Out of the Dust

by Karen Hesse

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How do figurative language and imagery portray Billie Jo's love for the piano in Out of the Dust?

Quick answer:

The figurative language and imagery that Billie Jo uses to describe the piano, which is a source of grief for her following her mother's death, develop the theme of Billie Jo's love of the instrument.

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After Billie Jo's mother suffers horrific burns in an accident, the piano makes its way into Billie Jo's dreams:

I cleaned off the keys
but when I played,
a tortured sound came from the piano,
like someone shrieking.

The piano, which has always been a source of joy for their...

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family, is now equated with the pain of the fire. This passage usespersonification to describe how the piano in Billie Jo's dream sounds "tortured"; since Billie Jo's mother loved the piano and now lies in agony, the personification is a reminder of that anguish. The passage also uses a simile to compare the sounds of a piano to "someone shrieking," a point of auditory imagery used to convey her mother's intense pain when kerosene splashed on her and she caught on fire.

Billie Jo suffers burns in this accident that also ultimately takes the life of her mother and unborn brother; her hands are particularly affected. Playing piano therefore becomes difficult, as her skin and joints are tight and painful. She feels torn between the physical pain she endures when her fingers play the piano and the sense of honoring her mother's memory because of her love of the instrument:

I don't say
it hurts like the parched earth with each note.
I don't say,
one chord and
my hands scream with pain for days.
I don't show him
the swelling
or my tears.
I tell him, "I'll try."
At home, I sit at
Ma's piano,
I don't touch the keys.

Billie Joe uses a simile to compare her aching hands to the "parched earth" with each painful note. She uses personification to explain how her hands "scream" with pain for days after she plays. And still, she sits reverently at Ma's piano at home, unable to touch the keys following her loss.

After the dust storm, Billie Jo comments that the piano is "buried in dust." While it is literally buried in the dust of the storm, a point of visual imagery, this is also an extended metaphor that demonstrates how the beauty of the music that Billie Jo's mother played has seemingly been buried with her. Since Billie Jo has just commented on the grave of her mother outside, this metaphor is especially poignant.

When an abandoned baby is found at the church, Billie Jo asks her father if they can adopt him; he asserts that this is an impossible outcome because they have nothing to offer a baby. He then asks Billie Jo to take the clothes that her mother had made for Franklin to donate to this little one. Billie Jo is again pulled to the piano:

I sat at her piano a long time after I
got back from the church,
a song for my little brother,
buried in Ma's arms on a knell overlooking the
banks of the Beaver.

The piano is her mother's piano, and Billie Jo feels particularly connected to her mother while she is sitting there. The imagery of Billie Jo sitting there reminiscing about her losses is a moving portrait.

Billie Jo's association of her mother with the piano is particularly clear in the "The Dream" from the summer of 1935:

Piano, my silent
I can touch you,
you are cool
and smooth
and willing
to stay with me
stay with me
talk to me.
you accept
the cover to your keys
and still
you make room
for all that I
place there.

This entry demonstrates irony; after all, a piano's purpose is not to remain "silent." And in that irony, Billie Jo begins to realize the legacy of her mother and a path toward her own healing. This is also an example of literary apostrophe, which is when a person speaks to a person or object that is absent or cannot respond. Billie Jo addresses the piano as though it is listening, which allows her to convey a great deal about the way the piano helps her cope with her profound loss.

I hope these examples give you a starting point as you continue to examine the way literary devices convey Billie Jo's love of the piano, particularly through the instrument's association to her mother.

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