Persuasions #9, 1987                                                                                                                                            Page 76-84


The Madness of Jane Austen: Metonymic Style and Literature’s Resistance to Interpretation



Somerville, Massachusetts


Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint – ” (102). Thus the expiring Sophia to Laura, the heroine of Love and Freindship. If running mad is so distinctively preferable to fainting, we should consider just what running mad consists in. As late as Emma, Austen shows us how Harriet, besieged by gypsies, almost faints herself into a real predicament, while her animated companion rushes nimbly away cross-country. Here Laura has advanced from the end of Letter 8, when the reunion of Edward and Augustus proves “too pathetic for the feelings of Sophia and myself – We fainted Alternately on a Sofa” (86). They take turns fainting much as they would at playing cards, spelling each other to keep up their sentiment’s current. Generic fainting episodes occur in Letters 10, 11, and 12, but in Letter 13 a difference in styles of reaction appears:

Yes dearest Marianne they were our Husbands. Sophia shreiked and fainted on the Ground – I screamed and instantly ran mad –. We remained thus mutually deprived of our Senses, some minutes, and on regaining them were deprived of them again – . For an Hour and a Quarter did we continue in this unfortunate Situation – Sophia fainting every moment & I running Mad as often. (99)

Now each heroine acts out individually the rapid exchange of sentience and deprivation (virtually blurring the distinction between the two) they had earlier divided between them.

Laura theorizes that, while Sophia grew susceptible to a chill through fainting in the evening dew, she herself through “repeated fits of frenzy had so effectually circulated and warmed my Blood as to make me proof against the chilling Damps of Night” (101). There seems to be a connection between maintaining health and consciousness, and running mad. Perhaps morality is the individual’s resolute attempt to sustain consciousness of one’s true situation: to draw back from this mental confrontation is to faint; to persevere in it entails running mad.

What language is used in this state? When she runs mad, Laura says:

Talk not to me of Phaetons … Give me a violin –. I’ll play to him and sooth him in his melancholy Hours – Beware ye gentle Nymphs of Cupid’s Thunderbolts, avoid the piercing Shafts of Jupiter – Look at that Grove of Firs – I see a Leg of Mutton – They told me Edward was not Dead; but they deceived me – they took him for a Cucumber – ” (100)

Such a wild succession of images can only convey non-logical, almost unrecognizable, ideas. From the violin, comprehensible as an icon of solitary melancholy, and the latent, unpursued allusion to Phaeton; through the misattribution of Jupiter’s thunderbolts to Cupid and Cupid’s arrows to Jupiter – a mix-up that compromises Jupiter’s power with passion, and taints Cupid’s passion with mastery – Laura proceeds to the indigestible leg of mutton, obtrusively substituting for the leg of the wrecked hero, and interpretable only by a desperate appeal to the heroine’s conflation of culinary and sexual appetites; and the cucumber, the climax of deception and non-recognition, an object which the earlier reader must associate with sandwiches, and which the modern reader is doomed to glimpse fleetingly as a bad phallic image. The mutton and the cucumber get us into trouble as soon as we try to understand them. Interpretation leads to either triviality or impropriety. Yet we feel we ought to try to comprehend Laura’s ravings, since they are set up as the preferable kind of reaction.

Austen does not, of course, offer these heroines as serious models for us, but the idiom of disconnected imagery characterizes much of the Juvenilia, and must somehow be accounted for as a persistent factor in Austen’s incipient moral universe. Running mad is connected on one hand with remaining conscious of one’s situation and on another with a kind of language that proceeds by episodic vignette rather than continuous narrative, and concatenated, diverse images instead of logically related ones. Such a language of disconnection is-apt for conveying a capacious consciousness, in which one finds that the more one sees, the less one knows for sure, that the more one discerns, the less one decides. The mad consciousness and its speech turn away from decision and established relationships, which are grounded in a logic that excludes too many of the possibilities and ambiguities that make up reality. If Austen’s fictions show individual minds moving towards increased awareness, then those fictions will be such as lead us away from decisive interpretations of them, and will deflect the reader from an understanding too demonstrable by simple logic or external evidence to acknowledge fully the unproveability of truth. The Juvenilia offer intense, isolated scenes that cry out for interpretation, and resist it thoroughly. They invite us into their semblance of symbolism, and then undo whatever remnant of relationship could have given us a clue to the code.

