Transitivity and Transformation: Characterisation in The Double Hook (research digest)


Reading time: 7 minutes

The Double Hook (1959) is a novel by the Canadian writer Sheila Watson that centres on the lives of a group of characters in a small community in British Columbia. One of the characters, James leaves the town after killing his mother and becomes an isolated, peripheral figure. He later begins a journey home that ends in his reintegration back into the town. Literary critics generally view this return as a kind of personal redemption and as a celebration of the spiritual rebirth of both James and his community.

Yinglin Ji and Dan Shen analyse the shifting characterisation of James throughout the novel by drawing on Michael Halliday’s system of transitivity. Halliday’s model (from his systemic functional grammar) accounts for how different processes (verbs), participants in those processes (usually nouns) and circumstances of those processes (usually adverbs or prepositional phrases) are used by writers and speakers to represent their version of the world. The model is fairly complex and only a quick sketch is provided below.

Process types

Material = doing, happening

e.g. He kicked the ball

Behavioural = physiological or psychological behaviour

e.g. He breathes; she smiles

Relational = having or being

e.g. John has a piano; The car is red

Existential = existing

e.g. There is a dog

Mental = sensing, feeling and thinking

e.g. I saw the car; I like football; I believe in ghosts

Verbal = saying, telling

e.g. I shouted; I told her a story

Within a clause, participants may be attached to material processes either as agents (doing things to other participants), or as goals (having things done to them), and to other processes as entities in the various acts, states and events that the verbs depict. Circumstances function to give more information about a process, such as its manner, location and reason. So a description of a whole clause would be as follows:

The police                        caught                 the suspects             last week

participant (agent), material process, participant (goal), circumstance

Transitivity in literature is often explored in terms of patterns. Ji and Shen use this model to map out how Watson presents James’s character across the novel. They begin by summarising existing literary criticism that suggests that James’s return to his community symbolises rebirth and regeneration, and then argue that this can be shown by looking at the changes in transitivity patterns across various points in the novel. They emphasise that their analysis isn’t just about presenting the mind style of a character (see our previous digest on deixis for examples of this) but rather shows how psychological changes are foregrounded. They argue that these changes are important in our overall understanding of the novel.

To do this, Ji and Shen look at the representation of James and his actions in three chapters that show stages of his journey back to his community. They start by focusing on Chapter 8. In this chapter, they show that James is largely represented as passive with very few material processes used in which he is the agent. Indeed, Ji and Shen show that, unusually, James’s horse is given the agent’s role in many of the clauses. In contrast, James is represented through mental processes, which highlight his internal rather than his external behaviours. Interestingly, Ji and Shen also point out that, at this stage in the novel, even the mental processes tend to be ones related to perceptions and feelings (such as hearing and feeling) rather than those which are more active (such as states of knowing and believing). They argue that much of James’s psychological activity is focused on simply responding to his immediate environment, which demonstrates his inability to transcend his physical situation.

This pattern changes in Chapter 13 where James is now shown to be able to think beyond his immediate environment and engage in self-reflection. Here, Ji and Shen demonstrate that James now acts as an agentive participant at the head of material processes much more frequently. This highlights his ability to exert a physical influence over other entities in the fictional world. Furthermore, there is a pattern of more active mental processes, with James now represented as a thinker rather than a merely a feeler of sensations. Ji and Shen argue that the pattern of processes in this chapter demonstrates the mental transformation that James has undergone at this point in the novel; he is now self-reflective and self-conscious. To this end, James emerges as physically and mentally ready to return to his community.

Finally, Ji and Shen focus on Chapter 18, where James returns to his community, begins to rebuild his past and reclaims his position as an integral member of the town. In this chapter, James is now almost exclusively represented by Watson through the use of material processes that show strong action and volition. The range of process types also increases with Watson representing James and his state of being through existential processes which highlight his re-established position in the community, and through verbal processes which convey his authority and ability to express his point of view to others. Furthermore, Ji and Shen show how the representation of James and his horse in the clauses in this chapter highlight James’s transformation from a passive to an active character. In this chapter, his horse is now usually the goal in a material process, with James restored to the agent in the clauses.

Overall then, Ji and Shen seek to show that a transitivity analysis can account for Watson’s characterisation in transforming James from passivity and isolation to activity and integration back into the community. The authors argue that such an analysis can show the ‘geography of James’s mind’ and help both to support existing literary-critical responses to the novel and to provide some fresh analytical insights.

This is a digest of the following article: Ji, Yinglin and Shen, D. (2004) ‘Transitivity and mental transformation: Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook’, Language and Literature 3(4), 335-348.

Using this in teaching and learning

 You can use this research digest to support your teaching of AQA’s AS and A-level English Language and Literature specifications in the following ways.

1.Analysing characterisation in terms of transitivity patterns would be a good way of exploring individual characters in prose fiction (Imagined worlds, A level; Views and voices, AS level). Students could look at selected extracts focusing on key characters in their set novel and highlight the main processes that are used to represent them.

  • To what extent do these patterns map onto ways in which the characters generally function in the novel and the ways in which they are viewed by others?
  • Students could also follow Ji and Shen in tracing an individual character across various points in the novel. Are there different representations during key scenes? Can the mental or physical transformation of a character be explained using a similar approach to Ji and Shen?

These kinds of exercises could also be undertaken with texts being studied for the NEA (Making Connections, A level) and could inform an interesting investigation on characterisation either as a concept or as part of a wider thematic study.

2.Looking at transitivity patterns could also support a more extensive study of characterisation in students’ chosen set texts. For example, students could explore how representation at the level of the clause combines with other ways of presenting characters (speech and thought, physical description, body language and so on). They could think about how characters are developed in the novel and in the poems they are studying (Poetic voices, A level; Views and voices, AS level; Imagined worlds, A level), and find and comment on the connections between transitivity patterns and other ways that writers presents fictional entities.

3.The distribution of material processes (actions) and relational/existential processes (states of being/description) can also be explored through the lens of genre. When working with material for their NEA (Making Connections, A level), students could think about how certain texts (or parts of them) focus on providing either actions or description and how they might account for these by relating these to generic conventions. For example, how are events in crime thrillers told? Is there an equal distribution of processes at key moments (e.g. murders, discovery of bodies)? Do different writers have a noticeable style in terms of how they typically choose to present such events?

4.Equally, students could explore transitivity patterns in non-literary material/genres, drawing on the Paris Anthology (Imagined worlds, A level; People and places, AS level) and more widely, again to support their selection and analysis of non-literary material for NEA (Making Connections, A level). Some genres (e.g. recipes) might typically make use of one kind of process more often than another but can students find more complex examples? And, do other factors such as audience, purpose and mode influence the ways in which writers and speakers might want to represent actions, people, states and events? This provides a useful way into exploring the concept of representation more broadly and will support students across the entire specification.

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