"Jack the Ripper" — Identity Conjecture Involving Literature Analysis

By: Shane Lambert

Students of the unsolved Whitechapel murders in London in 1888, murders that are commonly attributed to an unknown assailant named Jack the Ripper, will recognize the name Charles Lechmere. Now long dead, he was an individual who lived in the area of the murders at the time when the murders were committed. This he has in common with some thousands of people.

But he is considered a leading suspect in the murders by many in modern times because of circumstances that he does not have in common with any of his fellow Londoners. Lechmere’s incontrovertible connection to the Jack the Ripper mystery is that he was seen hovering over the body of one of the recently-murdered victims. This much has been ascertained about him.

Charles Lechmere. This photo was uncovered by Christer Holmgrem but the photographer is unknown.

Whether he was hovering over the body to have a look at it as an innocent passerby or whether he was admiring his work after killing the victim has been debated in modern times. In fact, Lechmere’s culpability in the Jack the Ripper murders was the subject of a documentary not too many years ago, a documentary that’s still on Youtube as of December 3rd, 2019. The documentary prominently features Swedish journalist Christer Holmgrem making his case that Lechmere was the infamous serial killer. The documentary was titled “Jack the Ripper – The Missing Evidence” (directors: Martin Pupp, Sam Taplin).

This link exits to IMDB’s page for the show.

Public domain photo. Mary Ann Nichols was found dead near this location, known as Buck’s Row.

Lechmere, back in 1888, was associated with the murder of Mary Ann Nichols, otherwise known as Polly Nichols. Lechmere’s own words on his relationship to her death is that he found the body. Certainly, this could be an on-the-spot lie and whether or not this is true is central to the Lechmere debate. It could be that Lechmere did find the body and then decided to hover over it. But it could also be that he didn’t really discover the dead body but created it himself, meaning he would be Jack the Ripper.

On this matter, one thing I will state is that if you discover a dead body in contemporary times, you’ll often need to be cleared of killing the person. This is something I’ve gleaned from reading literally hundreds of missing person’s reports and the affiliated articles over the years (I am an “Active Member” of websleuths.com and I have my own missing person’s blog). If the same kind of circumstances occurred in modern times then modern police would be very interested in Lechmere — this is something I am very confident in.

I don’t remember the documentary on Lechmere making this exact point, that modern police would be very interested in Lechmere because he discovered the body. However, “Jack the Ripper – The Missing Evidence” makes the following points:

  • Lechmere was seen hovering over a the dead body of a person that Jack the Ripper killed;
  • Lechmere gave a misleading name to police when he had to confront them;
  • His path to work would have brought him near many of the murders;
  • Other murders not on Lechmere’s route to work were located near the homes of his family members (and may have been committed on his days off);
  • There were logical holes in his story regarding the timing of finding the body;
  • Lechmere had a troubled upbringing like many serial killers.
A hot-air balloon.

None of the above individual points are all that enthralling. But so many Ripper suspects have ‘evidence’ against them that is complete hot air when looked at critically. The case against Lechmere is not full of hot air at all. It is conjecture but the conjecture is reasonable and intriguing.

For me, the elephant in the room with Lechmere is that he was seen hovering over the dead body of a known Ripper victim that was dead for a very short time. That’s more than just eyebrow raising, it does, in my opinion, make Lechmere the leading suspect. While we are only talking about an individual murder, once you figure out who committed one Ripper murder then you do figure out who committed them all.

Lechmere’s Short story connection

Chuck Lechmere? Or is it Charley Lechmere? Oh wait…that’s the late, maybe not-so-great, Charles Lechmere, otherwise known as a Jack The Ripper suspect.

At this point, I will remind you that this isn’t an unsolved mysteries website. It’s one that publishes short stories and offers commentary about historical ones. For the balance of this article, I’m going to look at a short work of fiction that just might pertain to Jack the Ripper, a short story that was written in the first person.

Back in February of 2018, I decided to plug Lechmere’s name into a historical newspaper database that I have a membership for (newspapers.com). I searched for “Charles Lechmere” to see how his name showed up in reporting from the 1880’s or just in general. 

My searches for Lechmere’s name were actually quite disappointing until I came across a short story with a protagonist named “Charley Lechmere.” “Charley,” as a variant of Charles, had largely evaded my keyword searching but I did find it at last, mainly because of another user’s tag.

What I’ve wondered is if the short story was written by someone who knew or suspected that Charles Lechmere committed the White Chapel Murders. Perhaps this writer, for fear of blow-back, chose to reveal his suspicions in an opaque way. Literature does allow you to imply things because, quite frankly, literature doesn’t have to be true.

Certainly, literature is full of indirect references as the events or characters that authors describe are so often metaphors for something else. The Big Bad Wolf, for example, is more like a pedophile lurking in the forest looking for a virgin to rape rather than an actual wolf. The story describes the dangers of the society it was written in but without the author explicitly treading onto topics that might cause him blow-back. Using metaphor, fiction writers can actually cloak what they are talking about while still talking about it.