Consider The Adventures of Mr. Harley (40). Mr. Harley’s having become a naval chaplain, why is it important that “He accordingly cut his Hair and sailed”? Why this detail of preparation rather than another? The trivial detail, when it invades the plain narrative surface, becomes a provocative detail, partly because it sticks out, and partly because it links significant ideas to inappropriate objects. The Juvenilia’s texture is a float of such fetishes, of misdirected details ripe for the interpreter’s obsessing. I find myself musing upon the connection between Mr. Harley’s cutting his hair, and his later encounter with “A man without a Hat [and] Another with two” (my emphasis). Is there some play of undersupplied and oversupplied males going on here, with Mr. Harley the Samson-figure between them, having cut his hair, and perhaps lost some of his mind, and if so, who is his Delilah? And was Emma’s seat really a “Hogsworth”?

After all this hair and hat business, one cannot be surprised to learn that Harley’s head has forgotten that he had married, and married the woman facing him. Have you ever wanted to forget that you’d married the person sitting next to you? Have you perhaps even managed to do it? Whether it is sane or insane to be able to forget some of the basic items of one’s biography, is a question that must cede to the simple acknowledgement that facing the truth – in a stagecoach or elsewhere – usually requires a breakdown of mental routine akin to the breakdown that occurs when a neurotic attaches the wrong emotion to an irrelevant object. Seeing an unexpected truth interrupts normal mental processes as much as seeing a ghost does.

Here we can recall that what excited Freud about dreams was that they seemed to be formed by mental processes analogous to those his patients used to form symptoms. Sometimes they would displace an upsetting feeling from things or people it was originally connected with to things or people it was not. Sometimes they would make one person or object the symbol of several ambivalent, conflicting feelings. Both these processes – Freud calls them displacement and condensation – disguise some disturbing aspect of reality so that the neurotic, or the quite sane dreamer, can go on functioning or dreaming. A full understanding of our mental life requires us to untie these symbolic knots. To untie the knots, we repeat in our minds the tying of them.

Literature may be described as a web of knots, with people and places, events and objects, tied up in a way that lures us to untie and analyze their connections, but also guarantees we will never complete the task. Literature places us in an endless phase of deciphering symbols, in which we both move towards recognizing greater reaches of reality, and are captured in the provisional insanity of the web itself. Part of the independent value of Austen’s Juvenilia is that they present the bare bones of what is literary; the unresolvable enigma. It is a narrative’s resistance to interpretation that makes it literary, and its reader mad.

The Beautifull Cassandra, for example, like Mr. Harley, is attended by misappropriated Hats we are drawn to track. Cassandra falls in love with a Bonnet that her mother, “a celebrated Millener,” has just finished for a countess. Her theft of this status symbol recalls her father’s claim to nobility through illegitimate descent, his “being the near relation of the Dutchess of –’s Butler” (44). Having established the irregularity of the heroine’s pedigree, Austen confirms her social autonomy by having her put the Countess’s Bonnet “on her gentle Head” – “gentle” referring to her social class – and set out for her adventures not from her father’s house but her mother’s shop, deriving her identity from the commercial rather than the aristocratic, and from the distaff rather than the paternal, side of her family. The independence she attains by falling in love with a Bonnet rather than a Man is demonstrated in the next chapter, where she curtseys and walks on after meeting with an accomplished Viscount. Her transcendence of rising capitalist service industries is next shown in Chapter 4:

She then proceeded to a Pastry-cooks where she devoured six ices, refused to pay for them, knocked down the Pastry Cook & walked away. (45)

