Metonyms in Dickens Essay

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Metonymics in "Little Dorit"

Metonymy is a literary term that is used to describe a concept that is not called by its own name, but rather by something symbolically associated with it that has a deeper, metaphorical meaning. For example, the words "white coat" could be utilized to infer a doctor or medical professional or the city "Washington" could refer to a governmental decision, as in "Washington's policy of…." Metonymy works in literary prose by the association between two concepts -- metaphor by the similarity. Typically, use of metonymy presupposes that the speaker or author wishes to transfer the archetypal qualities of one item into the other, all without a large explanation of those qualities. For example, the American stock system is referred to by location, "Wall Street, "monarchs "the crown," yet neither is specifically "like" the other (Barcelona, 2003).

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In larger literary contexts, we see metonymy as more of a rhetorical strategy of describing something indirectly by referring to symbols or things contiguous to it. There are a number of famous examples of this, in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, for example, quite early in the story we have Oliver facing the wrath of "the man in the white waistcoat." "The man in the white waistcoat" declares" "That boy will be hung…"( 11). The gentleman in the white waistcoat asserts himself again, "I never was more convinced of anything in my life" (12). Even further, the narrator again brings the reader the illusion, "As I purpose to show in the sequel whether the white-waist coated gentleman was right or not" (37). It is interesting that this man is not named, but yet has so much covert power simply by his mode of dress. The audience does not need to have a long diatribe about this character, but alludes to the fact that he is: wealthy, arrogant, opinionated, a man of means and power, boisterous, negative, and judgmental towards children. Thus, the power of the metonymic technique explained much to the reader without over explaining the prose.

TOPIC: Essay on Metonyms in Dickens Assignment

Dickens and 'Little Dorrit' -- Charles Dickens was likely the most popular author of the Victorian era, certainly one who produced some of the most beloved, or at least iconic, characters (Oliver Twist, Pip, Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, etc.). Most of his novels dealt with recurring social issues derived from Dickens' view of the English hierarchical system of the time. Most, too, appeared in serialized form -- a typical way of disseminating popular fiction at the time. Also, unlike many other authors of the time who wrote the entire novel, turned it over for publication, then let the editors break it into chapters, Dickens often waited to gauge public reaction to a part prior to completing the next part. This technique had several outcomes: he was able to use the cultural tide of the day to establish what he might do with characterization in the next installment; he was able to provide a particular rhythm for each specific part of the novel, and he was able to punctuate his novels, much like the serial television shows of today, with "cliffhanger" moments that kept the audience rapt and interested, anxiously ready to purchase the next installment (Swift, 2007).

Little Dorrit was one of these serialized novels, originally published between 1855 and 1857. Its theme focuses on the institutions of debtors' prisons, in which people who owed money were imprisoned, unable to work, until their debt is paid; a highly ironic scenario since how can one pay one's debt without being able to work. In addition, class themes of the separation of the government from society, a lack of human safety net, and the treatment and safety of workers pervade Little Dorrit.

Also, like many of his works, Little Dorrit did allow for social climbing. Indeed the innocence of the characters in their sloth (Part 1: Poverty) in contrast to part II (Riches). The novel is broken into 19 monthly installments, each comprising about 32 pages and featuring illusions by Phiz.

In brief, Amy Dorrit, better known as Little Dorrit, was born in debtor's prison. Although her mother is dead, she and her brother and sister continue to live in the prison with their bankrupt father. As she ages, she is permitted to leave the prison to find work, which she does as a seamstress. One of her clients, Mrs. Clennam, a dour old woman, but with a kind and empathetic son, Arthur. Arthur is taken with Amy, and tries to help the family, eventually discovering through another circumstance that Mr. Dorrit was the only surviving heir to a large, unclaimed fortune. Finally, Mr. Dorrit is released, and the family moves to the Continent, starting over and pretending that they were never part of the underbelly of British prisons.

Wealth changes most of the Dorrit family except Amy, who ironically goes back to the debtor's prison to comfort the person who had helped her, Arthur, now bankrupt and in prison himself. In an attempt to assuage guilt, Mrs. Clennam rises from her bed, travels to the prison, makes the confession that Arthur is not her son, and that for many years she had been saving money for he and Amy. Restitution is paid, Arthur is released, and he and Amy are finally married.

The book is rather complex, containing two divergent story lines in which some of the characters overlap, some are the same, and some simply interact with others within the plot line. There are numerous sub-plots as well: imprisonment, blackmail, romance, and social decay. Dickens apparently wanted to call the novel, "Nobody's Fault," a commentary on everyone simply giving up and allowing things to just happen -- only to have the crotchety old woman finally save the day towards the end. After all, in capitalism it is indeed the individual who is responsible for their debts -- but somewhat ironic that the British answer seemed to be imprisonment and then a complete inability to pay.

Thematically, though, the book seems to be a series of metaphoric prisons. Certainly we have the tangible Debtor's prison, a horrible, dirty, wretched place that strips whatever humanity is left within one's soul. However, there are number of other "prisons" that rise out of the novel, some as metonyms, some simply analogies. The Circumlocution Office, for instance, a mysterious branch of government where nothing gets done, but everyone must visit for proper permits for almost everything. The idea of being engaged in the necessity of social climbing is another prison -- the people in the middle class are just as much a prisoner of their class as those trying desperately to escape, or as those who simply have no choice. Blackmail and fraud are also prisons, as is bankruptcy -- cavernous and no win scenarios in which certain people in society enter and spiral downward, never to return (Lund, 1982).

Metonyms in Little Dorrit -- From the very opening lines of Little Dorrit, the reader is presented with a hierarchy of meaning and distinction within what we shall come to know is a fixed moral frame -- Victorian England may have been an expansionary and vital economic power, but it was also one in which only the rising upper crust were considered important. "There was no wind to make a ripple on the foul water within the harbor, or on the beautiful sea without. The line of demarcation between the two colours, black and blue, showed the point which the purse sea would not pass, but it lay as quiet as the abominable pool, with which it never mixed" (1). We then meet the three institutions of society: family, religion, and the State that will be known through various metonyms throughout the book: houses, churches, prisons. The rather fascinating thing about these images that permeate throughout is that they give us an overall "feeling" -- without a screenplay we are swept into the Victorian perception of time, place, and events.

For Dickens, the idea of synergism, of the sum of the parts totaling something far greater than the individual items, however, uses metonymy to generate meaning from the myriad of details, so that the reader is able to grow to love and respect certain individuals, while despising and hating others, other products, services, and far more than a linked chain of events. When we remember that for many, these installment fictions were some of the only entertainment they had, we understanding a bit more the function they played within the structure of Society (large S, Dickens use of the term). Colors, lines of demarcation, hierarchical chains of events, all work because there is Dickens, the strict moralist, chooses to see the world in gray, but also knows that most see it more in right/wrong, black/white, good/bad, rich/poor -- and all that implies symbolically. Metonyms fuel this, also causing considerable commentary on the undertexts and intertexts -- shades of meaning and doubt, pining for freedom, yet seeking that very thing which keeps freedom at bay (Hartley, 2005).

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