“A City within a City,” “a World within a World”
A Stylistic Analysis of Millhauser’s “Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer”
Keywords:figurative language, foregrounding, Goodreads, Martin Dressler, text world theory
This paper aims to provide the first stylistic analysis of Steven Millhauser’s 1997 Pulitzer Winner Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer (1996). The novel depicts Martin’s progression from working in his father’s cigar shop to being a self-made businessman passionate about hotels. While literary scholars have discussed the novel’s themes at length, the linguistic aspects of Martin’s emotions and state of mind¬—expressed through metaphors, tautology, symbolism, and personification—have been under-researched. This article, anchored in naturalistic reader-response studies (Peplow and Carter 2014), seeks to observe how readers conceptualise the main themes of the novels—i.e., the American dream, the idea of multiple worlds, and Martin’s character development, using a sample of the first 60 English reviews presented by the Goodreads algorithm.
The frameworks employed to analyse the text emerge from those reviews and the analysis focuses on the passage most cited by Goodreads reviews. I first use foregrounding theory which observes stylistic choices that stand out against the rest of the text. This theory is often argued to explain effects (real) readers might perceive (see Miall and Kuiken 1994). I then use Text World Theory (TWT) (Gavins 2007) as a result of the foregrounding analysis and to account for readers’ observation of multiple worlds in the novel. TWT underpins how mental representations of a text are constructed. Overall findings show that richness of readers’ mental representation is mapped onto the complex stylistic choices present in the novel.
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