The fantasy/horror novel It by Stephen King provides the reader with a memorable coming of age story through strong imagery and sympathetic characters in both youth and adulthood. Throughout the story line the author employs figurative devices that showcase the novel’s themes of growing up, confronting fears, and leaving childhood.
The novel is rich with allusion, metaphor, and personification because children and young people live with a mindset of symbolism and imagery, a trait we often lose as we grow up to become practical and logical.
Its main persona, Pennywise, uses a name that is an allusion to the proverb “penny wise and pound foolish,” referring to the wisdom of Losers Club members who notice details and the foolishness of their parents and other adults who seem oblivious, apathetic, or numb to the tragic events that happen in Derry.
In order to prepare for their final confrontation with Pennywise, the adult Losers must regain this childhood ability, often in ways that are unintentional and startling. A good example of King’s ability to blend figurative devices to support the novel’s themes can be found in the chapter “Bev Rogan Pays a Call.”
This chapter features the encounter between Beverly Marsh and Mrs. Kersh, a woman who moved into the apartment where Beverly grew up with her abusive father. The interrelationship among several figurative devices such as allusion, punning wordplay, and metaphor create vivid scenes in which Beverly must confront her past and the task yet to be done, that of defeating Pennywise and growing up.
When Beverly arrives at the apartment house on Lower Main Street, she looks at the mailboxes:
Third floor, STARKWEATHER. Second floor, BURKE. First floor—her breath caught—MARSH.
This section sets the tone of the scene by alluding to serial killer Charles Starkweather and linking his legacy of violence with Beverly’s father. However, she’s relieved to find an elderly lady named Mrs. Kersh at the door instead. Mrs. Kersh informs Beverly her father is dead, and a feeling of confusion comes over Beverly:
In her agitation, in her subconscious but rock-solid certainty that her old man would still be here, she had read KERSH as MARSH.
The wordplay pun is the first hint that things are not what they seem. As Mrs. Kersh prepares tea, Beverly tours the apartment, connecting with her childhood, in a description that links her story with the novel’s predominant symbol of blood. She notes the improvements Mrs. Kersh has made to the apartment yet realizes a growing sense of unease. When they sit down to drink, Mrs. Kersh slowly morphs into a witch-like figure:
She grinned at Beverly. “Have something to eat, dear.” Her voice had risen half an octave, but the octave was cracked in this register, and her voice was the sound of a crypt door swinging mindlessly on hinges clogged with black earth.
Through her physical transformation and the metaphor pairing her voice with the crypt, Mrs. Kersh is revealed to be another disguise of It, intent on scaring the adult Losers away from their mission. The passage ends with an allusion to Hansel and Gretel and the dream-like nature of fairy tales:
“You and your friends! In the cage! In the cage until the oven’s hot!” She screamed laughter, and Beverly ran for the door, but she ran as if in slow motion.
In a final cruel twist, It morphs into Beverly’s abusive father, the one she feared meeting from the beginning, and then into Its Pennywise form. She is able to escape It by shouting a phrase that alludes to the bond among the Losers.
In his nonfiction work Danse Macabre, King analyzes the cathartic nature of horror and how the genre enables audiences to feel and confront emotions usually held back for the sake of civilization. Through King’s use of literary and figurative devices, It presents readers with the opportunity to work through the novel’s themes along with its characters.