Chapter One of Ethan Frome starts with the following imagery:
The village lay under two feet of snow, with drifts at the windy corners. In a sky of iron the points of the dipper hung like icicles and Orion flashed his cold fires.
A few sentences later we meet for the first time the young – or youngish – Ethan Frome. The description of the stars that precedes him in some senses ‘resonates’ with his character and the situation of his life. How so? The ‘iron’ sky seems to resonate with the sense of Starkfield being a harsh, hard sort of place in winter, but the other figures are more significant still. In Britain, we call the ursa major constellation ‘the plough’ rather than ‘the big dipper’. A plough whose points hang with icicles is an image that resonates with Frome’s own difficult home life, eking out a living in an unproductive farm in a harsh environment. The image of Orion then, prefigures what we will soon find out about Frome – that beneath his austere, disciplined surface, passions burn.
In my post about effective metaphors and similes, I mentioned tone as being important: the metaphor or simile being used should accord with the tone of the story and not undermine it. Wharton though goes further, using a metaphor to describe a background scene that seems sympathetic with the main characters, their feelings and their plight. This can be called ‘the sympathetic fallacy’ or ‘pathetic fallacy’, the device by which the protagonists surroundings seem to themselves feel or reflect the protagonists feelings.
This sense of metaphors and similes ‘resonating’ can go the other way too, with the imagery of the surroundings imprinted onto the description of the protagonists’ feelings. In another early scene, Ethan and Mattie are talking together and, after he surprises her with a question, Wharton writes:
Her wonder and his laughter ran together like spring rills in a thaw.
In this case, Wharton takes the imagery of the snow covered surroundings for a simile to describe their feelings. In this description winter is analogous to repressed feelings and spring to expressions of emotions. But there is a wider sense in which the metaphor ‘resonates’ with the story. The image is of two sources of life and vitality in a cold environment running irresistibly together: it suggests that Ethan and Mattie, who have scant other sources of warmth in their lives, are fated to come together too.
When Mattie is offended by something Ethan says later in the chapter, her mood turns, and Ethan worries:
The motions of her mind were as incalculable as the flit of a bird in the branches.
Even this negative feeling is described in terms that make Mattie’s mood seem like something alive and precious, and, with the ‘flit’, resonates with the sense that Ethan and Matties stolen moments together are something fleeting and ungraspable.
Wharton’s metaphors and similes resonate with the themes and motifs of the story, and help give the novel its integrity and wholeness. The setting becomes integral to the story and the characters, colouring the very form of their thoughts and feelings. Every figure of speech matches the mood and character of the novel, none seems grasped for. There is great art here.
Metaphors and similes may be simple, but effective, resonant metaphors and similes? Not so.
Describe a scene in the relationship of two people. This can be characterised by love, hate, bitterness, generosity – whatever you want… but use some metaphors and similes that resonate with their characters and fates. Don’t overdo it, mind – one good metaphor is better than several awkward ones!