illustration of main character Hannah opening a door which leads to a barbed wire fence

The Devil's Arithmetic

by Jane Yolen

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Student Question

What similes are used in Jane Yolen's The Devil's Arithmetic?

Expert Answers

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A simile is “a figure of speech in which two things, essentially different but thought to be alike in one or more respects, are compared using “like,” “as,” “as if,” or “such” for the purpose of explanation, allusion, or ornament” (“enotes Guide to Literary Terms”).  Similes are often used because their descriptions bring a lot of life to a story.  

One example of a simile is Hannah’s description of how she felt after her argument with her mother about the Passover Holiday.  Hannah’s mother did not feel that she was taking the holiday seriously enough.  When her mother told her that the holiday was about remembering, Hannah complained that all Jewish holidays were about remembering. 

Hannah rolled her eyes up and slipped farther down in the seat. Her stomach felt heavy, as if the argument lay there like unleavened bread. (Ch. 1) 

Hannah’s simile emphasizes how bad she feels about this conversation, as she compares her feelings to the heaviness of unleavened bread. Hannah has heard too many times about the impact of World War II’s Holocaust on her family.  It doesn’t really mean anything to her anymore.  She has heard all of her life about Nazis and relatives she never knew, but she is just a kid. 

When Hannah arrives at her grandparents’ house, she sees her grandfather watching a documentary of the Holocaust on television and uses another haunting simile. 

He was sitting in the big overstuffed chair in front of the TV set, waving his fist and screaming at the screen. Across the screen marched old photos of Nazi concentration camp victims, corpses stacked like cordwood, and dead-eyed survivors. (Ch. 1) 

This terrible simile reinforces the graphic nature of the images, and also perhaps the fact that they seem almost unreal, because she compares the bodies to stacked wood. It would be difficult for Hannah to see Grandfather Will shouting at the television as these terrible images flash across the screen, while her grandmother apologizes for him.  Hannah doesn't really understand, and dismisses his actions as "fits."

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