Metaphor and Metonomy

October 24, 2008 at 8:36 am (Core Course) ()

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.


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October 22, 2008 at 11:52 am (Core Course) ()

Prior to tomorrow’s core-course disussion of Bleak House, which will start by close-reading the opening chapter, I thought I’d post the link to this review in the most recent TLS by Richard Fortey of these two books: Ralph O’Connor The Earth on Show: Fossils and the poetics of popular science, 1802–1856 (University of Chicago Press 2008) and Martin J. S. Rudwick Worlds Before Adam: the reconstruction of geohistory in the age of reform (University of Chicago Press 2008). I’ve not read either one yet, but they do look interesting; and I know some students are thinking about possible essays on ‘deep time’ and the geological revolution in relation to the literature we’re looking at.

Actually, though, this is all a ruse; my real reason for posting this is to give me an excuse to put up these lovely John Martin images of dinosaurs (you’ll see the first paragraph of Fortey’s review talks about Martin).

Splendid, aren’t they? That last one (click for a closer look) is particularly striking, I think: the seadragons’ lamplike eyes, mimicking that slightly hazy but still panoptic full moon. There’s a sort of Gothic sublimity at work, and the weird writhing of saurian flesh is almost orgiastic. I’m not sure it had occurred to me before that the representation of dinosaurs in the nineteenth-century could mediate subconscious sexuality. (Perhaps that still doesn’t occur to you …)

Also of interest (if you’re interested in this) is Louis Figuier’s The World Before the Deluge (1872) which has some very nice steel engravings of megalosauri: the text and pictures are available online here.

Finally, what did the Victorian actually think a Megalosaurus looked like? Well, like this:

Dig that hump, and that rather winning smile. If you live near Crystal Palace, you’ll have seen this splendid fellow already:

“As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.” [AR]

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And talking of Queen Victoria visiting Manchester in 1857 …

October 4, 2008 at 10:49 am (Core Course) ()

…Sarah sends a link to this recent account of that very visit.  Interesting stuff (‘Blockbuster event’, no less).  Many thanks to her.

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The Glasgow Poisoning Case, July 1857

October 3, 2008 at 8:21 am (Core Course) ()

[A couple of people in Thursdays’s core-course seminar were curious as to what happened to the accused in the Glasgow Poisoning trial, reported in the 2nd July 1857 edition of the Illustrated London News we read in class.  Intrigued myself, I dug out the 11th July edition of the ILN.  I’ve photocopied the full account and stuck it to the PG noticeboard, along with some rather nice pictures of Her Majesty enjoying herself in Manchester; but below are some excerpts, and the all important verdicts.]

The trial of Miss Madeleine Smith, of Glasgow, for the murder of Pierre Emile L’Angelier, commenced before the High Court of Justiciary at Edinburgh on Tuesday week.  Every day of the trial the court has been crowded, hundreds remaining outside unable to get admission.  The youth and sex of the accused–the nature of the charge against her, and of the motives which could alone have prompted her to the alleged murder–the extraordinary nerve with which she had borne up through the terrible ordeal,–all have roused to a high pitch the feelings not only theimmediate auditors of the trial, but of the vast audience which, through the press, has been from day to day present at the scene.

The indictment charged the administration of arsenic by the prisoner to L’Angelier on three separate occasions–namely on the 19th or 20th February last; on the 22nd or 23rd of the same month; and on teh 22nd or 23rd of March.  On the last-named date he died, having been ill soon after each supposed administration. … An account of the first three days of the trial appeared in this Journal last week–consisting of evidence of the violent illness and sudden death of L’Angelier; of the finding of arsenic in his body on a post-mortem examination, of the prisoner’s declaration in which she admitted having purchased arsenic but stated that she used it in washing, as a cosmetic; of the evidence of druggists to the fact of her having purchased arsenic for the alleged purpose of killing rats (which purchases however were made quite openly, the accused signing the register without hesitation); of the examination of Mr Minnoch–to the effect that he had made proposals of marriage to Miss Smith, which she accepted on the 12th if March; and that their marriage had been fixed for the 18th June last; and of other minor matters.