In the central adventure, she finds herself unprovided of money to pay the hackney coachman who has driven her to Hampstead and back. It is not clear why she feels bound to pay him but not the Pastry Cook: Austen has taught us to expect recklessness as the norm for her heroine. Perhaps the circular Quest in the cab has brought Cassandra to question her private resources, as the feast of ices did not. Whatever has transpired within the heroine, we know it is important, from her solving the problem by giving up the Bonnet to the driver. This versatile piece of headgear continues to mark significance without elucidating it. Perhaps Cassandra now feels convinced enough of her identity to dispense with its external emblem, even though her ability to meet the world’s demands is compromised by her empty pockets.1

Her tremulous encounter with Maria in Chapters 8 and 9 indicates the compatibility of uncertain resources with social relations. Both ladies manifest shock (about what we have no clue), yet neither requires any information to fill out the empty pockets of their meeting. Does their “mutual silence” (46) duplicate the anti-thematic conspiracy of an author and readers committed to neglecting what passes for normal objects of interest in society? Committed instead to analyzing the floating, non-specific bonnet-objects that imply, without defining, the real but unacknowledged concerns that underlie our actions?

The oddity of head ornaments continues in Chapter 10, where “the Widow, … squeezing out her little Head thro’ her less window, asked her how she did.” Again, the light context of a youthful work of nonsense does not fully account for the image’s strangeness. On one hand, the little head and less window suggest a person of little wit and less perspective. On another, they form a birth image, referring to that contest between a new person and a narrow aperture that never ceases to disconcert people. Perhaps all identity is born of some such contest between emergent self and social pressure. Whether one goes this far in reading the widow at the window – and there is nothing to stop us from it – or reads her as the ubiquitous old lady of every neighbourhood, whose own window’s panorama is not enough for her good gossip’s mind eager to judge of others’ doings, she is a figure of more than literal dimensions by virtue of her remarkable appearance. And because of the spareness of this brief epic, the text gives no sure indication that we should or should not read her in any particular way. We shall all have different readings of her, yet we cannot disagree with each other, since none of us can prove either the invincibility of our own or the inappropriateness of someone else’s interpretation: critical discourse becomes as mad as its text. Austen’s bare-bones nonsense narrative embodies the perfect undecidability of meaning that characterizes rich, true literature. In its most naked presentation, where literary image and ornament stand apart from meaning or theme, it leads us into irrational, fanciful thinking, and in doing so, reminds us of our minds’ first gestures at making (up) sense of things.

It may be useful to give formal names to the dislocated kind of image Austen sets loose in these early narratives. One way of describing literary language is to divide it into metaphor and metonymy. Metaphor is the figure based on some substantive similarity between two things. Burns writes that “My love is like a red, red rose” because his love and the rose share several aspects: appearance, fragrance, a combination of fragility and power, of freshness and voluptuousness. Metonymy is based, not on natural similarities, but simple juxtaposition or association. Thus we have Bogart’s line to Bacall when he emerges from the shower in Dark Passage: “I’m glad there was a towel big enough to cover my embarrassment.” Here the object is called by the emotion it evokes.

Metaphor is based on similarities that our reason and five senses can test. In eluding them, metonymies are both more exciting and more difficult to understand. The hats and bonnets of the Juvenilia are symbols that have a life of their own, passing among the characters as emblems of meaning that bestow no meaning, but invite us to make connections between unlikely objects.2 Austen’s non-representational aesthetic is mirrored by the drawings made during A Tour through Wales, “which are very beautiful, tho’ perhaps not such exact resemblances as might be wished, from their being taken as she ran along” (177). The rush of Austen’s images seeks to be comprehensive, not comprehensible.

The ultimate example of unlikely connection, in fictions of society, is usually marriage. People in the Juvenilia may end up with each other out of spiteful second-guessing, as in The Three Sisters, or out of sheer formal convention, as at the end of The Visit, where Miss Fitzgerald declares, “Since you Willoughby are the only one left, I cannot refuse your earnest solicitations – There is my Hand” (54: a nice send-up of the common metonymy "giving one’s hand in marriage”).

