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Foregrounding, the key concept in Stylistics and

its Applications
What literature is, how it works, and why it is there at all, are some of the
fascinating questic that the theory of ’foregrounding’ tries to provide answers
to. The term refers to specific linguis devices, i.e., deviation and parallelism,
that are used in literary texts in a functional and condens way. These devices
enhance the meaning potential of the text, while also providing the reader w
the possibility of aesthetic experience. According to the theory of
foregrounding, Literature employing unusual forms of language - breaks up
the reader’s routine behavior: commonplace viei and perspectives are
replaced by new and surprising insights and sensations. In this way literatu
keeps or makes individuals aware of- their automatized actions and
preconceptions. It thi contributes to general creativity and development in
societies. The theory of foregrounding is al; one of Jibe few literary theories
which has been testeJ empirically for its validity.

Foregrounding: The Term

The term ’foregrounding’ may be used in a purely Linguistic sense. It then

refers to n& information, in contrast to elements in the sentence which form
the background against which th> new elements are to be understood by the
listener/reader. From this point of view the term bear resemblance to other
(pairs of) concepts in linguistics, such as theme/rheme, given/new
frame/insert, and subject/predicate.

In what follows, the term will aofbe used in this narrow linguistic sense, but as
situated in the wider area of stylistics, text linguistics, and literary studies.
There the term originates with Garvin, who introduced it as a translation of
the Czech aktualisace, a term common with the Prague Structuralists,
especially Jan Mukarovsky, who employs it in the sense of the English
’actualization.’ This suggests a temporal category: to make something actual
(rather than virtual). Garvin’s translation has rendered this temporal
metaphor into a spatial one: that of a foreground and a background. This
allows the term to be related to issues in perception psychology, such as
figure/ground constellations. It remains uncertain, however, whether this
corresponds to what the Prague scholars had in mind.

The English term ’foregrounding’ has come to mean several things at once.
First of all it is used to indicate the (psycholinguistic) processes by which -
during the reading act - something may be given special prominence.
Second, it may refer to specific devices (as produced by the author) located
in the text itself. It is also employed to indicate the specific poetic effect on
the reader. Furthermore, it may be used as an analytic category in order to
evaluate literary texts, or to situate them historically, or to explain their
importance and cultural significance. Finally, it is also wielded in order to
differentiate literature from other varieties of language use, such as everyday
conversations or scientific reports. Thifs the term covers a wide area of
meaning. This may have its advantages, but may also be problematic: which
of the above meanings is intended must often be deduced from the context
in which the term is used.



Devices of Foregrounding

Outside literature, so the assumption goes, language tends to be

automatized; its structures and meanings are used routinely. Within literature,
however, this is opposed by devices which thwart the automatism with which
language is read, processed, or understood. Generally, two such devices may
be distinguished, those of deviation and of parallelism. Deviation corresponds
to the traditional idea of poetic license: the writer of literature is allowed - in
contrast to the everyday speaker - to deviate from rules, maxims, or
conventions. These may involve the language, as well as literary traditions or
expectations set up by the text itself. The result is some degree ’of surprise in
the reader, and his/her attention is thereby drawn to the form of the text
itself (rather than to its content). Cases of neologism, live metaphor, or
ungrammatical sentences, as well as archaisms, paradox, ana oxymoron (the
traditional tropes) are clear examples of deviation.

Devices of parallelism are characterized by repetitive structures: (part of) a

verbal configuration is repeated (or contrasted), thereby being promoted into
the foreground of the reader’s perception. Traditional handbooks of poetics
and rhetoric^have surveyed and described (under the category of figures of
speech) a wide variety of such forms of parallelism, e.g., rhyme, assonance,
alliteration, meter, semantic symmetry, or antistrophe.

Historical Background

It should be noted that, although formulated in this ’way by the Prague

Structuralists, the concept of foregrounding is not their own invention. In fact
it was itself a further historical development of ideas generated by the
Russian Formalists, most notably those connected with the device of
estrangement (Russian prim ostranenije), as proposed by Viktor Shklovsky.
According to Shklovsky, the purpose of art is to make objects unfamiliar, .so
that a renewed perception of them creates a fresh awareness in the beholder,
beyond the stale routines of automatized schemes. Thus for Shklovsky (and
his fellow Formalists) the devices used by writers are not merely there for
ornamental reasons - they serve specific functions. Hence the concept of
foregrounding is also a theoretical one, which was later exported to the West
by such scholars as Roman Jakobson, Felix Vodicka, and Rene Wellek, The
theory was further refined in British stylistics, most notably by Geoffrey
Although in its present form the theory of foregrounding has been put forward
most clearly in the twentieth century, its roots can be traced back to
Aristotle’s Poetics (335 BC). Time and again, Aristotle emphasizes the fact
that the literary text is made according to specific rules, and in this process,
devices of deviation and parallelism play an important role. In Chapter 22, for
instance, he states that the diction of the literary work must be
’distinguished,’ and that this effect is arrived at through the use of unfamiliar
terms, metaphor, strange words, or lengthened forms. Through the influence
of Aristotle’s work from the Renaissance onward, this view of literature has
gained a wide dissemination in Western culture. The theory of foregrounding
can be seen as a more precise and more systematic elaboration of these

