs of Women. Mitchell, J. and A. Oakley (eds.). Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Hendrick, G. 1965. Katherine Anne Porter. New York: Twayne Publishers.

Jahn, M. 1996. "Windows of Focalization: Deconstructing and Reconstructing a Narratological Concept". Style 30: 241-67.

Lanser, S. S. 1981. The Narrative Act. Point of View in Prose Fiction. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

--.1992. Fictions of Authority. Women Writers and Narrative Voice. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Martin, W. 1986. Recent Theories of Narrative. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Nance, W. 1964. Katherine Anne Porter & the Art of Rejection. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Peer, W. van & S. Chatman (eds.). 2001. "Introduction". New Perspectives on Narrative Perspectives. New York: State University of New York: 1-17.

Phelan, J. 1995. "Why Narrators Can Be Focalizers--and Why It Matters". In Peer, W. van & S. Chatman (eds.). 2001. New Perspectives on Narrative Perspectives. New York: State University of New York: 51-64.

--.1996. Narrative as Rhetoric: Technique, Audiences, Ethics, Ideology. Columbus: Ohio State University.

Porter, K. A. 1934. "That Tree". Flowering Judas and Other Stories. In Collected Stories (1985) (1964). London: Virago.

Elena Ortells Monton, University Jaume I of Castello, Spain

Dr. Elena Ortells Monton teaches English Rhetoric and Poetics. She published books and articles on American literature and the relevance of rhetoric for the analysis of literary discourse.
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Author:Monton, Elena Ortells
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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