the visual metaphor of Edward Gorey – an analysis

Edward Gorey2Examining “the manipulation of visual metaphor in the cartoons of Edward Gorey,” Victor Kennedy once wrote that “Like verbal metaphor, visual metaphor may be analyzed using I. A. Richards’s categories of tenor, vehicle, and ground. Gorey’s fictional world is dark, macabre, and strange, yet his style is at once brooding, dangerous, and familiar, old-fashioned in appearance yet modern in theme. He uses Victorian motifs and Gothic settings to examine modern beliefs and fears, capitalizing on the formula of the menace inherent in the familiar. Gorey uses symbols, signs, and icons from the common visual lexicon but changes their contexts to simultaneously emphasize and undermine their sentimentality.” (p.181)

“Visual art can be metaphoric. Delineating the structure of metaphor in pictures is, like interpreting poetic language, a complex task, but it is even more complex when the artist is intentionally ironic. Edward Gorey is an American graphic artist whose macabre pen and ink re-creations of a bygone world are fundamentally ironic. His fur-coated and bearded men, lissome and forlorn women, unfortunate children, and a bestiary of grotesque monsters evoke a fascinating and nightmarish vision of late 20th-century fears and preoccupations. This is accomplished not only by the tone, style, and setting of the drawings but also, and especially, by the adaptation and inversion of common Victorian metaphors, symbols, and icons.
Central to Gorey’s method is a skillful manipulation of visual metaphors, together with a marked fondness for such portents as cats, bats, urns, death’s-heads, and devils. These traditional symbols form the basis of his repertoire, yet he is essentially a humorist. He is not overtly a satirist, yet his pictures contain most of the tools of verbal satire: irony, inversion, and parody.” (p.181)

Kennedy “argue[s] that the disquieting effect of Gorey’s work is based on a very modern type of black humor, which is in turn predicated on an ironic inversion of the Victorian cult of sentimentality. His work is full of commonplace objects-antimacassars, mourning pins, feather dusters, buttonhooks, tintacks, library paste, sleeve garters, and lumps of suet-that take on sinister lives of their own (Gorey, 1987) and a curiously sardonic brutality that parodies the sentimental Victorian preoccupation with death and dying orphans. What is particularly interesting for any theory of rhetoric is the ability of unusual objects, suitably arrayed, to mean the opposite of what they used to mean. This is an important facility, if visual rhetoric is ever to be as diverse as verbal rhetoric (cf. Kennedy, 1982).” (p.182)

Unlike most cartoonists, Gorey avoids contemporary political and social issues. Instead, his work creates a fantasy world from equal parts of the realistic and the grotesque. At the age of 5 1/2, “he discovered both Alice in Wonderland and Dracula, which left him with an enduring fondness for Victorian novels and 19th-century illustration” (Stevens, 1988, p. 50). He creates a composite of the modern world and the fictional worlds of Carroll’s (1865 / 1977) Alice in Wonderland and Stoker’s (1897) Dracula by combining the realistic style of 19th-century woodcuts; occasional parodies of later 19th-century artistic conventions (particularly those of the Pre-Raphaelites); and incongruous settings, anachronism, and fabulous, often nightmarish creatures.
Gorey combines these elements of fantasy and gothic horror visually through both setting and metaphor. His characters, often children, are innocent victims of surroundings that are animate, like the walking dead, and have minds and motives of their own.” (p.182)

Synecdoche and metonymy, referring by mention of an associate, are the tropes most often used by Gorey. By its visual nature, Gorey’s work tends to show a preference for metonymy over other forms of metaphor, in contrast to the “privileging” of other forms of metaphor in written texts (Culler, 1981).” (p.185)

Gorey’s works reveal a dark side of the cult of sentimentality in 19th-century popular fiction and didactic children’s literature. Many of his works present “children who are abandoned, run over, hacked to pieces, or simply waste away. Descendants of Dickens’s orphaned heroes, they are, however, denied Dickens’s happy endings” (Stevens, 1988, p. 50). Gorey’s denial of the comfort of morally rationalized death shows instead the violence and brutality of death and challenges “accepted norms of appropriate behaviour and pleasant ideologies” (Lonergan, 1990, p. 5) by incongruous juxtaposition of 19th-century images and icons with 20th-century black humor; he invites his readers to laugh at their own discomfort.” (p.190)

Kennedy goes into analytical detail, which is interesting to read… for example:

“A common convention of Gothic literature, popular in the 19th century, is the omen or portent, which often appears in animal form.” (p.185) … “In Gorey’s (1958/1972d) The Object-Lesson, a series of pictures of a batlike object accompanies the astonishing caption: “On the shore a bat, or possibly an umbrella, disengaged itself from the shrubbery, causing those nearby to recollect the miseries of childhood” (p. 56). Like the night, the bat, or umbrella, is shrouded in darkness, ambiguity, and menace, but the incongruity of the possibly mistaken identity and the parodic echo of pop psychology create a modern tone of black humor (Mason, 1983).
The vehicle of the bat metaphor is that the bat is a creature of night and darkness, possibly a vampire. It becomes a harbinger of death, for the ground is the connection between darkness and death. This is an example of metonymy; the bat is not in itself darkness or death, but, because of its nocturnal nature, it is associated with night. The metaphor in The Hapless Child is simple, but in The Object-Lesson, it is more complex. In The Object-Lesson, there is doubt as to whether the dark object is a bat, and therefore metaphorically dangerous, or whether it is a harmless umbrella and, at the moment of identification, comic relief. Doubt produces irony: The object is possibly fatal, possibly harmless, but under the circumstances there is no way of knowing which it is. Fear may be rational or irrational, but the fact that there is no way of knowing which it is points out the irrationality of superstition and belief in portents. The pictures and text undercut their own meaning; when there are two irreconcilable meanings, meaning breaks down into aporia.” (pp.185-186)

I enjoyed this article!

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) Victor Kennedy (1993) ‘Mystery! Unraveling Edward Gorey’s Tangled Web of Visual Metaphor’ Metaphor and Symbolic Activity 8(3), 181-193


About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
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One Response to the visual metaphor of Edward Gorey – an analysis

  1. gegallas says:

    Hey there: Wonderful analysis of one of my favorite artists! 🙂 I thought you might be interested in my graphic novel “The Poet and the Flea” (Volume 1) about the poet-painter William Blake: Please check it out and help spread the word! Thank you so much! —G. E.

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