Descriptive Power of the Theory

The question should be asked whether foregrounding devices are universal.

Few authors are explicit on this point, though in general the assumption
seems to be that the answer should be positive. The presumed ubiquitous
nature of foregrounding devices should not be taken in the sense :iat they all
occur in literature all the time, but rather that various forms of parallelism
and/or .eviation do seem to form an integral part of the literatures of all
known languages, cultures, and, .istorical periods. If that is so, then the
concept is a useful tool for analyzing and studying literature, • oth in the case
of individual texts and in general.


This raises the issue of whether it is only a tool in the hands of the analyst, or
whether processes of foregrounding also play a role in the mind of the reader.
On the basis of empirical tests, it has been shown that the latter is the case.
In a series of reading experiments it proved to be possible - on the basis of
the theory of foregrounding - to predict responses of readers to a number of
texts. And this was the case regardless of readers’ background or training.
Research confirmed that readers’ attention is drawn by deviations , that
these deviations cause readers to process the text more slowly that they
cause an increase in affective responses to the text , that they enhance
aesthetic appreciation, and change readers’ perception of the world outside
the literary text. There are still several questions that remain to be answered.
For example, when readers focus on the way a text is written rather than on
its content, would this be a matter of convention or purely an effect that can
be attributed to text properties? In other words, do readers process more
carefully because they think literary texts are supposed to be read more
carefully, or are they somehow forced by the text? Some research shows the
influence of convention. Others studies, however, reveal that it is indeed
foregrounding that cause such effects see Simonton.


First of all, the relation between foregrounding and the evaluation of texts
remains unclear; does the presence of foregrounding devices increase
readers’ sense of value of the text? There is but partial evidence for the
existence of a relationship between tLpse. A more serious problem is the lack
of a systematic inventory of devices and their relative importance. There is
also terminological vagueness: are different terms, such as ’estrangement’,
’defamiliarization’, ’deautomatization’, ’foregrounding’, etc., synonyms, or do
they correspond to slightly different psychological processes? In this respect,
the similarities and differences with the more general (philosophical) notion
of alienation through literature also should be clarified. One would also
welcome a more precise description of the way in which the theory of
foregrounding differs from other but similar theoretical constructs: Brecht’s
theory of Verfremdung and similar notions in Surrealism, the Theater of the
Absurd, and in existential literature - or the notion of aesthetic distance.

The Problem of Literariness

The presence of foregrounding devices in a text has often been used to

determine the demarcation line between literary and non-literary language.
As has been observed by several authors, however, foregrounding devices
are also encountered in everyday language, e.g., in jokes, political slogans,
nursery rhymes, or advertising texts. This has led most scholars to abandon
the search for essentials of literariness, and to take a relativist stand, by
concentrating on the conventional nature of what is called literature.
However, there may still be ways in which to solve the problem. To begin
with, one could distinguish between functional and non-functional cases of
foregrounding. Perhaps only the former should be considered as literary.
When someone accidentally produces an iambic pentameter in a scientific
report, the formal structure does not in itself render it a case of
foregrounding. Here Mukarovskys distinction between artifact and aesthetic
object is useful. Second, one should not lose sight of the fact that some text
genres (such as jokes, nursery rhymes or advertisements) do display
characteristics typical of literature, both in form, function, and effect. The
apparent problems of the concept of foregrounding in this respect are thus
caused by the fact that the academic study of literature neglects a number of
text genres, such as oral texts, which are ii no way categorically different
from the texts traditionally studied in literature departments. If this is so,
then the problem resides with the refusal of literary scholars to employ the
term ’literature’ in a descriptive, nonevaluative sense. Finally, the problem
may also be solved by pointing to the coherence and density of
foregrounding. The degree to which the foregrounded elements can be
integrated into the structure and interpretation of the work as a whole, or to
the more systematic and consistent nature with which it is used in literary


A similar problem has arisen with respect to the device of parallelism. It has
been demonstrated that pattemings of the kind proposed by foregrounding
theory may also be detected in scholarly articles or in a newspaper clipping
from The Sunday Times. In a sense, this is to be expected: because the
repertoire of elements in a language (for instance, the number of phonemes)
is finite, repetition is bound to occur. What has been overlooked in this
matter, however, is the fact that the presence of patterns in non-literary texts
does not currently lead to new and/or interesting interpretations of those
texts. Nor do they as a rule have a poetic effect on their readers. And
presumably parallelism in literary texts is distributed according to other
principles than those of probability (as is the case in non-literary texts). What
is perhaps lacking most from the theory is a criterion for selecting those
elements which are crucial to the literary functioning of the text.

