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Ellipsis in English Literature: Signs of Omission.

TONER, ANNE. Ellipsis in English Literature: Signs of Omission. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. x + 255 pp. $95.00 hardcover.

Despite its brevity (170 pages of text, 85 pages of end matter), Ellipsis in English Literature is actually two books: first, a history of ellipsis as chronicled in grammar and rhetoric books from the sixteenth through the twentieth century; second, an application to literary works, exploring how writers have used the available punctuations of "hesitations, interruptions and omissions" (1). The first book is perhaps most useful, because few readers know the history she uncovers, whereas most will recognize that her study casts minimal new light on the texts she writes about, usually just reinforcing what has long been thought. Still, some important observations on Richardson, Meredith, and Woolf make this book well worth the author's effort and the reader's attention.

Toner early establishes several fundamental points around which her study will revolve: ellipsis can be represented by dots (points), dashes, asterisks, hyphens; it can be used to imitate speech; because it is a "lack," it necessarily involves the reader; and because it serves to indicate unfinished thoughts, ellipsis may be thought of as "a sign of linguistic failure...or artistry," of "depth...or banality" (6). In that the novel evolves toward interiority, ellipsis becomes more and more important as a marker: "the intrinsic difficulty of conveying a non-verbalized internal state is expressed typographically by the ellipsis..." (13).

The relationship to speech necessitates the opening chapter's focus on printed drama: "print" is here as important as "drama" because print engages the problem that early authors often paid little attention to punctuation, a task left to compositors. To this complication, Toner adds the slow acceptance of ellipsis by grammarians, questions of how it would be marked (e.g., dots or dashes), and when it would be justified, grammatically and stylistically. Her discussion of early folio and quarto printings of King Lear exhibits the strengths and weaknesses of her approach. The scholarship is impeccable, an intricate tracking of texts and their variations. On the other hand, the play on ellipse and eclipse, obvious enough, seems insufficient to suggest that "the typographical sign can very subtly bring a reader imaginatively closer to experiencing, suffering human beings" (43-44). One suspects Shakespeare did not need a dash to make that possible.

At the heart of Toner's project, then, is her effort to weigh the ellipsis as equal to the word in conveying meaning (or its lack). Some authors lend themselves readily to her thesis: Sterne, Gothic novelists, George Meredith. Precisely their self-conscious usage means that critics have already covered much of the ground. Hence her discussion of Richardson offers a good deal more than her comments on Sterne. To be sure, as a printer Richardson was well-positioned to control the appearance of his printed pages, as Janine Barchas and others have richly discussed. The paradoxical connection of the ellipsis to the novelistic ideal of total inclusiveness (omissions that signal the desire for completeness) is perceptively discussed by Toner in one of the best sections of her book; her conclusion, that "ellipsis characterizes the form of Clarissa" (68), is excessive, but her explanation certainly tends to justify her enthusiasm: "these marks of ellipsis are part of a narrative trajectory in which we see the disabling of the heroine's verbal agency.... Ellipsis indicates... the submission of the text to external definition.... Aspirations to documentary fullness and textual control are undermined by...ellipsis and ellipsis itself becomes associated with a malevolent agency" (68). Her argument that the use of typographical ornaments (e.g., florets) is an alternate form of indicating ellipsis is less convincing, but only because Richardson uses them so frequently in his second million-word novel, Sir Charles Grandison; one would want some comparison with the ornaments in that work, some indication that he used them to signal meaning there rather than simply as time, subject, and space dividers. The Cambridge Edition of Richardson, now in progress, will not reproduce these ornaments, certainly an error if Toner's thesis is correct.

Ellipsis marked by the dash became a subject in eighteenth-century books of rhetoric as a way to indicate dramatic pauses, which made other usages, as in Tristram Shandy, the target of both rhetoricians and grammarians. At the same time, the pause could, for certain authors, indicate an emotional hiatus, a mark of inexpressibility in the face of suspense, sublimity, incompleteness. It thus came to be associated with fictions of terror--in short, ellipsis became a favorite device of Gothic writers. Again, the argument is stretched a bit far: the notion that ellipsis is at the center of the narrative question of open-ended versus closed fictions seems strained. While the found "fragment" occurs often in Gothic fictions, their unfinished plots have more to do with the purposeful production of doubt, suspense, and mystery than with theories of narrative. Sequels were another motivation; few genres are as overtly audience-directed as the Gothic. That this literature occupies a hefty portion of Toner's study suggests that Addison and Swift were correct: the overused ellipsis indicates bad writing, equivalent perhaps to the warning for all beginning writers not to use "et cetera," but to tell us what more is at stake.

Good writers need no such warning, and after a brief encounter with Wilkie Collins we return to firmer ground with George Meredith and Virginia Woolf. Toner is very convincing on both, doing what good criticism should do--make us want to re-read primary authors in the light cast by her approach. Indeed, the entire difference between the important use of ellipsis and the unimportant is captured by a neatly turned comparison: "While The Moonstone traced the legibility of thought behind a fragmented speech, Meredith looks at the illegibility of thoughts behind actions that are seemingly definitive" (146). And, saving the best for last, Toner's discussion of Woolf's Three Guineas is splendid, particularly the play on dot and doubt, the feminist implications of ellipsis, and the refusal to allow ellipsis totally to open or shut an argument. Toner puts her laborious efforts to trace the history of ellipsis into a fine reading justifying her scholarship--a reading that is also a moving homage to Woolf.

MELVYN NEW, University of Florida
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Author:New, Melvyn
Publication:Studies in the Novel
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2015
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