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Hypallage and the literalization of metaphors in a Dickens text.

One of the reasons for the famously "inimitable" quality of Dickens's style is its oscillation between the literal and the figurative uses of vocabulary. Dickens's texts are monuments to the idiom of his times--shape-shifting monuments in which figurative language often turns into fabula details and sometimes seems to generate fabula events. In this paper, I shall focus on one specific figure of speech, namely hypallage, metaphor's neighbor, which shares some features of metonymy and enthymeme. I shall discuss the local effects of this figure and its possible connection with fabula events.

The Greek meaning of hypallage is "interchange, exchange"; the most common example is "her beauty's face." In the Cyclops episode of Ulysses, Joyce provides us with hypallage as word play: when Joe Hynes offers the narrator a drink, saying "Could you make a hole in another pint?" the answer is "Could a swim duck?" (405).

According to Walter Shandy in Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, love can hardly be discussed without this quaint trope:

   "You can scarce," said [my father], "combine two ideas together
      upon it [love],
   brother Toby, without an hypallage"--What's that? cried my uncle
   The cart before the horse, replied my father--
   --And what is he to do there? cried my uncle Toby--
   Nothing, quoth my father, but to get in--or let it alone.

   Tristram Shandy, VIII.xiii.501

Walter uses the idiom "the cart before the horse" as an image-bearing example of "exchange or inversion"; Toby hears it literally, reviving the metaphor and personifying the cart as "he." In his rejoinder, Walter extends the metaphor by cancelling Toby's personification, reinterpreting the "he" as a human subject faced with one of the radical absurdities of the human condition and having to consider taking a plunge and getting trapped in the container. (1)

This is where Dickens must have gone to school for the use of extended metaphors. Yet the Dickensian hypallage is not the same as Walter Shandy's. Rather, it belongs to the more narrowly defined but also more broadly used variety of this trope, namely epithet transfer, in which inversion takes the shape of the attribution of a quality to the wrong exponent. (2) Unlike Irish-bull transpositions, such as "Could a swim duck?", epithet transfer is akin to metaphor in that it moves a feature from one object to another. Yet unlike metaphor, epithet transfer does not involve a substitution of a noun for a noun-adjective phrase, as in "he is a lion" instead of "he is a very brave person." Instead, it transfers the adjective from an unnamed noun or pronoun to a non-metaphorical noun.

Here are some examples of epithet-transfer hypallage in poetry, before and after Dickens. In "Tintern Abbey," recollecting his unhappy five years between his two visits to the river Wye, Wordsworth's speaker places himself "In lonely rooms / Amid the din of towns and cities." "Lonely rooms" is a hypallage: it is the lyrical hero who felt lonely--the rooms were no hermitage but spaces of precarious separation from the urban din. This epithet shift has a metonymic force rooted in contiguity: "compressing" two inputs, an alienating indoor space and the lover of nature who inhabits it, the "conceptual blend" (see Fauconnier and Turner, esp. pp. 113-37) suggests that loneliness, solitude, an almost Platonic reality, was extended over (and perhaps also forced into) the Procrustean container of unloved lodgings. It is in and from that setting that the speaker had his escapes into memories of the landscapes of earlier days and into moments of recreated joy in which the aesthetic, the psychological, and the mystical became interfused.

Mental escape is less valorized in another poem of nostalgia, Thomas Hardy's "The Self-Unseeing," where the speaker revisits his childhood home. The first stanza is as follows:

   Here is the ancient floor,
   Footworn and hollowed and thin,
   Here was the former door
   Where the dead feet walked in.

