Bleak House I

October 19, 2009 at 9:31 am (Core Course)

This coming Thursday we all step inside the Bleak House.


Hopefully you’ve all read the novel, but for the purposes of seminar discussion I’d like to start out by concentrating on just the first chapter, and in particular on Dickens’s famous descriptions of London mud and London fog.

Now one of the things I’d like to talk about is the function of metaphor and metonomy in the novel.  We’ll go over what these terms mean, and the ways in which they’re useful in reading Bleak House, in the seminar; but if you’re a little rusty on what those two rhetorical devices entail, here’s a brief summary:

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, to put another way: if you say ‘pen’ to mean ‘writing’ as a whole, it’s clear enough what the logic of the connection is … ‘pen’ has an obvious relationship to ‘writing’. But if you say ‘Achilles is a lion’ you’re linking two very different things — because in almost every respect Achilles is not in the least like a lion (he doesn’t have four legs; he’s not covered in fur; he doesn’t have a tail, etc). The one point of comparison, ‘bravery’, is set against all the dissimilarities. That’s how metaphor works, by a sort of creative dislocation. Here’s another example: Craig Raine, in poetic, metaphoric mode, talks about ‘the onion, memory’. But in what ways is memory like an onion? Mostly we’re struck by the ways memory is not like an onion. Nevertheless, the crucial point of similarity (memory is like an onion because … it makes you cry) is given added heft and point by the dislocating function of the metaphor as a whole.

Hmm. Hope that’s at least partly clear.

What I’m particularly interested in, in terms of reading Dickens, is 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.

I’m interested in the way the novel balances these two approaches, the prosy-connective and the poetic-transcendent, to talk about society, about secrecy, about connection and about disconnection.

Don’t worry if this looks a little dense, written out here. We’ll go into it in greater detail on Thursday. [AR]



  1. Selena Collins said,

    I’ve just woken from a dream about trees walking around and sheep skipping in between them… note to self: don’t read AR’s links and then take a nap!

  2. rhulvictorian said,

    Hah! I’m strangely pleased that my links can haunt people’s dreams … [AR]

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