abstract illustration of a person standing with a large nautilus superimposed upon its body

The Chambered Nautilus

by Oliver Wendell Holmes

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What is the extended metaphor "stately mansions" in "The Chambered Nautilus"?

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Holmes urges himself and his readers to look deep within their souls to create enduring monuments to God's greatness. Such monuments don't literally have to be stately mansions; they could be works of art such as poems, for example. What matters is that the individual build something strong and enduring, worthy of the God-given talents with which he or she has been endowed by the Almighty.

Holmes goes on to urge that we must move on from the "low-vaulted past." His use of an architectural metaphor here maintains the theme of building something new and grand in one's soul, not just as an act of praise to God but as a preparation for death. For even each "new temple, nobler than the last" must one day be left behind—just as the chambered nautilus withdraws into the outermost compartment of its shell—as we ascend to heaven, there to experience complete freedom and repose.

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Holmes seems to be referring here to 'the work ethic' which will eventually lead to the hardest most virtuous workers getting on in life and improving their social situation. This has relevance to a pioneering American society where the just rewards of the hard work of a self made man are represented in wealth and a comfortable life. The 'stately mansions' oddly seems to represent not only the value of learning, of education for its own sake, but also the getting of wisdom and integrity and prosperity. The phrase is reminiscent of 'in my father's house there are many mansions' from the New Testament. We should leave lowly earthly pursuits behind in favour of more heavenly aspirations as if we are casting off a mortal coil or shell. The nautilus keeps shedding the things it has grown out of. Sadly this seems also to refer to relationships! which are only kept on so the individual can look down on people - or back at how the superior 'he' has come.

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