The synecdoche of feet (pars pro toto) walking in through the "former door" trails in two cases of hypallage: when they walked in, the owners of the feet were not dead; it is now that some of the people whom they signify are dead and others have changed beyond recognition. Nor is there a "former door"--instead, there is a new door, irrelevant for memories, and a place where formerly there was a door, now evidently blocked: here two input space-times are compressed by turning the adverb that belongs to the deictic present into an adjective transferred to an item that belongs to the past. The following stanzas evoke the three people in the room, none concentrating on their little collective in the closed familial space--all "looking away." Each must have come in through the door that no longer exists and each escapes through passages that open in the mind, each soul stretching toward something beyond the moment, whereas the moment ought, perhaps, to have been cherished for its own sake. The "former door" is a conceptual blend, a shortcut past logic toward the childish immediacy of perception, enhancing our sense that it is the memory of a dreamy childhood that unfolds in the poem and creating a kind of a thwarted Mobius loop of the present retrospect and past dreams of the future. (3)

Hypallage thus differs from but is often blended with other tropes. Stephen Dedalus's imaginative definition of a "pier" as a "disappointed bridge" in the second episode of Ulysses (29) may further blend prosopopeia (the pier is disappointed at stretching toward but not reaching the other shore) with hypallage (it is the people on the pier, the flirts on the Kingstown pier, for instance, who are getting nowhere), with symbolism pertaining to Stephen himself as an unrecognized and still unfulfilled artist.

Dickens's use of hypallage is likewise a kind of shorthand, a compression of multiple semantic strands in a brief phrase, to be perceived as a sudden expansion of the phrase's indirect reference. A hypallage condenses semantic suggestiveness in a reduced textual unit, putting textual length and the density of meaning in inverse proportion. As in "her beauty's face," Dickensian hypallages stage tense relationships between the abstract and the concrete. In my observation, of all of Dickens's novels, this figure of speech is most frequent in A Tale of Two Cities, where it often stands for tensions between an individual's public image and private significance, or lack thereof. The style of Dickens's other novels tends to be dominated by other forms and uses of figurative language, e.g., personification and reification in Martin Chuzzle-witt, the clash between Newspeak and the language of imagination in the heteroglossia of Hard Times, transformation of metaphors and metaphoric connotations into turns of the plot in Bleak House, or the constant near-imperceptible sliding between the literal and the figurative in Little Dorrit.

There may be various explanations why hypallage is an artistically appropriate trope for A Tale of Two Cities. One of the reasons is that it effects a mental shortcut between the fictional plot and the input spaces familiar to Dickens's target audience from External Fields of Reference, (4) prominently including Dickens's own major source, Thomas Carlyle's 1837 The French Revolution. Another explanation is that the conceptual blends, in general, cut the corners of mental routes, as if emblematizing escape from logical determinacies; this is particularly apt in a novel where the fantasy of escape is part of the spell cast over the reader. These connections are not direct: indeed, hypallages occur mainly in the accounts of the years preceding the French Revolution rather than in the tense chapters in which some of the characters make their escape from the Terror-ridden Paris. In Dickens's representation of the last years of the anden regime, when the storm (the major extended macro-metaphor of the novel (5)) was slowly gathering in the sea of human suffering, the "Hunger" of lower-class Parisians is said to be "shred into atomies in every farthing porringer of husky chips of potato, fried with some reluctant drops of oil" (33). The participle "shred" would normally pertain to these "French fries"; here it is transferred to the chronic Hunger, with its metaphoric avatars, the atomies, replicated in the insufficiency of any food ration. The epithet "reluctant" for "drops of oil" is a descriptive personification: without an emollient, the oil does not fuse with the other foods (hunger does that instead). Yet the epithet-noun phrase "reluctant drops" is also a hypallage: it evokes the economizing cook, unwilling to expend any but minimal quantities of oil, in small drops. Indeed, in her discussion of personification and its opposite technique, that of reification, in Martin Chuzzlewitt, Dorothy Van Ghent describes both as a "transposition of attributes" (419), which is akin to "epithet transfer": personification and hypallage overlap, yet the latter is perceived as an economic conceptual blend rather than imaginative endowment of the inhuman with human attributes. (6)

On the level of what following Garrett Stewart (Novel Violence 6-11) I shall call "narratography" (narrative text deployed, as it were, in slow motion), (7) the interplay between the literal and the metaphoric exerts two potentially clashing aesthetic effects. One of these effects is the economy of the reader's effort, which Herbert Spencer believed to be a consequence of good style; the other is its opposite, the lingering, the extended contemplation, which Victor Shklovsky regarded as the proper response to an artistic text (12ff).

