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The Unintentional Metaphor

By Expert Author: Dennis Russell

The Accidental Metaphor
It always amazes me when I read the way academia has canonized a writer by alluding to the incredible depth of the person's writing, claiming that so much of this author's prose contained brilliant metaphors describing some "condition" pertaining to that era, and especially something with political import.
Dante and Voltaire
It's impossible to argue that Alighieri's book is not a scathing rebuke of the Medici family and their long and widespread oppression of the Italian populace. Likewise, CANDIDE is a striking example of using prose to ridicule religion and just about everything else in a society the author believed had gone wildly off kilter.
Hugo and Hawthorne
Hugo's characterizations of cultural hypocrisy in both THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME and LES MISERABLES are exemplary if not quintessential. And I place THE SCARLET LETTER not too far below either of Hugo's lofty ascensions. But the board becomes shaky, in my opinion, when one travels to Melville.
Melville
The academic community seems to have taken every line of the whale's story and made it sacred, elevating the animal to possess Godlike implications. And while BILLY BUDD is the obvious metaphoric allegory, how much beyond Billy's sacrifice for the common good does the tale really go?
Thackeray and Porter
Perhaps no two authors wrote more obvious metaphorical material than Thackeray's VANITY FAIR and Katherine Anne Porter's SHIP OF FOOLS, as the titles themselves clearly express the nature of each story.
However, and It's a Big "However"
However, in parsing the works I just mentioned, is it reasonable to believe that each line, vignette, or scene credited as a metaphor was really written by each of these great authors with that intention? I hardly believe this.
I've often extolled Joseph Conrad's virtues, as I'm of the opinion he's in a class by himself at writing similes that work. And he's not far behind the best when it comes to metaphors, as well. In analyzing THE NIGGER OF THE NARCISSUS, I recently discussed James Waite's name as oft-heralded at being synonymous with "the white man's burden." And I also mentioned the academic view of the ship's crew's constant chattering as indicative of society's bemoaning social issues. For me, the crew was simply mumbling about Waite's fate, and not a mote more was on Mr. Conrad's mind when he wrote the line.
Academics Seem Eager to Jump the Gun
Many people who study literature are quick to look for anything possible to assign metaphor status. I'm of the opinion that many writers aren't considering metaphors as a conscious component of their narratives, and what occurs is often the byproduct of an academic's creative thoughts during analysis of the text. For this reason, it's my contention that metaphors often occur accidentally. And the reason they go uncontested is simple: What person doesn't want to accept credit for something considered clever, whether or not it was intentional?

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