Metonymy

Summertime for English teachers means reading freely and capriciously — some of us pick up that tome we’d never have time for during the hectic year, some of us read the trashiest romances we can find because we won’t run into our students on the beach in the Outer Banks, and some of us read 3-6 books at once, jumping from one to another within the course of a day because there is so much time (!) to read. I’m the latter– I read great books all year round, but when I’m on a break from teaching, I read more and more and more.

I also find that I’m not really on a break from teaching, because so much of the way I teach reading and writing is by showing my students models of great writing. And those models arise from what I read on my own, even when I’m not looking for them.

I thought it might be fun to show this side of my brain with analysis of an excerpt from a superb book I just finished, Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter.

I struggled last year to teach the concept of metonymy to my AP Language students. It’s a hard one to grasp. It seems so similar to metaphor, but while metaphor is the substitution of a different thing for the referent (the actual thing you’re talking about), metonymy is a sneakier substitution. Metonymy is the naming of similarity as sameness. It takes a word or idea adjacent to the referent and uses it as a reference to its almost-self. So business men become “suits” or the dictum of a chef is translated as “the kitchen says.”

In Beautiful Ruins, writer Alvis Bender uses the technique in stages in his unfinished autobiographical novel, “The Smile of Heaven,” about World War II.

Then Spring came, and with it, the end of my war. The generals with their grease pencils had invited too many soldiers and they needed something for us to do and so we marched over every last inch of Italy. All that spring we marched, through the chalky coastal flats below the Apennines, and once the way was cleared, up pocked green foothills toward Genoa, into villages crumbled like old cheese, cellars spitting forth grubby thin Italians. Such a horrible formality, the end of a war.

In this beginning section of the novel, the generals are associated with grease pencils, presumably because that’s what they use to write orders. Here and in the next passage, there’s a subtle contrast drawn between the generals writing orders on paper and the actual movement that the humble foot soldiers must complete.

Each morning, the grease pencil generals caused artillery waves to crash to the north as we marched in our sudden rain gear into a slashing, insistent drizzle.

Bender has moved the terms “grease pencil” and “generals” physically closer together this time, and his repetition emphasizes the association between the two. It seems now like he is describing them as like grease pencils, which to me implies that they are only generals on paper. They get to move the waves of artillery around Italy, but it is the soldiers who get wet in the rain. Bender continues to explain the pointlessness and discomfort of his experience.

Clearly, there were larger tactics at play in my war’s end (we heard rumors of nightmare camps and of the grease pencils dividing the world in half), but for Richards and me, our war consisted of wet, fretful marches up dirt roads and down hillsides to the edges of bombed-out villages.

Here we have true metonymy. The word ‘generals’ (the referent, the actual thing) has been fully replaced by a thing already associated with them, the grease pencils. Bender needed to establish that association previously for this to work, because we don’t automatically think of grease pencils when we think about generals (more obvious metonyms would include “military brass” or “the pentagon”). But now, it’s as if the grease pencils themselves are doing the ordering about. This time, they’re doing even more powerful work, dividing the world between Russian and Western spheres of influence. This meaning of the war’s end has very little to do with the actual experience of the soldiers, which is wet and fretful. The generals aren’t doing any of the actual marching, which again goes back to the idea that they are generals merely on paper, blind to risk and wasted time while they doodle at their desks. Whose war now seems more important?

This is an unusually masterful use of metonymy. Jess Walters allows his surrogate, the writer Alvis Bender, to play with this technique in an easily understandable, yet subtly powerful way. By moving us slowly closer to full metonymy, he makes sure that we get it. But the metonym itself makes a statement about power and military hierarchy.

Back to the age-old question of what separates English teachers from the rest of the world’s readers– I wouldn’t expect my students to be reading this book and suddenly jump to their feet and yell “that’s metonymy!” But the technique is still there, making meaning, and it will work on our brains whether we recognize it sharply enough to analyze or not. If you’re reading this blog post, you might be able to recognize a metonym next time someone uses it in everyday speech (my bet is that you’ll hear someone refer to the current presidential administration as “The White House” within 24 hours).

Or you might be reading an excellent yet fun novel and stop to linger a little longer over some of the words and wonder why the author might have done that, and what it might be doing to your thinking. And that’s really why I teach analysis: it’s just a way of reading the world with more practiced eyes than you had before.

Did you enjoy pretending to be in my English class for a few minutes? Let me know in the comments as I contemplate writing more passage study posts. 🙂 

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