Breast, heart , mind. Why does Maugham say breast?
May 5, 2021 8:14 PM   Subscribe

I'm learning English. My question is from The moon and six pence. Why does Maugham write ' The suggestion sent a ray of hope in all their breasts ,but I would have nothing to do with it.'? Why not their minds nor their hearts? To me the breast sounds a bit strange. I'd like to know the differences in nuance. Thank you.
posted by mizukko to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Breasts is an old-fashioned turn of phrase, it is redolent of melodrama to me, or something an author like Dickens might have written. It's evocative of a time period but I haven't actually read the book in question to speak more specifically.
posted by Alensin at 8:20 PM on May 5, 2021 [3 favorites]

The breast is where hope swells and and where the heart resides, basically; you could (slightly) modernise the passage by replacing "breasts" with "chests".
posted by sagc at 8:22 PM on May 5, 2021 [9 favorites]

“Breast” is an old fashioned way to say “heart” or “the place where you feel strong emotion.” Maugham didn’t mean it as the anatomical term we would use today.
posted by corey flood at 8:23 PM on May 5, 2021 [35 favorites]

It comes off as quite... poetic. I don't think I would use that word that way in ordinary English. It's a bit old fashioned.

It really just means "chest", but to me in this context it makes me think of the area just behind your sternum (aka "breastbone"), the place you might feel elation as a physical feeling.
posted by BungaDunga at 8:28 PM on May 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

One way of thinking about it: the poetic use of "breast" in your example (and in many other plays, novels, and poems) can mean the sort of centre where mind, soul, and body meet -- where emotional and physical sensations collide.

Or, that place where you can feel emotions like joy, sadness, and so on in a deeply physical way. Similar, as you say, to "heart."

Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet has this line, delivered by Romeo, and the usage of "breast" is similar to your example, but uses grief instead of hope as the thing being felt:

"Griefs of mine own lie heavy in my breast"
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 8:32 PM on May 5, 2021 [11 favorites]

Per the Online Etymology Dictionary the figurative sense of breast signifying the "seat of the emotions and affections, repository of designs and secrets" goes back to Old English.
posted by slkinsey at 8:41 PM on May 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: To add to the above, I think the breast is distinguished from the heart by encompassing more non-romantic love emotions.
posted by vunder at 9:08 PM on May 5, 2021 [5 favorites]

It's a bit old fashioned.

It is, and was a little old-fashioned even in 1919, but it's tapping into centuries of literary usage that someone like Maugham would have known intimately:
Hope springs eternal in the human breast:
Man never is, but always to be blest [blessed]:
The soul, uneasy and confin'd from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
Breast/blessed or breast/pressed are compelling rhymes. ('Chest' doesn't quite work.)

'The breast' isn't really breasts or chests or anything anatomical: it is the place where you feel hope. It is the place where you feel grief. Maybe this is self-defining; maybe it's the product of being told that. I'm absolutely certain that other cultures and languages seat emotions in different ways.
posted by holgate at 9:11 PM on May 5, 2021 [3 favorites]

And then there’s the oft-misquoted “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast.”
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:12 PM on May 5, 2021 [4 favorites]

I think the breast is distinguished from the heart by encompassing more non-romantic love emotions.

It can be, but there's also "walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart" (Liverpool FC via Gerry and the Pacemakers via Rodgers and Hammerstein in 1945) where "with hope in your breast" would not work.
posted by holgate at 9:15 PM on May 5, 2021

This is not limited to English. In Homeric Greek, 'phren' refers both to the torso or chest and metaphorically to the seat of consciousness believed to be located there.
posted by praemunire at 9:18 PM on May 5, 2021 [3 favorites]

In older usage "breast" can mean the chest area.

Traditional medical theory in the West from ancient times until the Renaissance treated the heart as the originator of emotions. Although at the time Maugham was writing, people had a modern understanding of the heart and the brain, it was still good literary usage to refer to the breast, meaning the place where the heart is located, and by extension, emotion.

Also, perhaps this is cultural, but if I feel cheerful, or sad, there is a sensation in my torso. If I feel better, I stand more erect, and puff out my chest. I feel there is a nod to this phyical sensation in the breast too.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:32 PM on May 5, 2021

Best answer: This is not limited to English.

