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The metaphor unlocks the meaning

Is it a butterfly landing on a branch? Or a flower blowing in the breeze? Is it a baboon?  Or an orchid with the face of baboon? Nature is full of these correspondences, and a good writer will dig deep to find the metaphors that lie at the root of his story. Aristotle thought highly of this skill, saying in his Poetics:  “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor; it is a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an eye for resemblance.”


But exactly what is a metaphor? More than just a figure of speech, a metaphor is a comparison by which the writer uncovers a hitherto-unseen resemblance between two unrelated objects. In her story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Flannery O’Connor describes the mother as having “a face as broad and innocent as a cabbage.” This is a skillful metaphor because a face and a cabbage are entirely different objects, but how brilliantly the comparison illuminates the theme of rural gullibility that drives the story to its tragic climax.


Likewise, when Scott Spencer, in his novel A Ship Made of Paper, has his protagonist say of his wife — “In her scoop-necked dress, Kate’s collarbones look as sturdy as handlebars” — he is not adding a verbal adornment but cutting to the heart of his story:  if he clings to his sensible wife’s shoulders, they will steer him down the right path.  Instead, he veers off into an adulterous affair that ends with a crash.  In Magnolia City, when I describe a rain storm over Galveston Bay thusly — “Thin sticks of lightning ripped open the belly of the clouds and a piñata of rain poured down” — I’m not just painting a vivid picture, but hinting at the family secrets the characters keep hidden behind locked doors. The metaphor unlocks the meaning.

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Guest Saturday, 19 August 2017