An Objective Analysis of Literature via Stylistics: Worthwhile or impossible?

According to Donald Freeman, a frequent writer on the topic of stylistic literary criticism, “the only way to do stylistics is to do stylistics” (Macleod 1). This idea of an active approach to literary criticism is useful to test any theory on criticism, as an individual can hardly pass a judgment about the practicality or effectiveness of a literary school without first actually attempting to apply it him or herself. Furthermore, the analysis of a theory can only be so thorough if an individual does not recognize, as well as prepare for, the limits of its usage. In the case of stylistics, the main focus is to attempt an objective analysis on a piece of writing. The goal of this is to make a branch of literary criticism that can be used by people outside of literary critics in a manner that allows nearly everyone to arrive at a similar conclusion about a work. This idea has the potential to be successful, but sometimes the unclear and ever-changing definition of stylistics can make it difficult to determine who is “qualified” or has the background knowledge to make a stylistic analysis of a piece of literature. Unsurprisingly, the conflicting views on how exactly stylistics should be used within literary criticism allow for a slightly fluid critique on the theory of the criticism itself. However, no matter how a critic may choose to utilize stylistics, he or she will be able to evaluate both its potential practical usage, as well as its limitations.

As described by Norman Macleod, a professor in the Linguistics and English Literature department at the University of Edinburgh, the main idea behind the usage of stylistics is to formulate a subjective criticism of a work, which is done by focusing on the indisputable or verifiable facts of a text . These said “facts” are various grammatical structures such as word choice, punctuation usage, or repetition that an individual reading the text cannot disagree with (17). The hope is that this will allow readers of all types to arrive at similar conclusions about a text. This also aims for a more scientific interpretation of a text by combining two legitimate fields of science, linguistics and psychology, to support the analyses pulled from the text. Additionally, as described by Ahmad K. Ardat, associate professor of the Department at English at King Saud University, states that the elimination of “emotional impressions and reactions” to a text offers up an unmatched “accuracy in the study of style,” arguing that a stylistic analysis offers up the most easily proven and supported interpretation of a specific work (2).

On the other hand, many might argue that this objective view on literature can be too cold, and therefore eliminates or hides deeper meanings that a text might have. One might argue that a stylistic analysis is too “formalist” (which essentially sees the text as nothing more than a text, without regard to historical or biographical context) and that the lack of acceptance of external context in an interpretation makes a stylistician unable to account for the various, subjective responses of readers to texts (A Brief History of Stylistics Lancaster University). This then raises the question of whether or not it is possible for an individual to ever completely remove all personal biases and opinions during his or her analysis of a writing. The likelihood of this is very slim, as described by Dan McIntyre, a professor of English language and linguistics at the University of Huddersfield, a reader is essentially pre-conditioned or pre-disposed to think or interpret a piece of writing a certain way due to his or her environment or past experiences. Furthermore, he argues that an analysis made without any regard to how humans operate outside of literature makes it very difficult to relate a stylistic analysis to reality, as in reality emotions are huge part of what makes up human nature (398). Continuing on with this idea, Michael Burke, an associate professor of Rhetoric and Stylistics at Roosevelt University, argues that an analysis of literature which disregards emotion essentially takes away enjoyment of reading as an individual reader can no longer formulate his or her own analyses in a way that can apply to his or her very own life (79).

Along with the idea of stylistics not being relatable to real life, it is also a type of analysis that remains impractical for many to use. The main problem lies with the manner in which a person doing a stylistic analysis actually explains that which he or she has discovered about the text. The assumption that each individual has adequate background knowledge of grammatical terms and structures so that he or she may explain a particular characteristic in the text, as a stylistician would, is not a fair one. A typical reader can often identify certain grammatical features and explain how they affect them within a text, but may not be able to describe them specifically in the terms that a stylistician may require. After all, an average reader, outside of an English major or the like, is unlikely to be familiar with terms such as “under-lexicalisation” or “collocation,” which are words used to describe features of a text that would probably be normal in the vocabulary of a stylistician (Barry 202). Therefore, such specialized terms are obviously very useful for stylisticians to discuss the features of a text amongst themselves, but become impractical when other individuals try to share these discussions on the same level.

