In Anna Quindlen's commencement speech at Mount Holyoke College, she uses two main figures of speech -- one involving a backpack, and the other involving fingerprints. Which works better, and why?

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In her commencement speech at Mount Holyoke College, Anna Quindlen uses two major figures of speech.  The first says that the typical human desire to be perfect is like wearing a backpack full of bricks.  The second compares the individuality of each human being to the fingerprints each human possesses. Of these two comparisons, Quindlen most emphasizes the first: the backpack imagery appears throughout the speech, including at the very end. However, one might argue that the fingerprint image is at least as effective, if not more so.

The backpack imagery first appears when Quindlen says that when she was young, the self-imposed pressure to be

perfect day after day, year after year, became like always carrying a backpack filled with bricks on my back. And oh, how I secretly longed to lay my burden down.

This simile is effective for a number of reasons, including the following:

  • a backpack is commonly associated with college students. If Quindlen had said that she felt as if she was carrying a sack of rocks or a briefcase full of bricks, the image would not have seemed nearly as relevant.
  • a backpack is easier to ignore than a sack or a briefcase; one wears it on one’s back and doesn’t pay as much conscious attention to it as one would to a briefcase or sack. Yet the burden is still there, and the weight of it is only fully appreciated once it is removed.

The imagery involving fingerprints appears in a very striking passage of the speech. At one point, Quindlen tells her listeners,

Look at your fingers. Hold them in front of your face. Each one is crowned by an abstract design that is completely different than those of anyone in this crowd, in this country, in this world. They are a metaphor for you. Each of you is as different as your fingerprints. Why in the world should you march to any lockstep?

This moment of the speech is effective for a number of reasons, including the following:

  • It involves audience participation. It catches the audience by surprise, and, if Quindlen had paused long enough after each of those first two sentences, it is safe to assume that most members of the audience were actually looking at their fingers and paying close attention to them.
  • It is indeed amazing that, so far as we know, the fingerprints of each individual person on the planet are, have been, and always will be completely distinct from the fingerprints of anyone else. Perhaps just as fascinating is the fact that the print of each individual finger is distinct from the print of each of the other nine.  If we assume that there are six billion people on the planet today (a conservative estimate), then that means that there are currently at least sixty billion different fingerprints – an astonishing number.

Of the two figures of speech, one might argue that the second is the more effective and the one least likely to be challenged. The backpack comparison is open to criticism, for instance, because one is never entirely likely to lay down one’s backpack completely. One might take a few bricks from it to lighten the load a bit, but would it really be a good thing if people gave up completely at least the aspiration to achieve perfection? Don’t we admire Olympic athletes (for instance) precisely because they want to be perfect?  The fingerprint comparison, however, is one that few people would challenge.