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Life Is A River Extended Metaphor Essay

Consider life.

What is it to you: a flower, a dusty road, a never-ending night? Or would anything short of an essay be too simplistic an answer? To forge captivating, brief similes is often trouble enough, but depending on what is being described and in how much detail, extended metaphors may be called for.

In general, metaphors need not be explicit, like in the last line of Fizgerald’s Great Gatsby:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Here life (or time) is a rivera common enough trope that it can be toyed with implicitly.

On the other hand, metaphors can be explicit, like in the following quote from (and title of) Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s play Life is a Dream (1635):

What is life? A madness. What is life? An illusion, a shadow, a story. And the greatest good is little enough: for all life is a dream, and dreams themselves are only dreams.

(Act II, line 1195, translated from the Spanish by Edward and Elizabeth Huberman)

Penning the poetic finale of a Great American Novel or dramatising a metaphor into a full-blown allegorical play isn’t teachable by example. Exploiting an extended metaphor is.

In particular, any good example offers a template which can be reused, like Adán’s Quote ofabout life that I’ll work through today. (Translation by Katherine Silver.)

Readers are also spectators: they observe the writer wrestling with (against?) words.

So, if you think of the Quote as a sporting spectacle, then my analysis below is a blow-by-blow commentary that can hardly be more riveting than the game overall, but that might be of interest during timeouts, fouls, and uninspired play.

Who to look for on the sporting ground:

  • the author and his tactics,
  • the metaphor, its constituents, and the shifting ground of its meaning.

At their simplest, metaphors start with is sentences that seemingly identify two ideas. The identification can then be developed into a nuanced, complex twinging. The two ideas I will call tenor and vehicle following the terminology of I. A. Richards in Philosophy of Rhetoric (1937). For example: in life is a dream, life is the tenor, dream the vehicle.


To read the full transcript of the match-Quote before the analysis, click here.
To read the Template of the metaphor from the Quote, click here.


The spectacle begins.

Life is not a river that flows: life is a puddle that stagnates.

The first half of the sentence denies the familiar riff that Gatsby plays off. It recalls the everything flows, or panta rhei, of Heraclitus in: Ever-newer waters flow on those who step into the same rivers. This is an entrenched view of life and time. Adán discards it. Bold.

The second half turns the entrenched view on its head by reframing life as static and shallow. Oh, and how so? the reader asks. Scepticism of the new metaphor is the clarion call of curiosity every writer yearns to hear. The reader is drawn to watch the proceedings despise the denial of common sense.

Goal: The metaphor is introduced as a negation of familiarity, it is stated in full, and it has elicited a reaction in the reader. Life is the tenor, puddle the vehicle.

During the day, the same trees, the same sky, the same day is reflected in it. At night — always the same stars, the same moon, the same night.

The basic diurnal and nocturnal properties of the vehicle are listed, ready for transfer to the tenor. The static environment of the puddle is the boredom of unchanging surroundings in life. The reader-fan relates.

Goal: Simple flexion of ideas, warming up for metaphorical extension.

Sometimes an unknown face — a boy, a poet, a woman — is reflected in it — the older the puddle, the murkier — and then the face disappears because a face will not contemplate itself eternally in a puddle.

Now come the fluctuating properties of the vehicle (faces as reflections), transference of properties from the tenor to the vehicle (natural puddles don’t get murkier with age necessarily), and from vehicle to tenor (the temporary roles people play as they pass through our lives).

Note that the denial of panta rhei still echoes. Usually people or obstacles step into a flowing medium, but here it’s been reversed. The puddle is static, while events pass over/around/near it.

Goal: Commingling of tenor and vehicle, the metaphor coheres, or to use Richard’s descriptive coinage, life and puddle interinanimate each other and the context to produce the metaphor.

And the face does contemplate itself. And the puddle is a turbid and interceding mirror. And an old man is a puddle in which no young girl would look at herself. Because one’s own life is a puddle, but the lives of others are faces that come to look at themselves in it.

These are various elaborations of vehicle (puddle is turbid and mirror), of tenor showing up in the garb of vehicle (the old man puddle), and of the joint meaning (the last sentence).

Goal: The reader is guided to familiarity with the basic mechanism of the metaphor and could play around with it on their own. Curiosity sated, the reader’s attention will veer unless a (hat-)trick is produced.

Yes, Catita.

Fortunately, Adán obliges with the simplest feint in the book: a short sentence. He reminds us he’s speaking to someone else fictional (Catita) and signals a change of tack.

Writing tip: A short, simple sentence after long, complex ones animates the reader. The reader sits up.

But some lives are not puddles, but rather a lake, a sea, an ocean wherein only the sky and the mountains, the clouds, the great ships can be seen.

