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Narrating the unnarratable: gender and metonymy in the Victorian novel.


Do male and female novelists write differently? The feminist narratologist woul (cautiously) answer "yes, if the novelists in question are Victorian." In a tim and place where the specificity of femininity was as strictly confining and prominently displayed as tight-laced corsets and voluminous hoopskirts could suggest, gender affiliations left their traces everywhere in middle-class culture, including the style of a text signed by a woman or by a man. Writing a a feminist narratologist, then, I look for signs of gendered difference in Victorian novels: signs that are culturally constructed by the historical experience of living and writing under the system of "separate spheres" but tha are not in any way essentially dictated by the writer's sex. I would not expect to find the same gendered differences in Victorian and modern texts, nor would expect the signs of gendered writing in the products of a less rigidly gender-bound culture to be as distinct as they are in Victorian writing. Narratology provides a vocabulary for describing those differences, which I believe are discernible at the "surface" level of texts, although they are anything but "superficial": indeed, gendered textual differences can have a profound impact on a text's reception both on the personal level of actual readers' responses and on the professional level, where unspoken decisions abou aesthetic value and canonicity get made.(1)

The point of lingering in this way at the surface of a text is to take note of details that can be seen as falling into gendered patterns. Indeed, to attend t details is, according to Naomi Schor, particularly appropriate for feminist critics interested in recuperating the feminine:

To focus on the place and function of the detail since the mid-eighteenth century [in French literature] is to become aware that the normative aesthetics elaborated and disseminated by the [French] Academy and its members is not sexually neutral; it is an axiology carrying into the field of representation the sexual hierarchies of the phallocentric cultural order. The detail does not occupy a conceptual space beyond the laws of sexual difference: the detail is gendered and doubly gendered as feminine. (4)

My goal here is to conduct a close examination of the details of a few passages of narrative discourse written by Victorian men and women in order to point to difference I perceive in the kinds of metonymy they employ in their realist prose. Patterns that surface among texts written by women I label "feminine" an those I perceive in texts written by men I call "masculine," but these terms ar meant to be descriptive rather than normative. I offer this foray into a feminist poetics of detail as a contribution to the larger project of feminist narratology: specifying how gendered differences can surface in texts at particular historical moments.

As I have explained in Gendered Interventions, the feminist narratologist tries especially to identify those gendered textual strategies that have come to hold aesthetic significance for critics. Often, that which is coded "feminine," that which is typical for female novelists' narrative discourse, is judged to be les aesthetically valuable than its masculine counterpart. Metonymy--which seems historically to have occupied the disadvantaged, and therefore feminine, position in the binary opposition "metaphor/metonymy"--would seem to be a likel location for signs of gendered differences in Victorian narrative discourse. Th lowly status of metonymy has recently come into question among rhetorical theorists: even though Roman Jakobson identified metonymy as the central trope for realism, metonymy has traditionally been considered an inferior trope to metaphor, relying as it does on conventional associations between objects and concepts rather than on "originally" observed similarities. Of course, as Barbara Johnson reminds us, the opposition between metaphor and metonymy--and therefore the hierarchical relation between them--has been thoroughly dismantle by, for instance, Paul DeMan, who

summarizes the preference for metaphor over metonymy by aligning analogy with necessity and contiguity with chance: "The inference of identity and totality that is constitutive of metaphor is lacking in the purely relational metonymic contact. . . ." DeMan then goes on to reveal this "element of truth" as the product of a purely rhetorical--and ultimately metonymical--sleight of hand, thus overturning the traditional hierarchy and deconstructing the very basis fo the seductiveness and privilege of metaphor. (Barbara Johnson 158)

For that matter, the field of poetics has never come to a satisfactory consensu about what metonymy is, and what it is not. Putting metonymy's appeal to feminist theorists in an amusing light, Jill Matus remarks that we like the trope "possibly because it is the underprivileged half of a binary opposition and also because nowadays to have been around for centuries yet mysteriously resisted categorization does not seem such a bad thing" (306).(2)

Does metonymy's "feminine" status in its traditional opposition with metaphor suggest that female authors use it more often or more insistently than do their male counterparts? Looking in close detail at occasions for metonymic writing i selected passages of Victorian fiction, I would answer both "no and yes." As anyone whose reading has been shaped by Jakobson's observations is likely to conclude, all Victorian realists--male and female---employ metonymy repeatedly in the narrative discourse of their texts. In that sense, metonymy itself does not necessarily carry connotations of gender. However, the gendered difference perceive in these passages suggests that male authors and female authors of the Victorian period tend to employ different kinds of metonymy and that the mode preferred by male Victorian novelists more closely resembles metaphor than does the mode that the women novelists employ. The metonymies of male realists tend, as Michael Riffaterre has put it, to "blossom into metaphor" (275) as they get played out in the text. Riffaterre's own metaphor suggests the valence of evaluation that persists in critical discourse about metonymy: if the metaphor is a "blossom," the metonymy is only a bud, an underdeveloped site of the potential for something beautiful but not yet the beautiful thing itself.

In the fields of rhetorical theory and poetics, there has recently been a considerable amount of debate over the definition of metonymy, only some of which takes into account the poststructuralist complication of the problem of limiting any trope to a fixed definition. In the interest of perpetuating that resistance of categorization that Matus celebrates, I will apply the most inclusive rhetorical definition of "metonymy" I have been able to compile. Unlike those scholars who have been trying assiduously to narrow down the precise meaning of "metonymy"--or, indeed, to discredit it as a rhetorical category altogether--I will use the term as broadly as possible.(3) "Metonymy," for our purposes, will include the substitution and association in discourse of terms related to each other by numerous kinds of contiguity: by (1) cause and effect (e.g., "that movie was a good cry"); (2) inventor and invented or maker and thing produced (e.g., calling a painting "a Rembrandt"); (3) user and instrument (e.g., "he's the bass guitar, she's the drums"); (4) doer and thing done (e.g., "she's management" or "he's administration"); (5) passion and objec of passion (consider the referent of "Lolita" in Vladimir Nabokov's novel: not the little girl Dolores Haze, but the passion Humbert Humbert has associated with her; or, consider Hugh Bredin's helpful example: "she is my true love"); (6) container and contained (e.g., "that pot is boiling over"); (7) place and object, event, or institution in place (e.g., "Woodstock," "Pearl Harbor," "Watergate"); (8) time and object, event, or institution in time (e.g., "68" fo the latest "revolution" in Paris); (9) possessor and possessed (e.g., "ask the fur coat over there what she wants"); and (10) part for whole (otherwise known as synecdoche). A broader example of metonymy is the relation between (11) concrete object and abstraction, a strictly discursive relation that characterizes those situations where metonymy "blossoms into metaphor."

