I hope you are well.
In this month's installment of Metaphor and More, I'd like to take a look at Grace Paley's very short story "Mother." You can find it at this URL:
Before reading my commentary below, please read this story and gather your thoughts/make some notes. Here are some questions for you to think about: What kind of emotional situation does this story present? Think about how the story is written; what effect does this create for you? Where do you think you identify some metaphor-like effects?
Here are my thoughts…
This piece strikes me, overall, as a portrait of the speaker's remembering her mother – and to some extent, both parents. She recalls particular memories and details, but it's the way the piece is written that creates an impressionistic portrait of the daughter remembering and having feelings about those memories. The author creates this portrait of memory through metaphor-like effects.
The speaker goes into some detail about individual anecdotes/memories, but also paints with broader strokes in some places. For instance, the first paragraph recalls some details of a particular memory, but the paragraph ends with what I consider the "broader strokes" in a portrait of the mother: "She had begun her worried preparations for death." I also like how the first paragraph sets up a motif for many of the memories – with the mother standing in various doorways. And this is an interesting image – almost like a photograph, in that a doorway is like a frame.
In the second paragraph, the speaker describes a memory jogged by the image of her mother standing in the doorway of a different room than the one described in the first paragraph. One could speculate that this memory might be from the speaker's adolescence or young adulthood since she is still living at home but is involved in politics.
We can note some metaphor-like effects in the way there are diminishing transitional elements between paragraphs. After the final sentence of the second paragraph, "We guessed it all," the third paragraph begins with "At the door of the kitchen she said, You never finish your lunch." We don't know how much later this statement was spoken or what took place between it and the event described in the previous paragraph. This abrupt transition replicates, in a metaphor-like way, the shifting memories of the speaker and the way memory works, generally – memories can reflect various time periods, and things can be juxtaposed and related in unusual, not always obvious, ways (though they may make perfect sense to our below-the-surface consciousness).
Transitions seem to disappear altogether as we move to the fourth paragraph: “Then she died”; the juxtaposition of paragraphs is now felt even more strongly. For me, this is a portrait of the daughter's impression of how it feels, at least in retrospect, like things happened so quickly, underscoring the sense of a longing to see her mother again. The movement between the last sentence of the third paragraph "What will become of you?" And the fourth paragraph, "Then she died," works very much like a metaphor (and like strong enjambment in poetry) in that the movement between these paragraphs compares a certain aspect of the mother's presence with a sense of her absence.
The fifth paragraph begins with a sentence that feels like a natural transition, after expressing the loss of the mother: "Naturally for the rest of my life I longed to see her, not only in doorways, in a great number of places…" And the rest of that sentence shifts into continual present with the participle "looking" – "at the window looking up and down the block, in the country garden among zinnias and marigolds, in the living room with my father." And even though we get a bit of a transition with that participle, the abrupt shift from the fifth paragraph to the sixth creates a metaphor-like effect, comparing that juxtaposition to the abrupt shifts of memory itself: "They sat in comfortable leather chairs. They were listening to Mozart…" and on through the rest of the paragraph. This transition from talking about remembering to an actual memory, and the way it is put in present tense as if it is just unfolding, works in a metaphor-like way for the speaker's moments of remembering and her state of mind. It does strike me as a portrait of memory, with these verbal structures on the page replicating the way one may reflect on time and remembering and then go into another specific memory. For the daughter in the story, it is almost as if she is there with her parents. She can see the chairs, hear the music, see the expressions on their faces.
She pulls back from that specific memory and reflects on past and present again in the seventh paragraph, which is a single sentence: "I wish I could see her in the doorway of the living room."
Then there is another abrupt shift from that paragraph to the eighth, giving us a specific memory again: "She stood there a minute. Then she sat beside him. They owned an expensive record player. They were listening to Bach. She said to him, Talk to me a little. We don't talk so much anymore." Perhaps the short sentences are employed to reflect her mother's speech, and/or reflects the way memory comes in.
The ninth paragraph is remembered speech from the speaker's father, or what she imagined he would have said, even if she doesn't remember exact words. Note the abrupt shifts, the non sequiturs, between some of the things the father says in that paragraph: "Listen to the music, he said. I believe you once had perfect pitch. I'm tired, he said." I think this likely reflects how she is stitching together remembered bits.
