In the late seventeenth through the early eighteenth century, description consisted largely of brief tags, all-purpose adjectives, the naming of things well known to the reader: a chamber, a beautiful woman, a window, a pot, a castle. By the nineteenth century, visual detail was virtually comprehensive, penciling in a complete portrait of space, of TIME, of physiognomy, of surface. Although forms of description had been classified and used since classical times, from the seventeenth century on, prose fiction adapted “the crafth of descrypcyoun” (O. Bokenham, 1447, qtd. in OED) to its particular extended spaces, spacious tempos, and representations of the ordinary. By 1884, Henry James would assert that “the air of reality (solidity of specification) seems to me to be the supreme virtue of a novel—the merit on which all its other merits...depend.” Description changed from what was more or less a pointing index finger, a bare floor for action and dialogue, to a fully carpeted, thickly detailed space, from a “figure” for the novel to be wary of, to a necessary condition for its art.
Early History, and “Ekphrasis”
Novelistic description has its roots in the rules of classical poetry and rhetoric, where, according to Aristotle, poetic “statements” are “of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars” ca. 335 BCE, (Poetics 2323; §1451b) and the end is vividness (enargeia) and probability: “the poet should remember to put the actual scenes as far as possible before his eyes. In this way, seeing everything with the vividness of an eye-witness as it were, he will devise what is appropriate, and be least likely to overlook incongruities” (Poetics 2328—29; §1455a). What we know as “description” developed out of the exercise of “ekphrasis” in the Greek Progymnasmata (“School Exercises”): “an expository speech which vividly (enargos) brings the subject before our eyes” (Theon, second century CE; qtd. in Race).
Ekphrasis has long been entangled with description. The Oxford Classical Dictionary defines it as “the rhetorical description of a work of art.” Certainly since the Renaissance the term—or the concept—has been employed to describe descriptions of paintings or tapestries or statues or other objets d'art, as in Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (1516, 1532, Mad Orlando), Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra's Don Quixote (1605, 1615), or Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Idiot (1868, The Idiot). Jean Hagstrum calls it “giving voice and language to the otherwise mute art object,” and Keats's “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1820) is usually held up as an iconic example, linking the tradition back to Homer's description of Achilles's shield in the Iliad. But in classical rhetoric ekphrasis was just as often a scene unfolding in time—the crafting of that shield, for example, or a battle (see Webb). Epics were always happy to pause for long displays of objects, and vivid depictions of persons, times, places, and actions were equally part of the classical ekphrastic tradition. Often the vividness in the description—the enargeia in the ekphrasis—would spring from the smallest word choice: Aristotle recommended using verbs of motion, especially present participles, and adverbial phrases in creating vivid representation: “By ’making them see things’ I mean using expressions that represent things as in a state of activity ... [as in] ’Thereat up sprang the Hellenes to their feet,’ where ’up sprang’ gives us activity as well as metaphor, for it at once suggests swiftness” (Rhetoric §§1411b—1412a). Ekphrasis in the classical tradition embraced a moving world of things; ekphrasis in the modern tradition focuses on the “speaking picture.”
In the medieval period, description was a form of rewriting Greek and Latin imagery for a new context; much as Virgil's tempest in the Aeneid is rewritten from Homer, so medieval description works with what is already there—not only in the literature itself, but in the literary memories and experiences of their new readers. It might be said to evoke images rather than represent them. Description in the Renaissance was modeled largely on the classical tradition, and comprised several kinds: pragmatographia (description of things), topographia (description of place), prosopopeia (description of a person), prosopographia, (“the fainyng of a person”, as Richard Sherry's 1550 A Treatise of Schemes & Tropes puts it, or characterization), pathopeia (description of emotions), chronographia (the description of time—night and day, the seasons), and a host of other aides-de-camp: similitude, icon or image, dialogue, amplification, hyperbole, paralepsis, distinctions between “feignings” of real persons or animals and feignings of myth, and division within division, subcategory beneath subcategory, or all of the above. Henry Peacham, in The Garden of Eloquence (1577), defines pragmatographia as “a description of thinges, wherby we do as plainly describe any thing by gathering togeather all the circumstances belonging unto it, as if it were moste liuely paynted out in colloures, and set forth to be seene.”
