- Syllepsis, Mimesis, Simulacrum: The Monk and the Grammar of Authenticity
The old Woman was obstinate, and on She went. By dint of perseverance and two brawny arms She made a passage through the Crowd, and managed to bustle herself into the very body of the Church, at no great distance from the Pulpit. Her companion had followed her with timidity and silence, profiting by the exertions of her conductress.—Matthew Lewis, The Monk (1796)1
Few readers of Matthew Lewis’s Gothic fantasy The Monk will forget its dazzling opening scene, in which the citizens of Lewis’s medieval Madrid throng its Capuchin Church, driven by a mixture of vanity and hypocrisy. Fewer still will forget the eventual emergence of two characters from this flock of churchgoers: the presumptive young heroine Antonia Dalfa and her mannish aunt Leonella, mentioned in the epigraph. Indeed Lewis seems to mark their arrival, as though to give a premonition of their importance to the plot, with a rhetorical flourish: “By dint of perseverance and two brawny arms.” Lewis’s use of syllepsis in this passage, by which “a single word that governs or modifies two or more others must be understood differently with respect to each of those words,”2 may strike one as more quirky than significant in this instance, but it is difficult to ignore the figurative force of the expression, which violently juxtaposes the abstractness of perseverance with the physicality of Leonella’s unwomanly arms, thereby instantly materializing “dint” within a matter of five words. As though to underscore this point by means of an echo, the next sentence features another mismatched pair—“followed her with timidity and [End Page 401] silence”—which juxtaposes a personal characteristic (timidity) with its consequence (silence).
The appearance of syllepsis is not an isolated one, either within The Monk or in Lewis’s writing in general. Soon after their emergence, for example, Leonella describes the isolated Murcian castle in which Antonia has been living since infancy: “This had been the favourite habitation of his eldest Son; But since his flight from Spain, the old Marquis could not bear the place, but let it fall to ruin and confusion” (14, my emphasis), which mingles the literal sense of “fall” with its metaphorical sense. Or consider the final sentence of Don Raymond’s rambling narrative, intended to demonstrate his attachment to Agnes, the heroine of the novel’s second plot: “That it has always been, and still is my design to make her my Wife: And that I trust, when you consider these circumstances, our youth, and our attachment, you will not only forgive our momentary lapse from virtue, but will aid me in repairing my faults to Agnes, and securing a lawful title to her person and her heart” (191), which again retrofits “title” from literal to metaphorical. Agnes herself, in describing her prolonged entombment at the hands of the sinister Prioress, is also prone to speaking in syllepses: “Now all was lost to me. Friends, comfort, society, happiness, in one moment I was deprived of all! Dead to the world, Dead to pleasure, I lived to nothing but the sense of misery” (411), an expression playing on two of the many concepts of death explored by the novel.
What to make of such rhetorical oddities? It would be difficult to attribute such flourishes to the design of Gothic fiction, which on the whole elevated thematic indulgence over rhetorical indulgence. Though few statements can be taken seriously in the preface to the first edition (1764) of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (written in the person of “translator” William Marshall), one that seems reasonably sound is Marshall’s description of style: “There is no bombast, no similes, flowers, digressions, or unnecessary descriptions.”3 Bombast occurs mostly within plot; for the most part, Walpole’s prose is free of the type of violent wrenchings one finds within Lewis. (There are exceptions, notably the description of the drunk Manfred as “flushed by wine and love.”4) Despite the indisputable lyricism within vast swathes of Ann Radcliffe’s prose, and despite her penchant for poetic insertions, syllepsis appears rarely within her repertoire.
One thing, though...