The remainder of this day [Saturday] was occupied in reading a number of letters, mostly from Miss Smith to L’Angelier–of the style and nature of which the brief epistle we gave last week is a fair specimen.  On March 13 she wrote to L’Angelier thus: “I am longing to see you, sweet love of my heart, my own sweet love–MINNIE.”  On the 16th of the same month she wrote to Mr Minnoch (to whom she was engaged to be married the following June) whom she addresses as “My dearest William,” says that his departure has made her dull and sad, and reminds him of the “sweet walk” they had had at Dunblane–“a walk that fixed the date of the day when we began our new and happy life.”  Four days later she wrote the over-fond note to L’Angelier which was found after his death in his vest pocket, and whch we gave last week.

On Monday … thirty-one witnesses were examined for the defence.  Several of these deposed to fits of violence on the part of the deceased.  He was easily depressed and as easily uplifted.  On one occasion he threatened to throw himself out of a window, and at another he spoke of jumping off the pier.  On hearing of the marriage of a lady he had been in love with he took up a large knife and threatened to stab himself.  He several times spoke of self-destruction by several means.  He stated that whilst in France he had given arsenic to horses, to give them wind for their journey; and that he had taken it himself to relieve pain.

[The paper goes on to give a detailed account of the summings up by prosecution, defence and the Lord Justice.  And the verdict? ]

The jury then retired to their room, and in a short time afterwards reappeared in court, when the foreman said, “We find the prisoner NOT GUILTY on the first count, and NOT PROVEN on the second and third counts.”

[Each of the alleged incidents of poisoning was treated by the court as a separate count.  ‘Not proven‘ is a verdict unique to Scottish courts, and unavailable to jurors in England and Wales: it is a verdict of acquittal existing between guilty and not guilty, and not as emphatic as the latter.]

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September 30, 2008 at 12:41 pm (Core Course)

Handsome Henry Mayhew

Handsome Henry Mayhew


As you know, we are using the Penguin Edition of Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, which has selections from Mayhew’s huge tome edited by Victor Neuberg. Please focus especially on the following sections:

pp. 5-8 (‘Of the London Street Folk’); pp. 36-42 (‘Penny Gaffs’); pp. 42-51 (‘Costergirls’); pp. 107-122 (‘Of the Low Loding Houses of London’); pp. 161-189 (‘Of the Children Street-Sellers of London’); pp. 257-278 (‘Crossing Sweepers’); pp. 418-443 (‘Asylum for the Houseless Poor’); pp. 473-491 (‘Prostitution’, by Bracebridge Hemyng). 

Please also read Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, ‘The City, the Sewer, the Gaze and the Contaminating Touch’, which is chapter  three of their  The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (London: Methuen, 1986), pp. 125-148. ADAM IS GOING TO HAND XEROX COPIES OF THIS OUT IN CLASS ON THURSDAY — DON’T LET HIM FORGET!

Other Secondary Reading

D. Englander, ‘Comparisons and Contrasts: Henry Mayhew and Charles Booth as Social Investigators’, in D. Englander and R. O’Day (eds), Retrieved Riches: Social Investigation in Britain, 1840-1914 (Cambridge: Scolar Press, 1995).

C. Gallagher, ‘The Body Versus the Social Body in the Works of Thomas Malthus and Henry Mayhew’, Representations 14 (1986), pp. 83-106.

C. Herbert, ‘Rat Worship and Taboo in Mayhew’s London’ Representations 23 (1988), pp. 1-24.

A. Humpherys, ‘Dickens and Mayhew on the London Poor’, Dickens Studies Annual 4 (1975), pp. 78-90.

R. Maxwell, ‘H. Mayhew and the Life of the Streets’, Journal of British Studies 17/2 (1978), pp. 87-104.

Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, ‘The City, the Sewer, the Gaze and the Contaminating Touch’, in The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (London: Methuen, 1986), pp. 125-148.

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