Jeanne: Putting the Meta in Metaphor

cartoon concepts and ideas setA few years ago, on my personal blog, I proposed a metaphor:

Happiness slid from her face like a fried egg from a Teflon skillet.

I went on to assert:

…the narrator has to be a housewife or a chef, because if, for example, a cop, or a dentist, or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company says something like this, it just doesn’t work. (Unless he’s the CEO of Farberware.)

But Christo, another blogger, took issue with that statement, commenting:

…I have to disagree with you on the Teflon one – I think it works for no matter who you say it about – why does it specifically have to be a cook or a housewife or even more linear someone that works for Teflon?

To which I responded, via email:

The point I was trying to make was more general — that the metaphors/similes a character uses need to fit the character, and to reinforce it. While it may be an overstatement to say the character needs to be a housewife or a chef, he/she does need to be someone who has fried enough eggs to know that they’ll slide off Teflon in a way that they don’t off, say, cast iron. A bachelor with a six-pack of beer and an expired jar of mayo as the sole contents of his fridge would not use this metaphor.

To which HE responded:

I think everyone gets it no matter the six pack or the champagne flute – “it was hot enough to fry an egg” do you need to have experienced frying eggs to get it? “his anger equaled the storm” what if you live in a mild climate? The beauty of the metaphor and the simile is that it takes out of your normal pattern of thinking and transports you –

So I said:

I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree on this one. My experience with metaphors that don’t match the character’s voice is that they pull the reader out of the “willing suspension of disbelief” that’s necessary for fiction to work.

But he wasn’t willing to let it go at that:

You need to give your readers more credit. I for one would get tired of reading about housewives and pots and pans just so that I can be held in a certain level of ‘suspension’ its when the harried housewife metaphor gets transferred on to a race car driver that the ‘suspension of disbelief’ starts to get more visual. Linear thinking is not the willing suspension of disbelief it is the obvious and obvious does not make a good metaphor. Naturally you don’t want your metaphors all over the board – it would be highly unlikely for a rancher to be talking about tulle and chenille but if it is done properly it works better than if he is only talking about cows.

Later, I said:

I’ve been turning this over in my head since your last email, and you’ve got a point. It’s funny — one of the number one criticisms folks in my writing group have about my writing is that I’m not subtle enough. The number two criticism is that my metaphors/similes tend to stick out like sore thumbs. In some cases it was because the device was a mismatch for the voice, but now I’m wondering if it also had to do with clumsy implementation. Hmm.

And he said,

For me the real beauty of the metaphor is when it isn’t in the voice you would normally expect, that’s when the reader is truly suspended. Ranchers always talk about cows – housewives always talk about their domestic chores – that is my point.

And that is a great point.

What do you think?

(Christo has since passed away, but his old posts, mostly about cooking, are still available at Chez What?)


6 thoughts on “Jeanne: Putting the Meta in Metaphor

  1. I actually have an opinion about this, but I’m in a huge hurry. No time to write a short, elegant reply so it’ll have to be a long disjointed one. Sorry.

    This topic takes me back to Anne of Green Gables. She was forever talking about and thinking about things that were completely divorced from the reality in which she found herself. This made characters around her frustrated and it made we readers delighted. We love her because she is fun, imaginative, and very, very bright.

    Boring, unimaginative, not-so-bright housewives talk about chores. Boring, unimaginative, not-so-bright ranchers talk about cows. So perhaps this is what should guide us in choosing the appropriate metaphor for use by our characters. If we want to convey unimaginative, use the expected metaphor. If we want to convey intelligent and imaginative, use something less expected.

    Also, I must say that as a housewife, I rarely talk about chores, and neither do my other housewife friends. I did, however, have a huge cow phase about twelve years ago. After a trip to Ireland where half a dozen times a day I would swerve to the side of the road, dash through the wet grass slapping at my legs, and press myself to the fence to get the best possible pic of various unfamiliar breeds of cows I was hooked. I came home and immediately booked a cow visit at Wagner Farm, the nearby historic educational farm run by the park district, for my girl scout troop. We had 15 minutes of lectures on cow breeds and 45 minutes of actually milking cows. It was freaking fabulous.

    If I had to spend all my days talking and thinking about the household chores that fill my days I would no doubt end up throwing myself off a parking garage somewhere.

    • Hi, Daisy,
      As a person formerly from Wisconsin, I’m thrilled to learn you had a cow phase. It sounds like you had a lot of fun with it!

      And I agree that it’s often the juxtaposition of what you expect a person/character to think about and what they do that makes life interesting. So when a character uses a metaphor completely outside their range of experience, it’s can reveal character and evoke an emotion, too—so, for example, if the chauffeur character uses a metaphor about dancing, we maybe learn that she wanted to become a dancer, and maybe we also feel pity that she didn’t or couldn’t do that.

  2. I have to caveat the hell out of this (every situation is different, case by case, one size does not fit all), but in general, I agree with your original position. If your character has many facets, you can help show them with a metaphor, but you can’t depend on one metaphor to convey that this race-car driver is also a passionate chef. The metaphor must be supported.

    Of course, I can’t come up with concrete examples, but I remember reading some post about student work where their work was funny because the metaphors were totally incongruent with the character and the story.

    Sometimes, though, a very incongruent metaphor is a work of genius. “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.” (Not exactly a metaphor, but kind of. It’s the play on words that makes this a fun reflection on the nature of “like”.)

    Ah, found a collection of bad metaphors. “She grew on him like a colony of E. coli on a room temperature side of Canadian beef.” This is weird/bad for two reasons — growing on someone is generally positive while E. coli is generally negative — but also the scientific precision doesn’t have a context. Could be hilarious in the right context, though. A woman-hater who doesn’t want to be colonized by love, for example.

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