And then we have a final shift – from that paragraph to the last paragraph of the piece: "Then she died." Again, for me, this shift creates an impressionistic, metaphor-like effect for how little time the speaker feels she had with her mother, how she misses her, and perhaps how she feels her mother chafed against some of the things that happened in the family – how she worried about her daughter, how she longed to talk to a husband who didn't always want to talk. These shifts and juxtapositions create emotion without spelling it out.
I find this to be a powerful portrait of remembering, and I hope you find it interesting. If you have some thoughts about it that you'd like to share, feel free to e-mail me, and you could also let me know if you would like to share them with the whole group.
All best wishes for your reading and writing and everything else!
Greetings from the end of September! Hope you're all doing well and having a good start to your autumn season.
Beginning with this installment of Metaphor and More, I would like to invite you all to respond to these postings, if you feel like it – but absolutely no obligation at all to do so. To protect your confidentiality, I am still not showing the individual e-mail addresses, however; so if you feel like responding with a comment you can just reply to me, and when you do, please let me know if it is okay to share your thoughts with everyone else, and then I will do so. This list goes to all students who have taken Mastering Metaphor with me through The Loft and a handful of others who have heard of the list and were interested in joining. Also as always, please be sure to tell me if you want your name taken off this monthly discussion list.
Okay – down to talking about metaphor!
This month I wanted to look at a passage from a work of fiction – Katherine Anne Porter's novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider, which is set during the first World War. I was recently reading a discussion of this work, in an article in the May/Summer edition of the AWP Writer's Chronicle (publication of the Associated Writing Programs) titled "Double Vision – The Clarity of Narrative Distortion." The author, Scott Nadelson, talks about how some fiction writers’ way of portraying a character's varying mental and emotional states can have some interesting metaphor-like effects. In the article, Nadelson talks about Pale Horse, Pale Rider, among other short works. The editors of the AWP Chronicle were very gracious in sending me a PDF of his article so I could share it with you. It is attached.
I wanted to look at a few paragraphs in one particular passage of Pale Horse, Pale Rider, one of several in which the main character, Miranda, who has contracted the flu, is going in and out of dreamlike states of consciousness. (During World War I, as you may know, there was a great flu epidemic.) Her boyfriend had come by and, not finding her, had left a note for her. Here is the passage I wanted us to take a look at (pages [space] from The Collected Short Works of Katherine Anne Porter). It begins with a nurse reading out loud the note Miranda's boyfriend left for her:
"Here, I'll read it," said Ms. Tanner. "It says, 'They came and took you while I was away and now they will not let me see you. Maybe tomorrow they will, with my love, Adam,'" read Ms. Tanner in a firm dry voice, pronouncing the words distinctly. "Now do you see?" She asked soothingly.
Miranda, hearing the words one by one, forgot them one by one. "Oh, read it again, what does it say?" she called out over the silence that pressed upon her, reaching towards the dancing words that just escaped as she almost touched them. "That will do," said Dr. Hildesheim, calmly authoritarian. "Where is that bed?"
"There is no bed yet," said Ms. Tanner, as if she said, We are short of oranges. Dr. Hildesheim said, "Well, we will manage something," and Ms. Tanner drew the narrow trestle with bright crossed metal supports and small rubbery wheels into a deep jut of the corridor, out of the way of the swift white figures darting about, whirling and skimming like water flies all in silence. The white walls rose sheer as cliffs, a dozen frosted moons followed each other in perfect self-possession down a white lane and dropped mutely one by one into a snowy abyss.
What is this whiteness and silence but the absence of pain? Miranda lay lifting the nap of her white blanket softly between eased fingers, watching a dance of tall deliberate shadows moving behind a wide screen of sheets spread upon a frame. It was there, near her, on her side of the wall where she could see it clearly and enjoy it, and it was so beautiful she had no curiosity as to its meaning. Two dark figures nodded, bent, curtsied to each other, retreated and bowed again, lifted long arms and spread great hands against the white shadow of the screen; then with a single round movement, the sheets were folded back, disclosing two speechless men in white, standing, and another speechless man in white, lying on the bare springs of a white iron bed. The man on the springs was swabbed smoothly from head to foot in white, with folded bands across the face and a large stiff bow like merry rabbit ears dangled at the crown of his head.
