Rhetorical Figures in Ellen Glasgow’s The Romantic Comedians

This week I want to look at some aspects of style in a novel by Ellen Glasgow, The Romantic Comedians. Glasgow was born in 1873 and died in 1945; she lived in Virginia, and she was a good friend of James Branch Cabell. She wrote a lot and she won a Pulitzer Prize, so she was well regarded. The Romantic Comedians is the only book of hers that I’ve read, but I certainly will put her on my list for further reading. If this book is any indication, she was extraordinarily interested in style. The story is quite straightforward: an elderly widower, Mr. Honeywell, marries a much younger woman, Annabel, who then runs off with another man. The pleasure is in the telling.

One way to get at style is to notice the use of the traditional rhetorical figures. The figures are by no means all there is to style, but they will do as an introduction to the topic. Some styles are more obviously figured than others. Willa Cather, for instance, who was a contemporary of Glasgow, writes a relatively unfigured style. The Romantic Comedians is highly figured, but not so much as, say, the later Henry James or William Faulkner at his most ornate.

Here is a list of the figures I noticed in the novel: antithesis, anadiplosis, anaphora, tricolon, tricolon isocolon, tricolon crescendo, polysyndeton, zeugma, polyptoton, epistrophe, chiasmus, pysma, epimone, aposiopesis, palilogia, simile, metaphor, and irony. I’m sure I’ve missed a few, but this list shows that Glasgow is in command of the figures, which she uses frequently and with great skill.

Many of these figures are not familiar by name except to specialists. There’s really nothing difficult about the figures or their names. The names are just handy, in the same way it’s handy to know the difference between a Phillips screwdriver and a Robertson. Here is a short definition of each along with an example from Glasgow’s novel.

Antithesis is the conjoining of opposing or contrasting terms. “One of the most exasperating things about her, considering how wrong she was in principle, was her incurable habit of being right in fact” (38). This is a double antithesis: “wrong/right” and “in principle/in fact”. Antithesis is one of the most frequent figures in the book, and I will talk about it more in my next post.

Anadiplosis is the repetition of the last word or phrase in one clause at the beginning of the next. “The sensation, he felt, was instinct with audacity, and audacity is of all qualities the most youthful” (46).

Anaphora is the repetition of a word at the beginning of successive clauses or sentences. “Perhaps, after all, the fault lay in himself, not in circumstances. Perhaps he had been too easily contented in his prime with the second best of experience. Perhaps he had skimmed too lightly over the glazed surface of inherited wisdom’ (144).

Tricolon is the “of the people, by the people, for the people” figure. Tricolon is very commonly used and very commonly noticed. Glasgow uses it often, but not so often as Jane Austen does. Here’s an example: “The disaster in her look, in her voice, in her smile, would have been tragic…” (74). This is also an example of isocolon (“iso-colon” means “equal parts”), because the three items are the same length, three words, and have the same structure. Another very common form is tricolon crescendo, where the items get longer. Here’s an example of a tricolon crescendo with a fourth term added on: “Forgetting his age, his dignity, his reputation, forgetting his secret fear of himself and of Annabel…” (110). The three terms of the tricolon are “age” (one syllable), “dignity” (three syllables), and “reputation” (four syllables). The added term repeats the word “forgetting” and then adds an even longer term. This kind of extension of a tricolon to a fourth term is used a lot by Jane Austen. I don’t know of a name for it, so I just call it an extended tricolon.

Polysyndeton is the use of extra conjunctions. “What he felt, while her face drifted away from him, was the yearning to be kind and warm and benevolent” (44). The opposite of polysyndeton is asyndeton, where the expected conjunction is left out; I didn’t notice any asyndeton in The Romantic Comedians.

Zeugma is complicated, but I will give the quick and dirty version: in zeugma two different kinds of relation are used as if they were the same. “Though she had little wisdom, she had had four husbands” (13). Having wisdom is a very different kind of having than having a husband, or four of them.

Polyptoton is the use of a root in more than one derived form. “Nothing was permanent, nothing was complete; and through this impermanence and incompleteness there was an escape from the conflict of thwarted desires” (229).

Epistrophe is the repetition of a word or phrase at the ends of successive clauses or sentences. Some people use the term “antistrophe”, but I prefer “epistrophe” because Thelonious Monk wrote a tune with that title. “Mrs. Bredalbane laughed without offence. The trait that made her invulnerable to criticism, he perceived now, was her complete immunity from offence.” (58)

Chiasmus is an AB/BA structure. “She was without reverence, he admitted sorrowfully, for doctrine, sound or unsound. Indeed it appeared to him at times that she was disposed to respect the unsound more than the sound” (121).

Pysma is a series of rhetorical questions. “A faint, thin vibration, clear as the ringing of bells and luminous as the sunrise quivered about him. Was something there? Was it light? he asked himself. Was it music? Was it ecstasy? Was it God?” (176).

Epimone is the repetition at some distance of a phrase or a sentence. A textbook example comes from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, as Antony says over and over, “And Brutus is an honourable man”. In The Romantic Comedians, Mrs. Upchurch tells Mr. Honeywell four times that “Annabel is devoted to you” (176, 181, 183, 184), so we are not surprised to find her in the arms of another man.

Aposiopesis is a sudden falling silent, usually because of emotion. “The thing that has disturbed me most is that there seems to be some intellectual basis for the whole attitude. It may not be a sound one; nevertheless, it is there, and that lifts Annabel’s motive above the plan of—of——” (201). Here Mr. Honeywell cannot speak the word “adultery”.

Palilogia is the repetition of a word for vehemence or emphasis. “Around him there was eternal isolation of spirit. Not the human spirit alone, but the essence of all spirits. Spirits of men and women. Spirits of children. Spirits of animals. Spirits of plants. All immersed and drowning in loneliness” (221). The passage continues with another instance of palilogia, with six repetitions of the word “loneliness”.

Simile is one of the more familiar figures. When the young Annabel first embraces the old Mr. Honeywell, she notices how different his arms were from those of her younger first love, who threw her over: “Well, she was glad that they were different, that they were old arms, wooden arms, like branches of a dead tree” (110).

Metaphor is another familiar figure. Metaphors come in a variety of forms, not just “A is B”. A striking example comes from the description of the hotel where Annabel and her lover stay in New York: “She led the way, burdened with her parcels, of which he had tried punctiliously to relieve her, and he followed slowly into a hotel which smelled of unhappy yesterdays” (222). A persistent metaphor, which runs from the first page to the last, compares the seasons of the year to the seasons of life.

Irony is as much an attitude as it is a figure. The word has come to be used very broadly, but originally it meant something like saying the opposite of what you mean, or meaning the opposite of what you say, but it also can express a mocking or derisive attitude. The whole tone of The Romantic Comedians is ironic, and a result of the persistent irony is a kind of distance from the characters. Here’s an example of Glasgow’s irony: “Mrs. Bredalbane sighed as a lover but assented as a philosopher; for her encounter with the fluent nature of emotion had made her charitable to all infirmities of character that resembled her own” (22). It seems initially that Glasgow is praising Mrs. Bredalbane’s charity and tolerance, but there is a sting at the end, when we discover that her tolerance is directed towards herself.

This list is only a brief summary of the figuration in the novel. An attentive reading will find many more instances of figured language, and in addition, a constant attention to the formation of the sentences, including features of sound and rhythm.

The identification of figures is not literary criticism. It is, however, part of the foundation on which literary criticism is built. In my next post I will try to go a little further into a critical assessment of the novel, with particular attention to irony and antithesis.

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