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© Canadian Review of American Studies/Revue canadienne d’études américaines 31, no. 1, 2001 Metaphor, Metonymy, and the Constitution of Identity in The Wings of the Dove Gert Buelens In The Prison-House of Language, Fredric Jameson writes Language has of necessity recourse to indirection, to substitution: … it must replace [an] empty center of content with something else, and it does so either by saying what the content is like (metaphor), or describing its context and the contours of its absence, listing the things that border around it (metonymy). Thus language, by its very nature, is either analogical or fetishistic….” (122–23) The phrase “empty center of content” is a particularly suggestive one when applied to Henry James’s novel The Wings of the Dove. It is easily reminiscent of the young woman around whose “really larger vagueness,” in the words of a wholly sympathetic character, the novel’s action revolves (James, Wings 82). Critical interpretations that regard Milly as an essentially “empty” quantity are legion, some finding fault with her for being “too much like emptiness.” “She isn’t there,” F.R. Leavis complains, “and the fuss the other characters make about her … has the effect of an irritating sentimentality”(183). The fuss that the other characters make about this “empty center of content” is metaphorical in nature. They wonder what Milly is most like: Kate Croy sees her as a dove, Susan Stringham as a princess. Lord Mark, seconded by Kate, discerns an analogy to the sixteenth-century Venetian noblewoman in Bronzino’s “mysterious portrait” (Book 5, ii): “ Yes, there you are, my dear, if you want to know,” Kate tells Milly (138).1 But Milly doesn’t want to know. She denies any metaphorical resemblance, any analogy: “I wish I could see the resemblance … I don’t know—one never knows one’s self” (138). Instead, what Milly does is regard the Bronzino, and Lord Mark’s drawing of her attention to it, as a metonymy for the kindness of all the English people by whom she is surrounded: “The lady in question … was a very great personage—only unaccompanied by a joy. And she was dead, dead, dead. Milly recognised her exactly in words that had nothing to do with her. ‘I shall never be better than this’”(137). Canadian Review of American Studies 31 (2001) 410 The link between herself and the Bronzino is not, for Milly, in any likeness , in any metaphorical analogy; the link is in the actual words she utters: “I shall never be better than this”—“this” meaning not “she,” as Lord Mark wrongly understands, not the noblewoman, but the “moment”—the moment there with him and with all those whose “kind eyes” look at her and see an “awfully rich young American who was so queer to behold, but so nice, by all accounts, to know” (136). She was before the picture, but she had turned to him…. It was probably as good a moment as she should ever have with him. It was perhaps as good a moment as she should have with any one, or have in any connexion whatever. “I mean that everything this afternoon has been too beautiful, and that perhaps everything together will never be so right again.” (137) “She had turned to him”: It is the syntagmatic relation to Lord Mark that matters at this moment; the fact that she is “with” him, that there is this “connexion,” that “everything [is] together.” Yet Milly’s denial of the resemblance is also a bit like whistling in the dark, of course. She desperately wants to convince herself that she is different from this lady in the painting who seems so utterly “unaccompanied by a joy”; she wants to believe that everything is “so right” now, that she is not herself “dead, dead, dead” at the core, and that no one has any designs on her—that “kind eyes,” even Kate Croy’s, “were always kind eyes.” Milly wants to rest in the luxury of “everything together,” of “things [that] melted together,” of a moment that is “too beautiful,” of “kind, kind eyes” (136–38).2 But metonymy—substituting context for empty content; relying on...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 409-428
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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