Metalepsis in Autobiographical Narrative

  • Sidonie Smith University of Michigan
  • Julia Watson Ohio State University
Keywords: metalepsis, autobiography, life writing, autobiographical narration, fictionality, factuality, metafiction, rhetorical figures, de Man and prosopopeia, referentiality, ontological worlds, narrative boundary-crossing


How do fictional tactics operate in what is often simplistically termed the “factual” or referential world of autobiographical discourse? Many narratologists view the rhetorical figure of metalepsis as distinctive to metafictional texts and constitutive of “fictional” narration, which they posit in antithesis to “factual” narration. But regarding autobiographical narrative only within the realm of fact ignores its complexity. While some theorists of autobiographical narrative have read it through the rhetorical figure of prosopopeia, as elaborated by Paul de Man in characterizing its “de-facement” of subjectivity, we argue that the figure of metalepsis operates productively in autobiographical narrative, particularly hybrid and experimental texts. The use of metalepsis shifts levels or layers of narration across temporal and spatial planes in ways that confuse its diegetic and metadiegetic levels. That is, autobiographical narrative, while filtered through the récit factuel, is not consistently fixed in an extratextual, ontologically unified, referential world. We pursue this argument by exploring four cases: the circuit of transfer in incomplete conversion narrative (Rowlandson’s A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson); palimsistic seepage between the Bildungsroman and trauma narrative (Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius); narrative collision of “parallel universes” (Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted); and unstable witness to collective trauma by a second-generation narrator (Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale). Recent critical studies of metalepsis also probe how it presses at the limits of referentiality in life narratives by J. M. Coetzee, Javier Marías, and Christine Brooke-Rose. In sum, autobiographical narrative is by no means a referential, “monologic” mode easily differentiated from the dialogism and metadiscursivity of the novel; rather, it is a mode unsettled by figural, discursive, and temporal boundary-crossing.