What does Emerson compare to planting corn, an iron string, a joint-stock company, and a shadow in "Self-Reliance"?

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"Planting corn" is a metaphor (a comparison that does not use the words "like" or "as") for making the most of one's own abilities so that one bears a good harvest (i.e., so that they do good in the world). The metaphor implies that our minds, souls, and bodies are our own "plot of land" and that it is up to us to do the work of cultivating them. This is harder work than simply feeding on the "corn" others have planted. This means that young people have to look inward and do the labor of finding their own path rather than simply doing what their society tells them. This might take longer and be more difficult than eating other people's "corn," but it is the best path to a fulfilling life.

"Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string," Emerson writes. The "iron string" is a metaphor for trusting one's own instincts and intuitions in finding a path through life. Intuition is an exceptionally strong guide. It also makes the heart vibrate or sing, just as the strings of a violin or piano make music.

Emerson compares society to a "join-stock company," where the members surrender their personal liberty in order to get more "bread" (money, material goods) for everyone in the company. Emerson states that this is the opposite of self-reliance and is the lesser good: "Self-reliance is its aversion."

Emerson uses the metaphor of the shadow on the wall to describe "foolish consistency." The shadow on the wall is a reference to Plato, who described human beings watching shadows on the wall rather than seeing the true forms of the things themselves. Trying to be consistent gets you nowhere, just as watching shadows on the walls gets you nowhere: don't be afraid to change your mind, speak your truth, and be misunderstood.

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Emerson’s essay argues that understanding and articulating what one knows to be true in his or her heart, regardless of what others might think, is the key to living a fulfilling life and indeed is the basis for all “greatness” (he mentions Socrates, Jesus, Luther, and Newton, among others, as examples of the truly self-reliant). The four figures of speech you mention are used by Emerson to develop this idea:

  • The corn planting metaphor (“though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till”) suggests that it is through making the most of ones own talents and opportunities that one is able to “nourish” one's life—that is, grow as a person.
  • Emerson’s description of self-trust as an “iron string” (“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string”) suggests both a kind of music (the vibrating string) and a determination to “accept the place the divine providence has found for you.”
  • His description of society as a “joint stock company” is meant to be derisive. Emerson sees “society” as the enemy of the individual: “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.”
  • Emerson compares consistency of thought to “a shadow on the wall.” He says, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall.” His point is that it does not matter whether one’s thinking is consistent over time;what counts is to be always in tune with what you know to be true, regardless of whether that might seem contradictory to others.
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A discourse on individualism, Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self-Reliance" extols the creativity of individual thought as well as its importance in society while stressing the need for resistance to conformity.

In his essay, the Transcendentalist Emerson employs metaphors in order to develop his arguments for the value of individual thought that must resist compliance with society: 

  • Planting Corn

In the second paragraph, Emerson argues for individualism. He states that there is a time in every man's life when he realizes that "imitation is suicide" and he must think for himself. By doing so, he nourishes his mind, developing critical thought, and generating new ideas. 

...no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given him to till.

Every man must think for himself if he would develop his own mind. The "kernel" is an idea.

  • Iron String

In the third paragraph, Emerson urges, "Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string." The iron string is a metaphor for the faith which a person places in himself. What is most trustworthy--"the iron string"--is a man's belief in his own convictions. It is this "stirring at their heart" that the Eternal causes; it is "a transcendent destiny" which makes men great. 

  • Joint-Stock Company

In the sixth paragraph, Emerson uses the metaphor of a "joint-stock company" to disparage society as he explains that it is in "conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members." (A joint-stock company is a business enterprise whose stock investors surrender potential individual profit to cover liability for company debts.) This "joint-stock company" has members who agree to surrender their individual liberties in order to protect themselves, their positions in society, and their customs through conformity.

  • Shadow on a Wall

In the fourteenth paragraph, Emerson states that the conformist has nothing to do because his thoughts are dictated to him. He may as well concern himself "with his shadow on a wall" since he thoughts are reflections of others' thoughts and not his, just as his shadow is not himself.

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In "Self-Reliance," decribe what Emerson compares to these things and events: planting corn, an iron string, a joint-stock company, a shadow on a wall.

A careful analysis of this excellent essay will help you to discover the answers to your question. It is important to realise that he uses imagery in part to convey the force of his message and to also show where his feelings lie. Consider the way in which the "shadow on the wall," for example, is used to cast a negative light on consistency, which it is used to represent:

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall.

Such an image speaks of inane contemplation, boredom and monotony, clearly presenting consistency in a negative light, which is of course Emerson's key belief.

Looking at the use of these phrases in context will therefore help you establish how Emerson uses them symbolically. We can see therefore that planting corn is representative of doing good deeds, the iron string is an image used to suggest the importance of trusting oneself, and the joint-stock company is a powerful image of society and of its various ills.

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