Foregrounding and literary History

The concept of foregrounding has been made use of most in textual analysis.
It is a useful tool to describe particular characteristics of the text, or to
explain its specific poetic effects on the reader. And it may fruitfully be
employed to establish a link between purely linguistic description and ths
functioning literary texts in a culture at large. There is more to the concept of
foregrounding than analyses of individual literary text, though, and its
importance should certainly not be reduced to this contribution.

Foregrounding has also been a useful concept in the study of visual arts and
spectators’ responses. The concept played an important role in Russian
Formalists’ approaches to film. Their interest was partly inspired by the ideas
and films of Eisenstein. Later, defamiliarization techniques were put to work
by Brecht, not only in his theatre productions but also in film. In general the
term is refers to drawing spectators’ attention to some element in the film by
means of unusual filmic devices. Wollen uses the term to define counter-
cinema (opposing mainstream cinema); for him it describes spectators’ focus
on processes of construction of meaning. Examples would be fixed
positioning of the camera, and the deformation of familiar objects through
niters, mirrors, and extreme close-ups. Of immense impact on film studies is
the work by Bordwell, who was also influenced by the ideas of Russian
Formalists, and for whom deautomatization is a central concept in the study
of film. In his terminology, foregrounding is a deviation from intrinsic norms.

Foregrounding theory can help us conceptualize literary history. By inspecting

the way in which foregrounding operates in the literary system at large, its
importance for the historical study of literature may transpire. It will be
apprehended that foregrounding devices may - because of their very use -
lose their defamiliarizing potential, and thus stand in need of constant
replacement. In this way history can be viewed as a continuous wavelike
substitution and renewal of the devices and processes by which
foregrounding operates. The individual work of literature exists in an
unavoidable tension between its conformity to tradition on the one hand, and
the pressure it is under to add some innovative aspect to this tradition on the
other hand. Literary history, then, is the never-ending relief of new ways in
which foregrounding is brought about and experienced.

Approaches to the Development of Literariness

If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm
me, I know that is poetry. If I feel Physically as if the top of my head were
taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any
other way (Emily Dickinson)

Literary works of art can be powerful. They move people to tears, or make
them laugh out loud on a subway train. There is something about a good
book or poem that at times touches an essentially human chord. But what is
this something? What makes letters on a sheet of paper into a literary work of
art? The present study pursues this question, and offers some insights into
how literature functions.


Recent literary theories have rejected the notion that literary texts possess
distinct features that account for their ”literariness” Stanley Fish. However,
there has been a long tradition in literary criticism, dating back to Aristotle, in
which it is maintained that literary texts bear characteristic stylistic features
not common to other texts.

Foregrounding refers to a form of textual patterning which is motivated

specifically for literaryaesthetic purposes. FG typically involves a stylistic
distortion of some sort, either through an aspect of the text which deviates
from a linguistic norm or, alternatively, where an aspect of the text is brought
to the fore through repetition or parallelism (Simpson).

Since its beginnings, speculations of how the deviant or parallel features

affect readers were inherent in the approach. In his significant work Stylistics
and Psychology, van Peer sets out to empirically validate the claims made by
foregrounding theory. He is able to show that, indeed, readers perceive
foregrounded elements in poems as striking. Miall and Kuiken adopt van
Peer’s approach to the study of short stories and find that foregrounding
affects reading times, and evokes affect as well.

However, despite the valuable insights gained so far, there are still
methodological and mciuencal issues that remain unsolved. The
quantification of foregrounding devices, for instance, necessary to make
concrete predictions of reader reactions, do* not adequately account for
differences of degree. This especially holds true for semantic deviation and
parallelism, which resists ’objective’ analyses beyond a surface level. It
seems quite obvious that text thematics, intertextual relations, as well as
other semantic features have an affect on readers’ evaluations of a given text
passage. Research so far has either had to focus its attention on accounting
for semantic elements, and degree of foregrounding at the cost of objectivity,
or vice versa. However, besides the fact that empirical studies of
foregrounding are still young, and its methods are constantly being refined
the insights gained so far are considerable.

