James Hogg, "Basil Lee" and the Pragmatics of Highland Masculinity

Article excerpt


By considering the picaresque figure of Basil Lee in Winter Evening Tales (1820) this paper will illustrate how Scottish writer James Hogg (1770-1835) deconstructs the mystique of Highland masculinity which, in early-nineteenth century Britain, so greatly contributed to both the shaping of Scottish national identity and to the virilisation of the more feminised commercial England, the centre of the British Empire. Integrating Bakhtin's (1981) carnivalesque dialogics with a more socially dynamic literary pragmatics (Sell, 1991, 2000; Mey, 2000), the paper will view the processes of writing and reading as phenomena ruled by communicative principles. The focus will be on the interface between author, text, and readers, hence recognising that literary texts are "inherently dialogic" (Sell, 2000, p. 20). The relation between Hogg's strategic use of linguistic features, cultural tropes, and literary motifs, and the historical influence on Hogg's writing and reception of Basil Lee, will show why and how Hogg's parody of Highland masculinity challenged the stability of early-nineteenth-century British discourse.

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), a committed supporter of the union between Scotland and England, played an important role in developing the romantic idea of Highland Scotland. In his Waverley novels, he recreated the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion--a moment of turbulence in Scottish history--as heroic romance in a mythical past, highlighting only those militaristic Highland qualities such as courage and unconditional loyalty to the clan chief which could be channelled into the service of the British army for imperial expansion. James Hogg, Scott's contemporary, who represented an alternative, non-elite cultural perspective, parodied the masculine stereotype of the Highland soldier in his writing, revealing the exploitation of working-class young men, who died in the name of the British Empire. Drawing on literary pragmatics, this paper will show how Hogg conveys this critique.

Some modern critics are concerned about using literary pragmatics because writing and reading are non-simultaneous processes. Since the author cannot enjoy immediate feed-back from the reader, as in a real conversation, it is hard to provide empirical evidence of how a reader may perceive the linguistic features of a text. Ernest W.B. Hess-Luttich (1991), however, argues that although literary dialogics is different from everyday communication, writer and readers follow the same basic rules of a real interaction, and literary texts risk the same ruptures and breakdowns involved in a conversation. In Literature as Communication (2000) Roger D. Sell quotes Richard Watts (1989) as being "perhaps the first scholar to point out that readers, despite the superficial asymmetry of the situation, can refuse to grant the writer a turn. They can leave a book unread" (Sell, 2000, p. 80). Interestingly, James Hogg in one of his Lay Sermons dedicated to "Reviewers" claimed: "Sit down to your book as you would to conversation [...] and read to be pleased [...] if he [the author] should fail in those particular points which are suited to your fancy, it is an easy matter to take leave of him" (Hogg, 1997 [1834], p. 104).

Also, according to the pragmatics of communication both hearers' and readers' interpretation is always inferential, that is, a matter of hypothesis which can never be taken as certain. Christine Christie (2000), for instance, argues that only when interlocutors share a great amount of knowledge are "the meanings the hearers infer [...] likely to approximate those the speaker was attempting to convey" (Christie, 2000, p. 69). On this point, Nils Erik Enkvist (1991) observes that inference may indeed become an endless process which needs to be restrained by Sperber and Wilson's (1986) principle of relevance, in order to avoid unnecessary information congesting the text; namely, readers infer what is relevant to textual interpretation, stopping the process of semiosis when unnecessary to its comprehension. …


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