Posts Tagged ‘metaphors’

The Steaming Complaint of the Resting Beast

March 11, 2012

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The Steaming Complaint of the Resting Beast


The anthropomorphic train in Nadine Gordimer’s “The Train from Rhodesia” is not a single, neat, easily-envisioned metaphor
. But by utilizing contradictory symbols and images, Gordimer gives birth to a beast like none that ever lived, a creature which embodies human frailties and longings through the collision of beastly, anthropomorphic, and inanimate qualities.

Gordimer’s beast has many human attributes: It is ambulatory, vocal, sighted, blind, lonely, animated, rebellious, respiratory, contentious, melancholy and tragic. Ironically, the totality of these images forge a humanity which by far surpasses that of all but one of the white characters in the story.

Despite its numerous human qualities, Gordimer’s train can also be viewed as a beast of burden. The image of its “blind end pulled helplessly” would be familiar to any farmer who has led an oxen and plough. Also typical of a beast of burden, the train is not a silent, complacent victim. It “grunts”, “jerks” and brays out “the steaming complaint of the resting beast”. As the metaphor becomes less coherent, the train transforms into something at once animal, mechanical, and human.

Both men and beasts cry out when they feel pain, but only humans are capable of comprehending their fate. A train’s whistle is an eerie sound evocative of a howling wolf. And like our Hunting Fathers, the wolf is a carnivore which lives and hunts in small packs. So it is natural for people to associate the wolf’s cry with feelings of existential angst. But whatever the howling wolf may be feeling, its howl is not an existential lament because a wolf is not cognizant of its own mortality. When the train calls out “I’m coming” Gordimer’s metaphor is expanding into something exceeding the images of a train, a beast, or a person.

The train cries out “and again there was no answer” because its whistle echoes the inherent loneliness of self awareness. Just as humans have been calling out to the cosmos through prayers and radio antennae for millennia, the train’s cry is a prayer. Thus the man-made device mocks our craving for an omnipotent creator.

Like the trajectory of a human life, Gordimer’s train travels in one direction “over the single straight track” of time.” And the manner in which human existence is connected to an inescapable fate is captured by the complexity of the metaphor.

Ultimately, we must accept the messiness of the metaphor in order to appreciate its multiple meanings.

Richard W. Bray