As Bredin has objected, this comprehensive list includes things that are relate to each other both in conceptual and material ways. Recognizing his enumeration of the ways in which two terms can be associated in discourse, I will overlook his objections while broadening the definition even a bit further: taking a cue from Barbara Johnson, I acknowledge that terms in metonymic relation to each other often do display "similarity" (supposedly the exclusive domain of metaphor) as well as "contiguity" and that it is often impossible to discuss th trope of metonymy in complete isolation from that of metaphor especially when one is looking at the political ramifications of discursive substitutions. (Barbara Johnson asks whether a reference to the presidency as "the White House is only an associational substitution of place for institution or whether there is not an implicit similarity between the whiteness of the house and the whiteness of its occupants [157].) But I find Bredin's harping on the distinction between conceptual and material contiguity useful because it points to the gendered difference I see in Victorian texts' use of metonymy: whereas the male writers I am citing tend to use metonymy in the service of the abstrac realm of the conceptual, some of their female contemporaries employ it more often in the concrete realm of the material detail, the realm of the body.

Most instances of metonymy in realist prose refer in some way to "the body" in that they usually function to describe a character's appearance, actions, or nature. But "the body" may be discursively figured in different ways, ranging from a conception of it as a relatively transparent vessel for carrying moral and personal significances to a representation of it as a visible, tangible, material object acting in the world and being acted upon by the world. My reading of the instances of metonymy in selected Victorian texts suggests a resistance among women writers to the Victorian stereotype of the differences between masculine and feminine relations to the body: the notion that women are or ought to be more spiritual, less body conscious than men. "The body" that I find in the female novelists' metonymies is more specific, localized, individualized, and material than "the body" that figures in the male novelists prose. In the passages by male novelists that I will analyze below, the metonymically represented body is principally of interest for the abstract meanings it may carry. In the passages by female novelists, the instances of metonymic writing insist on the physical specificity of an individual body's representation in the text. I think this pattern can help account for the "universality" that has traditionally been perceived as one of the strengths of (male-written) canonical texts, and it can point to a reading practice that would contribute to appreciation of alternative, feminine modes of Victorian writing.


When I think about the places "where body meets text" in metonymy, I see two different categories of body: the body that is being represented in the text (the heroine's body, for instance, or any other character's) and the body that is literally present in the act of reading (the actual reader's body). Thinking of the body in these ways suggests two different kinds of metonymic chains in action in Victorian fiction. One set of metonymic relations occurs inside the text, as figures of speech serving diegetic functions (such as description of what a character's body looks like, for instance, or narration of bodily activities); the other set of metonymic relations occurs extratextually in the chain Harry Shaw has identified as the cause-and-effect relationship that realism posits between the text, the reader, and the world (134). Shaw proposes that model (in reference to Sir Walter Scott's novels) as a way of rethinking how realism purports to work: rather than conceiving of the text-world relation as mimetic or metaphorical, Shaw suggests we see that relation in terms of two metonymic sets of causes and effects: as the realist novel is supposed to be th product of the chain world--author--text, so the novel's impact is the end product of the chain text--reader--world. As Shaw puts it, "The claim of realis would be not to mirror external reality directly, but to set in motion a proces that would lead to an adequate apprehension of reality" (134). As I will argue, for the "feminine" Victorian novelist that adequate apprehension entails a visceral response on the reader's part, a reaction located in the reader's body.(4)

In both forms of metonymy, the intradiegetic and the extradiegetic, I see the gendered difference I have mentioned between male and female Victorian novelists: while such male novelists as Dickens, Trollope, and Thackeray tend t use descriptive metonymies to move away from the material persons being described and toward abstract principles they come to represent, female novelists such as Alcott, Eliot, Gaskell, Susan Warner, and Charlotte Bronte us terms in metonymic sequence to resist abstraction and to point back to the characters' bodies. And whereas the male novelists I am citing use metonymy in ways that might interfere with the actual reader's engagement in the world of the fiction by stretching the limits of verisimilitude (as Riffaterre, for one, has observed(5)), the female novelists use the trope to elicit the gut reaction the sympathetic response in the body of the reader.

As a means of organizing some illustrations in support of my argument for a gendered difference, I propose to analyze the ways metonymy functions in instances where Victorian novels (by which I mean long, fictional, narrative texts written in English, whether in Britain or America, between 1832 and the end of the nineteenth century) confront what Gerald Prince has characterized as "the unnarratable." From the point of view of narratology, the unnarratable falls into three categories, as Prince puts it:

that which, according to a given narrative, cannot be narrated or is not worth narrating either because it transgresses a law (social, authorial, generic, formal) or because it defies the powers of a particular narrator (or those of any narrator) or because it falls below the so-called threshold of narratabilit (it is not sufficiently unusual or problematic).