The two living men lifted the mattress standing hunched against the wall, spread it tenderly and exactly over the dead man. Wordless and white they vanished down the corridor, pushing the wheeled bed before them. It had been an entrancing and leisurely spectacle, but now it was over. A pallid white fog rose in their wake insinuatingly and floated before Miranda's eyes, a fog in which was concealed all terror and all weariness, all the wrung faces and twisted backs and broken feet of abused, outraged living things, all the shapes of their confused pain and their estranged hearts; the fog might part at any moment and loose the horde of human torments. She put up her hands and said, Not yet, not yet, but it was too late. The fog parted and two executioners, white clad, move towards her pushing between them with marvelously deft and practiced hands the misshapen figure of an old man in filthy rags whose scanty beard waggled under his open mouth as he bowed his back and braced his feet to resist and delay the fate they had prepared for him. In a high weeping voice he was trying to explain to them that the crime of which he was accused did not merit the punishment he was about to receive; and except for this whining cry there was silence as they advanced. The soiled cracked bowls of the old man's hands held before him beseechingly as a beggar’s as he said, "before God I am not guilty," but they held his arms and drew him onward, passed, and were gone.
Nadelson writes that this passage shows the use of different kinds of narrative distortion – "mental distortion, as Miranda drifts in and out of consciousness… A distortion of time, as memories rise at overlap… and sensory distortion, seen first as Miranda witnesses a dead body carried away by two orderlies." After quoting the passage he goes on to say that "Along with the fog comes a syntactical blurring, one sentence tripping into the next, twisting and extending as Miranda's mind slips into fevered dreams… Coherence and frenzy, chaos and order, life and death: we see it all at once, as if caught together in a single photograph."
So, through language and juxtaposition of images, Porter shows Miranda going in and out of lucidity into more of a dreamlike state due to her illness by creating a metaphor-like effect – that is, by juxtaposing and sometimes intermingling a more expected type of description with a more surreal and dreamlike narrative, often with fewer paragraph breaks. In this way, Porter mingles a more traditional narrative with one that includes unexpected shifts and images, and this transports us into another reality as we read (or, perhaps, another "reading reality"), much as Miranda is transported into a different reality through her fluctuating states of consciousness because of her illness. This is similar to the way traditional metaphor states one thing in terms of another – the way it gives us an "immersion" experience. (As we talked about in Mastering Metaphor, you can understand this by comparing "That child is like a flower" [simile, where we are overtly invited to consider the comparison] with "That child is a flower" [metaphor, where we are immediately steeped inside the comparison].)
In his article, Nadelson talks about the way Porter (and the other authors he discusses in the article) creates a kind of distortion "that becomes a passageway to their narratives' underworld of subtext.… they accomplish what poets do with metaphor" (page 22). Nadelson describes this "narrative distortion" as follows:
"By blurring or confusing the sensory experience, we urge our readers to pay close attention. We may seduce them into a narrative with a surface that at first appears lucid, but one may ruffle that surface, doubling their vision with sometimes contrasting, sometimes contradictory, sometimes bewildering sensory experiences, we expand their scope of view: they can step back from the plane of the literal and glimpse the figurative complexities suggested by event and consequence." This is also what metaphor does. In another part of the article, where Nadelson talks about similar effects in Grace Paley's story "Mother," he writes, "This, of course, is what metaphor does, and also subtext: what we see on the surface is complicated by what we can intuit beneath."
Nadelson goes on to conclude that "Porter, like Hawkes and Paley, muddies the surface of narrative in order to lead us into the more complex, more mysterious terrain beneath. Distortion of the work of all three writers becomes a passageway to their narratives' underworld of subtext. By clouding our vision or doubling it, by showing us two things at once – steam and the horror it masks, past and present, dream and reality –they accomplish what poets do with metaphor, suggesting connections that allow us to see their characters' struggles from a fresh vantage point. By blurring the senses, or time, or states of consciousness, they make us leave closer squint to see more clearly."
Though I've quoted several passages from it, I encourage you to you read Nadelson's whole article, or at least the part about Pale Horse, Pale Rider, which is on pages 22 –26. Again, feel free to comment back to me about any of this, if you like, and if you do, let me know if I can share your comments with everyone else – and it's perfectly fine if you just want to respond to me and not the whole list; but if you do feel like sharing with everyone, they will benefit from your remarks as well.
Until next time, all best wishes with your reading and writing!