“What is a Synecdoche?” A Guide for English Students and Teachers


To understand synecdoche, you need to first
understand the concepts of metaphor and metonymy. If you don’t have a solid grasp of metaphor
and metonymy, videos on both of those concepts are available through the Oregon State guide
to literary terms. Metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche are all
kinds of figurative language that use one thing to help us understand something else. A metonym, as you know, replaces something
you want to characterize with something else associated with it. A synecdoche is a kind of metonym, but the
associated thing is actually a component part, a piece, of whatever you are characterizing. When we talk about getting “boots on the
ground,” we’re using a synecdoche: by boots, we mean soldiers. But boots are part of the soldiers (at least
when they are dressed), so this expression is really a synecdoche rather than just a
metonym. The super-classic example of synecdoche, the one that
you’ll find on every website, is “fifty keels plowed the deep.” Fifty ships are sailing on the ocean and are represented
by their keels, a component part of the vessel thus standing for the whole. The poet Allen Ginsberg was a great lover
of synecdoche. Two examples are afforded by his poem “A
Supermarket in California,” and understanding these examples helps us interpret Ginsberg’s
themes. In the poem, the narrator fantasizes about
following the nineteenth-century poet Walt Whitman around a mid twentieth-century grocery
story. He overhears Whitman ask the grocer, in the
meat section, “who killed the pork chops?” That’s a synecdoche – it was of course
the pig, not the pork chop, that was killed; the pork chop is the fragmented part that
stands for the whole. A few lines later, the narrator addresses
Whitman as his “dear father, greybeard, lonely old courage teacher.” “Greybeard,” here, is also a synecdoche. Ginsberg affectionately invokes Whitman’s
famous beard to stand for the whole man and to indicate how Whitman’s wise example gives
him courage. How can tracking Ginsberg’s use of synecdoche
help us interpret the poem? This is a verse in which the narrator struggles
with feelings of connection and disconnection – he feels connected to Whitman, but isn’t
sure that Whitman’s optimistic vision of society applies to the dismantled post-World-War-II
culture in which Ginsberg lives. The first synecdoche about the pork chops,
is horrifying and a little gross – it’s meant to shock, and to capture a world in
which we think only in terms of cut-up commodities that we purchase (“pork chops”). The second synecdoche does the opposite – it
creates an affectionate, tender, and reverential connection between Ginsberg and Whitman by
referring to the earlier poet as Ginsberg’s “greybeard,” his wise and older source
of inspiration. Across “A Supermarket in California,”
then, synecdoche is used to establish both moods of the poem – that of fragmentation
and that of connectivity. To see the synecdoche is not just to see the
clever use of a particularly kind of literary language, but to encounter the central themes
of the poem as a whole.

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