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The Glass Castle and The Color of Water are two evocative memoirs whose use of literary devices portrays the stories of troubled childhoods to successful futures. The authors of these works both utilize imagery and similes to add meaning to the text; however, they differ in their use of diction and humor. Jeannette Walls uses concrete diction and a unique way of conveying humor where as James McBride uses abstract diction and conveys humor in a more traditional manor.
The effective utilization of imagery by both McBride and Walls helps to reveal their inspiring life stories. Although McBride and Walls both use imagery, Walls’s imagery is more detail oriented than McBride’s imagery therefore making Walls’s style of diction more concrete than McBride’s abstract style. “That afternoon I was alone in the house, still enjoying the itchy, dry feeling of my-chlorine-scoured skin and the wobbly-bone feeling you get from a lot of exercise, when I heard a knock on the door (Page 193).” This is an example of Walls’s imagery. Her use of such descriptive words leaves little to the imagination of the reader. Another example of how Walls uses imagery is “The main street wide-with sun-bleached cars and pickups parked at an angle to the curb- but only a few blocks long, flanked on both sides by low, flat-roofed buildings made of adobe or brick (Page 51).” Also, “…a dark Spanish dining table with eight matching chairs, a hand-carved upright piano, sideboards with antique silver serving sets, and glass-fronted cabinets filled with Grandma’s bone china… (Page 94)” is another example of how Walls utilizes imagery to convey to the reader a vivid picture. By using such pronounced descriptive words, not only exemplifies her mastery of imagery but also her prolific method of concrete diction. McBride also uses imagery as shown by “It’s what made the river flow, the ocean swell, and the tide rise, but it was a silent power, intractable, indomitable, indisputable, and thus completely ignorable (Page 94).” His imagery is more conceptual in nature. Another example of this is “I envisioned her as the wise sage, sitting in a rocking chair, impassively pouring the moving details of her life into my waiting tape recorder over six weeks, maybe two months, me prodding her along, her cooperating, cringing, inching, mother and son, hand in hand, fighting forward, emotionally wrought, until-behold! (Page 267-268).” Again McBride portrays his imagery in a broader way; the reader gets a picture of the idea, not an exact portrayal of the scene as in Walls’s work. McBride’s utilization of imagery demonstrates his more conceptual style, making his method of diction abstract. Although imagery was a literary device frequently used by both authors, it was not the only one that aided them in creating these worthy memoirs.
Besides the use of imagery, both authors used a great deal of similes to help further explain the meaning of the text. McBride uses numerous similes to enhance the readers understanding of his work. For example, “They were mostly women, bug mamas whom I knew and loved, but when the good Lord climbed into their bones and lifted them up toward Sweet Liberty, kind, gentle women who mussed my hair and kissed me on my cheek and gave me dimes would burst out of their seats like Pittsburgh Steeler linebackers (Page 49).” This exhibits McBride’s excellent use of simile to give the reader a greater understanding of how the women were so enthusiastic about their religion that they would get up out of their seats with the same swiftness that Steelers linebackers would jump off the line of scrimmage. McBride further adds to the readers comprehension by stating “It had gotten to the point where I didn’t see why she made such a secret of it, and the part that wanted to understand who I was began to irk and itch at me, like a pesky mosquito bite that cries out to be scratched (Page 173).” This simile is so relatable to most people, the annoying itch of a mosquito bite, that it makes the reader understand how gnawing the question of race was to James. Walls use of simile, although not as strong as McBride’s, still enhances the text overall meaning. “Ernie Goad was a put-nosed, thick-necked kid who had little eyes set practically on the side of his head, like a whale (Page 165).” This simile gives the reader a great visual of how odd Ernie’s looks were by using a widely known creature such as a whale. When Walls was explaining the attempt by Lori’s mother to create a dress for her, the use of simile gives the reader a relatable image of how poorly it looked on Lori. As the text states, “But I told her I looked like I was wearing a big pillowcase with elephant trunks sticking out of the sides (Page 153).” Both authors saw value in providing similes for the reader. Walls and McBride’s similes add visuals that strengthen the readers understanding of the written word and provide further insight to the writer’s true meaning.
Not only does the use of simile provide a hiatus from the seriousness of both memoirs but also the use of humor helps to lighten the mood of each work. McBride’s humor is traditional as exhibited in “Folks got sick and died back in them days like it was a new dance coming out. Plop! Dead as a doornail (Page 60).” This excerpt from the story uses humor while talking about a dark subject in death. Additionally, McBride uses humor to describe the way his mother sleeps. “A hurricane won’t move her, but the sound of a crying baby or a falling pot will send her to her feet like a soldier at reveille (Page 178).” In The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls uses imagination at times to create a playful mood in a rather serious story. For example, “I got Dad his knife with the carved bone handle and the blade of blue German steel, and he gave me a pipe wrench, and we went looking for Demon. We looked under my bed, where I had seen it, but it was gone. We looked all around the house- under the table, in the dark corners of the closets, in the toolbox, even outside in the trash cans (Page 36).” This excerpt from the memoir refers to when Jeannette and Rex went demon chasing. This quote demonstrates how Walls’s character uses her overactive imagination to construct a funny, light-hearted, and carefree section in an otherwise solemn tale. The use of humor provided the reader quintessential relief from the sobering sagas created by McBride and Walls.
Imagery, diction, simile and humor served as powerful tools for James McBride and Jeannette Walls in the creation of their memoirs. They both used imagery and similes to strengthen the meaning of their works; however, McBride and Walls employed diction and humor in slightly different ways. McBride’s traditional use of humor and abstract use of diction made his novel a vivid account of the issues of race effecting lives during that time period. Walls’s unique use of humor and concrete diction enhanced her depiction of the struggles from her childhood. The Glass Castle and The Color of Water are works that exemplify the tenacity of human kind.
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