Analysing representation - The Da Vinci Code paratext

A lesson analysing representation in an interesting short text

After the acknowledgements and immediately before the main text of the novel, The Da Vinci Code has a short text titled 'Fact' that asserts the accuracy of certain elements of the novel:

Fact:

The Priory of Sion - a European secret society founded in 1099 - is a real organisation. In 1975 Paris’s Bibliothèque Nationale discovered parchments known as Les Dossiers Secrets, identifying members of the Priory of Sion, including Sir Isaac Newton, Sandro Botticelli, Victor Hugo and Leonardo da Vinci.

The Vatican prelature known as Opus Dei is a deeply devout Catholic sect that has been the topic of recent controversy due to reports of brain-washing, coercion and a dangerous practice known as ‘corporal mortification’. Opus Dei has just completed construction of a $47 million National Headquarters at 243 Lexington Avenue in New York City.

All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.

The paratext of a novel is everything the published book contains beside the actual text of the story itself - so dedications, acknowledgements, forewords, blurbs on the back of the book and so on.

This piece of paratext is interesting to analyse for representation because it doesn’t need to be there. So: why is it there? And what effect might it be having on the experience of the readers?

Lesson plan

  • Explain what The Da Vinci Code is about and how massively successful it's been.
  • Give the students the text and read it as a class. Gloss Opus Dei and prelature (and explain the French if anyone's confused).
  • Explain what paratext is and whereabouts this appears in the book itself.

Then give the students time to annotate the text using the following linguistic tools:

  • Semantic fields (what fields are present?)
  • High-/low-frequency lexis and formal/informal register (where is it formal? Where is it informal? Why this variation?)
  • Tense/aspect (where does it shift and what does it imply?)

Big questions to answer (using the evidence identified by the tools):

  • What is the purpose of this text?
  • How does it represent the novel that’s to follow?
  • What sort of novel does it promise?
  • How might this text affect a reader's experience of the novel that follows?

Feedback could take whatever form you prefer - students could write an analysis of the text with the title 'How does this piece of paratext represent the novel that follows, and how might it affect a reader's experience?', or you could gather their ideas on the board and discuss the big questions.

Analysis

There are semantic fields of secrecy (adjectives ‘secret’, ‘secrets’ (in French), ‘real’ (implying it could not be real, might just be rumour or legend)) and of truth/revelation (abstract noun ‘FACT’, factive verb ‘discovered’ non-finite verb ‘identifying’ and evaluative adjective ‘accurate’).

There's also a semantic field of dates and legendary historical figures (‘1099’, ‘1975’, the proper nouns ‘Newton’, ‘Botticelli’ etc…).

And semantic fields of religion (NPs ‘deeply devout Catholic sect’, ‘Vatican prelature’, ‘Opus Dei’) and unpleasantness (abstract nouns ‘brain-washing', 'coercion' and expanded noun phrase 'a dangerous practice known as “corporal mortification”’) appear in close proximity.

The combination of all of these fields implies the novel will reveal grand historical conspiracies and secrets on an epic scale, probably involving sinister religious organisations and legendary historical figures like Newton and Da Vinci. That's a huge and exciting claim for a reader interested in history or religion, and the idea of revelation is a flattering one for a reader - they're about to be let in on explosive and suppressed truths of epic historical significance. It represents the novel as telling long-suppressed truths.

The use of French and the unnecessary formality of parts of the text (especially the abstract noun ‘prelature’) are interesting because they’re essentially window dressing to make the text seem authoritative/impressive - even a non-French speaker can likely guess that ‘Les Dossiers Secrets’ is ‘the secret dossiers’ (and ‘bibliotheque’ is pretty basic for anyone who’s studied any French at school). ‘Prelature’ is an incredibly low-frequency noun, but it’s immediately glossed with the noun phrase ‘a deeply devout Catholic sect’, rendering its use unnecessary (it could just say 'sect' instead of 'prelature' in the first place). This air of expertise in esoteric and historical matters is reinforced by the specificity of the dates (ranging across centuries), the address and the exact cost of Opus Dei’s new headquarters. Altogether it creates a feeling that this is an expert and authoritative text, concerned with details and accuracy and knowledgeable about an enormous span of time.

In terms of tense and aspect the text uses past tense once when it’s discussing historical revelations (‘discovered parchments..’) but otherwise it’s all present tense, which is odd given how far back the dates and names go. But the novel gains an exciting charge from its representation of epic historical conspiracies as something real and present in our own time, and the present perfect description of Opus Dei’s headquarters exemplifies this: ‘Opus Dei has just completed construction…’ Placing that building’s completion in the recent past combines with the semantic field of religious craziness (the ‘brain-washing, coercion and…”corporal mortification”’) to suggest that this (possibly ancient) sect is not only evil and sneaky but also present in the modern world. The enormous cost and prime New York address of its headquarters both suggest that the organisation is powerful, too. All of this may create a feeling that the reader has suddenly had an underworld of threatening religious organisations revealed to them - and it's one that still has money and influence today.

The abstract noun ‘reports’ in the second paragraph is a good example of nominalisation - where another word class is turned into a noun. In this case it turns several events into one noun, and in doing so loses any obligation to mention who has reported these allegations. ‘Reports’ could be made by anyone, from authoritative news sources like prestigious newspapers to unreliable bloggers, and by using ‘reports’ as a noun instead of using a subject-verb-object construction like ‘Joe reported brainwashing’ the text doesn’t have to explain who did the reporting and their reliability isn’t called into question. The plurality of ‘reports’ could be anything more than one, as well - it could be two very unreliable or discredited reports, but it sounds like many in this plural form.

How might this affect readers?

In terms of the reader’s experience there’s a chance that many readers became convinced that the novel they were about to read was factually correct about the cults and history it describes. This would make reading the novel more exciting for them, given that it involves outlandish claims about gigantic conspiracies concealing the existence of Christ’s descendants.

Finally - can the effect of the paratext be seen in readers' reviews on Amazon? 

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