Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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Literary techniques and imagery in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "How It Happened."


In "How It Happened," Sir Arthur Conan Doyle employs vivid imagery and suspenseful pacing to create a gripping narrative. Descriptive language vividly portrays the car crash scene, while the first-person perspective immerses readers in the protagonist's experience. The use of foreshadowing and tension builds anticipation, enhancing the story's dramatic impact.

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What imagery is used in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "How it Happened"?

Imagery is description using any of the five senses of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Some examples of imagery in the story include the following:

I remember so well walking down the platform and looking at the illuminated clock at the end which told me that it was half-past eleven.

This line includes several images: we can picture the narrator walking down the train platform, we can picture the lit-up clock at the end of the platform, and we can visualize the hands of the clock showing 11:30. We can imagine this as part of a scene in a movie we are watching.

Doyle's narrator includes several paragraphs of imagery to describe the brakes of his car failing on a road with steep hills and three sharp curves. An example of touch or tactile imagery in this passage is the following:

I put all my weight on my side-brake, and the lever clanged to its full limit without a catch.

In other words, he pressed down on the brake with all his might, but it failed to slow the car.

Sight or visual imagery about the failed brakes puts us in the scene with the narrator, as if we are watching him in a movie:

By this time we were fairly tearing down the slope. The lights were brilliant, and I brought her round the first curve all right. Then we did the second one, though it was a close shave for the ditch.

A bit later in this story, the narrator uses sound imagery, so we can hear the noises as the car continues its race down the slope toward the gates of his large estate:

The wheels were whirring like a high wind and the big body creaking and groaning with the strain.

More imagery occurs as the car crashes:

going at fifty miles an hour, my right front wheel struck full on the right-hand pillar of my own gate. I heard the crash.

We can visualize the car smashing into the pillar and then hear the sound of the crash.

The use of imagery puts on the side of the narrator, as if we are with him, and helps us feel the emotion and suspense as the car goes out of control.

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What imagery is used in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "How it Happened"?

Imagery is the description of sensory information, and so there are five basic kinds: visual (describing something we might see), auditory (describing something we can hear), olfactory (describing something we could smell), gustatory (describing something we might taste), or tactile (describing something we could feel with our sense of touch). When the narrator describes the "big motor, with its glaring head-lights and glitter of polished brass," a visual image is created because we can imagine what this might look like in our heads. When the narrator describes how the "footbrake snap[ped]" and the "lever clanged," the narrator employs both tactile and auditory imagery respectively. When the speaker refers to the "cold sweat" that breaks out on the speaker's skin, another tactile image is created. Another auditory image is created when the narrator describes how the "The wheels were whirring like a high wind and the big body creaking and groaning with the strain." Then, the car crashes with a colossal "smash," and the speaker learns that he is dead.

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What imagery is used in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "How it Happened"?

There are several types of images in the story, including figurative language and sensory details.

Imagery refers to figurative or descriptive language that creates an image in the reader’s mind.  For example, when the narrator says that his memory of events is like “broken dreams” it is a simile, which is a comparison between two things (memories, and dreams).  It’s not literal, because it’s not actually a dream, and a dream cannot really break.

Imagery is also vivid description in sensory detail.  Sensory detail uses the five senses to describe something.  Look at the narrator’s description of his memory.

I remember also my wondering whether I could get home before midnight. Then I remember the big motor, with its glaring head-lights and glitter of polished brass, waiting for me outside. It was my new thirty-horse-power Robur, which had only been delivered that day.

He describes the lights, and the polish, and uses words like “glaring” and “glitter” so you can really picture what he is talking about.

Another type of imagery is called an idiom.  An idiom is where a person uses a figure of speech that is common phrasing.  The narrator says when his car is going fast that he was “fairly tearing down the slope” and it was “a close shave” for the ditch.  These are idioms, because most people will know what they mean.  He was going too fast, and almost went in the ditch.  Of course this is foreshadowing too.

The narrator then describes his car with a smile.

The wheels were whirring like a high wind and the big body creaking and groaning with the strain.

This means that the car is making so much noise that it sounds like it was in a storm!  It is a simile because it is a comparison using the word “like,” so it is an indirect comparison.  A simile says that something is like something else, and usually uses “like” or “as.”

He also uses a metaphor.

I remember thinking what an awful and yet majestic sight we should appear to any one who met us. It was a narrow road, and we were just a great, roaring, golden death to any one who came in our path.

This is a metaphor because it does not use “like,” but instead says that they were death.  A metaphor says that one thing is something else.  It is a direct comparison.

Of course, perhaps the best part of the story is the irony at the end, when the narrator sees his friend Stanley and realizes he is dead, and Stanley tells him he is too.  The reader then understands the comment about the medium at the beginning of the story, and realizes the story was written by a ghost!

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What literary devices are used in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "How It Happened"?

Somewhere in his novel Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov quotes a little rhyming maxim for writers as follows:

The "I" in the story

Cannot die in the story.

In other words, if a story is being told in the first-person singular, the reader will naturally assume that the narrator is still alive at the end, regardless of the hazardous nature of the incident being described. But in "How It Happened" the story of the wild ride in the runaway automobile is being narrated by a man who is already dead.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle manages to achieve this effect by two means. First he introduces the story with a very brief and not very informative single line reading, "She was a writing medium. This is what she wrote:--" Then he immediately launches into the first-person narrative about the wild ride down the steep, winding hill. The reader is sure to forget about the writing medium and the fact that this woman, who is never named or described, is taking dictation from a ghost. This enables Doyle to achieve a surprise ending when the driver of the smashed-up car meets an old friend and suddenly realizes that this man has been dead for years.

"Stanley!" I cried, and the words seemed to choke my throat--"Stanley, you are dead."

He looked at me with the same old gentle, wistful smile.

"So are you," he answered.

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