(1; emphasis added)

I appreciate Prince's limiting his definition to the rules set up by any given text, and yet I would contend that in critical practice, these categories can b generalized to include the assumptions governing a genre, such as the "realist novel" or the "sentimental novel." To simplify Prince's definition for convenient use, I will be using the term "the unnarratable" to mean that which cannot be narrated because it is too tedious or too obvious to say; that which is taboo, in terms of social convention, literary convention, or both; and that which purportedly cannot be put into words because it exceeds or transcends the expressive capacities of language. This last category prompts what Prince has called "unnarration," where a narrator marks the absence of the unnarratable incident with phrases such as "I cannot put into words the emotion she felt whe she beheld him." I will argue that all three of these categories of unnarratability are related in Victorian fiction to questions of the body and that while instances of metonymic writing in Victorian texts written by men reinforce Prince's definitions of the conditions of unnarratability, metonymy functions in Victorian women's novels to call into question the limits of the unnarratable in all three categories. But before I illustrate the feminine mode of metonymy, I would like briefly to summarize what I am calling the masculine model of metonymic discourse in realism.


In his analysis of Anthony Trollope's use of metonymy, Riffaterre has very usefully described the way metonymy can work intradiegetically in Victorian fiction to establish conceptual relations between characters and their moral or psychological functions. Riffaterre points to the way Trollope's narrator isolates descriptive details he has applied to characters (a man's "powerful hat," or a woman's atrocious hairstyle) and refers to them repeatedly not only to evoke the visual image of the character in subsequent passages of the text, but also to stand in for abstract factors of that character's personality. I find this account of Trollope's metonymies persuasive because it describes very well my experience of the way Trollope and his male contemporaries--principally Dickens--use metonymy for abstract (and, not incidentally, humorous) purposes. In an exchange on the somewhat less satirical employment of metonymy in Hard Times, Stephen J. Spector and Patricia E. Johnson differ with each other on the proper interpretation of Dickens's uses of that trope, but they agree in genera that metonymies serve in Dickens's text to stand for characters' connections to abstract social or political principles. I cite the work these critics have don on male novelists' metonymies to support my own claim that in texts by Dickens and Trollope, the metonymic chain tends to move in a direction away from the body of the character being described and toward abstraction. In this respect, the "masculine" metonymy resembles metaphor, the trope that pivots on an abstraction of similarity between the two objects paired.

Let me illustrate this general point with a few examples from Dickens. One of his most characteristic quirks of style is Dickens's habit of substituting an adjective for a character's name in narrative passages. Among the categories of metonymy I have listed, I would call this substitution of an abstraction for a concrete object, or knowing a person (a body) by an adjective associated inside the fictional discourse with him or her. For instance, Wemmick refers at first to his father in Great Expectations as an "aged parent"; Pip, the Dickensian narrator, picks up this tag and substitutes it for "Wemmick's father," referrin to the old man as the "Aged Parent," the "Aged P," and finally "the Aged." (In doing this, Pip exaggerates a practice of Wemmick's own.) More notable is Dickens's habit in heterodiegetically narrated novels (that is, texts that do not have character-narrators) of substituting adjectives for persons, as he frequently does in Our Mutual Friend. Here Lavinia, once described as irrepressible in her dealings with her mother, is frequently dubbed "the Irrepressible" (740). In a more complicated substitution, the Veneerings's butler is described as looking "like a gloomy analytical chemist" (52) when he pours a wine of questionable quality: this figure is of course a simile, pointing out a relation of similarity between the butler (who knows, the narrator suggests, more about the contents of this wine than the guests would care to guess) and the chemist. But the simile (a form of metaphor) turns into metonymy, as the narrator later calls the butler "the Analytical Chemist" and, finally and repeatedly, simply "the Analytical." Here the relation of contiguity, the association between the butler and the term the narrator attaches to him is purely conceptual: again, an abstraction stands in for a material body, as the narrator employs a metonymy substituting "abstraction" (the adjective) for "concrete object" (the butler's body).

Dickens does this, of course, for laughs, and Our Mutual Friend is full of instances where the metonymic substitution of abstractions or occupations for names is similarly exploited. To call Jenny Wren "the Dolls' Dressmaker" or Noddy Boffin "the Golden Dustman" is to employ the metonymy of "the doer and th thing done"; the effect of the figure's frequent repetition may be funny, but I would suggest that this use of the trope is also distancing in that it deflects representational attention from the characters' physical existence, which is in Jenny's case so painful and in Boffin's so comfortable. A hilariously exaggerated substitution of "instrument for user" illustrates this distancing effect more directly: consider the contiguous relation of Mr. Twemlow to his hosts' dining room table:

There was an innocent piece of dinner-furniture that went upon easy castors and was kept over a livery stable-yard . . . when not in use. The name of this article was Twemlow. Being first cousin to Lord Snigsworth, he was in frequent requisition, and at many houses might be said to represent the dining-table in its normal state. Mr. and Mrs. Veneering, for example, arranging a dinner, habitually started with Twemlow, and then put leaves in him, or added guests to him. Sometimes, the table consisted of Twemlow and half a dozen leaves; sometimes, of Twemlow and a dozen leaves; sometimes, Twemlow was pulled out to his utmost extent of twenty leaves. (48)

If a metaphorical similarity between Twemlow and the dining room table emerges in the text (their resemblance inheres in the observation that both are objects to be used at social occasions), that metaphor hinges on the metonymic association between Twemlow and the table. Within the text's discourse, that relation is first established as one of contiguity, the "user and the thing used." As Dickens employs the metonymy, the character's name stands in for the table, or rather the table substitutes for his body when the narrator utters th name "Twemlow." Here, the metonymic chain within the diegesis moves from the character's body toward a thing, which stands for his abstract function in the minds of the Veneerings. As with Dickens's other uses of metonymy, the trope carries attention away from the material existence of the character within the fiction and toward social or moral significances. In other words, the metonymy "blossoms into a metaphor" as the abstraction points to a similarity that might not be perceptible outside of that particular metonymic chain of association. When the binary opposition between "metaphor" and "metonymy" breaks down in thi way, the text moves out of the realm of the discrete and particular into the realm of the allegorical and the universal: the domain of the canonical literar masterpiece.


