Published in 1986, It by Stephen King is a fantasy/horror novel built around the themes of confronting one’s fears and growing up.
King is highly skilled at using literary devices such as metaphors, personification, onomatopoeia for character names, and allusions to fairy tales, classic literature, and pop culture to create memorable stories and characters, as well as vivid imagery.
The novel’s title is the main figurative device, working as a metaphor or metonym for the themes and events in the story. The pronoun “it” simultaneously refers to Pennywise the monster, fear of the unknown, racism, sexism, abuse, and other societal problems people are reluctant to discuss, and finally, to puberty and growing up.
The first chapter immediately establishes how important imagery is to the effectiveness of It. As young George Denbrough plays with the paper boat his brother Bill made, he reflects on Bill’s talent for writing:
Telling was only part of it. Bill was good at seeing.
The ability of Bill and the others in the Losers Club to see Pennywise and to see through its many disguises and images is what will distinguish the children from the adults in Derry and plays a role in their eventual success.
After reflecting on his brother, George continues playing with the boat and runs down the street, toward the storm drain where he will encounter Pennywise and “his strange death.” King employs an extended metaphor with the autumn weather to foreshadow what will happen:
Over [George’s] head, a grim guise of October wind rattled the trees, now almost completely unburdened of the freight of colored leaves by the storm, which had been this year a reaper of the most ruthless sort.
Two metaphors are at work here. The storm is a reaper and the storm is Pennywise in one of its guises. George becomes the first victim of the story. The next cycle of murders begins. King continues to employ weather metaphors throughout the novel, including the giant storm at the novel’s conclusion.
The device of personification appears in a passage describing George’s fear of going down into the cellar in the family home, where ordinary items take on the characteristics of a creature:
Smells of dirt and wet and long-gone vegetables would merge into one unmistakable ineluctable smell, the smell of the monster, the apotheosis of all monsters. It was the smell of something for which he had no name: the smell of It, crouched and lurking and ready to spring.
The passage foreshadows George’s death in the storm drain and the later descent of the Losers into Pennywise’s subterranean lair. Other personifications of the characters’s fears include Pennywise appearing to Eddie Kaspbrak as a leper and to Richie Tozier as an animated Paul Bunyan statue.
The evil of Pennywise also has the power to incite violent events. In his description of the fire at the Black Spot club, librarian Mike Hanlon’s father relates,
That place was like a smelting furnace, it was a hell of flames and smoke, but people came running out in a regular torrent.
The use of simile and then a metaphor, indicate the influence of Pennywise that turns a small town into hell and its residents into tormented victims through acts of racism and violence.
A reader could conclude that King uses figurative devices effectively, as It is the author’s most memorable and controversial novel. It has been adapted into a television miniseries and a film series.