Sometimes what is left out of a poem or a story creates a more arresting sense of reality than what is left in. Keats's poetic fragment 'This Living Hand' ends with the hand thrust towards the reader: 'See here it is/I hold it towards you.' The poem's rhetoric conjures a space in which the spectral hand appears like a hallucination, hovering somewhere between us and the page. The hand has been offered to us before we or the poem know it. A rather less dramatic example of the technique is the moment in Emma when Harriet Smith, disabused of her infatuation with Mr Elton, casts the pathetic relics of that love (a bit of 'court plaister' and the stub of a pencil) into the fire:
'But, Harriet, is it necessary to burn the court plaister? I have not a word to say for the bit of old pencil, but the court plaister might be useful.'
'I shall be happier to burn it', replied Harriet. 'It has a disagreeable look to me. I must get rid of every thing. - There it goes, and there is an end, thank Heaven! Of Mr Elton.'
The finality of Harriet's gesture - her symbolic immolation of the egregious Elton - is given its force by not being represented in the text. By the time Harriet says 'There it goes,' the plaster and the pencil have been thrown. The event that is missing creates a vacuum which we rush to fill. In doing so, it is as if we find ourselves actually present in the room with Emma and Harriet.
LRB 10 April 2008 | PDF Download