Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

'Moments of Punctuation': Metonymy and Ellipsis in Tim O'Brien

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

'Moments of Punctuation': Metonymy and Ellipsis in Tim O'Brien

Article excerpt


From Aristotle to Roman Jakobson and beyond, metaphor's status as the pre-eminent literary trope has been accepted largely without question. If the characteristic force of metaphor lies in the way it widens the gap between language and event, it is possible that metaphor's 'rule' may be weakened when language and event collide. The article argues that it is in the light of such collisions, dislocations, and displacements rather than in the more measured figurings of the symbolic, that the work of the Vietnam novelist Tim O'Brien can best be read.

He had contrived, or rather he had happened, to dissever himself from the world -- to vanish -- to give up his place and privileges with living men, without being admitted among the dead.[1]

He had happened to dissever himself from the world -- to vanish -- to give up his place and privilege with living men, without being admitted among the dead.[2]


In 'Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances' (1956), Roman Jakobson speaks of the 'primacy of the metaphoric process' in romantic and symbolist writing.[3] He argues that the 'rich literature' devoted to metaphor is the product of its affinity with metalinguistic operations (p. 258). The idea that the paradigmatic nature of metaphor accords it privileged semantic status, as is well known, has not only been largely endorsed by literary critics but also adopted as virtually a field-defining tenet: the English title of Paul Ricoeur's La Metaphore Vive -- The Rule of Metaphor -- is as suggestive here as that of the French original. Metaphor has become the dominant trope, the literary trope par excellence, and even the main object of literary analysis. From Shelley or Coleridge on the roots of poetry to Derrida's tracings of 'metaphor in the text of philosophy' and beyond, metaphor rules over vast and otherwise disparate critical territories.[4] For Jakobson, the fact that metonymy is a syntagmatic rather than a paradigmatic phenomenon, a matter of syntax not semantics, adequately explains the 'neglect' it has suffered. Being based on the axis of combination rather than selection, metonymy 'easily defies interpretation' (Selected Writings, ii, 258). This, however, is surely a curious position: reductive, even fatalistic. One almost equally reductive though less fatalistic critical alternative might be not only to enquire into the meaning of what the text says (its content) but also into the meaning of how it says what it says. Better still, it might be helpful to think of holes as holes rather than trying to fill them up with the spoils of metaphor.

It is perhaps fitting in the context of these remarks that Tim O'Brien's tour of duty in Vietnam (March 1969 to March 1970) coincided precisely with the moment at which, according to Gerard Genette, metaphor finally achieved 'absolute, undivided rule' in the field of poetics.[5] The publication of Michel Deguy's Pour une theorie de la figure generalise e (1969) and the Liege group's Rhetorique generale (1970) finally raised metaphor to the status of top trope and left it, in Genette's words, 'frozen in its useless royalty' ('Rhetoric Restrained', p. 115). O'Brien's memoir of his period in Vietnam, If I Die in a Combat Zone (1973) seemingly affirms metaphor's high status. Shortly after his arrival, O'Brien's platoon leader organizes a night ambush. Marching along a trail in single file, O'Brien finds himself recollecting a dream he had first experienced as a fourteen-year-old in Minnesota:

I was in prison. It was somewhere in a very black and evil land. The prison was a hole in a mountain. During the days, swarthy-faced moustached captors worked us like slaves in coal mines. At night they locked us behind rocks, every prisoner utterly alone. They had whips and guns, and they used them on us at pleasure.[6]

O'Brien escapes but his captors pursue him. Plunging into a forest, he eventually finds himself looking down into a valley where a carnival is taking place:

A beautiful woman, covered with feathers and tan skin, was charming snakes. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.