Academic journal article Style

Description and Perspective: The Representation of Interiors

Academic journal article Style

Description and Perspective: The Representation of Interiors

Article excerpt

The narratological analysis of description and even its definition and distinction from surrounding narrative report of action has given rise to a host of problems and questions (Genette, Bal, Klaus, Ronen), as indeed the introduction to this special issue has already briefly acknowledged. Narratological study of description has invariably focused on the nineteenth-century novel and its Modernist heirs, and to a lesser extent on the prevalence of description in the nouveau roman (though Genette argues that even there description does not replace narrative but becomes narrativized--"Frontieres" 59-60). Extensive work has been done on the enumeration of items in descriptive passages (Hamon, "What is"; Bal 122; Haupt) and on the articulation of themes and subthemes (see Bal and the studies she summarizes; Mosher and Zoran) as well as the elaboration of contiguous features and qualities that serve to expand lists into descriptions in Balzac or Zola (Hamon, Introduction, "What is"). (2) David Lodge, in a brief subsection of The Modes of Modern Writing (93-103), has additionally noted the inherently metonymic character of descriptions (see also Bal 122); not only does the narrative move from one contiguous item to the other but the qualities ascribed to the listed objects tend to become representative of the place or person(s) described. Characters' habits and clothing inevitably signal their morals or beliefs, thus operating on the lines of synecdoche. However, as Lodge notes, these metonymies often congeal into metaphors and symbols (he defines a symbol as a "metaphorical metonymy"--100) since the rhetorical elaboration of the noted objects or features consistently resorts to metaphoric implication. At the same time, Lodge points out that description may sometimes forego the use of tropes but then tends to achieve a generally 'metonymic' effect through the extensive use of "repetition, balance, and antithesis," a strategy--illustrated on the example of E. M. Forster's opening paragraph to A Passage to India--that Lodge regards as "perhaps the nearest thing in prose to 'the projection of the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination'" (98).

Other narratological studies of description have focused on description's non-storylike (event-less) quality. Description occurs in the pauses of narrative progression (events and dialogue) just like narratorial commentary. As Seymour Chatman's model illustrates to perfection, existents and setting provide the static background on which the dynamically conceived events are configured (66-81). In accordance with Chatman, both Hamon (Introduction, "What is,") and Margolin ("Character") emphasize the strong correlation between description and constitution of character. The tendency to partition description off from the surrounding report of events is carried to an extreme in Helmut Bonheim's The Narrative Modes, in which he sees texts as splitting up into four kinds of chunks: narrative report, commentary, dialogue, and description. There is, as I have argued, a tendency in the development of written narrative from an oral model of storytelling to the rise of the novel in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to increasingly proportion the narrative discourse into alternate segments of report, commentary, description, and dialogue scenes (later also representations of characters' thoughts), which eventually expand into discrete textual units in the discourse (see Fludernik, Towards, Chapters 2-4). In the nineteenth-century novel, this practice of juxtaposing these four types of textual elements rose to a high point. The pattern appears in many nineteenth-century novels like Le Pere Goriot, which opens with a several pages' long description of the setting (zooming in on the characters from a survey of the region to the town and down to the house in which the protagonists live); the novel thus anticipates sociological analysis in a synecdochic manner. …

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