Figures and Tropes

An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory - Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle 2016

Figures and Tropes

It’s not for nothing that some still call Elvis Presley ’The King’ and Eric Clapton ’God’. But the force of these acts of renaming depends on the assumption that no one takes them literally. No one ever supposed that the United States had become a monarchy and put Elvis Presley on the throne. No one, not even the most loyal of fans, even in his heyday, believed that Eric Clapton created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. They may have believed that his guitar-playing was transplendent, but even those whose judgement was blurred by an unholy mixture of illegal substances and Clapton’s heavenly guitar solos are unlikely to have taken him for the Almighty Himself. These renamings of Presley and Clapton, then, involve the kind of exaggeration or verbal extravagance known as hyperbole. By the same token, few are likely to take as gospel the theologically unorthodox if slightly more credible statement in Pink’s 2004 hit single, that ’God is a DJ’ (’If God is a DJ / Life is a dance floor / Love is the rhythm / You are the music’). To refer to Elvis as ’The King’ or Clapton as ’God’, or to talk in turn about God as a DJ, is to use figurative language.

Literary language is sometimes thought about in terms of its deviations from or distortions of ordinary language. Like many generalizations, this idea is both useful and misleading. It suggests that literary texts are characterized by the use of figures of speech or tropes, conceiving these as basically synonymous — in other words, as deviations from ’ordinary’ or ’literal’ language. Thus Chambers Dictionary defines a rhetorical figure as ’a deviation from the ordinary mode of expression’, and trope as ’a figure of speech, properly one in which a word or expression is used in other than its literal sense’. Such figures include, for example, hyperbole, metaphor, metonymy and anthropomorphism. Metaphor is the general term for the figure of resemblance, whereby one thing is likened to another. Metonymy is a general term for the figure of association or contiguity, whereby one thing is talked about by referring to something associated with it. Anthropomorphism is the general term used to refer to the non-human as if it were human. So-called ’ordinary’ language, by contrast, is thought to use far more literal language, language that calls a spade a spade.

As the examples of Presley, Clapton and Pink suggest, however, the figurative is by no means restricted to literary texts: rather, it saturates all language. Friedrich Nietzsche famously argued that even truth itself is figurative. In his essay ’On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense’ (1873), Nietzsche asks ’What, then, is truth?’ and offers the following answer:

A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms — in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins. (Nietzsche 1980, 46—7)

When we think that we speak ’truthfully’, without the distortions of figuration, Nietzsche suggests, we only deceive ourselves. The language of truth, language supposedly purified of figures and tropes, is simply language to which we have become so habituated that we no longer recognize it as figurative. This suggests that our world is constituted figuratively, that we relate to ourselves, to other people, to the world, through figures of speech. The manipulation and exploitation of figurative language may therefore be understood to have fundamental implications for the political, social, even economic constitution of our world. The very way that we understand the world may be said to be mediated by the kinds of figures that we use to speak about it. We could think about this in terms of any everyday aspect (aspect is a visual metaphor) of life — for example, the names of newspapers, those ’organs’ (a metaphor) that help to organize (the same organic metaphor) our world: the Herald, Guardian, Sun, Mirror, Telegraph, Tribune and so on. While such discourses as history, philosophy, psychology, economics and so on may, at least in principle, attempt to rid themselves of figurative language, it is precisely figuration that is, unavoidably, at the heart of the discipline of literary studies. This unavoidability is suggested in the passage from Nietzsche, with its concluding figuration of metaphors as coins. Nietzsche explicitly relies on the figurative to demystify language and thus to formulate a definition of the truth. As Paul de Man remarks, tropes are not ’a derived, marginal, or aberrant form of language but the linguistic paradigm par excellence’: figurative language ’characterizes language as such’ (de Man 1979, 105).

