Definition of term Cataphora

Cataphoric reference is the process of looking forward in a text to make sense of it. ‘Noticing that it covered the roof opposite, Reginald realised that snow had fallen overnight.’ It isn’t until you reach the word snow that you can correctly interpret the pronoun it. It and snow are co-referential; they refer to the same entity. Authors can use cataphora as a delaying tactic for stylistic effect.

Demonstration of Cataphora in action

The following extract is taken from the beginning of a novel. I have coloured blue the co-referential elements; see if you agree with my choice.

It aint like your regular sort of day.

      Bernie pulls me a pint and puts it in front of me. He looks at me, puzzled, with his loose, doggy face but he can tell I don’t want no chit-chat. That’s why I’m here, five minutes after opening, for a little silent pow-wow with a pint glass. He can see the black tie, though it’s four days since the funeral. I hand him a fiver and he takes it to the till and brings back my change. He puts the coins, extra gently, eyeing me, on the bar beside my pint.

      ‘Won’t be the same, will it?’ he says, shaking his head and looking a little way along the bar, like at unoccupied space. ‘Won’t be the same.’

      I say, ‘You aint seen the last of him yet.’

      He says, ‘You what?’

      I sip the froth off my beer. ‘I said you aint seen the last of him yet.’

      He frowns, scratching his cheek, looking at me. ‘Course, Ray,’ he says and moves off down the bar.

      I never meant to make no joke of it.

      I suck an inch off my pint and light up a snout. There’s maybe three or four other early-birds apart from me, and the place don’t look its best. Chilly, a whiff of disinfectant, too much empty space. There’s a shaft of sunlight coming through the window, full of specks. Makes you think of a church.

      I sit there, watching the old clock, up behind the bar. Thos. Slattery, Clockmaker, Southwark. The bottles racked up like organ pipes.

      Lenny’s next to arrive. He’s not wearing a black tie, he’s not wearing a tie at all. He takes a quick shufty at what I’m wearing and we both feel we gauged it wrong.

      ‘Let me, Lenny,’ I say. ‘Pint?’

      He says, ‘This is a turn-up.’

      Bernie comes over. He says, ‘New timetable, is it?’

      ‘Morning,’ Lenny says.

      ‘Pint for Lenny,’ I say.

      ‘Retired now, have we, Lenny?’ Bernie says.

      ‘Past the age for it, aint I, Bern? I aint like Raysy here, man of leisure. Fruit and veg trade needs me.’

      ‘But not today, eh?’ Bernie says.

      Bernie draws the pint and moves off to the till.

      ‘You haven’t told him?’ Lenny says, looking at Bernie.

      ‘No,’ I say, looking at my beer, then at Lenny.

      Lenny lifts his eyebrows. His face looks raw and flushed. It always does, like it’s going to come out in a bruise. He tugs at his collar where his tie isn’t.

      ‘It’s a turn-up,’ he says. ‘And Amy aint coming? I mean, she aint changed her mind?’

      ‘No,’ I say. ‘Down to us, I reckon. The inner circle.’

      ‘Her own husband,’ he says.

      He takes hold of his pint but he’s slow to start drinking, as if there’s different rules today even for drinking a pint of beer.

      ‘We going to Vic’s?’ he says.

      ‘No, Vic’s coming here,’ I say.

      He nods, lifts his glass, then checks it, sudden, half-way to his mouth. His eyebrows go even higher.

      I say, ‘Vic’s coming here. With Jack. Drink up, Lenny.’

      Vic arrives about five minutes later. He’s wearing a black tie but you’d expect that, seeing as he’s an undertaker, seeing as he’s just come from his premises. But he’s not wearing his full rig. He’s wearing a fawn raincoat, with a flat cap poking out of one of the pockets, as if he’s aimed to pitch it right: he’s just one of us, it aint official business, it’s different.

      ‘Morning,’ he says.

      I’ve been wondering what he’ll have with him. So’s Lenny, I dare say. Like I’ve had this picture of Vic opening the pub door and marching in, all solemn, with a little oak casket with brass fittings. But all he’s carrying, under one arm, is a plain brown cardboard box, about a foot high and six inches square. He looks like a man who’s been down the shops and bought a set of bathroom tiles.

      He parks himself on the stool next to Lenny, putting the box on the bar, unbuttoning his raincoat.

      ‘Fresh out,’ he says.

      ‘Is that it then?’ Lenny says, looking. ‘Is that him?’

      ‘Yes,’ Vic says. ‘What are we drinking?’

      ‘What’s inside?’ Lenny says.

      ‘What do you think?’ Vic says.

      He twists the box round so we can see there’s a white card sellotaped to one side. There’s a date and a number and name: JACK ARTHUR DODDS.

