The Royal Holloway Victorian MA Blog

Metaphor and Metonomy


A brief note after yesterday’s core course class, to recap on the distinction between metaphor and metonomy; because I’m not sure everybody was clear about it (or if you were all clear on that, then maybe people were unclear on its relevance to reading Dickens).  As Catherine said, metaphor and metonomy are both modes of saying something by saying something else; but metaphor is a mode of displacement (‘Achilles is a lion’), where a point of similarity (they’re both really brave and fierce) links what are otherwise quite different terms; and metonymy is a mode of association, or contiguity (‘the pen is mightier than the sword’; where the pen stands for ‘writing’ because it is a part of the larger whole). Synecdoche (‘two hundred head of cattle’; ‘a parish of a thousand souls’) is a kind of metonomy.

So, you might ask, what’s that to do with the reading of Dickens? OK: what we were discussing yesterday was Roman Jakobson‘s particular take on these two rhetorical terms: Richard Bradford’s Routledge introduction to Jakobson is a good place to start on this (you can start reading some of it [on metaphor and metonomy and ‘The Poetic Function’] at Google books).  For a briefer version here’s’s summary:

The message construction is based on two simultaneous operations*:

  1. Combination (horizontal) – constructing syntactic links; contexture.
    Relation through contiguity, juxtaposition.
    METONYMY – implying time, cause and effect, a chain of successive events
  2. Selection (vertical) – choosing among equivalent options.
    Relation on basis of similarity, substitution, equivalence or contrast; synonym / antonym.
    METAPHOR – implying space, a-temporal connection, simultaneity.

In poetry – the projection of the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection (metaphor) is used as the major means of constructing a sequence (combination; metonym).

This projection, according to Jacobson, is the defining characteristic of poetry, and it expresses itself in rhyme, meter, symmetries, repetitions, motifs.

The dominant mode in the poetic is therefore that of metaphor. Whereas in Prose – the metonym prevails, the chain of events, the plot, successive actions, a sequence of occurrences**.

*The terms METONYMY and METAPHOR are not used as figures of speech but rather as pervasive forces organizing language.

**The opposition is not an absolute one, but rather a mark of a tendency.

This still might seem a little remote to your sense of readng and writing about Dickens; but what we were doing last night was taking the two keynote thematic images with which Bleak House opens — Fog and Mud — and exploring the ways they resonated through the novel.  We touched, you’ll remember, on the way they articulated the novel’s concerns with obstruction, secrecy, things buried and obscured; and also with filth, disease, contagion.  I talked about the two conflicting mid-century theories of illness; the germ theory (mud) and the miasma theory (fog).  But more than that, I was trying to suggest ways in which Dickens as a novelist (and especially in his later novels) works both novelistically and, in a manner of speaking, poetically: that he is doing more than simply recording the conditions of London in the 1850s in terms of documentary verisimilitude (although he is doing that); he’s also expressing his concerns poetically.  Bleak House is precisely a novel about the tension between contiguity (everybody being connected) and displacement or separation.  It spreads itself horizontally, across London, and England, like the fog rolling upriver and down, north and south; but it also compacts itself densely at the centre, crushing and fossiling — and in the case of Krook, apparently squeezing him until he literally explodes … and is transformed into mud and fog; or more precisely into slime (‘a little thick nauseous pool’; ‘a dark greasy coating on the walls and ceiling’) and smoke (‘a smouldering suffocating vapour in his room’).  The point is not to pick out particular examples of metaphor (say); but rather to think about the way Dickens’s novel is shaped by these two symbolising principles; and the way the tension between the two of them articulates the book’s main concerns.

I mentioned Steve Connor’s excellent introductory book on Dickens (Charles Dickens [1985]: it’s in the library, 827 DIC D/CON ) which takes Jakobson’s metaphor and metonomy and applied them illuminatingly to the reading of several Dickens novels (though not, if I remember correctly, Bleak House).  I also mentioned Freud, although mentioning Freud provoked expressions of dislike from some members of the group.  You know who you are.  Now, one of the reasons I brought him up is that Freud argued that dreaming happens by a dual process of on the one hand association (metonomy: we’ve all had experience of the peculiar ‘dream logic’ by which things or events succeed one another) and on the other transference or substitution (metaphor).  Freud was also eloquent about — as Dickens is, in this novel — not only the way we keep secrets from other people, but the way we keep secrets from ourselves; and the mechanisms of repression, and the way the repressed always returns (in dreams, or slips-of-the-tongue, or neurotic symptoms) seems to me figured in dozens of ways throughout Bleak House.  Of course, you don’t have to be a Freudian to read this novel, or (more importantly) to write critically about Dickens.  But it will be worth your while to think not only about specific symbols in his writing, but about the broader logic of symbolisation itself.  That’s what we were talking about yesterday.