The former effect, the Spencerian shortcut to semantic complexity, makes Dickens's hypallage overlap with the kind of enthymeme in which some of the terms are omitted out of respect for the reader's ability to follow the logic unaided: thus, "We were weak, therefore worthless," in the Aeolus episode Ulysses (179), elides the ironic middle proposition, "to be weak is to be (considered) worthless" (see Toker, "Narrative Enthymeme" 165-66). The reader's expenditure of mechanical effort on following the logical deployment of an argument--or, in the case of hypallage, of a description--is reduced: we spend less time reading the corresponding part of the text. The wit, elegance, and complex suggestiveness, however, call for lingering on the passage, prolonging its appreciative contemplation: conditions for specifically aesthetic experience are thus enhanced. What an analysis of Dickens's use of hypallage suggests is not so much an economy of the reader's attention but the heightening of the quality of that attention, from the routine following of syntagmatically unraveled units of meaning to an interpretive co-operation with the text in teasing them out. This call for a contemplative pause is not imperative--individual readers are left their freedom: in response to other contingencies, they can choose either to pause or to rush reading on. The reader's slowing down over a knot of meanings is, to a large extent, a matter of a voluntary preparedness to respond to the conditions of aesthetic experience created by the text.

This kind of freedom does not obtain in a longer, systematic, logical deployment of textual detail (unless one decides to break the rules and skip or skim through the passages (8)). It has only a small margin in the case of syllepsis, recently analyzed by Stewart: syllepsis practically forces the reader not just to linger on a textual detail but to backtrack and reinterpret it--as when in The Pickwick Papers Miss Bolo goes home "in a flood of tears and in a sedan-chair" (see Stewart, "Ethical Tempo" 121-23). (9) Moreover, by contrast with the demand for cognitive response made by syllepsis, hypallage creates an extra degree of freedom: the reader has the choice not only to pause and sort out the strands of its meaning but also to bracket the quest for conceptual unraveling, suspending cognitive diligence in favor of a more passive enjoyment of the sheer potentiality of meaning.

Indeed, one of the effects of hypallage in A Tale of Two Cities is the suggestion that much more can be said on the subject in question than is actually being said. This is precisely the sense of the potentiality of meaning: even when we do not decode the stenography immediately, the sense of the multiplicity of referents trailing around the text can elicit a sense of trust in the author, be it Sterne, or Dickens, or Wordsworth, or Joyce. The effect of the sense of potentiality is an aesthetic one, (10) but in Dickens the content of the implications is socio-historical. Thus when in Book 2, ch. 2, Jerry Cruncher comes to Old Bailey (sent there by Tellson's bank with a message to Mr. Lorry), he inquires what case is being tried. Hearing that it is a case of "Treason," Jerry alludes to the laws still in force in the 1780s:

"That's quartering," said Jerry. "Barbarous!"

"It is the law," remarked the ancient clerk, turning his surprised spectacles upon him, "It is the law."

"It's hard in the law to spile a man, I thin. It's hard enough to kill him, but it's wery hard to spile him, sir." (62)

