Speaker: Ainur Kakimova @Ainur
Affiliation: ELIT, University of Verona and University of Warsaw
Title: Counterfactuals in Literature: Readers’ Perception and Evaluation
Abstract (long version below): The poster will show an overview of my PhD research on the readers’ perception and evaluation of literary counterfactuals and counterfactual historical fiction. Counterfactuals depict what might have been and can be used to describe unrealized alternative possible worlds in the textual actual world or to set the textual actual world in an alternative reality. Whereas the former is regarded as literary counterfactuals, the latter is known as counterfactual historical fiction. The poster will present how literary counterfactuals are processed and whether reading counterfactual historical fiction positively affects political and aesthetical evaluation.
The poster will show an overview of my PhD research on the readers’ perception and evaluation of literary counterfactuals and counterfactual historical fiction.Counterfactuals depict what might have been and can be used to describe unrealized alternative possible worlds in the textual actual world or to set the textual actual world in an alternative reality. Whenever counterfactuals are applied for describing unrealized alternative possible worlds, I refer to them as literary counterfactuals. Literary counterfactuals can be regarded as a rhetorical figure and rely on their dual meaning and complex structure to elicit such rhetorical effect. By dual meaning, I refer to their imaginary/counterfactual meaning and factual inference. For example, by the following counterfactual utterance “If he had come to Gardencourt he would have seen Madame Merle” in The Portrait of a Lady (1881), Henry James wanted to create an alternative possible world in which Ralph came to Gardencourt and saw Madame Merle and at the same time communicating that in fact he did not come and did not see her. The use of an extra layer of past tense morphology (aka X-marking) in the structure helps to yield such counterfactuality. Counterfactuals in the form of if p then q propositions can be also applied to the narrative to represent an alternative reality. For example, in the Fatherland (1992), Robert Harris speculates how the world would have been if Nazi Germany had won the World War II. The use of counterfactuals in literature to alter the history gave rise to a new genre called counterfactual historical fiction.
For my first study, I examined whether literary counterfactuals are more difficult to comprehend than non-counterfactuals. As a research material, I used 40 counterfactual conditionals and 20 filler items extracted from 35 literary texts. An experimental group consisting of 30 people read counterfactuals and a control group of other 30 people read non-counterfactuals (indicative conditionals). Subjects of the experiment were Polish speakers of English. Using eye tracking method, I measured their such eye tracking parameters as fixation count, fixation time and dwell time. The results suggest that counterfactuals are more challenging to process rather than non-counterfactuals. However, the ratings of the offline task show that both counterfactual and indicative conditionals are assessed with medium difficulty.
In the second study, I investigated whether first language affects the processing of literary counterfactuals in the second language. In Polish counterfactual conditionals, the subjunctive particle by (an equivalent of English would) is used both in the antecedent and consequent, whereas in English counterfactuals would is used only in the consequent. It was assumed that putting would also in the English (L2) antecedent, resembling Polish (L1) structure, would facilitate the processing of counterfactuals in L2. 40 counterfactual conditionals in two conditions (L1 similar/L1 dissimilar) and 20 filler items were used and a total of 60 participants (between-subjects design) took part in the eye tracking experiment. The results suggest that the first language does not affect the processing of counterfactuals in the second language.
The third study aims to explore the perception and evaluation of counterfactuals representing alternative reality. Counterfactual historical fiction will be used as a research material. It is assumed that reading downward counterfactuals (how things might have been worse) can have a positive effect on the evaluation of the current state. For example, after reading Fatherland by Robert Harris, which depicts how the world would have been if Nazi Germany had won the World War II, people might appreciate the current governmental structure. It is also hypothesised that counterfactuals will be perceived less realistic and more aesthetically pleasing than non-counterfactuals. The subjects of our study will be Italian speakers. The data will be collected and analysed before the IGEL conference and results will be discussed during the poster presentation.