Central to literary criticism and theory, then, are such questions as: What are the effects of rhetorical figures in literary texts? What purpose do they serve? And how do they function? One of the most common misconceptions about literary texts is that their figurative language is simply decorative, something added to the text to make it more readable, more dramatic, or more ’colourful’. It is certainly true that the perceived presence of figurative language often seems to increase at points of emotional and dramatic intensity, like the soaring violins at moments of sexual passion or dramatic tension in a Hollywood film. Thus D.H. Lawrence, for example, is known for his so-called ’purple passages’. But simply to suggest that figures are ’added’ to literary language, like the musical soundtrack to a movie, does not get us very far. The soaring violin theory of rhetorical figures is misguided because, as Nietzsche suggests, language is inescapably figurative: the meaning of a text cannot be separated from its expression, its figures.

Figuration is fundamental to our world, to our lives. An alteration in the way we figure the world also involves an alteration in the way that the world works. Take Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), for example. This novel uses invisibility as a figure (both metaphorical and literal) for the marginality, the oppression, effacement and dehumanization of black people in the United States. Here is the opening to the prologue to Ellison’s great novel:

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors and hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me. (3)

Visibility and invisibility figure the social, political and economic effacement and consequent oppression of blacks in the United States. The man is invisible because he cannot escape the preconceptions that others have concerning him. These preconceptions are produced by a ’perception’ of his skin colour. This so-called perception is itself an effect of the kind of rhetorical figure we call synecdoche, whereby a part — here, the skin — stands for the whole — a man. But simply to categorize someone as ’black’ (or ’white’) is in a sense laughably reductive and inaccurate. Likewise, to say that someone is ’coloured’ is in a sense to say nothing at all, because the skin, hair, nails, eyes, teeth of each one of us is a multi-chromatic assemblage of different hues. The categories of black, white and coloured operate as instances of synecdoche. What people ’see’ is a form of metaphor, a figment or figure of imagination — a ’phantom in other people’s minds … a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy’ (3). It is in this way that Ellison’s narrator is invisible, for while people think that they see — they think they see a black man — in fact they see nothing, they are blinded by metaphor. Ellison’s novel suggests that such habitual blindness may be challenged and in turn transformed by acts of language. It presents a metaphor or allegory of the invisible man to counter the worn coin of representation. After all, the effacement of the black man is, in a crucial sense, constituted through acts of language. Without the vocabulary of prejudice and racism, any such effacement would be inconceivable. Racism is an effect of language. In particular, the passage from Ellison cited above suggests that racism is an effect of synecdochic substitution — skin pigment for personal identity, individual for collective or racial identity. The invisible man can be seen again, his invisibility perceived, through alternative metaphors, through rhetorical figures.

The opening of Ellison’s novel, then, gives us one answer to the question of how figures and tropes function in literary and other texts: they can make us see what is otherwise invisible, concealed by prejudice, effaced by habit. They seek to change the world. To recall the term used by Viktor Shklovsky and other Russian formalist critics writing in the 1920s, figurative language has the capacity to ’defamiliarize’ our world — to refigure, reform, revolutionize.

What kinds of effects can be produced through figuration and how far can a reading of such figures go? Let us consider another example, a poem by the nineteenth-century New England poet Emily Dickinson. In Dickinson’s work, figures, like language considered more generally, tremble on the edge of meaning. One reason why her poetry is particularly appropriate in a discussion of figurative language is that it characteristically ’deconstructs’ or defamiliarizes its own rhetorical figures: her poetry constitutes a subtle yet decisive assault on figuration itself. This poem (no. 328) was written around 1862:

A Bird came down the Walk—

He did not know I saw—

He bit an Angleworm in halves

And ate the fellow, raw,

5 And then he drank a Dew

From a convenient Grass—

And then hopped sidewise to the Wall

To let a Beetle pass—

He glanced with rapid eyes

10 That hurried all around—

They looked like frightened Beads, I thought—

He stirred his Velvet Head

Like one in danger, Cautious,

I offered him a Crumb

15 And he unrolled his feathers

And rowed him softer home—

Than Oars divide the Ocean,

Too silver for a seam—

Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon

20 Leap, plashless as they swim.

In language at once direct and elusive, the poem describes a bird eating a worm, taking a drink and flying away. The rhetorical figure which stands out in the opening lines is personification or anthropomorphism. Both the bird (’he’) and the worm (the ’fellow’) of the first stanza are described as if they were human. But the anthropomorphic insistence of the first half of the poem becomes strangely convoluted as it goes on to explore the specificity of simile (a is like b) as a species of metaphor (a is b, in other words the ’like’ is unstated). In line 11 we learn that the bird’s eyes ’looked like frightened Beads’. But this simile is not as simple as it looks. It remains unclear whether ’looked like’ means that the eyes actively looked (they looked, in the way that beads look, assuming that they do), or whether the bird’s eyes, to the narrator, looked like beads. The simile is itself ambiguous. Moreover, what the eyes looked like — the beads — also undergoes an uncanny metamorphosis. To refer to beads as ’frightened’ is to employ the rhetorical figure called animism, whereby an inanimate object is given the attributes of life. Far from clarifying the look of the bird’s eyes, the simile makes it less concrete, less visible or imaginable, by making a comparison with something that cannot possibly be seen. It is entirely incorrect to say that the bird’s eyes ’looked like’ frightened beads, since frightened beads are not available to the gaze at all, and beads cannot look. The simile, a peculiar example of a ’transferred epithet’, disturbs the sense of who or what is frightened and confounds the distinction between the figurative and the literal, image and word, the imagined and the visible.

The last two stanzas of the poem increase these uncertainties. In the penultimate stanza, rowing on an ocean is the ’vehicle’ for the metaphor, the ’tenor’ or ’meaning’ of which is flying. But once again the figure is ambiguous: the ocean metaphor is inadequate, the line suggests, to express the softness, the silvery delicacy of the movement of the bird’s flight. Where a boat would leave a wake in the water, a kind of seam, the bird leaves none in the air. But while ’Too silver for a seam’ may be ’translated’ as meaning something like ’too delicate for a wake or track in water’, the line may also be understood to be referring to the delicacy of figurative language and its relation to the world. Critics usually distinguish simile within metaphor more generally by pointing out that phrases such as ’like’ or ’as’ mark simile as explicitly figurative. Through another kind of figure known as paronomasia — produced by the homophone ’seam’/’seem’ — the poem reflects silently on figuration itself. Metaphors seem to be unmarked, too silver, too subtle, for a seam, or for the word ’seem’ (or ’as’ or ’like’), too delicate for the mark of figuration. Just as there is no seam left behind after the bird’s flight — it flies as if by magic — metaphor also leaves no mark, no ’seem’ and no seam. Or, to put it more paradoxically but more accurately, like the word ’plashless’, a word which negates ’plash’ but does so only by referring to it, metaphor both does and does not leave a mark.

The extraordinary ending to the poem involves another metaphor for the bird’s flight — the flight of a butterfly — but presents this in terms of swimming. The bird is like a butterfly leaping off a bank into the water so delicately that there is no (s)plash. With the phrase ’Banks of Noon’, however, Dickinson’s poem disturbs the basis of metaphorical transformation itself. ’Banks of Noon’ is no more comprehensible than the ’frightened Beads’ encountered earlier. The metaphorical transitions are short-circuited, for while it is possible to see that a bird’s flight is ’like’ rowing a boat, it is unclear how a bank of noon can be ’like’ anything physical — are we to believe that ’noon’ can be a kind of riverbank, for example? The phrase highlights the deceptiveness of figuration, its potential for linguistic effects of trompe l’æil and hallucination. It dramatizes the ease, the inevitability with which language slides away from referential assumptions. On the other hand, ’Banks of Noon’ can be considered in terms of another kind of phenomenon — intertextuality — whereby a text is woven out of words and phrases from elsewhere. In this respect, the phrase recalls the Shakespearean ’bank and shoal of time’ from Macbeth’s murderous speech (Macbeth I.7.6) — giving the sense of the present as a kind of isthmus within the ocean of eternity — and suggests the end or the edge of time, time strangely suspended or delayed. The ending of Dickinson’s poem suggests that figurative language entails a series of displacements and substitutions that both produce and withhold the illusion of reference. In these and other ways, Dickinson’s poem suggests that figures make and unmake our world, give us meaning and take it away.