Placing these instances of metonymic writing in male-written texts next to passages of metonymy in novels by Victorian women, I do not find so strong a tendency to "blossom into metaphor" among the women's uses of the trope. The metonymies I have excerpted from women's texts tend--like the men's--to associate objects in space with persons' bodies but do not insist on that move toward abstraction that I perceive in the male writers' employment of the trope If the metonymic chain moves away from the body in these "masculine" passages, suggest that it moves toward the body in "feminine" metonymies. Metonymy appear to be, for the female Victorian novelist, not so much a means of transmitting a apprehension of abstract similarities between things as a vehicle for communicating matters that are "unnarratable," according to Prince's definition

I shall begin with what may seem to be the least palatable of the categories of "the unnarratable," that which is supposed to be too dull or too obvious to warrant saying. The compendious nature of Victorian novels would seem to sugges that nothing would necessarily fall into this category, as "realist detail" demands an inclusiveness of represented experience that modern practice (and modern patience) usually eschews. And certainly, the question of "too dull" or "too obvious" is a matter of taste, a matter which I suppose has gendered implications. As Virginia Woolf puts it,

It is obvious that the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally, this is so. Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are "important"; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes "trivial." And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. (77)

While I take Woolf's characterization of the situation as "natural" to be implicated in the multiple ironies of her own text, I believe that she is right to call into question the definition of dullness (just as her statement, so boldly beginning with "It is obvious," challenges received notions about what, in the criticism of fiction, has been taken for granted as self-evident). What in a masculine realm might be too dull or too obvious to warrant saying can receive a great deal of space in a feminine text: housework, for instance, or domestic decoration or consumer goods. What is "narratable" in the genre of Victorian fiction, then, may depend on a novelist's gendered writing practice.

I must confess to a taste for what, in partial deference to the traditionally inclined literary critic, I would call the gloriously dull passages of domestic detail to be found in Victorian women's texts. It is nothing new to associate such details with feminine writing: Charles Dickens is said to have recognized that George Eliot was a woman by the level of household detail he detected in her interior descriptions.(6) In the context of twentieth-century criticism, however, it is new--and distinctly, though some might say perversely, feminist--to admit to enjoying such writing. My current favorites come from Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World, where scenes of shopping, cooking, sewing, and cleaning go on for pages without necessarily suggesting any abstract significance for the series of objects mentioned.

To begin with a characteristic illustration, consider the writing desk Ellen Montgomery's mother buys for her just before the two are to part forever. Now, to be sure, a writing desk carries plenty of potential abstract significance as an object of exchange between a mother and a daughter: it is the instrument through which the younger woman will be able to express herself, to become perhaps--like Susan Warner herself--a female author; it can be read metaphorically as signifying the mother's contribution toward the daughter's verbal empowerment. And yet, I question whether the seemingly excessive aggregation of material details in the passage can be read as contributing to that abstract reading. In loving detail, the narrator itemizes the contents of that desk as the mother and daughter choose them at a department store: in the course of a 1500-word passage, they buy "letter paper, large and small"; "envelopes of both sizes to match"; notepaper, with envelopes; an inkstand, filled with ink; "ink-powder, in small packages"; pens, quills, steel points, a pen-handle, and a pen-knife; sealing wax (in "an assortment of the oddest colors"); a seal; a "good supply of wafers of all sorts"; "an ivory leaf-cutter a paper-folder, a pounce-box, a ruler, and a neat little silver pencil; also some drawing pencils, India-rubber, and sheets of drawing paper" (36). Having n individual metaphorical significance in themselves, these objects collectively in their handsome box are to substitute for the person who purchases them: the narrator remarks that "[a]s with her own hands she placed in the desk one thing after another, the thought crossed [the mother's] mind how Ellen would make drawings with those very pencils, on those very sheets of paper, which her eye would never see!" (36). The significance of the things is that Ellen will have them in her mother's absence: they are to stand in, not so much metaphorically as metonymically, for the maternal hands that placed them in the box and the maternal eyes that will not see their products, hands and eyes that synecdochically stand in for the mother's body. I would say, then, that this metonymic string connecting writing supplies to Mrs. Montgomery challenges the "unnarratableness" of boring details by having those details point back to the mother's body without necessarily taking on abstract metaphorical meanings in themselves.

In "feminine" Victorian novels, the representation of women's physical activity--such as housework and cooking--often becomes the textual occasion for metonymic chains pointing back to the body. Such scenes contrast with male novelists' renditions of housekeeping at the level of the detail. Dickens, in another passage from Our Mutual Friend, describes Bella's household actions as series of gerunds, generalizing her body's movements:

Such weighing and mixing and chopping and grating, such dusting and washing and polishing, such snipping and weeding and trowelling and other small gardening, such making and mending and folding and airing, such diverse arrangements, and above all such severe study! (749)

The gerunds stand in for Bella as metonymic substitutions of "thing done" for "doer," but--being abstractions for activities rather than "things," properly speaking--they pull against a representation of her body's engagement in those things done. Dickens writes at a similar level of abstraction about housework i Bleak House even when the speaking voice is that of a female character, Esther Summerson:

I was very busy indeed, all day, and wrote directions home to the servants, and wrote notes for my guardian, and dusted his books and papers, and jingled my housekeeping keys a good deal, one way and another. (292)

Here, the notes, books, and papers make a beginning toward a list of details that come into physical contiguity with the character's body as she works, but the narrative discourse seems to retreat into the relative abstraction of "jingled my housekeeping keys a good deal." The keys are a metonymy for Esther as she does her household work (a substitution of instrument for user); their discursive function is to divert narrative focus away from the character's body in motion. Of course, the keys serve metaphorical functions as well, being--lik Esther--the means by which the home will be kept orderly and closed matters wil be reopened.