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a division entered between description and narration that would become outright opposition. Figures of speech—metaphors, similes, tropes—which were all readily employed in descriptions of persons, places, and things, became a matter for stylistic wariness (see RHETORIC). John Smith, in The Mysterie of Rhetorique Unvail'd (1657), makes a favorite Renaissance trope explicit: “A Figure in the Greek...signifies principally habitum, vestitu, & ornatum corporis, in English, the apparel and ornament of the body; which by a Metaphor is transferred to signifie the habit and ornament of words of speech.” But as George Puttenham warns, “the Poet or makers of speech becomes vicious and vnpleasant by nothing more than by vsing too much surplusage” (Arte of English Poesie, 1589). As ekphrasis was beginning to pull away from the classical meaning of a vivid representation of something toward a work of art, so description in general was pulling away from its energized status as part of narrative (with springing verbs and scenes of action or the actual crafting of the work of art) to become something of an object in itself—a heavy robe, a burden, extra baggage, the drone of a bagpipe—a fixture of stasis that interrupted narrative.
The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries: Forms of Description
The Renaissance accounts of description apply mostly to poetry, but were generally absorbed by the growing genre of prose fiction that was to become the novel. The early English novel could rarely be attacked as having “too much surplusage,” in Peacham's terms; faces, rooms, landscapes were rarely described. Daniel Defoe's novels are noted for their things or their addresses—visual boundaries appear, rather as in the classical tradition, when narrative requires them, as in this scene of topographia from Moll Flanders (1722) when the young heroine is pounced upon by the elder brother of the house she lives in:
It happen'd one Day that he came running up Stairs, towards the Room where his Sisters us'd to sit and Work, as he often us'd to do; and calling to them before he came in, as was his way too, I being there alone, step'd to the Door, and said, Sir, the Ladies are not here, they are Walk'd down the Garden; as I step'd forward, to say this towards the Door, he was just got to the Door, and clasping me in his Arms, as if it had been by Chance, O! Mrs. Betty, says he, are you here? That's better still; I want to speak with you, more than I do with them, and then having me in his Arms he Kiss'd me three or four times.
We have a set of stairs, a sitting room, a garden gestured, a door which captures the elder brother capturing Moll (or Mistress Betty, as she is known in her pre-criminal days), but no full drawing of any interior space. In general in late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century novels, the persons and spaces are designated by general terms, closer to the conventions of playwrighting, which leave the blanks of a “Chamber” to be filled in by the performance; in the novel, by the reader's imagination.
Contrast a nineteenth-century moment of topographia, when Charlotte Brontë's heroine Jane Eyre describes the “red room” where her aunt has banished her:
The red-room was a spare chamber, very seldom slept in...yet it was one of the largest and stateliest chambers in the mansion. A bed supported on massive pillars of mahogany, hung with curtains of deep red damask, stood out like a tabernacle in the centre; the two large windows, with their blinds always drawn down, were half shrouded in festoons and falls of similar drapery; the carpet was red; the table at the foot of the bed was covered with a crimson cloth; the walls were a soft fawn colour, with a blush of pink in it; the wardrobe, the toilet-table, the chairs were of darkly-polished old mahogany. (1847, Jane Eyre, Chap. 2)
Here the eye sweeps the room, noting colors and textures, lighting and reflections, and precise spatial coordinates. The visual picture is complete; there is little to be filled in. Early novels depend, classically, on universals rather than particulars; Irvin Ehrenpreis has argued that when detailed description enters, it does so as “negative particularity”—the phenomenon of detailed description relegated to the low, vicious, or comic in the Augustan world: “What had to be rendered in bright detail was what did not belong to the familiar things of their world”; “truth” and “beauty” and “virtue” were shared, familiar, public, matters of common standard.
