Examining readers' reactions to difficult narratives: a psycho-stylistic approach to Virginia Woolf's use of free indirect style

Grisot, Giulia (2020) Examining readers' reactions to difficult narratives: a psycho-stylistic approach to Virginia Woolf's use of free indirect style. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

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This thesis aims to explore the processes that readers engage in when they encounter difficulties in literary texts and to add scientific value to existing theoretical assumptions about difficult literature, combining stylistic analyses with psycholinguistic research methods.

The research focuses on complex techniques of speech, thought and consciousness presentation, using offline surveys and eye tracking to examine the mechanisms by which readers understand and process them. Approaches combining stylistic analyses, cognitive linguistics and psycholinguistic research methods are rare, and previous work has focused almost exclusively on poetry. My work sets to address this gap in understanding how readers respond to and process complex narratives.

This research focuses on Virginia Woolf's most popular novels: To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway. These are generally considered to be difficult by literary critics, and are believed to represent a challenge for readers, especially because of her experimental use of techniques of speech, thought and consciousness presentation. Using an innovative mixed methods approach, I analysed Woolf's two novels and isolated eight extracts that contain potential difficulties related to the use of these techniques, in particular ambiguous shifts between perspectives and between different modes of speech and thought presentation. First, a questionnaire was used to verify whether these passages are indeed perceived as difficult by readers, and whether that perception is caused by the hypothesised features. Participants gave the original extracts significantly higher difficulty ratings than modified versions, which had been simplified by removing or altering hypothesised difficulties. When asked to attribute perspectives to the texts, they attributed significantly more perspectives to the original extracts in comparison to the modified ones, suggesting they experienced more difficulty in the comprehension of the original extracts.

This approach provided a strong foundation to more precisely investigate how difficulties impact reading through the use of eye tracking. Eye tracking allows for natural reading and provides a metric of processing effort, whilst indicating where readers are attending when they encounter difficulties or whether they reread passages to make sense of new information. However, almost no literature exists on the application of eye tracking to narrative texts. The existing literature on reading, mostly of sentences in isolation, suggests that when faced with a difficulty in comprehension, readers typically produce more and longer Fixations, more Regressions and longer Total Reading Time. Some results were consistent with these typical patterns but others were not. Some extracts did not elicit consistent behaviours in all readers; some readers demonstrated longer and more fixations and a higher skipping rate for the modified texts compared to the (more complex) original passages. Closer examination of two extracts, which repeatedly showed inconsistent reading behaviours, did not highlight any specific pattern or feature which could explain these differences in readers' behaviour. Notably, words which are often skipped during reading – function words, pronouns, conjunctions, short verbs – seem to play an important role in the processing of Woolf's texts. These results raise several questions in relation to the nature of the difficulty reported by readers of Woolf's novels, and provide a sound basis for future research in literary understanding, and, hopefully, an inspiration for future eye tracking studies in re-evaluating the role and effects of difficulty in the processing of authentic literary texts.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Supervisors: Conklin, Kathy
Sotirova, Violeta
Keywords: Empirical study of literature, Virginia Woolf, Reader response, Stylistics, Free indirect style, Perspectives, Points of view, Eye tracking, Eye movements, Questionnaire, Difficulty
Subjects: P Language and literature > PR English literature
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Arts > School of English
Item ID: 60542
Depositing User: Grisot, Giulia
Date Deposited: 21 Oct 2020 11:09
Last Modified: 01 Apr 2022 04:30
URI: https://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/id/eprint/60542

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