In Richard Wright's story "Big Black Good Man," where do some metaphors and similes appear and how do they function?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In Richard Wright’s story “Big Black Good Man,” metaphors and similes appear in various places and function in a variety of ways. Examples include the following:

  • Early in the story, a student complains about the weather in Denmark by saying, “’This dampness keeps me clogged up like a drain pipe.’” This simile (a comparison using “like” or “as”) helps characterize the student as a somewhat imaginative person and makes the phrasing more vivid than it would have been if the final four words were missing.
  • Shortly thereafter, Olaf Jenson, a Danish night porter, refers to his tenants as his “children.” This metaphor (a comparison not using “like” or “as” and thus implying almost an identity between the two things compared) helps characterize Jenson as an apparently caring man and reminds us that he regrets that he and his wife never had children.  The effect would be much weaker if he had said that his tenants were “like” his children or if he had said that they were “almost” his children. By calling them his children, he gives much more force to the comparison.
  • At one point, a black person is described as “a huge black thing” – a metaphor that compares a human being, in the strongest possible terms, with something non-human, even non-living. This metaphor shows how language can be used to dehumanize others.
  • Shortly thereafter, another metaphor is used to describe the black person as a “black giant.” The phrasing would be less powerful if Wright had written that the man “looked like a giant” or “was as big as a giant.” Instead, the phrase “black giant” again suggests that this person is non-human or is at least extremely unusual.
  • As the narrator strains to describe the black man’s appearance, similes abound:

His chest bulged like a barrel; his rocklike and humped shoulders hinted of mountain ridges; the stomach ballooned like a threatening stone and the legs were like telephone poles.

The similes used here imply that plain, non-figurative language cannot do justice to the man’s build or to the astonishment it evokes from Olaf.

  • The metaphor “ballooned” is soon followed by another metaphor, in which the unexpected visitor is called a “black cloud,” which suggests his size and perhaps the possibility of a storm (thus echoing the earlier phrase “threatening stone”). This same sentence also contains another simile, comparing the visitor to a buffalo; yet another simile, comparing the visitor to an advancing storm; and a somewhat shocking metaphor in which the man is treated as a thing when the narrator refers to “its head.”

All in all, most of the similes and metaphors just noted have the following effects:

  • they alter the previously calm, placid mood the story
  • they create suspense by suggesting the possibility of danger
  • they make us wonder how the narrator expects us to react to such figurative language, especially the language that seems dehumanizing

 

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