The figurative language of Colson Whitehead…

Reading time: Less than 2 minutes

I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. I write today about a series of similes and metaphors from Colson Whitehead…

I had heard many laudatory reviews of the novel The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. A National Book Award Winner and a #1 New York Times bestseller, the book also drew sophisticated praise from Michio Kakutani and the populist kudos from Oprah Winfrey. When my husband borrowed the book from the library, I raced through it as soon as he had finished.

I agree with Kakutani, who described it as, “[a] potent, almost hallucinatory novel.” For me, it offered the most horrific descriptions of slavery I had ever encountered and I think it should be mandatory reading for every American politician. That said, I didn’t like all aspects of Whitehead’s writing. I found many of his transitions awkward or non-existent. But he demonstrated superb use of figurative language. Here are my favourite examples:

  • Ajarry died in the cotton, the bolls bobbing around her like whitecaps on the brute ocean.
  • Cora thought he had a mean face, like a burl sprouting from a squat, sweaty trunk.
  • Ridgeway was six and a half feet tall, with the square face and thick neck of a hammer.
  • In a room full of long wooden tables and apparatus she saw her first microscopes. They squatted on the tables like black frogs.
  • A breeze ticked her skin. She gulped the air like water, the night sky the best meal she had ever had, the stars made succulent and ripe after her time below.
  • The sunset glow of molten iron bewitched him, the way the color emerged in the stock slow and then fast, overtaking it like an emotion, the sudden pliability and restless writing of the thing as it waited for purpose.
  • Cora always fell asleep following Martin’s visit, sometimes after an interval of sobbing and sometimes so quickly she was like a candle being blown out.
  • She was meticulous in her posture, a walking spear, in the manner of those who’d been made to bend and will bend no more.
  • Gloria had been working in the laundry of an indigo planation when John Valentine met her. “The most delicious vision these eyes ever beheld,” Valentine liked to tell the new arrivals, drawing out delicious as if ladling hot caramel.
  • She had never seen him rush or hurry. The man moved with exquisite calm, like a leaf drifting on the surface of a pond, making its own way on gentle currents.

It interests me that — in the 10 examples above — nine of them are similes rather than metaphors.