Yet even from the beginning, the novel as a genre was more interested than poetry in numbering the streaks of the tulip (Samuel Johnson, 1759, Rasselas). In eighteenth-century prosopopeia, or the description of a person, for example, heroes and heroines of early novels are typically cast in the general mode: “’Her face and person answer my most refined ideas of complete beauty,’” says Lady Howard of the young Evelina in Frances Burney's Evelina (1778); says one Lady Brooks of Samuel Richardson's Pamela: “See that Shape! I never saw such a Face and Shape in my Life” (1740, Pamela). But there are notable exceptions of positive particularity, such as the Narrator's loving description of Sophia Western in Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (1749): “Her eyebrows were full, even, and arched beyond the power of art to imitate. Her black eyes had a lustre in them, which all her softness could not extinguish. Her nose was exactly regular.... Her cheeks were of the oval kind; and in her right she had a dimple, which the least smile discovered” (4.2). John Graham notes a sharp rise in the use of pathognomy (the “passing expression” and/or signs of the passions) in the novel from about 1760 until, by the late eighteenth century, the particulars of face and expression became “an essential part of character revelation” and “dramatic conflict was expressed through complete and subtle readings of passing expressions.” Frances Burney can pour a world of descriptive meaning in the small spaces between words and actions, as when the languid libertine, Lord Merton, responds to his affected fiancée with Aristotelian precision: “’You have been, as you always are,’ said he, twisting his whip with his fingers, ’all sweetness.’” In George Eliot's Daniel Deronda (1876), the hero's attention is caught by Gwendolyn Harleth at the gaming table: “The sylph was a winner; and as her taper fingers, delicately gloved in pale-grey, were adjusting the coins which had been pushed towards her in order to pass them back again to the winning point, she looked round her with a survey too markedly cold and neutral not to have in it a little of that nature which we call art concealing an inward exultation”(1.1). Deronda's scrutiny catches her attention, and the rest of the scene plays out the contrast between how they think and how they look, each reading the glance and gesture of the other as code.
Chronographia, or the description of time, also emerges differently in different centuries. Defoe's narrators famously mark time by recycling it: “It was about the Beginning of September 1664,” the narrator of A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) begins, “that I, among the Rest of my Neighbours, heard in ordinary Discourse, that the Plague was return'd again in Holland;...but all agreed, it was come into Holland again.” The narrative then ebbs and flows with the movements of the plague, as the narrator circles back to its beginnings and forward to its end in a series of digressions that scuttle away from and then return to moments of horror: “But I come back to the Case of Families infected”; “But I am now talking of the Time, when the Plague rag'd at the Easter-most Part of the Town”; the death of the narrator himself is embedded in a note towards the end of the narrative: “N.B. The Author of this Journal, lyes buried in that very Ground, being at his own Desire, his Sister having been buried there a few years before.”
Where time curls up in Defoe, it stretches out luxuriously in Mark Twain's nineteenth-century chronograph in Huckleberry Finn (1884—5):
It was a monstrous big river down there—sometimes a mile and a half wide....Not a sound, anywheres—perfectly still—just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bull-frogs a-cluttering, maybe. The first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line—that was the woods on t'other side—you couldn't make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness, spreading around; then the river softened up, away off, and warn't black any more, but gray; you could see little dark spots drifting along, ever so far away—trading scows, and such things; and long black streaks—rafts; sometimes you could hear a sweep screaking; or jumbled up voices, it was so still, and sounds come so far; and by-and-by you could see a streak on the water which you know by the look of the streak that there's a snag there in a swift current which breaks on it and makes that streak look that way; and you see the mist curl up off of the water, and the east reddens up, and the river, and you make out a log cabin in the edge of the woods, away on the bank on t'other side of the river, being a wood-yard, likely, and piled by them cheats so you can throw a dog through it anywheres; then the nice breeze springs up, and comes fanning you from over there, so cool and fresh, and sweet to smell, on account of the woods and the flowers; but sometimes not that way, because they've left dead fish laying around, gars, and such, and they do get pretty rank; and next you've got the full day, and everything smiling in the sun, and the song-birds just going it! (Chap. 19)
This is a long, slow, dreamy progress down the Mississippi and into the day; from “The first thing to see” to the “full day,” the narrative is a single sentence, collecting its clauses in the wake of its easy motion, pulling light and color and sound and scent along its own approach toward approaching events. Although the visual or sensual contents of chronographia might change quite perceptibly over time, the handling of time is always a function of narrative itself, a way of wielding words and meting punctuation to deliver a temporal experience.