By contrast, consider the degree of detail present in renditions of housekeepin by female contemporaries of Dickens. A scene from Charlotte Bronte's Shirley resembles the description of Bella's housework in that it does not narrate a specific incident, but rather tells of repeated and habitual actions. Still, it retains a level of specificity in its description of Shirley's household activities that differs markedly from Dickens's textual practice:

She takes her sewing occasionally: but, by some fatality, she is doomed never t sit steadily at it for above five minutes at a time; her thimble is scarcely fitted on, her needle scarce threaded, when a sudden thought calls her up-stairs: perhaps she goes to seek some just-then-remembered old ivory-backed needle-book, or older china-topped workbox, quite unneeded, but which seems at the moment indispensable; perhaps to arrange her hair, or a drawer which she recollects to have seen that morning in a state of curious confusion; perhaps only to take a peep from a particular window at a particular view. . . . She ha scarcely returned, and again taken up the slip of cambric, or square of half-wrought canvass, when Tartar's bold scrape and strangled whistle are heard at the porch-door, and she must run to open it for him; it is a hot day; he comes in panting; she must convoy him to the kitchen and see with her own eyes that his water-bowl is replenished. (372)

The passage goes on at length, accumulating details about the material aspects of Shirley's typical day at home. The materiality of the objects presented in the passage--the thimble, the needle, the ivory-backed needle-book, the china-topped workbox, the hair, the drawer, the slip of cambric, the square of half-wrought canvas, the panting dog--points back metonymically to the body tha manipulates them in the fictional space.

Cooking--an activity that is practically unnarratable in texts by Dickens, Trollope, and Thackeray--is another occasion for metonymic chains pointing back to the body in female-written novels. Contrast Bella's "weighing and mixing and chopping and grating" with Jo March's first attempt at an elegant meal in Louis May Alcott's Little Women:

She boiled the asparagus hard for an hour, and was grieved to find the heads cooked off, and the stalks harder than ever. The bread burnt black; for the salad dressing so aggravated her, that she let everything else go, till she had convinced herself that she could not make it fit to eat. The lobster was a scarlet mystery to her, but she hammered and poked, till it was unshelled, and its meager proportions concealed in a grove of lettuce-leaves. The potatoes had to be hurried, not to keep the asparagus waiting, and were not done at last. Th blancmange was lumpy, and the strawberries not as ripe as they looked. (115)

As in the passage from Warner, the level of material detail in this scene challenges the notion that literary writing ought to strive for metaphoric resonance. The details of the failed menu are of interest solely as products of Jo's physical efforts. Their function is to focus the narrative discourse on th actions of the heroine's body, to point metonymically to that body, in the absence of the possibility--within the conventions of the period and genre--of describing it more directly.


A parallel difference between male writers' and female writers' modes of metonymy surfaces in their handling of another category of the unnarratable, th taboo. Helena Michie has written persuasively about the incapacity of all texts--but Victorian novels especially--for representing women's bodies in any but a partial way; The Flesh Made Word shows in detail that both male and femal novelists of the period represent the body primarily through synecdoche, tendin to fetishize the hair, hands, feet, and eyes of heroines in particular and of middle-class female characters in general. Probably even more taboo than the body itself in Victorian literary and social discourse, the bodily details of sexuality and (especially extramarital) sexual experience fall within the realm of the unnarratable, too, for both male and female writers. That is, the physical aspects of sexual intercourse are only obliquely represented, if they are present at all, within the discourse of Victorian fictional texts. This feature is a source of amazement and confusion among modern student readers, wh are capable of reading Elizabeth Gaskell's Ruth or George Eliot's Adam Bede and being caught entirely by surprise when the unmarried young working women, Ruth and Hetty, turn up pregnant after their respective upper-class admirers have abandoned them. But I doubt that Victorian readers had the same difficulty interpreting these heroines' experiences, for Victorian novelists employed code of their own for representing illicit sexuality.

If euphemism was the characteristic mode of referring to bodily experience in Victorian social discourse, metaphor and metonymy served the purpose in literar discourse. As in passages of description, however, I perceive a stronger tendency among male writers' metonymies to rely on metaphoric signification tha among female writers'. Metaphoric references to characters' sexuality abound in male-authored Victorian texts: depending on the hermeneutic code the critic employs in reading, it is possible--a la Albert Guerard--to unearth a psychosexual symbol in practically every sentence of a Dickens text, for instance.(7) We can look to Thackeray for a more overt example of metaphoricall represented illicit sexuality when the narrator of Vanity Fair writes of Becky Sharpe's relations with men:

I defy any one to say that our Becky, who has certainly some vices, has not bee presented to the public in a perfectly genteel and inoffensive manner. In describing this siren, singing and smiling, coaxing and cajoling, the author, with modest pride, asks his readers all round, has he once forgotten the laws o politeness, and showed the monster's hideous tail above water? No! Those who like may peep down under waves that are pretty transparent, and see it writhing and twirling, diabolically hideous and slimy, flapping amongst bones, or curlin round corpses; but above the water-line, I ask, has not everything been proper, agreeable, and decorous, and has any the most squeamish immoralist in Vanity Fair a right to cry fie? When, however, the siren disappears and dives below, down among the dead men, the water of course grows turbid over her, and it is labour lost to look into it ever so curiously. They look pretty enough when the sit upon a rock, twangling their harps and combing their hair, and sing, and beckon to you to come and hold the looking-glass; but when they sink into their native element, depend on it those mermaids are about no good, and we had best not examine the fiendish marine cannibals, revelling and feasting on their wretched pickled victims. (738)

In his characteristically sarcastic vein, the masculine narrator mocks his audience's presumed prudishness while simultaneously catering to it by employin metaphor--rather than a literal representation--to describe Becky's sexual exploits. For Becky to resemble the siren, the reader must perceive the abstrac resemblance the two figures bear to each other (both are more dangerous than they look; both have unspeakably ugly features below the waist; both are particularly threatening to men). The effect of the trope is to detach Becky's sexuality from her own body and transfer it to the realm of abstraction (dangerousness, ugliness, threat). Metaphor, like the masculine mode of metonymy, thus shifts the focus away from the representation of the character's own individual physicality (here, the body being described is that of the serpent, not Becky) and toward that of the abstract (the generalized resemblanc between the two "sirens").