The first extension! Puddles belong to the category of water-filled basins, so that’s a natural place to investigate.

Goal: When bored with small, enlarge.

Thus the life of Walt Whitman — a Yankee who was half crazy and therefore an excellent poet — was an ocean full of transatlantic liners; Napoleon’s, on the other hand, was an ocean full of warships and cetaceans. Saint Francis’s was a trough from which a donkey with a dove perched on its forehead drank. Phillip II’s: a dead sea with a very sad face and sinister legends. Puccini’s: an alpine lake, white with canoes from the Cook Travel Agency. Bolivar’s: a dangerous and frightening channel with reefs and floating casks.

Greater “puddles” belong to the lives of “greater” men. The extended metaphor is put to work amongst them.

In the first sentence Whitman’s credentials are stated in plain terms (between em dashes) seemingly rendering the vehicle gratuitous. It is not: it is Adán’s way of easing us into the extension by providing side by side features of the tenor (Yankee, half crazy, excellent poet) and of the vehicle (ocean, transatlantic liners) in what he considers to be comparable terms. The other men, he mentions only through the vehicle.

His metaphor has aged well, for the two names he mentioned first are still the most famous overall, as they probably were when he wrote this in 1928. “Fame”, in this case, is a precondition for reader interest.

Goal: The metaphor is reanimated on a grand scale.

Tips:

  • Ease reader into complex metaphors.
  • When using general knowledge, list sensibly (haphazard arrangements are a hazard).

Your life: a washbasin in which one soaks an armful of broom that has the color and smell of sulfur.

Here Catita’s life is being described, and not favourably.

Goal: Extreme contrast, coming after such grand puddles.

Tip: Contrast comprises background and foreground; if you want the reader to see black, you have to first paint the background white.

Thus is the soul, Catita — either enemy waters or stupid waters — lake, sea, swamp, washbasin full of water. But never a flow with a current and a bed.

We are coming full-circle. This is an accumulatio, a figure that summarises the message forcefully. Note that Adán also sneaks in a metonymy, putting soul instead of life.

Goal: A rounding off that could be a pleasing end of the metaphor. In this case, it signals a new kind of extension.

My life is a hole dug with the hands of a truant child in the sands of a beach — a malignant and tiny hole that distorts the reflections of gentlemen who come to the beach and infest the sea air — so clean, so brilliant — with their horrible office odors.

The game gets personal. General statements (reflections), historical examples (Waltman, Napoleon), involvement of the fictional interlocutor (Catita)—we could have guessed the writer would leave himself for last. And if Catita’s sulphurous washbasin was odious, the writer doesn’t spare himself much either (malignant, tiny, infested by office odours).

Note the slippage of metaphorical ground: puddle becomes hole containing the puddle.

Goal: Self-analysis.

Tip: Whilst self-analysis can be the most incisive part of the metaphor (you’re free to wear any cilice you chose), the reader requires reference points in the metaphor, mundane or historical, to aid understanding.

Such is my life, Catita — a little puddle on a beach — so now you see why I cannot be sad. The high tide undoes me, but another truant child digs me again at the other end of the beach, and I cease to exist for a few days, during which time I learn, always anew, the joy of not existing and the joy of resuscitating.

The self-analysis extends, temporally and philosophically. Adán finds joy in the vicissitudes of the tide and the beach tyrants, children.

Goal: Adán delivers an aspect of his life philosophy through the extended metaphor in a way that the “plain” statement—I find joy in the inconstancy of resuscitation—fails to do.

Where next? What’s “deeper” than self-analysis?

And I am the truant child who digs his life in the sands of the beach. And I know the insanity of setting life up against destiny, because destiny is nothing but the desire we feel alternately to die and to resuscitate. For me the horror of death is nothing but the certainty of never being able to resuscitate again, that eternal boredom of being dead. […]

The extended metaphor goes meta. Now the writer is digging himself, so to speak: he lives in both the child and the hole/puddle, not unlike how writing is both about writing a character and inhabiting the character on the page (close to the notion of seeing the back of your own head).

Self-references naturally tend to limiting factors (insanity, destiny, eternal boredom, death). The meta element is also the hypergolic that fuels the final starburst of any successful metaphor, exhausting it.

Fireworks after the match! (Who won?)


Though, it’s nice to give the reader a small, down-to-earth message to take home at the end:

Your destiny perhaps is to be a puddle on an ocean beach, a puddle full of seawater, but a puddle in which there is, instead of a paper boat, a little fish that raises a fat and brutish wave.

Adán was speaking of Catita’s life, so let me add, to my readers:

May your puddles be fecund lakes and oceans full of fishes. Dare I say, beware acerbic humours, for they may harm your most beautiful coral reefs?

