Student Question

Which section in the spring chapter reveals a significant use of diction or style? What literary devices are used?

Quick answer:

The chapter opens with a description of the speaker's feelings about that season. The descriptions are full of language which evokes the color, feel, and sound associated with each season. In "winter," for example, the descriptions focus on coldness, snow, ice and wind. The imagery is often harsh and bleak. In winter "the world seems to be dying," "you hear guns in the fields," your mother tells you it is cold outside but you know she is lying because "the windows were shut so tight you could see your breath." The chapter ends with a description of how one character feels about a particular season. This time we are given more information about that character than just his feelings about the season.

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Morrison is a master of style and figurative language, but in terms of choosing a passage that is "revealing," I think the introductory paragraph to this chapter, wherein the speaker describes her association of spring with "the remembered ache of switchings," is especially poignant and revealing in the context of the novel:

The first twigs are thin, green, and supple. They bend into a complete circle, but will not break. Their delicate, showy hopefulness shooting from forsythia and lilac bushes meant only a change in whipping style. They beat us differently in the spring. Instead of the dull pain of a winter strap, there were these new green switches that lost their sting long after the whipping was over. There was a nervous meanness in these long twigs that made us long for the steady stroke of a strap or the firm but honest slap of a hairbrush. Even now spring for me is shot through with the remembered ache of switchings, and forsythia holds no cheer.

The literary devices in this passage are manifold. Perhaps the most effective use of language here, however, is in the juxtaposition of ideas. The opening sentence appears to be literal, a description of the "green" and "supple" first twigs of spring. The theme of the seasons that lends structure to this novel, however, suggests that both this line and the following sentence also have a figurative meaning: those in the "spring" of their lives may "bend into a complete circle, but will not break." In our spring, then, we are resilient and malleable. The next sentence seems to continue this impression in its description of "showy hopefulness," personifying the twigs; but then the second half of this sentence offers a jolt: this "meant only a change in whipping style." What has appeared to be a symbol of youth and regeneration has a second, rather sinister connotation for the speaker. The "showy hopefulness" of both reader and speaker has been dashed by the bathetic conclusion to the sentence.

The "nervous meanness" of the long twigs is contrasted unfavorably to the "steady stroke of a strap" or the "honest slap of a hairbrush." It is as if the unknown quality in spring and spring's branches leads to a sense of uncertainty in the sort of pain it delivers, something we may understand both literally and figuratively. Meanwhile, the undefined articles in the sentence "they beat us differently in the spring"—who are "they?"—adds to the general "nervous" sense of the passage, echoing the speaker's own feelings of anxiety connected to spring. In the concluding line of this passage, the speaker defines the season as "shot through" (an interesting use of language that suggests the shoots that emerge in spring) with "the remembered ache of switchings." What should have been a beautiful symbol of youth and regeneration has become associated, for the speaker, with punishment.

  1. How does this passage relate to the wider context of the book?

  2. What do you think Morrison means by the phrase "they beat us differently in spring?"

  3. Having read the "Winter" chapter, do you think the speaker remembers Spring more unfavorably than Winter? Or does she remember each unfavorably in different ways?

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Select a short section from the winter chapter that identifies a particular incident of diction or style that is particularly revealing. Identify and analyze the author’s use of literacy devices. List three questions about the short passage.

The passage that most stands out for me in this chapter is this one, in which the author describes her father's face as "a study" and then proceeds to describe that study in a piece of writing dense with figurative language and allusion:

My daddy’s face is a study. Winter moves into it and presides there. His eyes become a cliff of snow threatening to avalanche; his eyebrows bend like black limbs of leafless trees. His skin takes on the pale, cheerless yellow of winter sun; for a jaw he has the edges of a snowbound field dotted with stubble; his high forehead is the frozen sweep of the Erie, hiding currents of gelid thoughts that eddy in darkness. Wolf killer turned hawk fighter, he worked night and day to keep one from the door and the other from under the windowsills. A Vulcan guarding the flames, he gives us instructions about which doors to keep closed or opened for proper distribution of heat, lays kindling by, discusses qualities of coal, and teaches us how to rake, feed, and bank the fire. And he will not unrazor his lips until spring.

The literary devices in this passage are many. Winter, which is personified, "presides" over the father's face, suggesting that it has taken up residence there. Accordingly, the various features of his face metaphorically "become," various elements connected to winter; his eyes become "a cliff of snow threatening to avalanche," and his eyebrows become "like black limbs of leafless trees" (a simile). The author uses enumeratio, the listing of multiple elements, to emphasize how fully winter has come to "preside" over her father's face, with language like "pale," "cheerless," "frozen" and "darkness" creating a semantic field of barren wintriness and giving the impression of the father as a stoic and rather cold man; even his thoughts are "gelid." We also see an extended metaphor in the fact that these thoughts are "currents" that "eddy" through his head, as if they were the frozen Erie.

