Metaphor, as everyone learns in elementary school, is the comparison of two unlike things, usually for the purpose of providing a new way to look at one, or maybe even both, of the things. To go a little beyond elementary school, the two “things” are technically called the tenor and the vehicle, the tenor being the main subject and the vehicle being the thing the comparison is drawn from. (For example, in Shakespeare’s “Juliet is the sun,” Juliet is the tenor, and the sun is the vehicle.)
The careful use of metaphor in writing can offer freshness and vitality to language. Using an extended metaphor can artfully lead readers to draw myriad comparisons between two subjects, without requiring the writer to draw the connections explicitly.
A striking use of extended, embedded metaphor occurs in Michael Oppenheimer’s “Exposure,” which examines the relationship between the young Michael and his father, Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who headed the Manhattan Project. The younger Oppenheimer does not openly discuss his father’s involvement with the creation of the atom bomb; instead, he focuses on a childhood incident, which taken alone is a subtle portrayal of a father-son relationship but when juxtaposed against Oppenheimer’s professional accomplishments leads to a provocative reading of the man.
The only mention of the nuclear threat comes as prelude to the main scene of the essay. The author describes walking home, recalling a school lesson in which he was instructed to crawl into a culvert should America come under nuclear attack. “Do you think we’ll be bombed?” Michael asks his sister. “No, but maybe in Korea,” she responds.
Upon arriving home, the children are met by Robert Oppenheimer, who asks if they would like to help him butcher a steer. Michael agrees. His description of the event is meticulous, giving particular attention to his father’s actions:
While he loaded the rifle, my dad told me, as he had the last time we butchered, about drawing two imaginary lines from the steer’s ears to his eyes and then shooting the steer where the lines crossed. He said, “That’s where the most critical part of the brain is, and they’re killed instantly without knowing what hit them.” The steer was looking at us, and I was glad he didn’t know what was about to happen.
Michael’s father takes aim and fires, but he has loaded the gun with the wrong ammunition and only wounds the steer’s face. He leaves Michael in the pen with the anxious beast while he goes to find the proper ammunition. The story continues:
Finally my dad returned, and he took the rifle from me and put one shell in, raised the rifle to his shoulder, aimed, turning as the steer trotted, and then yelled loudly, “Hey!” The steer stopped running, and we stood there waiting. Then the steer slowly turned his head toward us. His nose was inches from the dirt. His white face was splashed all over with blood, and he looked like he knew what was about to happen.
Michael Oppenheimer never explicitly comments on his relationship with his father, nor does he expressly compare the humane death his father intends to give the steer to the intended effect of an atomic blast. The juxtaposition of the two scenes along with the knowledge of the father’s identity, however, is more than sufficient to create a chain of comparisons. The unfortunate steer is like the victims of nuclear devastation in that it dies more horribly than the killer intended. The steer is also like all people who know the psychic distress of living in the nuclear age: It, like humans, bears the immeasurable burden of knowledge. The son’s discovery that his father is fallible is like the nation’s discovery that its scientists and statesmen are fallible, that even though the nation possesses the ultimate weapon, its people are more vulnerable than ever before.
All of these connections are driven by the dual identity of Robert Oppenheimer; the genius physicist, mastermind of the Manhattan Project, is also a rural farmer butchering his livestock. His shortcomings necessarily infiltrate both facets of his character. An error in his procedure for killing a steer, both his misloading of the gun and his lack of insight into the experience of the steer, bespeaks fallibility and ignorance that extend to his participation in the Manhattan Project.
In fiction, the full effect of metaphor can sometimes be undercut by the context-driven assumption that “it’s just a story”: A metaphor is clearly an author’s construction, inserted to subtly manipulate readers. Of course, the use of metaphor is no less a writerly conceit in creative nonfiction, but because the comparison is based in fact, it can carry more weight. Careful recording and thoughtful reflection can capture such real-life identities and metaphors. In cultivating an awareness for them, the creative nonfiction writer claims for herself an immensely powerful tool.