Here is the unembellished Template of the metaphor from the Quote; it is most likely to work on general, deep concepts with multifarious properties, like life, death, love, dreams, books.

  • State the metaphor. In the Quote this is life is a puddle.
  • Elaborate the metaphor in the usual way until the reader has a clear idea of how it works, but be wary of overdoing it. For example, take reflections in the puddle; what do they say about life?
  • Extend the metaphor by “going big”: think of life as a lake.
  • Reach for historical examples, if necessary and applicable, to entrench the metaphor’s usefulness. Adán sees the life of Napoleon may be thought of as an ocean full of warships.
  • (Optional: Apply the metaphor to friends, or fictional interlocutors.)
  • Extend the metaphor to self-analysis. Which puddle would be your life?
  • Impart personal philosophy through the extended metaphor.
  • Extend the metaphor to include self-referential, meta elements. In the Quote, Adán is both a puddle on a beach, and a child digging the puddle.
  • Take the metaphor to the extreme to study otherwise ineffable limits. Does the puddle renew itself? What does that say about death and destiny?
  • Leave the reader with a concrete image—and a good feeling, if you can.

Put succinctly, the Quote gives a fairly general template for a triple extension of a simple metaphor of the form tenor is vehicle: the metaphor is extended to a larger class of the vehicle, to specific instances of the tenor (in particular, to self-analysis), and to a self-referential vehicle that studies the extreme states of the tenor.

(Return to top.)

If that made no sense, just read the Quote in one breath and Adán will show you what’s what.

Quote: Life is not a river that flows: life is a puddle that stagnates. During the day, the same trees, the same sky, the same day is reflected in it. At night — always the same stars, the same moon, the same night. Sometimes an unknown face — a boy, a poet, a woman — is reflected in it — the older the puddle, the murkier — and then the face disappears because a face will not contemplate itself eternally in a puddle. And the face does contemplate itself. And the puddle is a turbid and interceding mirror. And an old man is a puddle in which no young girl would look at herself. Because one’s own life is a puddle, but the lives of others are faces that come to look at themselves in it. Yes, Catita. But some lives are not puddles, but rather a lake, a sea, an ocean wherein only the sky and the mountains, the clouds, the great ships can be seen. Thus the life of Walt Whitman — a Yankee who was half crazy and therefore an excellent poet — was an ocean full of transatlantic liners; Napoleon’s, on the other hand, was an ocean full of warships and cetaceans. Saint Francis’s was a trough from which a donkey with a dove perched on its forehead drank. Phillip II’s: a dead sea with a very sad face and sinister legends. Puccini’s: an alpine lake, white with canoes from the Cook Travel Agency. Bolivar’s: a dangerous and frightening channel with reefs and floating casks. Your life: a washbasin in which one soaks an armful of broom that has the color and smell of sulfur. Thus is the soul, Catita — either enemy waters or stupid waters — lake, sea, swamp, washbasin full of water. But never a flow with a current and a bed. My life is a hole dug with the hands of a truant child in the sands of a beach — a malignant and tiny hole that distorts the reflections of gentlemen who come to the beach and infest the sea air — so clean, so brilliant — with their horrible office odors. Such is my life, Catita — a little puddle on a beach — so now you see why I cannot be sad. The high tide undoes me, but another truant child digs me again at the other end of the beach, and I cease to exist for a few days, during which time I learn, always anew, the joy of not existing and the joy of resuscitating. And I am the truant child who digs his life in the sands of the beach. And I know the insanity of setting life up against destiny, because destiny is nothing but the desire we feel alternately to die and to resuscitate. For me the horror of death is nothing but the certainty of never being able to resuscitate again, that eternal boredom of being dead. […] Your destiny perhaps is to be a puddle on an ocean beach, a puddle full of seawater, but a puddle in which there is, instead of a paper boat, a little fish that raises a fat and brutish wave.

N.B. I have omitted part of the quote for purposes of brevity and relevance; the place of omission is indicated by square brackets.

(Return to top.)


This is part of a series about Martín Adán’s only novel The Cardboard House(translated by Katherine Silver). I analyse his vivid lyrical prose and learn from it.

On Figures of Speech:

  1. Sun: Turning Dogs into Gold Ingots
  2. Sky: The Dirty Cup Filled with Sugar
  3. Idea: A Rugged Rope

On Personification:

  1. Shoes: One Soul in Two Bodies
  2. Mule: All Things Emanate From Her
  3. Poles: Fourteen Hours at the Edge of the Sidewalk

On Metaphor:

  1. Life: Writing Extended Metaphors

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