Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Some Metaphors & Similes from The Corrections

Having castigated the bad use of metaphors and similes, here are a few excellent examples. Given all the excitement following the publication of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, I, being preverse, have been reading his earlier work, The Corrections, and these are all taken from there:

   'and sanitation trucks with brushes like the mustaches of city cops scoured the streets three times a week.' (p 117)

   'in a voice like hair in a shampoo commercial.' (p 375)

   'Even before he sold Eigen Melody for $19.5 million, Brian had moved through the world like a golden retriever.' (p 448)

   'The quiet in the house after lunch was of such density that it nearly stopped the clocks.' (p 547)

Like all relevant use of the tropes, each of these examples adds to the narrative in the way the best illustrations illuminate, not by deviating from the text but by enlivening it.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

The Function of the Metaphor or Simile in Literature

You will notice there has been a small time-lag between this and my last post. However, I have returned to this blog because, despite the age of my first missive, this blog is still getting a number of hits each day. Obviously, there is a need for people to understand more about metaphors and similes. So I will do my best.

What do metaphors and similes do?

If the plot and characters in a story are the meat and two veg on the plate, the use of metaphors and similes are the sauce and seasoning. They give a story its flavouring. To use a simile I have employed elsewhere, they are like the music track to a film. They provide a background that enhances the mood. They describe emotions and feeling that lie beyond the boundaries of language. They create a unique ambience.

They are best illustrated with examples:

'I felt like a soldier trying to sleep in the trenches the night before a major battle. And that wasn't so far off. In Kabul, fighting kites was a little like going to war.'
The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini.
At first glance the simile seems wholly appropriate but is, in fact, dishonest. Remember, Hosseini is describing the recalled experiences of a young boy who certainly will never have tried to sleep in a trench before a major battle. Moreover, it is a situation very few of his readers will have experienced so it takes the mind away from the story to an imagined situation. Finally, the use of the word 'trenches' gives rise to images of the first World War; images a million miles and several lifetimes away from modern Kabul.

Thus the simile proves an interruption rather than an illumination.

The Kite Runner is Hossseini's first published work and, despite the fact I thoroughly enjoyed the book, it is evidently a beginner's book, full of the tricks of the trade taught on creative writing courses and so lacks the authority of one who is fully confident of his voice. And one of the indications of this in any new author's writing is the overuse and misuse of metaphors and similes.

To give another instance, I looked through Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003, and could not find a single example of either a simile or metaphor. (I only skimmed, so they may exist.) He reports what he sees and allows the situation and dialogue to create the image. This is not say that these tropes don't have their place but the sensible writer is wary of them.

Chocolat is Joanne Harris's third novel and, though I find her overfond of comparing things to things, her use invariably illuminates:

'The carnival is gone. Once a year the village flares into transient brightness but even now the warmth has faded, the crowd dispersed. The vendors pack up their hotplates and awnings, the children discard their costumes and party-favours. A slight air embarrassment prevails, of abashment at this excess of noise and colour. Like rain in midsummer it evaporates, runs into the cracked earth and through the parched stones, leaving barely a trace.'

If you have any examples of suitable or unsuitable metaphors or similies, do let me know. Similarly, if you have any observations or queries.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

What is the function of the metaphor & simile?

The usual response to this question will be confined to examples of these tropes drawn from literature.

However, I would like to suggest they existed long before literature; that they have always existed as a means for men and women to relate to the world around them; in other words, as instruments to bring the incomprehensible into the familiar.

They, of course, fulfil the same function today.

It is most apparent among people who have access to a smaller vocabulary.

The much ridiculed clich├ęs, 'I was sick as a parrot' and 'I was over the moon' are used to mock the inarticulateness of certain sections of society. Teenage conversations are littered with sentences that start with "It was like…".

However, metaphors and similes serve us all in the same way.

Even the most articulate find it difficult to describe sublime or profound emotions in direct terms. In fact, by definition, it is an impossibility. Deeply felt personal feelings, be they of anger, love, isolation, or despair, are, in a sense, beyond the bounds of language precisely because they are so personal. (Despite what people think no one can truly empathise with another. One can sympathise, i.e. stand alongside another, but not empathise, i.e. stand in the place of another.) So it is usual to resort to metaphor or simile to bring them to the surface of common understanding.

Aqua, a woman who suffers from Chronic Major Depressive Disorder, and courageously addresses her illness in her blog, has posted how her pdoc, as she describes her therapist or psychiatrist, gave her a number of images, i.e. metaphors and similes, to help her, in her words, make 'the insurmountable seem possible'.

You can read the original post here.

Indeed, it was her post that started me thinking about these tropes in this wider context.

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