Conducting a foregrounding study of manuscript evidence is profitable in

more than one way. First, it offers a concrete theoretical framework to
approach the open structure of manuscripts, which in general do not lend
themselves readily to analyses and interpretation. Second, the employment
of manuscripts as text materials enables the recording of readers’
evaluations to different versions of the same texts, as they appear
throughout the author’s revision process. Thus, elements affecting responses
can be clearly identified, without introducing confounding variables through
text manipulation.

Foregrounding and Fealings in literary response

Although Aristotle in his Poetics demonstrated the primary role that feelings
play in response to literature, in modern times research into feeling has until
recently suffered from the general deprecation of feeling as irrational in
comparison with cognitive processes, or at most an epiphenomenon
secondary to cognitive disruption. Over the last fifteen to twenty years,
however, the climate for studying feeling has seen a dramatic change, as
new research by psychologists, neuropsychologists, sociologists, and others
has pointed to the central role played by feeling. Empirical studies of literary
response have not only benefitted from this shift in understanding, but have
in some respects helped shape the change by their ability to map the
intricacies of feeling in its relation to cognition, the self concept, and cultural

When studying feelings that occur during reading it is possible to discriminate

the sources of feeling into four main categories, as follows:

First, evaluative feelings towards the text, such as the pleasure, frustration,
or surprise experienced during reading or felt in retrospect towards the text
as a whole. Readers may turn to the same genre time after time (e.g.,
romance fictions) because they anticipate the kind of feeling that


reading another text will induce. It seems likely that readers of literary texts,
which vary so much one from another, are less likely to be in search of a
standard feeling or set of feelings, but readers undoubtedly evaluate literary
texts in the light of their expectations and whatever satisfactions they

Second, narrative feelings in response to specific aspects of the fictional

events, such as empathy with a character, suspense over a turn in the plot,
or resonance with the mood of a setting. The basis of such_ feeling lies in our
social skills, our everyday experience in understanding and situating the lives
of others. In reading fiction we play out a simulation, as Keith Oatley has put
it, running the action plans of the character on our own planning mechanism,
and experiencing the feelings consequent on their actions. We may need to
distinguish feelings that occur in response to a character (e.g., pity, curiosity)
from feelings that the reader shares with a character (e.g., disliking another

Third, aesthetic feelings of the kind that occur in the response to formal
aspects of the text such as its management of genre aspects, or clever
plotting, or foregrounding, that is, stylistic moments that are unusual or
striking. These may be moments that challenge (or defamiliarize) reader’s
assumptions (or schemas), leading them to revise their framework fut
Intcrprctst-’cn, sometimes with consequent implications for their
understanding beyond the text - which touches on the fourth level.

Fourth, self-modifying feelings restructure the reader’s interpretation,

prompting the reader to new insights into herself or her world. Some
transformation in understanding is brought about, through feeling, in the self
of the reader. The most dramatic and well-known case is catharsis, where (in
the Greek rr^del) hubris is challenged by the feelings of fear and pity, i.e., a
current feeling iz modifed by an ensuing one. But other, less striking
examples of the modification of one feeling by another can often be found in
readers’ responses to literary texts, leading readers to reconceptualize some
aspect of the self.

In addition to studying the role of feelings during reading, whether these are
constructive, transitory, or distracting, a number of other research questions
can be studied:

To what extent are feelings inherent to the verbal texture and lexicon of
texts? Do certain words cany an affective charge that all readers respond to?
Are readers’ feelings sensitive to shifts in the phonetic patterns and contrasts
in a text? Are particular feelings structured and sustained by extended
metaphors in a text?

What feelings are at issue in the experience of the poetic sublime? If such
sublime feelings as dread, awe, admiration, or rapture appear to shift us into
a timeless realm, is this self-preservation as Burke argued, a sense of the
superiority of human reason, as Kant supposed, or an evocation of the
oceanic feeling described by Freud, or something else?

One obvious paradox of reading is our capacity to feel real emotions for
fictional characters. Why is that, although we know that a given character
(e.g., Anna Karenina) never existed, we experience grief at her suffering and
lament her tragic death? Does Coleridge’s ”willing suspension of disbelief
provide a satisfactory explanation?

Another issue, perhaps closely related to the last, is how it is possible - as it

clearly is for many readers - to experience suspense when reading a narrative
for the second time (what Richard Gerrig called anomalous suspense). If we
already know the outcome of a story, why do we experience feelings of
anxiety, surprise, and the like, as though we were reading it for the first time?