It is only on a repeated reading that we realize that Jerry, who digs up corpses to sell to the medical profession, is here putting the cart before the horse by thinking not so much about the barbarous torture (hanging, drawing, and quartering) to which those condemned for high treason are subjected but about the spoiling, the disqualifying of their earthly remains for his own "honest trade": indeed, one of the bonuses of a repeated reading is our ability to watch how the phrases that on the first reading we perceived as rather innocuously metaphoric are actually realized in the novel's plot. (11) A Tale of Two Cities may not be asking us to backtrack and readjust on the first reading but it certainly creates an in-built demand for a re-reading. The hypallage in the passage is, of course, the old clerk's "surprised spectacles." It is the clerk, not his prosthetic appliance, who is surprised by Jerry's criticism of the draconian law: his surprise suggests that the laws are, for him, as much a part of the "whatever is, is right" as the Chancery is for Sir Leicester in Bleak House, a tradition, which, like the Chancery or Tellson's bank, is "as old as the hills, and infinitely more respectable" (Bleak House 12). "Surprised spectacles" evoke the old man's surprised look from behind the protective barrier that his reading glasses maintain between his near-sightedness and the harsh realities. The phrase also evokes the possibility that from his antiquated vantage point he sees these realities "through a glass, darkly" (1 Corinthians 13:12), the literal prosthetic extension of the eyes turning into a metaphor of the dimness of vision. "Surprised spectacles" is an ostensibly comic trope, but the potential socio-cultural significances that converge on it are almost as dark as those of the "reluctant drops of oils": the cart that is put before the horse will morph into the tumbrils of the Revolution. (12) Incidentally, in tune with the novel's self-consciously recurrent motif of echo, the "reluctant drops" are echoed in the anticipatory remark that the knitting women would eventually continue knitting while "counting dropping heads" (194), as well as in the images of "dropping blood" and "dropping wine" (272) at the grindstone during the September massacres.

On the lighter side, the owner of Tellson's bank, referred to by a reifying metonymy as "The House," is displeased with Mr. Stryver's loud conduct, as if the latter's head (heads again!) "had been butted into its responsible waistcoat" (148). Tellson's bank plays the role of the responsible adult throughout the novel--this is one of the meanings implied in the hypallage "responsible waistcoat," where "responsible" replaces the more normative "respectable" and evokes the secrets and confidences received into the House's paternal waistcoat and kept responsibly in its respectable chests.

I believe, however, that in this novel hypallage has not only local effects but also a cumulative effect based on its recurrence. This more global effect can be better understood if we recollect how metaphors are literalized in Dickens's novels: Mr. Wegg carried away in a garbage cart at the end of Our Mutual Friend; the figurative "infection" of the first paragraph of Bleak House attracting, as if by voodoo magic, an actual contagious disease; Esther Summerson, the traumatized child, becoming literally scarred. Components of an idiom are recalled to life in Bleak House when a literal crow flies out of the phrase "as the crow flies" (10) for "in the shortest way" and is watched by Mr. Snags by from his doorstep (119). (13) In A Tale of Two Cities the idiom "shaking in one's shoes" for "being afraid" is literalized when the road mender is said to be shaking "in his wooden shoes" out of fear of Madame Defarge (180), his footgear, ominously contrasting with the elegant shoes made by Doctor Manette in captivity and foreshadowing a combination of dead metaphor and hypallage--when after the outbreak of the Revolutionary terror, the synecdochic Monseigneur "[takes] to his noble heels" (243). The idioms involving the presence or absence of heads on people's shoulders (14) are likewise literalized when a certain revolutionary contraption makes its way into the plot.

In the case of hypallage the relationship between figurative language and the shape of the plot (15) is different. One may note that Dickens's masterful use of adjectives, matched by few writers beyond Borges and Nabokov, involves extensions of the valence of epithets, extensions bordering on hypallage but not quite attaining its force. Marquise de St. Evremond is killed in his country house's "voluptuous bedroom" (131); Defarge stores Manette, after his release from the Bastille, in an attic of a tall tenement house with "doleful gratings" round its staircase (38); the attendants of the Monsignor's levee are overlooked by the "watching towers" of Notre Dame (110)--in each case the attributes of a participant or an observer of the scene spill over onto the scene itself. Conversely, hypallage may be merely implicit in more standard adjective-noun phrases, such as an "uneasy pause" (211) or a "drunken occasion" (215). But the transfer of a feature on the narratographic level may be felt to constitute a parallel to the transfer of a character's feature, or fate, in the structure of the plot.

