As many of us know, metaphors are one of the most effective literary techniques that writers have at their disposal. This is the case for many reasons, including the fact that making comparisons between seemingly different ideas causes readers to think critically and complexly. For this reason, it is often advantageous for writers to make use of metaphors in their work.
There are probably many written works that I could cite in which an author used a metaphor in an ingenious manner that likely caused the reader to pause and seriously consider the intended meaning of the passage. Yet one piece of literature stands out in my mind as particularly effective in doing this very thing. Entitled “Twenty-Six Men and A Girl,” the story concerns the harsh working conditions that the protagonist and others working in a basement were subjected to. The opening paragraph reads thus:
“There were six-and-twenty of us-six-and-twenty living machines locked up in a damp basement, where from morning till night we kneaded dough and rolled it into pretzels and cracknels. Opposite the windows of our basement was a bricked area, green and moldy with moisture. The windows were protected from outside with a close iron grating, and the light of the sun could not pierce through the windowpanes, covered as they were with flour dust.”
Here, the writer-Maxim Gorky-describes the individuals who work in the basement as “living machines.” This was an excellent metaphor to use for many reasons, including the fact that the word “machines” clearly conveys the type of dehumanization that transpires when an individual’s working conditions are dehumanizing. In using the term “machine,” Gorky emphasizes the fact that the employees exist and work in a robotic, mechanistic state. At the same time that he uses the word “machine” to highlight the dehumanization that transpires as the workers toil in the basement, Gorky also employs the word “living” to describe the workers. In so doing, he makes it plain that the subjects of the story are guided by a mode of being and knowing that contains animation and organicity despite the dull nature of the work they do. Considered comprehensively, then, “living machines” expertly relays the fact that the workers of the narrative are profoundly human despite the lackluster and dehumanizing nature of the work they do.
Although Maxim Gorky’s use of the phrase “living machines” to describe the compromised subjectivity of his characters was excellent, it is only one of many examples of a writer making creative use of metaphor. (Personally, I have used adjectives like surreptitious and stolid to describe the rhythm created by percolating water. You can learn more about all that here.) As mentioned earlier, implementing this literary technique is effective because it forces the reader to think carefully about the similarities between two ostensibly different concepts. (In the case of Gorky’s work, his metaphor reveals that people can be fundamentally human even as they are reduced to objects or-more specifically-machines.) Because the creative use of metaphors has the power to make a writer’s audience think critically about the concepts they reference, I encourage writers to employ them in a forthcoming work. Good luck!
Jocelyn Crawley holds B.A. degrees in English and Religious Studies. Her work has appeared in Jerry Jazz Musician, Nailpolish Stories, Visceral Uterus, Dead Beats, Four and Twenty, and Haggard and Halloo. Other stories are forthcoming in Faces of Feminism, The Idiom, Thrice Fiction and Calliope.
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