By contrast, feminine Victorian novelists, equally loathe to render sexual encounters literally, tend to favor metonymic strategies over metaphors for representing them. Rather than taking the focus off the sexually active body by diverting attention through metaphor to abstraction, feminine novelists more often depict a bodily gesture that stands in for intercourse itself.

A metonymic code that appears to be shared among women's texts is the gesture o one character's laying a hand on another's arm, as a sign (to be interpreted either by the reader or by other characters) of sexual relationship, either currently ongoing or immediately impending. In both these texts, it is impossible to locate the moment(s) in the diegesis when the heroines and their lovers commit any act of intercourse, but the narrators do represent this gesture: "Arthur had laid his hand on the soft arm that was nearest to him, and was stooping towards Hetty with a look of coaxing entreaty" (177), Eliot writes in Adam Bede; and later, when Adam sees Arthur and Hetty with hands clasped, he suspects what turns out to be the truth about their sexual relationship. Employing exactly the same code, Gaskell has Ruth's employer see Ruth with Bellingham in the same posture: "Mrs. Mason had clearly seen, with her sharp, needle-like eyes, the attitude in which Ruth had stood with the young man who had just quitted her. Ruth's hand had been lying in his arm, and fondly held there by his other hand" (54). The conclusion to which Mrs. Mason jumps about their physical relation to each other--that they must be having sex--would seem ludicrous in any context other than a Victorian novel, but in that context she is perfectly correct: the hand on the arm--associated by contiguity with more intimate physical relations but not in any clear sense similar to them--substitutes in the texts, as it does in Mrs. Mason's mind, for the sexual coupling of the heroines and their lovers. In both Hetty's and Ruth's cases, th situations carry important moral implications, and in that sense the metonymies carry a certain abstract weight in the narratives. But the main purpose of the figure in these instances is to say something about the physical, material experience of these characters' bodies, something that is otherwise unnarratable.

Moments in which characters become aware of physical, heterosexual attraction provide another location for this gendered difference in narrative discourse. Trollope, like Thackeray, relies on language that is chiefly metaphoric for his narrator's account of the decisively sexualized moment in John Grey's courtship of Alice Vavasor in Can You Forgive Her?:

She was as a prisoner who would fain cling to his prison after pardon has reached him, because he is conscious that the pardon is undeserved. And it may be that there was still left within her bosom some remnant of that feeling of rebellion which his masterful spirit had ever produced in her. He was so imperious in his tranquillity, he argued his question of such love with a manifest preponderance of right on his side, that she had always felt that to yield to him would be to confess the omnipotence of his power. She knew now tha she must yield to him,--that his power over her was omnipotent. She was pressed by him as in some countries the prisoner is pressed by the judge,--so pressed that she acknowledged to herself silently that any further antagonism to him wa impossible. . . . She put up her hand to impede his, but his hand, like his character and his words, was full of power. It would not be impeded. "Alice," h said, as he pressed her close with his arm, "the battle is over now, and I have won it." (356)

In Alice's consciousness, as the narrator renders it, she is "as a prisoner," and John "the judge"; his hand, "like his character and his words," is "full of power." The simile undermines the physicality of that power as the narrative discourse compares the man's hand with his abstract moral qualities ("his character") and his language. John's metaphorical conclusion, comparing the courtship to a battle, reinforces the tendency toward abstraction that runs through this passage, one of the most intensely sexualized of any in that novel

A similar moment of sexual experience occurs in Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, providing an interesting female-authored combination of metaphorical and metonymic modes for narrating bodily activity. Here, Stephen Guest is overcome by his illicit attraction to Maggie Tulliver:

Stephen was mute; he was incapable of putting a sentence together, and Maggie bent her arm a little upward towards the large half-opened rose that had attracted her. Who has not felt the beauty of a woman's arm?--the unspeakable suggestions of tenderness that lie in the dimpled elbow, and all the varied gently-lessening curves down to the delicate wrist, with its tiniest, almost imperceptible nicks in the firm softness. A woman's arm touched the soul of a great sculptor two thousand years ago. . . . Maggie's was such an arm as that--and it had the warm tints of life.

A mad impulse seized on Stephen; he darted towards the arm, and showered kisses on it, clasping the wrist.

But the next moment Maggie snatched it from him, and glared at him like a wounded war-goddess, quivering with rage and humiliation. (442)

The narrative focus here is on Maggie's arm, a synecdoche for her entire body; the account of the sexualized moment centers on that physical object, rather than on an abstract quality (such as John Grey's "power"). Far from eschewing metaphor altogether, Eliot concludes the moment by comparing Maggie to the statue whose arm hers resembles on the grounds of their shared expression rathe than the physical detail of their similar arms. But that extended focus on Maggie's arm aligns the passage more closely with the "feminine" practice of writing metonymically to point to the body than with the "masculine" habit of moving into the realm of metaphoric abstraction. In these women novelists' writing about sex, the level of detail directs the metonymic chain of signification back from the narrative discourse to the imagined body of the character.


The final category of the unnarratable--that which cannot be said because it is supposed to defy the expressive power of language--brings us to the other body involved in the textual transaction, not the body of a character, but the reader's own body. My work is not the first to consider metonymy in this extra- or heterotextual context, linking reader with text. Karen Oakes has written about the ways Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman use direct address to establish a metonymic relation between the "you" in the lyrical text and the audience; Pa Shaw has explored the erotic potential of this kind of metonymy as it operates in Kate Chopin's The Awakening, where the reader's bodily arousal can be seen a substituting metonymically for the heroine's sexual awakening. I am proposing--here and elsewhere--to see the susceptible reader's tears as metonymies for unnarrated emotions in texts: the physical reaction that produce a material sign in tears is, I think, the strongest evidence of realism's powerful claim to establishing associations among text, reader, and world (Warhol, "Against Catharsis"). The "good cry" and its constitutive tears may be seen as metonyms for the texts that inspire them (the substitution of thing produced for producer); the tear is a detail often overlooked in theories of reading.