In our discussion of Dickinson’s poem, we have drawn attention to the self-reflexive possibilities of figuration, to the way that figures can turn reflexively back on themselves, trope themselves, so that the text remarks on its own language. To end our discussion of figures, we want to turn to another text that may also be shown to register the uncanny potential of figurative language. In our chapter on narrative we briefly discussed James Joyce’s great short story ’The Dead’. The story begins with the following sentence: ’Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet’ (199). In fact, Lily is not literally run off her feet at all. Strangely, we say ’literally run off her feet’ to mean not literally but figuratively run off her feet. The use of the word ’literal’ here, like the phrase about feet, is metaphorical. (It is like when someone says ’I literally died of embarrassment’ — not literally but metaphorically, otherwise how could you say it?) In this respect, we can see that the opening sentence to the story produces a play of figuration which refers indirectly both to the subject of the story, death, and to its telling. ’Literally run off her feet’ is a dead metaphor, a metaphor which has become so common that its identity as figurative has largely been lost: dead metaphors are Nietzsche’s worn coins of language. We can say ’I was literally run off my feet’ without recognizing that we are using a metaphor at all, that far from using the phrase literally, we are exploiting a figure of speech. The metaphorical use of the word ’literally’ in this phrase is a good example of the evocative possibilities of ’catachresis’, the rhetorical term for a misuse or abuse of language. ’The Dead’, which is above all about death, is also about dead language, dead metaphors.

Joyce’s story ends with the return of a ’figure from the dead’ (251), the haunting memory of Gretta’s dead boyfriend, Michael Furey. In the final pages, Gretta’s husband Gabriel looks out of the window of a hotel as his wife sleeps. The last paragraph of the story is couched in intense, swooning, highly figurative prose:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little grate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead. (255—6)

The most remarkable, the most pressing feature of this paragraph is, perhaps, repetition. In particular, the word ’falling’ occurs seven times: falling obliquely, falling, falling softly, softly falling, falling, falling faintly, faintly falling. This verbal repetition produces a mesmeric sense of descent, sleep, fading and death. What Joyce appears to be evoking here, through figurative effects of language — repetition, alliteration, assonance and sibilance, syntactic inversion or chiasmus (’falling faintly, faintly falling’) — is a fading out, a falling off, of language itself. ’The Dead’ is about the death of (figurative and literal) language.

To borrow Joyce’s metaphor and reverse it, it is indeed the metaphorical death of language (rather than the death of metaphorical language) that gives the story life. And it is, more generally, the productive tensions of figurative language that give life to literary texts. In this chapter, we have tried to suggest that, like literature itself, literary criticism begins and ends with figuration. An important part of reading a literary text involves thinking about how its figures and tropes work. Like Marvell’s lover in his desire to stop the sun (see Chapter 4), if we cannot fix or arrest the movements of rhetorical figures, still we can make them run.

Further reading

Good ’introductions’ to the idea of metaphor and literature include Denis Donoghue’s Metaphor (2014), David Punter, Metaphor (2008) and Murray Knowles and Rosamund Moon, Introducing Metaphor (2006). For an engaging and informative guide to figures and tropes, see Arthur Quinn’s little book Figures of Speech (1993), and for more comprehensive overviews see Richard A. Lanham, A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms (1991) and Raymond Gibbs, ed., The Cambridge Handbook of Metaphor and Thought (2008). An influential structuralist account of figuration or ’poetic’ language is Roman Jakobson’s ’Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics’ (1960). Jacques Derrida’s ’White Mythology’ (1982) is a difficult but by now classic argument against the idea that there can be any simple escape from figurative language. Other useful books are Todorov, Introduction to Poetics (1981), Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (1980), and James Geary’s highly readable I is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and the Way We See the World (2011). ’Silva Rhetoricae’ is a very helpful website for figures of speech (at