Do feelings during literary response have a therapeutic value? Do they help

strengthen the immune system? Does reading enable us to engage with
repressed negative emotions and enable us to situate them in a more
productive context?


Does h’terary reading, through the empathy it arouses, make us better,

morally speaking? Can it help to ameliorate feelings of rejection, hostility, or
anger towards people who are different from us, such as those of a different
racial origin?

Foregrounding and the Effect of Personal Involvement in Narrative


Personal involvement may be directly influenced by the setting, characters,

and events that constitute the narrative world. Such involvement may be
mr^’lated by narrative structure (e.g., the narrative turns that provide
suspense; or specific narrative elements (e.g., the character morality that
enables empathy). Personal involvement may be affected when stylistic
devices foster appreciation of the aesthetic quality of the narrative. Aesthetic
appreciation may motivate continued or repeated consideration of the
narrative (e.g., re-reading a text).

Personal involvement can be increased when stylistic devices (e.g.,

metaphors, alliteration) capture attention, unsettle conventional meanings,
and evoke feeling. Personal involvement in this case initiates reinterpretive
efforts that, because of their feeling connotations, are often self{n._i,-,.~*iri,-
^\~ _f jitJse sources of personal involvement are conceived as though they
depend upon prior narrative comprehension. For example, imagery while
reading may ”fill in” what remains implicit in an explicitly presented narrative;
empathy may supplement prior appraisal of concretely described character
motives, attitudes, and beliefs, and so on. In contrast, the studies in this
special issue develop the possibility that personal involvement itself
constitutes a primary mode of narrative comprehension. Thus, imagination
may entail the projection of possibilities for understanding narrative events;
empathy may involve the projection of possibilities for comprehending
character development, and so on. Through such vivid and self-implicating
projections, the import of the narrative is not only made manifest-but also
absorbed into the reader’s, viewer’s, or listener’s subsequent behavior.

The preceding conceptual reorientation reflects the influence of disciplines

that traditionally emphasize the expressive aspects of narrative engagement.
Not coincidentally. The benefits of personal involvement in narrative
discourse are investigated by Eva-Wood. Her research tested a think-and-feel-
aloud pedagogy on readers of poetry in the classroom, comparing eleventh
grade readers who focused on their personal responses with students who
focused solely on textual analysis. Over the period of a month students
exposed to the think-and-feel-aloud pedagogy showed greater interest and
engagement /with poetry, participated more in classroom discussions,-wrote
significantly longer essays, and scored higher on comprehension tests than
the textual-analysis group. Not only did this study find positive effects of
personal involvement in narratives; it also demonstrated that these effects
can be observed in younger readers, in reading poems, and in classroom
settings. Whereas Eva-Wood shows that verbalizing thoughts and feelings
while reading poems plays a role in the involvement in narrative discourse,
Hakemulder shows that textual features themselves can also cause this
effect. He manipulates the presence or absence of various stylistic devices
(e.g. rhyme, inversion, metaphor, irony), often called ’foregrounding,’ that
defamiliarize conventional conceptions of textual referents.

Foregrounding increased reader appreciation of the text and prompted shifts

in text- related social attitudes-but only among students in literary studies
and not among students from other disciplines (like sociology). Beyond local
stylistic variations, Konijn and Hoom argue that genre, understood as the
global features that establish narrative ”realism,” alsoincrease personal
involvement. Although genre preference per se had little influence, the
perceived realism of character representation had compelling effects on
aesthetic appreciation and personal involvement. Perceived realism also can
be related to the reader’s world knowledge of and experience with the
content of the narrative. Green reports that readers who thought that a
narrative was realistic became more involved in that story. The extent to
which readers thought that


characters acted like real people was influenced by the reader’s prior
knowledge and social experience, suggesting facilitated identification with
familiar characters.

The role of personal identification of the reader with the story character was
also investigated by Kuiken et al. They found that readers who repeatedly
linked the narrative to their own personal experiences by using story
characters as metaphoric vehicles in self- referential statementswere more
likely to report reading-induced shifts in self-perception. Readers who
reflected on the story in this way were also more likely to score high in a
personality measure of openness to experience. Collectively these ”Studies
challenge our conception of what it means to understand media
presentations of fictional narratives as well as our conception of the
strategies through which such understanding is attained.

University Questions

1. What is foregrounding?

2. Discuss the various applications of foregrounding.

3. How are foregrounding related to the overall emotional and pragmatic

impact of the literary discourse?

4. What does the author achieve by foregrounding certain features of a text?

5. What is meant by personal involvement and how does the author exploit it
through foregrounding ?