Nor even to Western languages/cultures; the Japanese word mune (胸) carries similar meanings.
posted by teraflop at 10:45 PM on May 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

The OED gives this usage a separate entry (I'll paste it here since there's a paywall):
5.b. figurative and in extended use. The chest regarded as the seat or repository of a person's inmost thoughts, feelings, inclinations, etc.; the heart (heart n. 6a); (hence) the thoughts, feelings, etc., themselves, viewed collectively.

In Old English frequently in plural in the same sense; compare discussion in the etymology section.
In quot. 1575 in on breast: †in or by heart (obsolete rare).

OE Genesis B 750 Mæg þin mod wesan bliðe on breostum.
c1225 (▸?c1200) Hali Meiðhad (Bodl.) (1940) l. 68 Þe berest him þat al wealt in wið in þi breoste.
▸ a1393 J. Gower Confessio Amantis (Fairf.) v. l. 1384 (MED) Bot for thei stonden nyh thi brest..Thou schalt of hem the sothe hiere.
c1450 in F. J. Furnivall Hymns to Virgin & Christ (1867) 92 How y hadde ledde my lijf so ȝore, I putt it freischli in-to my brist.
1575 J. Rolland Treat. Court Venus i. f. 1v Maist part was my prayers to con Knowit on breist.
?1611 G. Chapman tr. Homer Iliads xv. 213 Their heardsmen wanting breasts To fight with Lions.
a1643 W. Cartwright Ordinary (1651) i. iv. sig. Bv That man of peace there hath Been trusted with Kings Breasts.
1711 R. Steele Spectator No. 30. ⁋3 Our Statutes are..recorded in our own Breasts only.
1751 T. Gray Elegy xv. 8 Some village-Hampden that with dauntless breast The little tyrant of his fields withstood.
1839 C. Thirlwall Hist. Greece (new ed.) II. 368 What motives were predominant in the breast of Pausanias.
1865 T. J. Potter Percy Grange (ed. 2) i. ii. 42 the evil passions which had been stirred up in our breasts, we began to cry out ‘Papist’, and ‘Red-neck’.
1916 J. Joyce Portrait of Artist ii. 85 The old restless moodiness had again filled his breast.
2018 Herald (Glasgow) (Nexis) 26 June 15 Hope for Scotland's future is awakened in my breast.
posted by trig at 12:56 AM on May 6, 2021 [3 favorites]

People are making good points about older meanings and uses of 'breast', but there is no period of English literature in which
'The suggestion sent a ray of hope in all their breasts ,but I would have nothing to do with it.'
would not be strange and very awkward usage.

One might see 'a ray of hope' or the synonymous 'a glimmer of hope' -- or send them to the eyes, although that's already a little odd -- but sending 'a ray of hope in all their breasts' makes very little sense.

Maugham might have meant 'lit a small flame of hope in all their breasts' or 'kindled an ember of hope in all their breasts' but 'sent a ray of hope in all their breasts ,but I would have nothing to do with it.' must be a mistake.

If Maugham actually wrote that in the manuscript, I'd guess he unwittingly switched metaphors halfway through the sentence and didn't notice the error in subsequent edits.
posted by jamjam at 12:58 AM on May 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

And there's also the expression "beat [one's] breast" and here's a bit of discussion of it.
posted by mareli at 7:05 AM on May 6, 2021

Best answer: To understand this sentence, you need to look at its context in the novel. The main character, Charles Strickland, has given up his comfortable bourgeois life, walked out on his family and gone off to Paris to be an artist. His family are trying to understand why. Perhaps he's run off with a girlfriend? Or perhaps he's hiding from the police? 'The suggestion sent a ray of hope in all their breasts,' says the narrator, 'but I would have nothing to do with it.'

'A ray of hope in all their breasts' is said ironically. It's a deliberate cliché, like a line from a bad Victorian poem, reflecting the narrator's view of the family as trapped in their stuffy middle-class respectability. They are secretly hoping that Charles is on the run from the police, because that at least would be an explanation they could understand. The idea that he's given up his job as a stockbroker in order to be -- gasp! -- an ARTIST is completely beyond their comprehension.
posted by verstegan at 10:29 AM on May 6, 2021 [6 favorites]

"Breast" is another word for "bosom". says about bosom: It is also poetically considered to be the place where our feelings reside. ... Because our bosom (chest) contains our heart, it has also become known as the place where our feelings, intuitions, or secret thoughts are kept.
posted by SageTrail at 8:39 PM on May 6, 2021

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