Victorian women's narrators express an acute awareness of their readers' visceral experience of reading, and they frequently draw contiguous connections between a character's emotional experience and that of the reader. My Gendered Interventions is full of examples of ways feminine narrators can use direct address to the reader toward this end: perhaps one of the most striking is Stowe's address to the reader of Uncle Tom's Cabin in the scene where the Northern Senator's wife is seeking clothes for Eliza's child in one of her bureau drawers: "And oh! mother that reads this, has there never been in your house a drawer, or a closet, the opening of which has been to you like the opening again of a little grave? Ah! happy mother that you are, if it has not been so" (154). The strategy here is to draw both classes of mothers--those who have lost children and those who have not--into participating in the character' emotion. Most often, Stowe--like other feminine Victorian novelists whose works seek to promote social reform--encourages readers to participate in the emotion of characters whose race or class would put them in the category of "other" fro the reader's point of view. Such interventions usually occur in the subjunctive mode, but they encourage the reader to project his or her emotional experience into the character's situation. An example would be Stowe's address to the reader of the scene of Tom's sale in the New Orleans slave market: "And if you should ever be under the necessity, sir, of selecting, out of two hundred men, one who was to become your absolute owner and disposer, you would, perhaps, realize, just as Tom did, how few there were that you would feel at all comfortable in being made over to" (476).

Until recently, I have assumed that "feminine" Victorian novels draw analogies between their characters and their readers in order to enforce or evoke identification: that is, a recognition of emotional similarity between the comfortably placed middle-class reader and the working-class, enslaved, or otherwise oppressed character. With its reliance on similarity, such a relation would be based on metaphor. But that model has the troubling aspect of erasing difference, of assuming that a community of writers and readers must efface the impacts of race, class, nationality, age, and the material facts of existence that such differences carried in British and American nineteenth-century cultur and society in order to form some kind of coalition of emotion. The model of reliance upon recognition of similarity or resemblance between character and reader also presupposes that realist texts operate mimetically and that the reader will be moved if she or he recognizes the "real world" reflected in the text. But that model begs the question of referentiality, as Harry Shaw's argument about metonymy in Scott points out.

What I would propose now is that we consider the relation between the reader an the characters in "feminine" Victorian novels to be not so much metaphoric as metonymic. In the context of Victorian feminine uses of metonymy, this association of the character's body with the reader's own contributes to the Victorian woman novelist's project of making the fiction seem "real," to inspir readers' activism toward changing "real" social, political, and moral circumstances or, to appropriate Shaw's phrase, to lead the reader to an "adequate apprehension of reality": adequate, that is, to changing the world. Harriet Jacobs, working countless intertextual variations on the genre of domestic realist fiction in her autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, uses direct address to her middle-class white audience to underline the necessity of acknowledging differences between the heroine and the receiver of her text: when the narrator, Linda Brent, is reunited with her little son, she turns aside from the diegesis to say, "O, reader, can you imagine my joy? No, you cannot, unless you have been a slave mother" (261). If the mother who reads cannot have a metaphoric relation of similarity to Linda Brent, her emotion can be contiguous to Linda's; the reader may not be able to identify with the precise character of Linda's joy, but--if she is a susceptible reader--she can feel it as she reads. The reader's "adequate apprehension of reality" would arise from her metonymic relation to the text, her recognition that her emotion can fall into association with those of the (represented) slave mother even if they cannot resemble them. Such an apprehension would place the reader in the position of experiencing affinity with the character--and, more significantly, with the historical slaves the character stands in for--without making unwarranted, universalizing assumptions about their similarities.

When a feminine narrator resorts to "unnarrating" an emotion or event, disclaiming the possibility of saying what a character did or how she felt or looked, she often does turn explicitly to the reader's experience to call up emotions associated with related situations in the actual reader's own life. This sets into action the extradiegetic metonymic chain of association between text, reader, and world as the reader's emotion stands in for the character's. offer an example from Alcott's Little Women, where the narrator often "unnarrates" scenes of intense emotion, appealing to the reader's "imagination" in the absence of language adequate to describing the feeling. When Mrs. March returns from her travels to nurse the sick Beth, the narrator reports,

I don't think I have any words in which to tell the meeting of the mother and daughters; such hours are beautiful to live, but very hard to describe, so I will leave it to the imagination of my readers, merely saying that the house wa full of genuine happiness, and that Meg's tender hope was realized; for when Beth woke from that long, healing sleep, the first objects on which her eyes fell were the little rose and Mother's face. (187)

If the reader can imagine the emotion, the narrator implies, she can also experience it in reading the scene: her emotion is not so much similar to those of the March women as contiguous with theirs. In novels that are notorious, lik Little Women, for wrenching from their readers the "good cry"--the physical, visceral response to the represented events--the reader's tears stand in metonymic relation to the characters' joy or travails: it is a heterotextual form (that is, crossing the boundaries of the diegesis) of the metonymic relation of passion to object of passion. This metonymy linking the reader's body with the text operates, I would argue, in "good-cry" novels using feminine narrative strategies from Uncle Tom's Cabin, to The Mill on the Floss, to Bleak House.

What is at stake, then, in a feminist-narratological study of the uses of metonymy in Victorian novels is a recognition that the aesthetic repression of the trope of metonymy is no accident: if the masculine mode of metonymic writin in Victorian novels typically "blossoms into metaphor" by moving into the abstract realm of the general and the universal, while the feminine mode resist the totalizing and generalizing impulse behind metaphor (to paraphrase a difference Barbara Johnson identifies between metaphor and metonymy [158]) and ties the text more intimately to the bodies of characters and of readers, then the privileging of metaphoric writing over metonymic writing has been reinforce by the larger social arrangements that assign value in academic and aesthetic realms according to gender categories. The next question I face in pursuing thi project is to look (to borrow another concept from Johnson) at the differences within, alongside the differences between, men's and women's uses of metonymy i Victorian novels: what happens when a male novelist writes a "good-cry" text or a text that uses metonymic figures to refer to unnarratable physical experience Do female novelists (like George Eliot) who have a strong tendency to write metaphorically always use "feminine" metonymies when confronted with unnarratability, or do they employ "cross-gendered" strategies? What do male novelists do with narrative situations that are unnarratable because of the taboo against sexuality: do they share the metonymic codes (for illicit sexual intercourse, for instance) that their female contemporaries use in common? What happens when the female Victorian novelist speaks from a different subject position in her narrative, when, like Jacobs, she is neither white nor middle class? Are there differences among uses of metonymy by first-person and "third-person" narrators? Do those differences follow gendered lines? And to what extent does the gender of the "actual reader" inflect his or her visceral response to a Victorian novel's emotive strategies?

