The figurative language of Joyce Carol Oates

Reading time: Less than 2 minutes

I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. I write today about figurative language from Joyce Carol Oates…

I generally consider myself pretty well-read, in part because I received a good education and also because I’m a voracious reader. Nevertheless, I recognize there are huge lacunae in my education. One of those missing parts was American novelist Joyce Carol Oates (pictured above).

I have now addressed that gap after reading Oates’ magnificent and recently published 752-page novel A Book of American Martyrs. I had always heard that Oates was an “intellectual” writer and I discovered that to be true. Nevertheless, I also found her an empathetic one — on the divisive topic of abortion — and I saw her metaphors and similes as deeply evocative.

Here are my favourites:

  • The boy understood the look in my eyes, of warning, of love laced with warning, or warning laced with love; and quickly he drew away, and returned to the room he shared with his younger brother, barefoot and silent as if indeed my hand had been raised against him which it had not.
  • And so, there was no fear. It was like slipping into water that is warm, and tranquil—you cannot tell where your skin leaves off, and where the water begins.
  • The surprise of opening my eyes in a room of white walls, beeping machines, and air like the interior of a refrigerator, and seeing the faces of stranger, that kept slipping from me like a film that is dissolving, for I could not maintain the attention required to remain awake for more than a few seconds.
  • Yet the pain was a floating sensation, that I could climb upon as you could climb upon an air mattress in a swimming pool.
  • After the stunned first moments of the crash I could feel the air quiver, I could feel vibrations in the air like vibrations in water, there was a shuddering of metal, and smashed glass in shapes like frost, the dented squeezed-together hood that looked as if a giant had lowered his foot upon it, and his weight.
  • Sixty-six black-thread stitches so ugly, the sight of them penetrated her brain like shrapnel.
  • Our (rented) house three miles west of the small town of St. Croix, Michigan, was a clapboard house dingy-white as a gull’s soiled feathers.
  • Thus responsibility for the station wagon had fallen between the two adults like a ball indifferently dropped, rolling heedlessly about at the feet, unacknowledged.
  • Clack, clack! — the sound of chalk striking like a sharp-beaked bird against a window.
  • Our mother laughed. It was a sound like breaking twigs.
  • Girls’ eyes shifting to her face in the mirror above the skins, sharp like ice picks.
  • Their laughter was idiot laughter like pebbles shaken inside a metal container.
  • Shrewdly she’d created a personality inside which she could live as she might have stitched together a quilt of colorful mismatched cloth-squares, dazzling to the eye.
  • She lost her strong opinions as you might lose bulky household objects and never miss them.