GCSE English Language students have looked at the opening to Susan Hill’s chilling novel, I’m the King of the Castle recently. The novel makes readers think about their expectations and the way cleverly estranging(defamiliarising) characterisation can create unease immediately. Techniques should be analysed for the way they animate writing. Similes, for example, bring different things closer, but this closeness may reveal deep psychological secrets, in a seemingly natural, (in this case) conversational way.
Here’s an example. The boy Edmund Hopper has been taken to visit his dying grandfather in a ‘sick room’ that smelled ‘sour’. We are not clear where this sensory impression originates until Edmund relates to his father his thoughts about the dying man. ‘All he looks like,’ Edmund Hooper said, ‘Is one of his dead old moths.‘ Edmund’s choice of simile is unsettling. He animates his experience through a language linked to death and creatures associated with repulsion.
We might feel the boy is panicked into disgust by fear, or we might feel he is a very literal boy who sees no point in avoiding the direct truth. However, there is something unsettling, even blase and dismissive about the simile. If you read the comparison aloud, you become all too away of the derisory emphasis on the word, ‘All’. The humanity of the dying man has been taken away and all we encounter is the ‘dead old moths.’ The ephemerality of a moth is now fixed to the dying man. He has become a mere moth and as such, infinitely expendable and forgettable. Hopper’s character is thus anchored from the opening to a capacity for unconventionality(no respectful ‘manners’) and even dehumanising coldness. This foreshadows his later bullying behaviour towards another boy(Kingshaw) and creates an immediate link to death which never leaves either the character or the atmosphere of the house itself.
Remember our metaphors and similes reveal us. Look for the way a character or event is animated, and consider the underlying effects. What is being foregrounded or foreshadowed? Notice how we as readers are encouraged to explore a character through ‘meeting devices’ such as a simile.
More in part two.
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