To do such work, finally, means to take feminine textual practices seriously: t overcome assumptions about what "great" or "important" literature should look like and to apply a feminist aesthetic (like the one Jane Tompkins proposes in Sensational Designs) that takes women's texts on their own terms rather than comparing them--on the level of sentences, as well as on the level of emotional impact--with works produced and invested with value in a masculine-dominated context. To do so means, in part, to attend to the details--"gendered and doubl gendered as feminine"--that are characteristic of "feminine" Victorian writing and to discuss them in as much detail as possible whether they surface in women's works or men's.

Attending to those details also calls into question the very definition of "the feminine" in Victorian terminology. If the dominant cultural stereotype of middle-class femininity in the nineteenth century dictated that women should be more fastidious, more prudish, and less visceral in their relation to the body than men, then the textual practices I have identified here show an active--if not necessarily intentional--resistance to that stereotype on the part of femal novelists. By employing metonymy to extend the boundaries of the "unnarratable" in Victorian fiction, women writers redefined "femininity" for themselves. The challenge for feminist critics is to continue to diversify that definition and to invest it with cultural value.


1 Narratology that focuses less on "story" (what happens in a given diegesis) than on "discourse" (how the story gets transmitted in narration) has not reall "caught on" among feminist critics although the usefulness of doing close analysis of ideological patterns in narrative discourse may now be coming into focus. Fictions of Authority, a major work of feminist narratology by the criti who has done the most to map out that field, Susan Sniader Lanser, has been recently published by Cornell University Press; Susan Suleiman's ground-breakin work on the narrative discourse of twentieth-century French ideological novels, Authoritarian Fictions, was recently reissued in paperback by Princeton University Press.

2 Matus and others (including James Mellard, Jane Gallop, and Phil Barrish, in particular) have begun a discussion of the psychological ramifications of metonymy and of the relation of the trope to gender formation in a Lacanian context.

3 Such critics as Hugh Bredin and Leon Surette have called into question the applicability of Jakobson's distinction between the metaphoric, the relation of two terms in discourse determined by their similarity to each other, and the metonymic, the relation of two terms determined by contiguity or association with each other. In some respects, the distinctions they are making are useful from a feminist point of view. Bredin is right, I think, to regard the binarism behind Jakobson's somewhat offhand observation that all language skills functio either by selection/similarity (metaphor) or by association/contiguity (metonymy) as a "straitjacket" ("Roman Jakobson" 102). I do not, however, share Bredin's faith in the "essence of metonymy" (which turns out, for him, to be th conventional and contiguous relation of things, not words), nor his disdain for the "anti-realist metaphysics of structuralism" ("Metonymy" 50). Bredin's narrower definition of metonymy is not really any less binary, less constrictin than Jakobson's: indeed, it leads him to the inevitable dismissal of metonymy a a category for literary analysis since, as he remarks,

In its very conventionality, [metonymy] retains and expresses many of our everyday values and prejudices, and our inherited knowledge of the world. This is perhaps the only reason for saying [as Jakobson had said] that it is a mark of realist prose. I suspect, though, that it is a mark of all language everywhere, and that its presence or absence, or dominance over other tropes, cannot usefully be employed in the classification of discourse. ("Metonymy" 58)

From the perspective of the narratologist (friendlier, to be sure, than Bredin is to the "metaphysics of structuralism"), Bredin gratuitously limits metonymy' useful employment by defining the figure as a relation between things rather than words; obviously, such a move constitutes a departure from the "classification of discourse." Narratology's goal is the classification of narrative discourse in a comprehensive poetics. Such a project--particularly when it seeks to take gender into account--is best served by inclusive definitions, and I will therefore embrace all the categories Bredin tries to weed out as he narrows down his exclusive definition. I have appropriated ten o Bredin's eleven types of metonymic relation ("Metonymy" 48), adding illustrativ examples of my own. I omit the eleventh--the relation of sign to signified--because its presence in Bredin's argument serves primarily to discredit the usefulness of the concept of metonymy. Bredin does not include synecdoche, as I do, among his types of metonymy.

4 Embarking from theoretical perspectives very different from mine, both Ann Cvetkovich and D. A. Miller have studied visceral reactions to Victorian texts in terms of "affect" and "sensation." Miller's work on sensation fiction is especially of interest in that it takes the body of the reader--not to mention the body of the literary-critical writer--into account (146-91).

5 Riffaterre remarks of Trollope's metonymies that "[t]he descriptive function creates verisimilitude. The comic function tends to cancel it, for it literally points to the author's intrusion, suggesting that the novel does not so much represent reality as make use of it to a specific end. . . . In metonymy, therefore, the mimesis of reality coexists with a display of artifice" (274).

6 According to Gordon Haight,

Dickens was one of the few to discern a feminine hand in the author of the Scenes [of Clerical Life], whom, he said, he would have been strongly disposed to address as a woman. "If they originated with no woman, I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself mentally so like a woman since the world began." In a separate letter to Blackwood, Dickens cited "such marvels of description" . . . as "taken from a woman's point of view." (251)

7 See, for example, "Forbidden Games (I): Dickens and the Forbidden Marriage" i The Triumph of the Novel.

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Title Annotation:Issues in English and American Literatures
Author:Warhol, Robyn R.
Date:Mar 22, 1994
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