Odd phrases—certain vaguely humorous idiomatic figures of speech—are far too instrumental in the narrative development of Crane's fiction to be considered incidental, though their precise role remains obscure. At times, particular phrases and figures even seem to exert a surreal or supernatural agency over Crane's fictional terrain. Accounting for these in terms of fairly conventional modes of realism and naturalism, critics often presume that Crane's plotting works to literalize clichés of common speech and thus to reveal, in a manner of action, social significance latent in a manner of speaking. I argue, however, that rather than using narrative to literalize figurative phrases, ironically displaying hidden social mechanisms, Crane's fiction is directly concerned with the processes by which such phrases are themselves born and naturalized in narration. These rhetorical processes counterpose conventional modes of novelistic figuration against the historical and social developments of actual speech figures. Alongside brief discussions of The Red Badge of Courage (1895) and Crane's shorter fiction, this essay traces in detail the figurative process of The Monster (1898). Published just at the historical moment when the phrase losing face was entering common usage in English, The Monster confronts the invention and spread of this figure (and others) in novelistic terms, as a post-Reconstruction small-town tragedy. Ultimately, the processes by which phrases are made and come to preside destructively over more familiar narrative patterns suggest an irresolvable formal conflict in Crane's literary naturalism, with broader implications for the relationship between narrative and rhetoric in the novel form.

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