Forms of description do not change much—writers always push for vivid representations of time and space, faces and emotions, things and events. But what constitutes a vivid representation changes across time and culture. For the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a more universally shared warehouse of literature, as well as of goods, meant that a brief phrase or even a single word could swell instantly into rich meaning for a contemporary reader: “if thou wilt open and set abroade those thinges whiche were included in one word” (Peacham, 1577). We can see this cultural rehydration operating in the nineteenth-century critic Thomas Babington Macaulay as he reviews the seventeenth-century John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress in 1830:
There is no ascent, no declivity, no resting place, no turn-stile, with which we are not perfectly acquainted. The wicket-gate and the desolate swamp which separates it from the City of Destruction, the long line of road, as straight as a rule can make it, the Interpreter's house and all its fair shows, the prisoner in the iron cage, the palace, at the doors of which armed men kept guard, and on the battlements of which walked persons clothed all in gold, the cross and the sepulchre, the steep hill and the pleasant arbour, the stately front of the House Beautiful by the wayside, the low green valley of Humiliation, rich with grass and covered with flocks, all are as well known to us as the sights of our own street.
Bunyan does not, in fact, fill in the details of these sites, but Macaulay sees them; his “perfect acquaintance” is triggered by a specific familiarity with general terms rather than through a new encountering of specific terms. It is the nineteenth century that filled in the details of visual space, that crawled lovingly over the minute surfaces of things and found meaning in difference rather than universality.
Changing Attitudes toward Description
In the mid-eighteenth century, Jean-François Marmontel had complained in the Encyclopédie (1751—72): “What we call today, in Poetry, the descriptive genre was not known by the Ancients. It is a modern invention, of which, it seems to me, neither reason nor taste approve” (qtd. in Hamon). He was voicing the distrust of detail, of surface, of surplusage. Yet by the late eighteenth century in England the rhetorician Hugh Blair was addressing the “considerable place” that description now did and should occupy in poetry and literature more generally, and that description depended on the precision and connection of its details: “No description, that rests in Generals, can be good. For we can conceive nothing clearly in the abstract; all distinct ideas are formed upon particulars” (Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, 1783). William Blake (1727—1857), rather more bluntly, declared: “To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit....Singular & Particular Detail is the Foundation of the Sublime” (from Blake's copy of Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds). In the early nineteenth century, William Hazlitt declared that “the greatest grandeur may co-exist with the most perfect, nay with a microscopic accuracy of detail” (“On Certain Inconsistencies in Sir Joshua Reynolds' Discourses,” in Collected Works, 1903). For Henry James, it is the surface which is the substance, and “to ’render’ the simplest surface” is the complicated artistic obligation of the writer.
