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In any natural language, there are many rhetorical devices that accumulate over time and have common contexts of use. A metalepsis consists of a transgression of this common usage, through which the figure of speech is used in a new and innovative context. The metalepsis is closely connected to poetic metaphor, insofar as the main idea is to apply a common image or turn of phrase in a new way and thereby produce new aesthetic and semiotic associations. 

Definition of metalepsis

Metalepsis is an advanced figure of speech consisting of referral to a thing by something that is only slightly related to it. Metalepsis is similar to metonymy and metaphor; thus the prefix “meta.” There are two ways that metalepsis is used to show the association between the two things or ideas. The first is through showing causal relationship in two seemingly unrelated things, and the second is through indirect intermediate replacement of terms. Metalepsis is derived from the Greek word metalēpsis meaning “to exchange” or “participate in.” Metalepsis has roots in ancient rhetoric and therefore its first use was during Greek times.

Examples of metalepsis

Gérard Genette, a renowned French literary theorist, first clearly identified and defined metalepsis during the Structuralist movement of the 1930s. Genette worked closely with Roland Barthes and Claude Lévi-Strauss during this time. Genette defined metalepsis as “any intrusion by the extradiegetic narrator or narrate into the diegetic universe.” Metalepsis, then, is a transgression of the rarely crossed line between the world of the person narrating a story and a person in a story. Here is an example of metalepsis from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

"Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death….

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player…”

Shakespeare’s reference to the enormity of eternity and the personification of life is metalepsis in this instance.

Proper usage

Metalepsis is a difficult thing to define by most accounts, but seems to be a phenomenon which occurs only in narratives with more than one narrative world or level (typically discussed in narrative essays). Thus traditional literary pieces do not usually contain metalepsis. To help us define metalepsis, thinking of the spaces in between nesting dolls is helpful, or considering “frame narratives” or “embedded narratives” within a piece of work. 

Metalepsis is a common trope used in films, and is known in theater as “breaking the fourth wall,” when characters onstage refer directly to the audience as if they are a character in the play. Charlie Kaufman’s films consistently use metalepsis in order to break the fourth wall, such as is his film The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, and Being John Malkovich. In addition to Kaufman, the famous director Spike Jonze is known for his use of metalepsis in film, as well. 

The word “metalepsis” has been adapted and used frequently to signify change or a return to origin in various projects, including film and even jewelry-making. Here is another example of metalepsis, in which a word or phrase from figurative speech is used in an entirely new context to signify a new idea. “I’ve got to catch the worm tomorrow.” This example of metalepsis uses the familiar maxim “The early bird catches the worm” as its basis. The word “worm” represents the entire maxim, shortened in order to convey an idea in simpler and more direct terms. Metalepsis is an intermediate step to something that is metaphorically expressed and signifies nothing in itself, but creates the extension of a common idea by using a trope. Consider our essay writing services if you need help including metalepsis in your writing.

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