Literary theory has been much concerned with rhetoric, and theorists debate the nature and function of rhetorical figures. A rhetorical figure has generally been defined as an alteration of or swerve from ‘ordinary’ usage. Rhetoricians formerly attempted to distinguish specific ‘tropes’ which ‘turn’ or alter the meaning of a word from more miscellaneous ‘figures’ of indirection which arrange words to achieve special effects. Some figures are: alliteration, apostrophe, and assonance.
Recent theory distinguishes figure from trope and has even questioned the notion of an ‘ordinary’ or ‘literal’ meaning form which figures or tropes swerve. Some theorists have even embraced the paradoxical conclusion that language consists of figures whose figurative nature has been forgotten. When we talk of ‘grasping’ a ‘hard problem’, for instance, these two expressions become literal through the forgetting of their possible figurality.
From this perspective, it’s not that there is no distinction between literal and figurative but rather that tropes and figures are fundamental structures of language. Traditionally, the most important figure has been the metaphor. A metaphor treats something as something else. Metaphor is thus a version of a basic way of knowing: we know something by seeing it as something. Theorists speak of metaphors we live by, basic metaphorical schemes, like ‘life is a journey’. Such schemes structure our way of thinking about the world.
Metaphor has been treated as basic to language and the imagination because it is cognitively respectable, not inherently frivolous or ornamental. Its literary force may depend on its incongruity. Wordsworth phrase ‘the child is the father to the man’ stops you, makes you think, and then lets you see the relationship of generations in a new light: the child’s relationship to the man he later becomes is compared to a father’s relationship to his child. Because a metaphor can carry an elaborate proposition, even a theory, it is the rhetorical figure most easily justified.
But theorists have also stressed the importance of other figures. For Roman Jakobson, metaphor and metonymy are the two fundamental structures of language: if metaphor links by means of similarity, metonymy links by means of contiguity. Metonymy produces order by linking things in spatial and temporal series, moving from one thing to another within a given domain, rather than linking one domain to another, as metaphor can do. Other theorists add synecdoche and irony to complete a list of four master tropes.
Synecdoche is the substitution of part for whole. It infers qualities of the whole from those of a part and allows parts to represent wholes. Irony juxtaposes appearances and reality; what happens is the opposite of what is expected. These four master tropes are used by the historian Hayden White to analyze historical explanation or ‘emplotment’ as he calls it: they are basic rhetorical structures by which we make sense of experience. The fundamental idea of rhetoric as a discipline, which comes out well in this fourfold example, is that there are basic structures of language which underlie and make possible the meaning produced in a wide variety of discourses.
Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction.
Oxford U Press: , 1997. New York