Extended Metaphor

Extended metaphor is not the same thing as your ordinary metaphor. An ordinary metaphor is a simile without the word “like”. “Life is like a box of chocolates” is a simile. “Life is hell” is a metaphor. But an extended metaphor is a whole different animal all together. You can see some examples here.

For the writer, an extended metaphor is an untamed dragon whose reins are hard to control, but once mastered could grant powers of great capacity.
To show you what I mean, here is an example of what an extended metaphor can do. It is shared in a dialogue between 47-year-old Humphrey Bogart (as Philip Marlowe) and 22-year-old Lauren Bacall (as Vivian Rutledge) in the movie The Big Sleep.

Vivian: Speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them workout a little first, see if they’re front runners or come from behind, find out what their hole card is, what makes them run.
Marlowe: Find out mine?
Vivian: I think so.
Marlowe: Go ahead.
Vivian: I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a little lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.
Marlowe: You don’t like to be rated yourself.
Vivian: I haven’t met anyone yet that can do it. Any suggestions?
Marlowe: Well, I can’t tell till I’ve seen you over a distance of ground. You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how, how far you can go.
Vivian: A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.

The following is my favorite extended metaphor from Michael Chabon’s “Mysteries of Pittsburgh” .

“Then he asked me what my plans were for the summer, and in the flush of some strong emotion or other I said, more or less: It’s the beginning of the summer and I’m standing in the lobby of a thousand-story grand hotel, where a bank of elevators a mile long and an endless red row of monkey attendants in gold braid wait to carry me up, up, up through the suites of moguls, of spies, and of starlets, to rush me straight to the zeppelin mooring at the art deco summit, where they kept the huge dirigible of August tied up and bobbing in the high winds. On the way to the shining needle at the top I will wear a lot of neckties. I will buy five or six works of genius on 45 rpm, and perhaps too many times I will find myself looking at the snapped spine of a lemon wedge at the bottom of a drink. I said, “I anticipate a coming season of dilated time and of women all in disarray.”

When I first read this passage, I thought it was so awesome, I just put the book down and looked at the walls for a while.
What is this metaphor about and what does it do?

First off, the imagery is vivid and clear – and yet it is surreal – like a scene from a Terry Gilliam movie. There is no such thing as a “thousand story grand hotel” or a “bank of elevators a a mile long” but the over sized hyperbole is consistent with the feeling of the endlessly rising elevator and a trip to the air ship that never seems to end. It effectively conveys the feeling of a seemingly endless summer with seemingly infinite possibilities.

And then it is vaguely sad because you travel up, up, up through the suites of moguls, of spies, and of starlets who you never actually interact with. Opportunities passed up. Summer is just a balloon bobbing in the high winds. (He uses the word “dirigible” which I hadn’t seen in decades.)

Then the dreamy sequence is brought to a shocking end with the words “snapped spine” before it is explained that it is a ” snapped spine of a lemon wedge at the bottom of a drink” which concludes the metaphor. Dream broken.

Metaphors, at its most primitive, are instruments for explanation (big as a bear, solid as a brick) but can be used in contrast to enhance the image (devilish debonair, monstrous beauty), but an extended metaphor does not just explain or enhance what we already know.

In Chabon’s case he is explaining an emotional grasp of the summer vacation to come. It is something that cannot be seen, but something we can relate to. He presents vivid imagery to convey the feeling, but no imagery of beaches, parties, travel, or any of the things we actually expect to do during the summer. Instead he gives us the bobbing airship as a metaphor for the summer.

So what does this accomplish?

Other than the fact that it blows our minds with incredible word usage, it presents the sense of purposeless time wastefully expended like a lost weekend, and replaces that with an image we can see. And then it projects an emotion – a sort of sad wistfulness – that is not explicitly explained, but one which we can feel through the prose. Placing this metaphor in the first chapter of the book helps set the tone and atmosphere to the entire story.

The masterful part of this is that it begins with ” in the flush of some strong emotion or other I said, more or less” and then closes with ” I said, ‘I anticipate a coming season of dilated time and of women all in disarray.'”

Did he actually say either of these things? He did not say to his father “a bank of elevators a mile long” nor did he say “I anticipate a coming season of dilated time and of women all in disarray.”
These are both stand-ins for the rambling, unstructured, real conversation that came out of his mouth. The two stand-ins, however, are contrasting equivalents. They are two opposite ways of saying the same thing.

What if Chabon had written:
Then he asked me what my plans were for the summer, and in the flush of some strong emotion or other I said, more or less: “I anticipate a coming season of dilated time and of women all in disarray.”
That would be the summary of what he actually said. But it does not serve the purpose of setting the tone for the book.
All the stuff in the middle, between “I said, more or less” and “I said”, is the trailer to the movie you are about to see. It presents vivid colors, tangible emotions, and a shocking conclusion that is more or less inevitable.

So what can we learn from this?
1. An extended metaphor has a purpose. It is not just a jumble of clever words. It has a clearly defined mission to accomplish.
2. It contains colors, shapes, sizes and things that are visible.
3. It conveys emotions that is consistent with the story.
4. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
5. It can be summarized in a non-metaphoric way.

Putting all of that together in a metaphor is a tall order. Here is my poor attempt at it:

Benji was like a horse. Not a real horse, but a movie horse. The hero in a jam whistles and his loyal horse, with nobody in the saddle, comes to the rescue, kicks the bad guys, carries away the hero and his damsel, across the plains, into the sunset, and then, maybe, above the clouds, over the rainbow, sprouting Pegasus wings and a unicorn horn until happily ever after and the credits roll. Nobody remembers the name of the horse, unless it’s a question in a game show. Then the movie you watched with a lollipop in cheek is, by chance, on a late-night re-run when you are alone drinking because the wife just left, and you finally realize the horse was the real hero, and the poor animal had long since been sent to the glue factory. And you can’t recall the name. That was Benji.

It does not quite work like Chabon’s extended metaphor even though (1) it would set the tone for a larger story, (2) contains imagery you can visualize, (3) conveys an emotion (in this case sadness), (4) has a beginning, middle, and an end, (5) and can be summarized that Benji was an unappreciated, unsung hero. What’s missing here?

What is missing is the surprise factor. It does not have “a thousand story grand hotel”, “a bank of elevators a mile long”, “moguls, spies, and starlets” and “snapped spine of a lemon wedge” working in concert to project the above five things.

An extended metaphor is a dangerous thing, because it can distract the reader from the story if it is too elaborate. We want the reader to get lost in the story, to get completely absorbed in it. And yet when everything clicks, it magically transports the reader on the back of a dragon soaring across the skies.


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