Academic journal article Style

Narrating the Unnarratable: Gender and Metonymy in the Victorian Novel

Academic journal article Style

Narrating the Unnarratable: Gender and Metonymy in the Victorian Novel

Article excerpt


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. …

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