This shift in attitude toward description, from “surplusage” and “ornament” to a faith in particulars as renderings of reality, emerged from a century devoted to developing and polishing detailed descriptions in venues outside the literary. As travel in Britain became easier and cheaper in eighteenth-century Britain, country houses, such as Mr. Darcy's Pemberley in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1797), became tour destinations, and house guides were written and sold detailing their gardens, artwork, rooms, and furniture. Increased trade from an expanding empire poured all kinds of new goods into the market. Auctions—art and household—became hugely popular, and their catalogues necessarily marked “recognizable features and characteristic marks,” as the Oxford English Dictionary would say, of the objects for sale. Furniture and porcelain makers, such as Thomas Chippendale (1718—79) and Josiah Wedgwood (1730—95) produced detailed catalogues for their wares. Newspaper advertisements grew more fulsome. And the rise of empirical science generated a new interest in surfaces and subsurfaces; scientific description accompanied detailed engravings to render the macro- and microscopic worlds visible. All such nonliterary description nonetheless invited imaginative habitation, or picturing other worlds: someone else's house; my house with new things; the life of a louse (as in Robert Hooke's 1665 Micrographia). And so the novel, with a history of ingesting any neighboring genres for increased energy and pulse, gradually incorporated detailed visual description into its spaces.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that that which received most descriptive attention in eighteenth-century novels were things; pragmatographia would be the dominant descriptive form. Clothes, for example, feature largely in early novels as signifiers of status, real or assumed. In Defoe's Roxana (1724), this “fortunate mistress,” for example, lavishly details the Turkish costume (replete with faux diamonds) she dons at a ball she hosts, in which she displays her “Man-Woman” power and earns her sobriquet (her real name, we learn, is Susan). Samuel Richardson, in his third novel Sir Charles Grandison (1753—54), has his heroine Harriet detail with delight her new surroundings as Lady Grandison: “The best bed chamber adjoining, is hung with fine tapestry. The bed is of crimson velvet, lined with white silk; chairs and curtains of the same.” She goes on for pages about fabrics and colors and textures and furniture. It's not surprising that some critics have compared the novel to a country house guide (Kelsall). But Richardson, always with a key eye toward the reading market, was simply among the first to absorb the precisely visual into novelistic narrative.
Nineteenth-century novels tended to fasten even more familiarly and fully on the particulars, the surfaces, the visual detail in comprehensive context. The representation of experience became more consciously, sensuously whole; the narrator rather than the reader supplied the missing bits of sight or sound or texture or scent or a fine register of emotion—what Roland Barthes has called “the ’coenesthesia’ of substance—its undifferentiated mass of organic sensation” “(1965, “Objective Literature,” in Two Novels By Robbe-Grillet, trans. R. Howard, 15). Gustave Flaubert in Madame Bovary (1857) famously merges Emma's body into the landscape after her first lovemaking with Rodolphe:
The shades of night were falling; the horizontal sun passing between the branches dazzled the eyes. Here and there around her, in the leaves or on the ground, trembled luminous patches, as if humming-birds flying about had scattered their feathers. Silence was everywhere; something sweet seemed to come forth from the trees. She felt her heartbeat return, and the blood coursing through her flesh like a river of milk. Then far away, beyond the wood, on the other hills, she heard a vague prolonged cry, a voice which lingered, and in silence she heard it mingling like music with the last pulsations of her throbbing nerves. Rodolphe, a cigar between his lips, was mending with his penknife one of the two broken bridles. (1965, trans. Paul de Man, 2:9)
It is as if silence itself is made visible, tactile. And into the early twentieth century, the “modernist” Virginia Woolf stretches this synesthetic description to collapse more fully the boundaries between consciousness and world, between inside and outside, between thought and sensation, between past and present, as in Clarissa Dalloway's moment in a flower shop:
There were flowers: delphiniums, sweet peas, bunches of lilac; and carnations, masses of carnations. There were roses; there were irises. Ah yes—so she breathed in the earthy garden sweet smell as she stood talking to Miss Pym who owed her help, and thought her kind, for kind she had been years ago; very kind, but she looked older, this year; turning her head from side to side among the irises and roses and nodding tufts of lilac with her eyes half closed, snuffing in, after the street uproar, the delicious scent, the exquisite coolness. (1925, Mrs. Dalloway Pt. 1)
Woolf's long, fresh sentences, rather like Twain's, draw on the physical senses of sight, sound, scent, touch to infuse the present with the past, the inanimate flowers with animate images, the repetition of lists with the energy of motion.
