Digging into Metaphors

I’ve been reading The New Life by Tom Crewe, a novel about gender and sexuality and the cultural expectations of domestic life in 1890s London—to put it in a very small and inadequate nutshell. It’s a very good book, one I would very much recommend (content warning: sex scenes).

However, this is not a review of The New Life. I was taken with a metaphor used early in the novel and how it made plain all the things a well-chosen metaphor can do. It’s useful to examine these things whether you’re a writer or a reader.

Here’s the metaphor:

Henry did not speak in meetings—nearly ten years later, it still did not occur to him to do so, even when he was frustrated or inspired and words bubbled on his tongue. He sometimes spoke them at home afterwards, pacing about his sitting room, great rushing sentences sweeping one after the other, his hands dug like trowels into his trouser pockets. [italics mine]

Henry is part of the Society of the New Life, a group that is pushing against outmoded and bigoted constraints on the way people live their lives. They have meetings where presentations are given, and there’s often a lively discussion, but Henry does not take part. Instead, he absorbs the ideas and arguments presented then waits until he gets home to bring them forth, “his hands dug like trowels into his trouser pockets.”

I will tell you, and it’s not a spoiler in any way, that Henry is not a gardener. It’s not that kind of on-the-nose metaphor. I will also answer that little voice that correctly popped up in your brain and asked, “Isn’t that a simile? Because it uses ‘like’?” Sharp eye, reader. Yes, it is a simile, which is a kind of metaphor. A metaphor says one thing is another thing: his hands are trowels. A simile says one thing is like another thing: his hands are like trowels.

Why did this metaphor stick with me so strongly? For a few reasons.

First, it’s very specific. If you’re a kinetic kind of person, you might, as I did, find your hands flatly cupping themselves like trowels. Your fingers would probably remain straight, but your hands would hinge where your fingers join your palms. Your thumbs would tuck against your hands with the pads against the side of your first finger. You might even cup your palms and fingers a bit to make them extra trowel-like. You could imagine this tense shape being jammed into your pockets as you considered something important. You can feel what Henry is feeling here.

Next, think of what this tension in Henry’s hands is signifying to the reader. It’s a pleasant tension, the stress of working out new ideas based on new information that he’s been given at the latest meeting of the society. He’s not making fists of frustration regarding these ideas. He’s not snapping or fidgeting as he paces. He’s not widely gesturing as if to an imaginary audience. He’s not pretending to speak to other members of the society; he could have done that in person if he wanted. His hands are still and stiff, tucked out of the way in his pockets as he paces and arranges his thoughts.

If Henry isn’t a gardener, why the trowel? A trowel is used for digging, and Henry is digging for his thoughts, his reactions, his expansions on the new ideas that he’s heard at the society that evening. He’s working things out for himself. Trowels are commonly used to plant things; I have one etched with depth markers so I can plant at one inch, or three inches, up to six inches, as the plant requires. Henry is digging up his thoughts and planting new ideas that will grow and influence his life, even if he never speaks them aloud at a society meeting.

Finally, even if you don’t read out loud or aren’t listening to the audiobook, consider the sound of the words: trowels in his trousers. The consonance (tr) and assonance (ow) sound nice to one’s inner reading ear. Even though this is prose and not poetry, I’d argue that there’s rhythm and maybe even meter in this phrase too.

Metaphors are not random images snatched out of the air; they fit with the character, the scene, the style, the themes, and the sound of the book. There’s so much packed into fewer than a dozen words chosen carefully. Or, you might say, so much planted and waiting to grow and bloom in the reader’s mind.