Commentary

When you have finished reading the last three words, you realise that it is the cremated remains of Jack Arthur Dodds that are in the box. The elements which refer cataphorically to Jack Arthur Dodds are ‘You aint seen the last of him yet’, ‘I said you aint seen the last of him yet’, ‘Her own husband’, ‘Is that it then?’, ‘Is that him?’. The pronouns him and it, and the phrase her own husband can all be replaced by Jack Arthur Dodds. The pronoun it in I never meant to make no joke of it could also be replaced by Jack Arthur Dodds – or you may interpret it in this context as the business of Raysy telling Bernie that Jack Arthur Dodd’s mortal remains will soon be back in the pub.

As we begin reading this novel we can’t make sense of the dialogue. We have to bear with it for three pages (in the paperback version). Using cataphora can be a risky strategy: some readers may give up before the pay-off, others will find it intriguing.

Literary Exercise

First attempt the task then read more about the significance of Victoria Street.

Identify the cataphoric reference in the following extract from Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway, first published in 1925.

      For having lived in Westminster – how many years now? over twenty, – one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. Such fools we are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street. For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can’t be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life. In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.

What is the effect of the cataphoric refence? Write your answer below:


Compare your answer with the sample answer below:

Here is the text with the cataphoric reference made explicit. As with anaphoric reference, there can be more than one referent and you may have different interpretations.

      For having lived in Westminster – how many years now? over twenty, – one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. Such fools we are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street. For Heaven only knows why one loves it (life/London/this moment of June) so, how one sees it (life/London/this moment of June) so, making it (life) up, building it (life/ this moment of June) round one, tumbling it (life), creating it (life) every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do (love life) the same; can’t be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life. In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.


This extract is taken from the second page of the novel. At this point, Clarissa is setting off from her home in Westminster, crossing Victoria Street and observing what she hears and sees. This paragraph is about her present. Notice how the pronoun it in the seventh sentence could refer, anaphorically, to Victoria Street – (“For Heaven only knows why one loves it (Victoria Street) so, how one sees it (Victoria Street) so, making it (Victoria Street) up, building it (Victoria Street) round one, tumbling it (Victoria Street), creating it (Victoria Street) every moment afresh”) but this interpretation does not work well semantically: one can’t tumble Victoria Street, or create Victoria Street, or build Victoria Street round one. However this only becomes apparent as we read on. At the beginning of the sequence: “Such fools we are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street. For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so,” – anaphoric reference is perfectly plausible. It’s only as we continue in the sentence that we realise we have to rule it out and look forwards in the text instead of backwards. I have put life/London/this moment of June as the cataphoric referent of the pronoun it, but I don’t know whether Virginia Woolf meant them as synonyms, or as a hierarchically-ordered sequence, where life comes before London, which comes before this moment in June. Are the three collapsed into one ‘present’ for Clarissa, or does life trump London and this June moment?

It’s actually quite hard to write, in a sustained way, about the present, the present moment being rather intangible. As we read this passage we have to suspend our understanding for a short while. We too have to experience a pause, momentarily, before we understand that Big Ben strikes, and we have to bear with Clarissa – again, momentarily – as she reflects upon making it up, building it round, tumbling it and creating it, before we finally arrive at knowing what ‘it’ is: loving living here and now.

 

This passage is poignant, as Virginia Woolf took her own life. Living, loving life, having a present, was also a precarious business for the specific subset of people she mentions, “the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall)”. The Eugenics Education Society, created in 1906, met at Denison House in Victoria Street. Its purpose was ‘to promote the mental, moral and physical improvement of the race’, and during Virginia’s lifetime this society was concerned with women alcoholics, because it was thought that if women were alcoholics “young England would be drunk before it was born”. In 1908 the Inebriate Homes, which cared for six hundred women, had been closed in a quarrel over who paid the costs. The Government decided it should henceforth be the responsibility of the London County Council, so the London County Council provided space for a hundred of the inebriate women who were likely to reform, and cast the other five hundred back onto the streets because they were deemed incorrigible. This was known as returning them to the “Jane Cakebread condition”. Jane Cakebread was an alcoholic Londoner who repeatedly came before the courts for being drunk and disorderly – she had 282 convictions by 1893. Another alcoholic called Ellen Sweeney had 279 convictions by 1895, and they were not alone. The Inebriates Act of 1898 was passed in order to treat alcoholics, rather than to repeatedly lock them up as criminals, but the costs impacted too greatly on the London County Council and so the homes were closed and the women went back on the streets. In 1910 the Women’s Total Abstinence Union also met at Denison House and announced that in one school alone 40% of the children drank alcohol regularly. Loving life, in the context of the frumps and miseries of Victoria Street, was not the carefree concept it may sound.

Teaching Point

Cataphoric reference always has a delaying effect of some sort. It’s not a particularly unusual linguistic feature, and it’s even a staple of newspaper headlines. “Get off your mobile or I won’t serve you” read tonight’s newspaper headlines, causing viewers to read further in the paper to find out who “I” refers to.

Big Ben.