Antitheses in Ellen Glasgow’s The Romantic Comedians

In my previous post I presented a catalogue of rhetorical figures in Ellen Glasgow’s The Romantic Comedians, with an example of each. A more detailed catalogue would show that Glasgow uses most of these figures just once or twice or three times, but she uses antithesis frequently. In this post I want to look at some of these antitheses and consider their meaning and effect in the novel.

Antithesis, according to Richard Lanham (A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms), conjoins contrasting ideas; he gives an example from Sir Philip Sydney’s Arcadia (“neither the one hurt her, nor the other help her; just without partiality, mighty without contradiction, liberal without loving, wise without curiosity”) and another longer example from Alexander Pope’s poem “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot”. Arthur Quinn (Figures of Speech) in his glossary defines antithesis as “repetition by negation”. In the body of the book he gives fifteen examples, from the Bible, from Aristotle, from Shakespeare. Here is one of his examples, from the gospel of John (1:3): “All things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made”. This certainly counts as repetition by negation, but it’s not what is usually called antithesis. There is not so much a contrast of ideas here, but one idea presented both positively and negatively. We find a stronger contrast of ideas in another of his examples, this one from Montesquieu: “A man should be mourned at his birth, not his death”. The antithetical ideas here are birth and death. In this simple antithesis, a single verb, “mourned”, takes two contrasting complements, “at his birth/not his death”. A more complex antithesis would add contrasting verbs: “A man should be mourned at his birth and celebrated at his death”. Antithesis is, I think, one of the more noticeable figures; even a single antithesis can stand out.

Now let’s look at antitheses in Glasgow’s The Romantic Comedians. In my rough catalogue I found twenty-eight instances of antithesis in the novel. That’s a lot. Each antithesis has its own meaning, but the sheer number of antitheses becomes part of the meaning of the novel as a whole. I won’t look at all twenty-eight, but I will take a glance at many of them.

Some of Glasgow’s antitheses are simple contrasts. Judge Honeywell says to his sister, “I hope you are more careful in your conversation than you have been in your conduct” (60). The Judge makes a simple contrast between “conversation” and “conduct”, both governed by “careful”; the antithesis is pointed by alliteration (a figure which I did not include my in catalogue in the previous post). Here is another simple antithesis, this time in the voice of the narrator: “though pleasure may be purchasable, happiness cannot be bought for a price” (75); the contrast is “pleasure/happiness”, whereas “bought for a price” is just a restatement of “purchasable”. Again there is alliteration. Here are some more simple antitheses:

“Though he loved Anabel, there were hours when it seemed to him that he was suffocated less by the flame than by the smoke of desire” (117).

“Her feeling for justice, moreover, was a spirit, he perceived, rather than a conviction” (122).

“Mrs. Upchurch was natural only when she was artificial” (132).

“In the deeper phases of thought, she was, he perceived, occasionally noble but always unethical” (153).

“He promised solemnly, but, after all, it is easier to promise a virtue than to practice it” (185).

Each of these deserves individual analysis. Several of them, for instance, use the antithetical form to suggest a question without actually asking it: What is the smoke of desire? How can the artificial be natural? How can someone be both noble and unethical?

Most of Glasgow’s antitheses are doubled. Here the narrator is describing Edmonia Bredalbane, Judge Honeywell’s disreputable sister: “After one early scandal, she had indulged herself through life in that branch of conduct which was familiar to ancient moralists as nature in man and depravity in woman” (7). This figure contrasts both “nature/depravity” and “man/woman”. The antithesis is witty, but it goes beyond wit when it implicitly asks if the moralists have been fair in their judgement.

A number of antitheses concern Edmonia Bredalbane’s attitude and conduct: she was “deaf alike to the whispers of conscience and the thunder of tradition” (7); she “feared to be stout in age as little as she had feared to be scandalous in youth” (13); she “sighed as a lover but assented as a philosopher” (22); “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). Mrs. Bredalbane herself can create a good antithesis; she tells her brother, “you could have forgiven my committing a sin if you hadn’t feared that I had committed a pleasure as well” (159); she explains to her brother why the younger generation admire her: “it isn’t my actual virtues, but my legendary vices that draw the flies to my honey.” (160)

Antitheses apply one way or another to most of the characters in the story. We have already seen a number of antitheses applied to Annabel, the young woman who marries the old Judge Honeywell, and he also is described in antitheses. The narrator tells us that Judge Honeywell “had been completely in letter, if incompletely in spirit, a faithful husband” (56). When Annabel says that nothing is ever anybody’s fault, Mr. Honeywell reacts with an antithesis: “This doctrine, which he recognized as one that was dangerous in theory and fatal in practice, could not, he told himself, he passed over in silence” (78). The narrator describes Judge Honeywell’s drinking habits: “he had always indulged his thirst with the grace of a Cavalier rather than the austerity of a Puritan” (137).