The Mystery: an unfinished comedy, as its title suggests, is the purest example of free-floating signs of meaning. The whispers and interruptions constituting its dialogue are emblems of our ignorance, and the playlet as a whole is an extended metonymy of the idea of an indiscernible idea. This obscure reach of mind is enacted at the end by Colonel Elliott’s whispering of the secret to the sleeping Sir Edward. We witness the passage of meaning from imminent revelation to its final resting place in the sleeping part of our brain, the aristocratic unconscious, draped gracefully, even as silently, “in an elegant Attitude on a Sofa” (57).

The enigmatic texture of Austen’s initial writing helps resolve the supposed problem of her limited scope, usually formulated in the terms, “She ignores the French Revolution.” But the French Revolution, and other public cataclysms, are most often used in literature as metaphors for various passions the author sees in human nature. These events are in effect projections of either the author’s or a character’s concerns or qualities. This is a fairly romantic idea of history, seeing events as metaphors of oneself or human nature, and as such, is more likely to occur to a person of public power, a rich person, or a male. Austen’s heroines are none of these. They cannot and do not view external events as reflections of themselves. (When Catherine Morland and Marianne Dashwood attempt to do so, they receive quite a re-education of their imaginations.)

Private protagonists create significance in their lives by metonymic gestures that do not depend from a social frame. The heroine of Catharine, for example, mentally links the bower behind her home with the absent friends who built it with her, and to this place apart, at the end of a retired garden walk, “she always wandered whenever anything disturbed her, … firmly persuaded that her Bower alone could restore her to herself” (193).

More humorously, the affable Mr. Gower of Evelyn carries around in his head, as a touchstone for his tastes and identity, a sort of detachable landscape in the form of

a small circular paddock, which was enclosed by a regular paling, & bordered with a plantation of Lombardy poplars, & Spruce firs alternatively placed in three rows …. unincumbered with any other Timber, the surface of it perfectly even & smooth, and grazed by four white Cows which were disposed at equal distances from each other. (181)

four Rose trees served also to mark the quarters of the Shrubbery, by which means the Traveller might always know how far in his progress round the Paddock he was got – . (184)

This perfect symbol of Mr. Gower’s cosy mental cosmos consoles him when he arrives at the castle of his deceased brother-in-law-to-be’s family. It’s “winding approach, struck him with terror,” and “he thought it required the Paddock of Evelyn lodge” to counteract “an irregularity in the fall of the ground, and a profusion of old Timber” (187).

It is while walking the round of his paddock that Mr. Gower encounters a rose lying in the gravel, and is thereby abruptly reminded of his sister Rose, upon whose behalf he had been journeying when he was completely distracted by the user-friendly appearance of Evelyn. Where Burns’s rose is a metaphor for a beloved and well-remembered lady, Mr. Gower’s rose is a metonymy for the name of a sister he had utterly forgotten. For someone so abstracted and unchallenged, a metaphor simply will not do: it takes a very heavy pun to anchor Mr. Gower’s disconnected mind.

Charlotte Lutterell, the great cook-correspondent in Lesley Castle, pictures all significance as a form of meal, and translates all life’s forces into menu and linen:

Hervey had been thrown from his Horse, had fractured his Scull and was pronounced by his Surgeon to be in the most emminent Danger. “Good God! (said I) you dont say so? Why what in the name of Heaven will become of all the Victuals? We shall never be able to eat it while it is good. However, we’ll call in the Surgeon to help us –. I shall be able to manage the Sir-loin myself; my Mother will eat the soup, and You and the Doctor must finish the rest.” Here I was interrupted, by seeing my poor Sister fall down to appearance Lifeless upon one of the Chests, where we keep our Table linen. (113)

To Charlotte, the great events are precisely those that transpire in her kitchen’s precincts. People like Charlotte, Mr. Gower, and, more seriously, Catharine, do not see themselves mirrored metaphorically in the world, but carry their meanings around with them in personal metonyms like meals and bonnets, bowers and paddocks, husbands and wives.