Description in the Twentieth Century: Revulsion and Return
But later in the twentieth century a sort of revulsion against thick description choked the critics. Georg Lukács, in “Narrate or Describe?,” found the surface-obsessed literature of the late nineteenth century a bourgeois compensation for “the epic significance that has been lost”; while narration “establishes proportions” and events reveal character, “description merely levels.” José Manuel Lopes notes that the Russian formalists paid little attention to the matter, nor did the Anglo-American New Critics, while the discourse linguists of the 1970s and 1980s, by grouping narrative with “foreground” and description with “background” on the figure-ground opposition of gestalt theory, tended to “perpetuate the notion of literary description as mere background” (9—10, 3). Many twentieth-century American novelists in particular were known for their spare prose, their almost seventeenth-century evocations, such as J. D. Salinger in The Catcher in the Rye (1958): “Anyway, it was December and all, and it was cold as a witch's teat, especially on top of that stupid hill”; or William Faulkner in The Sound and the Fury (1929): “We went along the fence and came to the garden fence, where our shadows were. My shadow was higher than Luster's on the fence. We came to the broken place and went through it.”
Of course, novelists often don't pay any attention to critics, and surfaces resurfaced—almost violently in their very stasis—in the nouveau roman of Alain Robbe-Grillet and others. Robbe-Grillet, rather like Samuel Richardson two hundred years earlier, was ridiculed for his exhaustively precise descriptions that seemed to rival the French record books of county property lines: “Starting from this clump of trees, the patch runs downhill with a slight divergence (toward the left) from the greatest angle of slope. There are thirty-two banana trees in the row, down to the lower edge of the patch” (1957, Jealousy, trans. R. Howard). But Robbe-Grillet, unlike Richardson (or Bunyan, or Defoe, or Eliot, or Flaubert), does not see the detail as flush with meaning. As Barthes explains: “The scrupulosity with which Robbe-Grillet describes an object has nothing to do with such doctrinal matters: instead he establishes the existence of an object so that once its appearance is described it will be quite drained, consumed, used up” “Objective Literature,” (13) In the nouveau roman, the lavish supply of surfaces is meant less to heighten significance than to disintegrate coherence.
Novelistic description regained critical and practical popularity in the late twentieth century, featuring prominently in the work of contemporary novelists such as Nicholson Baker and David Foster Wallace. In the 1980s, Gérard Genette and Philippe Hamon, among others, brought description back to the center of critical interest, Genette arguing that description is in fact more indispensable than narration because it is easier to describe without narrating events than to narrate without description. Description regained some of its nineteenth-century glamour—yet with a very much postmodern glamour, more heroin-chic than velvet elegance.
It is, of course, virtually impossible to successfully generalize about novelists, each of whose work constitutes a separately run universe. The differences between early eighteenth-century writers can be as vast as between a seventeenth- and a nineteenth-century novelist. But whether the description is spare or lush, generated by verbs or settling across paragraphs, the intent is the same. In the words of Macaulay (1830, “John Bunyan”): “This is the highest miracle of genius,—that things which are not should be as though they were,—that the imaginations of one mind should become the personal recollections of another.”
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2. Auerbach, E. (1953), Mimesis, trans. W.R. Trask.
3. Beaujour, M. (1981), “ Some Paradoxes of Description,” Yale French Studies 61: 25—59.
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6. Ehrenpreis, I. (1974), Literary Meaning and Augustan Values.
7. Genette, G. (1982), Figures of Literary Discourse, trans. Alan Sheridan.
8. Graham, J. (1966), “ Character and Description in the Romantic Novel,” Studies in Romanticism 5: 208—18.
9. Hagstrum, J.H. (1958), Sister Arts.
10. Hamon, P. (1981), “ Rhetorical Status of the Descriptive,” trans. Patricia Baudoin, Yale French Studies 61: 1—26.
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12. Kelsall, M. (1993), Great Good Place.
13. Lopes, J.M. (1995), Foregrounded Description in Prose Fiction.
14. Lukács, G. (1936/1970), “Narrate or Describe?,” in Writer and Critic and Other Essays, ed. and trans. A. Kahn.
15. Mitchell, W.J.T. (1986), Iconology.
16. Race, W.H. (1993), “Ekphrasis,” in New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, ed. A. Preminger and T.V.F. Brogan.
17. Schor, N. (1987), Reading in Detail.
18. Wall, C.S. (2006), Prose of Things.
19. Webb, R. (1999), “ Ekphrasis Ancient and Modern,” Word & Image 15: 7—18.