Definition of Metalepsis

Metalepsis is derived from a Greek word metōnymia, which means substitution or sharing. It is a figure of speech like metonymy or metaphor. However, it is an advanced form of figurative speech in which one thing is referred to another thing that is only slightly related to it. There are two ways to make this association. One is through showing causal relationship to seemingly unrelated things. The other is through indirect intermediate replacement of terms.

Features of Metalepsis

Metalepsis is a reference in which a phrase or a word taken from the figurative speech is employed in a new context. Metalepsis is also known as transumption. According to Werner Wolf, “It is a fictional representation that consists of different levels and worlds, among which unconventional transgression takes place.”
Metalepsis often conveys metaphorical expression by using a word associated with a thing that it is being referred to. In addition, this figure of speech could be a reference for a literary work such as if somebody says, “Something smells in Denmark” then it would be considered to be a reference to Shakespeare’s famous play Hamlet.

Examples of Metalepsis from Literature

Example #1

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. . . .
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player….”

(Macbeth by William Shakespeare)

There are many examples of metalepsis in Shakespeare’s works since he multiplies metaphors and duplicates figures of speech in various guises. He works on one figure and then moves onto the next and continues from where he started off. There is a concatenation of different figures that quickly pile on one another as shown in bold.

Example #2

“As he swung toward them holding up the hand
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling…”

(Out, Out by Robert Frost)

In these lines, the poet makes reference to “life from spilling” meaning the spilling of blood. He makes a connection between blood and life, which means too much loss of blood shows loss of human life.

Example #3

“But now my oat proceeds,
And listens to the herald of the sea
That came in Neptune’s plea,
He asked the waves, and asked the felon winds,
What hard mishap hath doomed this gentle swain?”

(Lycidas by John Milton)

In the passage above, Milton uses “oat” as a musical instrument that is made from oat stalk. Therefore, the word “oat” is employed as a reference to the song that the poet composes beside the ocean.

Example #4

“I’m mighty glad Georgia waited till after Christmas before it secedes or it would have ruined the Christmas parties.”

(Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell)

Here, Georgia is used to develop a relationship between politicians, government and citizens. It is now common to use the name of a country to refer to its government and its whole nation.

Example #5

“Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
and burnt the topless towers of Ilium?…”

(Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe)

A reference is made here to a mythological figure called Helen of Troy, who was abducted by Paris which led to the idea of using thousand ships for starting Trojan wars. Here, the word “face” is used as metalepsis.

Function of Metalepsis

Generally, it is employed in a literary text to develop symbolism and metaphor by giving profound meanings to ideas and objects. By using metalepsis, the text shows deeper and hidden meanings and therefore draws the attention of the readers. In addition, it adds more poetic effects to the piece of writing. The readers are provided with allusions using another figure of speech in order to make them understand the hidden meaning communicated through it. Also, it is used in literary comedies because the words in allusion could cause a comical exaggeration. However, in narratology, metalepsis plays with the structure of a fictional book, since the narrator may seemed separated from the action, but he interacts in the middle of the story to create heightened effects and deeper meanings for the readers. A survey of metalepsis examples will help us understand the said functions of this device.

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