Those who dispute Austen’s awareness of public event may not have consulted her History of England, in which she assigns value to rulers on the largely arbitrary basis of party alliance or portrait. The whole notion of a great narrative of causation linking events is regarded as inadequate by an artist devoted to sapping what passes for consequence and celebrating the connections made by the private, eclectic fancy. Significance is in the eye of the beholder, and Edward V is therefore “unfortunate” because he “lived so little a while that no body had time to draw his picture” (140). In the next sentence a misplaced modifier metonymically identifies his successor with an action: “He was murdered by his Uncle’s Contrivance, which name was Richard the 3d.”

Austen takes no more account than Richard did of that primary factor of history, descent and affiliation. Illegitimacy hovers behind the beautiful Cassandra, Mr. Harley forgets his wife, Mr. Gower forgets his sister, and Lady Harcourt, in Henry and Eliza, only accidentally realizes that the girl she found under a haycock and adopted over eighteen years ago is her real daughter, and the same child Lord Harcourt in his turn had forgotten was to have arrived while he was on a journey to America. Lady Harcourt voices a parental amnesia that may be as true as it is whimsical:

Satisfied within myself of the wellfare of my Child, I soon forgot I had one, insomuch that when, we shortly after found her in the very Haycock, I had placed her, I had no more idea of her being my own, than you had. (39)

Reality’s only sure home in this case seems to be with the metonymic Haycock. Lord Harcourt is willing to accept his wife’s “rational & convincing Account” as sufficient proof of his child’s identity. History consists less in what happens than in what is told; fiction is the accessible metonymy of an unknowable history.

The epistolary and dramatic formats of much of the Juvenilia can disrupt the mode of continuous historical relation, and suggest that Austen’s narrative style develops from conversation rather than plot. The stories do not depend very deeply on causation or consequence, but express the blips in the individual consciousness as new or latent ideas bubble up from the unconscious. Her plotting of mind rather than matter recaptures, and re-initiates the reader into, the pre-rational origins of thought.

In Austen, it’s the reduction and breakdown of cause and common sense into the metonymic jargons and objects we use to figure our desires and values that bring us so close to the inner workings of our and the characters’ minds. The Juvenilia lay bare this narrative of metonymy, with a minimal cushion of context to justify people’s actions and ideas. The most interesting people all seem to be running mad, and we, their decipherers, can read their madness only by choosing to commit our own madness, in interpreting, in agreeing to make up at least half the meanings as we go along.

Bibliographical note: Page numbers refer to Chapman’s edition of the Minor Works. For fuller discussion of resistance to interpretation as the mark of both literature and madness, see Shoshona Felman, Writing and Madness (Ithaca: 1985). On the resonance of metonymies, see the chapter on cosmic symbols in Angus Fletcher, Allegory: the Theory of a Symbolic Mode (Ithaca: 1964). For the metonymic quality of Austen’s mature works, one should read the excellent essay by Irvin Ehrenpreis, “Jane Austen and Heroism,” New York Review of Books 26 (1979): 37-43. For the workings of symbol-and symptom-formation, one should go to the horse’s mouth and peruse Freud’s Case Studies in Hysteria, The Interpretation of Dreams, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, and Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious, all in print in paperback.


1 The possible psychoanalytic readings of empty pockets do not quite bear going into here. Suffice it to say that in the now traditional sexual readings of them, the virginity or the barrenness they might represent pose no obstacle at all to the Janesque heroine’s adventuring.

2 Austen seems to have retained her fondness for hats as metonymies of significance. She writes Cassandra in her letter of 27 October 1798 that she is making a bonnet, “on which you know my principal hopes of happiness depend.”

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