Judge Honeywell thinks of Mrs. Upchurch, Annabel’s mother, with a complex antithesis: “his reason reminded him, with the prudence which makes reason so much less popular than impulse, that Mrs. Upchurch, who earned her living precariously, trusted more to fancy than to fact for inspiration” (43–44). Mrs. Upchurch tells her daughter Annabel, “After all, every woman has to choose, if she only knew it, between a young husband who is seldom there when you want him and an elderly one who is always there when you don’t want him” (90).

There are several more on my list; if this were an academic article, I would have to include all of them, and an analysis of each, but these are enough for now. It’s time to move from enumeration to interpretation, at least briefly.

The language of “realism”, according to many critics, should be transparent. The reader looks through the language at the world, as we look through but don’t notice the glass in a window. The reader of realism is supposed to look at the signified—or to look past the signified to the referent—but to pay no attention to the signifier. Elsewhere I have argued that this view of language is fundamentally mistaken, even in realism. Here I will just say that an antithesis is not transparent. Antithesis calls attention to itself as a form of language.

Antithesis is both a mode of language and a mode of thought. Antitheses don’t exist in nature; an antithesis is a thought about the world and an expression of that thought. Each antithesis thinks in its own way, but often an antithesis makes some kind of distinction or judgement or ranking. A simple description claims to be about the world, but an antithesis typically expresses the speaker’s attitude.

Antithesis is also fundamentally binary. Some A is compared to some B; in a complex antithesis, A is compared to B, and C is compared to D, but still each comparison is binary. Pleasure is compared to happiness; promising is compared to practicing; the natural is compared to the depraved; right is compared to wrong; principle is compared to fact; theory is compared to practice; actual virtues are compared to legendary vices; fancy is compared to fact; prudence is compared to impulse; and in this novel, over and over and over, age is compared to youth. Binary oppositions are usually simplifications of a more complex and graded reality. There is no moment when a young person becomes an old person. But this novel tends to see the world in binary oppositions, simply because there are so many antitheses.

3 thoughts on “Antitheses in Ellen Glasgow’s The Romantic Comedians

  1. This is really interesting. To me, your description of how particular antitheses pose questions and express attitudes suggests that antitheses can be used to complicate the binaries they employ, and maybe even the idea of binaries itself. You show this happening in simple antitheses like the one contrasting natural and artificial. Doesn’t posing the question of how Mrs. Upchurch can be both also question the binary that divides the world into one or the other? Upsetting or questioning binaries also happens in complicated antitheses where a relatively straightforward binary like right and wrong is combined with a less straightforward contrast like fact and principle. How are the two contrasts related? Is the opposition between fact and principle a binary opposition? Can simply contrasting them in an antithesis place them in such a relationship? One could compare fact, principle, truth, reality, theory, etc. Does the form of the antithesis suggest that they are, in fact, the only two options?
    I’m especially interested in knowing more about how your analyses of particular antitheses relate to the general claim with which you end – that the novel (which I haven’t read) tends to see the world in binary oppositions because it uses so many antitheses. What does seeing the world in binaries mean in or for this novel?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great stuff. Thanks so much. You raise a lot of very important points. An antithesis can use an already existing opposition, it can create brand new opposition one might not have thought of, or it can call an opposition into question. I’ve said before that the figures don’t so much have meaning, per se, but rather an availability to mean. (Would “affordance” be the right technical term?) There are a number of oppositions which dominate this particularly novel: old/young is one very important opposition, but there are others, such as the opposition in character and morals between the two twins—so the binary opposition is built into the narrative geometry!! I’ve never read anything else by Glasgow, but I’ve just ordered two more novels and her autobiography, and I’m interested to see what they are like.


  3. Well, I learned from the best!
    I like the term “affordance.”
    The narrative geometry of twins and uses of antithesis – interesting!
    I hope you’ll do a comparison after you’ve read more of Glasgow’s novels.


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