Critical Inquiry 4 (2):351-371 (1977)

What is The Awkward Age about? It is not easy to answer that apparently simple question. But the reader can take consolation from the fact that the characters themselves seem to have just as much trouble understanding as he does. Actually, a large proportion of the words exchanged in this novel—a novel made up, moreover, almost exclusively of conversations—consists of requests for explanation. These questions may touch upon different aspects of discourse and reveal various reasons for obscurity. The first, the simplest and the rarest, is an uncertainty about the very meaning of words; it is like the uncertainty a foreigner would naturally feel whose knowledge of the language was imperfect: the questions here are matters of vocabulary. In The Awkward Age there are no foreigners who speak bad English, but one of the characters, Mr. Longdon, has for a long time lived far from London; now that he has come back, he has the feeling that he no longer understands the meaning of words, and, in the course of his first conversations at least, he often asks questions like: "What do you mean by early?" "What do you mean by the strain?"1 These questions, innocent as they appear, nevertheless require those to whom they are addressed both to explain and to take full responsibility for the meaning of the words—that is why the questions sometimes provoke lively refusals. "What do you mean by fast?" Mr. Longdon asks again, but the response of the Duchess is cutting: "What should I mean but what I say?" . We shall see, however, that the Duchess' own niece is a victim of the same disorder—not understanding the meaning of words. · 1. P. 43. References are to the Penguin Modern Classics edition . All further references will appear in the text. Tzvetan Todorov has written numerous books on literary theory, the last of which is Théories du symbole , and has translated the works of the Russian Formalists into French. Two of his books have been translated into English, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre and Poetics of Prose. He is editor of the journal Poétique and works as Maître de recherche at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris. "The Last Barthes" appeared in the Spring 1981 issue of Critical Inquiry
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