It is interesting that the use of allusion in this passage juxtaposes the wintry language with the image of "Vulcan guarding the flames." While imbued with the qualities of winter, the father is also attributed the characteristics of the Greek god of fire, volcanoes, and blacksmithing. He is stoic in his own way, but he is also presented here as a guardian. This suggests a certain duality in the father—or at least that he is not entirely cold as his face might imply. He "gives . . . instructions," but he "will not unrazor his lips until spring," a final metaphor which leaves us to ponder on how winter affects this man and why it "presides" in his face for the duration of the season.

Here are some questions one could have about the passage:

  1. Why do you think the father will not "unrazor his lips until spring"? What does this suggest about his preoccupations?

  2. How do you think the author feels about her father—is this a fond portrait?

  3. Why do you think the author chooses to describe her father's face in such detail?

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Select a short section from the summer chapter that identifies a particular incident of diction or style that is particularly revealing. Identify and analyze the author’s use of literacy devices. List three questions about the short passage.

This chapter marks the final section of Morrison's novel, and, like most of the other chapters, it begins with an evocative presentation of summer and what this season means to the speaker, as well as how this meaning is altered by the speaker's family life and family history. This opening passage, then, is a valuable section for analysis in that it is rich with evocative imagery and figurative language which offer revelations to the reader about the speaker's relationship with summer and with her mother.

I have only to break into the tightness of a strawberry, and I see summer—its dust and lowering skies. It remains for me a season of storms. The parched days and sticky nights are undistinguished in my mind, but the storms, the violent sudden storms, both frightened and quenched me. But my memory is uncertain; I recall a summer storm in the town where we lived and imagine a summer my mother knew in 1929. There was a tornado that year, she said, that blew away half of south Lorain. I mix up her summer with my own. Biting the strawberry, thinking of storms, I see her. A slim young girl in a pink crepe dress. One hand is on her hip; the other lolls about her thigh— waiting. The wind swoops her up, high above the houses, but she is still standing, hand on hip. Smiling. The anticipation and promise in her lolling hand are not altered by the holocaust. In the summer tornado of 1929, my mother’s hand is unextinguished. She is strong, smiling, and relaxed while the world falls down about her. So much for memory. Public fact becomes private reality, and the seasons of a Midwestern town become the Moirai of our small lives.

The imagery of the "tightness of a strawberry" in the first phrase is very sensual: the reader can almost imagine how teeth would "break into" it, and yet this image is juxtaposed against a seemingly unexpected one of summer as a season of "dust and lowering skies." One would ordinarily associate strawberries with sunshine and open fields, but the speaker's immediate conception of summer as "a season of storms" offers a revelation into the speaker's frame of mind. This is particularly true because the third element in the speaker's mental understanding of summer is her mother: "Biting the strawberry, thinking of storms, I see her." The three elements are connected in the speaker's mind, and the speaker seems to mentally associate herself with her mother's "storms": "I mix up her summer with my own." We can read this information in combination with the comment that "the violent sudden storms both frightened and quenched me," and contemplate the metaphorical meaning of the storms that may be suggested in terms of the speaker's mother and their relationship. The storms seem a break from "parched days and sticky nights," something to "distinguish" them, and the speaker remembers them clearly as a source of both relief and fear.

As the passage goes on, it becomes clearer that the storms are metaphorical as well as literal. In the speaker's mind, her mother, "a slim young girl," "waiting," is cast away on the storm, swept up by it: "the wind swoops her up," and she is "not altered by the holocaust." This image offers us an illuminating insight into why the association between storms and the speaker's mother is a positive one: when a storm appears, her mother remains "strong, smiling and relaxed while the world falls down around her." The speaker acknowledges that this may not be the reality of the situation—"so much for memory"—but the metaphor of the young girl in the storm is a metaphor of how she remembers her mother, her "pink crepe dress" recalling the pink of strawberries, "strong" in the face of a tornado. The allusion in the final sentence of the passage, to the Moirai, or the Greek fates, expresses the idea that ultimately the speaker feels that their "small lives" have been controlled by the turn of the seasons—the weather of their lives, both literal and metaphorical.

Some questions about this passage:

  1. Why do you think the speaker chooses to focus upon her mother in the "summer" chapter in contrast to the focus upon her father in the "winter" chapter?

  2. Why might the speaker draw a parallel between a storm in her own memory and one particular tornado of 1929? What does this suggest about the nature of memory?

  3. All of Morrison's chapters open with descriptions of how she feels in relation to each season. What is the effect of this on the work as a whole?

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