Another feature of stylistics that can potentially make it difficult for an everyday person to participate in is that the definition of what exactly stylistics is has yet to be completely determined. As McIntyre explains, stricter, more formalist systems of stylistics will advocate for the dismissal of interpretative evidence that may lie outside of the text, looking to first identify grammatical features and then evaluate how they work together to provide a certain impact on the reader of the text. New branches, however, may believe that it is not practical to aim for a completely objective analysis and instead try to do this process backwards. They may try first to focus on how the text makes them as a reader feel, and then look to the grammatical structures to support why this is the case (397).

Although there may not be an agreement on the exact procedure of a stylistic analysis, the usage of this type of criticism to evaluate different types of writing outside of standard literature proves to be very useful. According to Norman Macleod, a professor at the University of Edinburgh, these writings can include things such as poems (which can separate into particular stanzas to evoke feelings of alienation, unease, or anxiety from the reader), news article (which can use repetition or particular words to influence a viewer to feel a certain way), or even advertisements (which may use a certain word order to emphasize certain things and persuade potential consumers) (10). Unlike very strict schools of stylistics, the examples above feature a mixture of both an objective (the actual, visible feature of the text) and subjective (how readers interpret the text) analysis. In this way, a stylistic interpretation of the text may not focus much on the author as an actual individual within his or her own biological or historical context, but instead focus on the author as somewhat of an artist, implying that the author purposely placed each grammatical feature within the text for a reason. This idea therefore places the significance of the purpose of the author above that of the interpretation of the reader. In the words of Mcleod the author is given credit as not just the “poet” and the “technician” of a work, but also as the “interpreter” (3) as he or she expects the reader to arrive at a particular conclusion about the text because the author has constructed the text to have this particular impact.

Oddly enough, although the primary goal of stylistics is to focus on objective analyses, the definition of stylistics itself tends to be rather subjective. This subjectivity occurs when the desire to be completely objective clashes with the practicality and near impossibility to do so. However, this field of criticism is able to construct a much more objective analysis than most other fields of criticism and can therefore offer up conclusions about a text that can be backed by hard evidence, as well as ones that focus or describe features of the text that differ from other types of criticism. As with anything that differs from the norm, stylistics has both its advocates and its critics that are separated by their ideas about what the most important feature of a text should be described in an analysis. These two groups also demonstrate that a stylistic analysis can be advantageous, but also has its limitations, which is absolutely the truth in regard to all types of literary criticisms.

Works Cited

“A Brief History of Stylistics.” Ling 131: Language and Style. Lancaster University Department of Linguistics and English. Web. 9 Dec. 2011. <>.

Ardat, Ahmad K. “Stylostatistics: Pros and Cons in Theory and Application.” J. Coll. Arts King Saud University 13.2 (1986): 95-108. Http:// J. Coll. Arts King Saud University, 1986. Web. 9 Dec. 2011.

Barry, Peter. “Stylistics.” Beginning Theory an Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Ed. Helen Carr. 3rd ed. New York: Manchester UP, 2009. 197-212. Print

Burke, Michael. “Rhetorical Pedagogy: Teaching Students to Write A Stylistics Paper.” Language & Literature 19.1 (2010): 77-98. Academic Search Premier. Web. 6 Dec. 2011.

Macleod, Norman. “Stylistics And The Analysis Of Poetry – A Credo And An Example.” Journal of Literary Semantics 38.2 (2009): 131-149. Academic Search Premier. Web. 10 Dec. 2011.

McIntyre, Dan. “The Year’s Work in Stylistics 2009.” Language & Literature 19.4 (2010): 396-411. Academic Search Premier. Web. 12 Dec. 2011.

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