According to Borges's "Narrative Art and Magic," certain plot developments may be extensions or consequences of the life of motifs: motifs attract their likes, as by sympathetic magic. In Bleak House, because of Tulkinghorn's cruel misogyny, his murderer, it is felt, has to be a woman; it has to be a lady, an object of his ressentiment. In other words, it has to be Lady Dedlock. Yet Lady Dedlock is purged of a necessary trait, the proneness to violence, as this trait is transferred to her maid Hortense, along with the Lady Dedlock's stature and figure, her passionate nature, and her falling into Tulkinghorn's power. In A Tale of Two Cities, under the ancien regime the murder of the Marquise de St. Evremond is somewhat cavalierly displaced from Darnay to Garpard, so that the former never seems to be even suspected of it. And the logical development of Darnay's fate during the revolutionary Reign of Terror is transferred onto Carton: here it is not only the idioms involving people's heads (16) but the reader's minimal acquaintance with history that makes death by guillotine within the cast of major characters inescapable. As if to turn Carton's death into a surrogate Liebestod, the fate to which Madame Defarge's knitting condemns Lucie Manette is transposed onto the seamstress who holds Carton's hand when they are wheeled to the guillotine: the young woman's profession tying her even closer to the heroine, Lucie of the "golden thread." (17)

In A Tale of Two Cities such transpositions of logical fate perform a double function: on the one hand they complete the development of a motif to its logical conclusion, while on the other hand they help effect the escapes, physical or emotional, for the characters to whom the reader feels particularly partial, thus providing us with the relief or refuge from the scenes of the Terror (which, however subdued in comparison with Dickens's sources, are still horrifying for his readers). In other words, they turn what Gerald Prince calls "the disnarrated" into the narrated by substituting one subject for another or else by transferring the fate, rather than the epithet, from one subject to another.

Thus, in Dickens's novel as elsewhere, the hypallage generally stages a replacement of the economized mechanical effort by an interpretive endeavor or appreciative aesthetic lingering. Yet in A Tale of Two Cities it also plays a more specific role. The transfer of epithetsis a narratographical feature that models the transfer, replacement, and surrogacy of fate in the structure of the plot. Hypallage belongs to what in the Hjemslev net falls under the "form of expression"; patterns of surrogacy in the plot pertain to the "form of content." (18) The parallel between them does not add substantially to our interpretation of the novel or to the narrative's cognitive effects; it does, however, exert a subtle aesthetic influence over our reading. In view of the consciousness-raising potential of the figures' content, the parallel between the form of expression and the form of content also goes part of the way toward explaining Dickens's inimitable way of combining the aesthetic appeal of his writings with their social criticism and their consciousness-raising force. (19)

Leona Toker



This article is based on a paper presented at the Stockholm Metaphor Festival. I thank Professor Marion Helfer-Wajngott for having given me the stimulus for this work and for the response to the earlier version.

(1.) See Gray on the characters picking up or declining to engage with each other's metaphors in Victorian Fiction. Gray associates these types of conduct in conversation as signals of possibility or impossibility for the characters in question to enter a marriage of true minds. In Sterne's novel the life of the metaphor across boundaries of direct-speech utterances tends to be associated, rather, with intellectual inequalities.

(2.) On the typology of hypallage see also Rastier 136-39.

(3.) I am grateful to Galia Benziman for a stimulating discussion of this poem. Her own discussion of it is included in her 2012 essay "The Self-Resisting."

(4.) On External and Internal Fields of Reference, see Harshaw.

(5.) On the relationship between extended metaphor and narrative, see Pettersson. On the ethics of macro-metaphors, see Booth 32off.

(6.) See McCarthy, esp. 637-39, on the "rampant animism" in Martin Chuzzlewitt.

(7.) Stewart defines narratography as "the apprehension of mediated narrative increments as traced out in prose or image by the analytic act of reading" (Novel Violence 9).

