Metalepsis in Autobiographical Narrative


  • Sidonie Smith University of Michigan
  • Julia Watson Ohio State University, Columbus Ohio



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.

Author Biographies

Sidonie Smith, University of Michigan

Sidonie Smith is the Lorna G. Goodison Distinguished University Professor of English and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, and past-president of the Modern Language Association of America (2010). Her books include: A Poetics of Women’s Autobiography (1987), Subjectivity, Identity, and the Body (1993), and Moving Lives: Women’s Twentieth Century Travel Narratives (2001). With Kay Schaffer, she co-authored Human Rights and Narrated Lives (2004). With Julia Watson she published many books, as noted below. In 2015, she published Manifesto for the Humanities: Transforming Doctoral Education in Good Enough Times, available in online open access.

Julia Watson, Ohio State University, Columbus Ohio

Julia Watson is Professor Emerita of Comparative Studies, a former associate Dean of Arts and Sciences, and a Core faculty member of Project Narrative at The Ohio State University. She and Sidonie Smith have co-authored Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives (2010) and Life Writing in the Long Run: A Smith & Watson Autobiography Studies Reader, which includes collaborative and solo essays over a quarter-century (2017, available free online). They have also co-edited five collections and published essays on testimony, online life narrative, and archives. Watson’s recent essays are on voice in Patti Smith’s Just Kids, online publishing, and Bechdel’s Fun Home.