(8.) In the process of reading, indeed, the foregoing of freedom as we follow the linear deployment of the text is a ludic choice--the entering of the game and the acceptance of its rules.

(9.) It is interesting that A Tale of Two Cities practically avoids eliding verbs to form syllepsis and may even emphasize this by an in-your-face kind of paronomasia--as when "it enter[s] Mr Stryver's mind to enter the bank" (147).

(10.) I believe that the sense of the potentiality of meaning is a bridge between what Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (104-11) discusses as two kinds of aesthetic effects--presence effects and meaning effects.

(11.) It is only on a repeated reading that one understands the meaning of Jerry's mutterings at the end of ch. 2 about Lorry's password "recalled to life"; cf. his literalizing the metaphor on p. 107. Literalization of metaphors is a recurrent feature of the discourse of and about historical atrocities, when the unthinkable is made real.

(12.) Recent literary criticism tends to stress (sometimes overstress) the analogies between the revolutionary Paris and the reactionary London of the end of the eighteenth century. See, in particular, the essays by Mark Philp, Gareth Stedman Jones, and Sally Ledger in Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities and the French Revolution, eds. Colin Jones, Josephine McDonagh, and Jon Mee.

(13.) The dead metaphor and the living crow are alluded to when, on the next page, "Mr. Tulkinghorn goes, as the crow came--not quite so straight but nearly" (120) to Snagsby's shop (see also Toker, Eloquent Reticence 64-65).

(14.) For example, outraged at Mr. Lorry's discouragement of his plan to propose to Lucie Manette, Mr. Stryver protests: "'having summed up three leading reasons for complete success, he says there's no reason at all! Says it with his head on!' Mr. Stryver remarked upon the peculiarity as if it would have been infinitely less remarkable if he had said it with his head off" (150-51).

(15.) Cf. Stewart: narratography "logs the potentiation of plot in the increments and recurrences of phrase" (Novel Violence 11).

(16.) For example, Jerry's way of swearing that Roger Cly's coffin contained no corpse is 'Til have my head took off, if he was ever in it" (315). The incidence of the word "head" in various contexts and collocations in the novel seems to be unusually high: Dickens here anticipated Joyce's dissemination of the vocabulary associated with the main action or theme of each episode of Ulysses over the images, idioms, and tropes of that episode.

(17.) Darnay's own suppression of the thought that Lucie can well become another victim of the revolutionary terror is marked by asterisks when Darnay catches a glimpse of a woman in mourning in the La Force prison: "she had a light shining upon her golden hair, and she looked like ****" (267). The young seamstress's wondering why a humble person like herself should be condemned to death along with aristocrats finds an indirect answer in a twentieth-century novel about the French Revolution, Anatole France's The Gods Are Athirst, where the protagonist, Evariste Gamelin, sees such egalitarianism as a matter of respect for the lower classes: "The Revolutionary Tribunal assured the triumph of the egalitarian principle by being as sever with porters and skivvies as aristocrats and financiers. Gamelin ... would have considered it scorn and insult of the people to withhold the death sentence from them. It would so to speak have been considering them unworthy of punishment. Reserved for aristocrats, the guillotine would have looked like a unique privilege. Gamelin was beginning to turn punishment into a religious, mystic concept, lending it inherent goodness and merits of its own. He considered penalties something one owed to criminals, and that to cheat men of them was to do them a wrong" (138).

(18.) See Hjelmslev. For a possible application of these distinctions in literary analysis see Toker, Towards the Ethics of Form 2-3ff.

(19.) Issue 9.2 (2011) of Partial Answers was devoted to the relationship between these potentially contradictory effects of Dickens's fiction; see, in particular, articles by Baumgarten, Paroissien, and Harrison. The present paper is, to some extent, a belated contribution to that discussion.


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--."Syllepsis Redux and the Rhetoric of Double Agency." Partial Answers 10/1 (2011): 93-120. Print.

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Date:Jun 22, 2015
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