Somewhat along these lines, I will argue that the short story I read, called “The Story of a Perversion,” represents the point of view of a man who feels a rage towards prostitutes. I believe this interpretation to be correct independent of any connection to Charles Lechmere or the Whitechapel murders of prostitutes in the summer/fall of 1888.

As far as the connection goes, readers should not expect a deductive and conclusive naming of Jack The Ripper in this publication: this is a site that analyzes and publishes short stories — and that’s not going to yield a smoking gun or bloody knife that can be tied to someone’s 130-year old DNA. I make no apologies for not being able to prove what I think, however, I do feel as though my analysis of “The Story of a Perversion” should be a part of Ripperology.

From June 15th, 1894’s The Westminster Budget

The story appears below and it is from Page 14 of June 15th, 1894’s The Westminster Budget, a publication from the Greater London Area. The readers of this article must read the short story before reading further. I uploaded it in five parts so that the font size made the words legible.

Fri, Jun 15, 1894 – Page 14 · The Westminster Budget (London, Greater London, England) · Newspapers.com. No author mentioned.

Analysis of the story

Firstly, let’s look at the title: “The Story of a Perversion.” Perversion, with a Google search, is defined as “the alteration of something from its original course… of what was first intended.” So then the question then is what course is changed in this story? I will argue that the protagonist’s intentions towards women, or at least a singular woman, has altered in this work of short fiction.

The story tells of a man named Charley Lechmere. He is a man who is travelling within England when he meets a woman in a hotel, a woman that he finds agreeable. He wonders if his current trip might be a life-changing one because of this meeting: “Why,” the narrator asks, “should not my visit to Beachside begin a new era in my life? Who was this handsome girl?” 

With those statements, we see that the first intended course that Lechmere had for this woman was to fall for her charms and pursue a romantic relationship with her. However, the narrator then begins to reference something that he hates: advertisements. While enjoying the romantic atmosphere of the evening, the moon lights an advertisement outside and it bothers him while, conversely, the advertisement delights the woman. 

When this story is taken literally, then it’s one many of us might relate to. Advertisements might be something that a lot of us hate.

Do you want a billboard in front of this?

Who among us hasn’t felt that a cluster of billboards simply blocked some scenery and that it would be better if the billboards came down because of that? Who among us has not been annoyed by a television program that was loaded with just a few too many commercials?

In “The Story of a Perversion” the advertisements, which are for horseradish, are a major point of contention between Charley Lechmere and the woman. His hatred for the advertisements is such that he claims to have lobbied against them in a political forum. Meanwhile, the woman, who is named Hilda Horribell (sounds like “Hilda Horrible”) not only admires the advertisements but, in fact, she is actually the beneficiary of them. Her father owns the horseradish company whose product is featured. 

If you are sticking with a literal interpretation, then the short story has a twist ending. The man’s perversion is that he started with wanting to marry Hilda but then learned something about her he didn’t like. The title leads us to conclude that its his feelings for the woman that have changed route or become perverted.

The story could also be analyzed from another perspective, one that I will review quickly starting with a simple statement: newspapers sell ads. Accordingly, from a business perspective, it would be in The Westminster Budget’s interests to publish something that critiques the emergence of competing forms of advertisements.

Things like billboards and advertisements on the sides of buildings can certainly be viewed as an eye sore to many. But from a newspaper’s point of view, they are also a threat. Newspapers want those that would like to purchase advertising to use the columns along their articles — not public spaces. From this point of view, the publication of “The Story of a Perversion” is a tacit attack against non-print advertising.

However, a metaphorical interpretation could see advertising as a metaphor for prostitution. Before scoffing at that and dismissing it as an arbitrary connection, consider the following points.

We’ve all heard the saying “Sex sells” and certainly there are prostitutes on streets that try to be eye catching, just as advertisements are. This commonality between how prostitutes have to operate and how advertisements have to operate is significant in my opinion. Both prostitutes and advertisements need to stand out on the street in order to be effective.

Furthermore, both the hotel and the night-time setting do hint at prostitution in some ways to me. Prostitutes have been called “Ladies of the night” and hotels, if you’ll take the opinion of a former hotel manager (me), do have some clandestine activities in them from time to time (even the nice hotels).

From the point of view that advertising is actually a metaphor for prostitution, the man starts out interested in pursuing a relationship with Hilda. Their conversation could then be viewed as the man learning about her being a prostitute — something that changes him.

The man’s literal claim to be against advertisements would then metaphorically be taken to mean he is against prostitution. His political actions against the advertising industry could be taken to mean he has politically lobbied against the practice of prostitution.

In my view, the way advertisements are described in the story could be a description of prostitution in a major city or area where it was rampant. Consider the following statements which literally describe the advertisements in the story; however, instead try to understand “the thing” to be prostitution and not a billboard or sign. The following two paragraphs then read as though the man has bumped into a fair number of prostitutes as a traveler. He is politically opposed to prostitution and yet finds that he can’t escape it – and he blames prostitution (….or prostitutes) for ruining his vacation. 

From “The Story of a Perversion.”

The last statement, about the woman’s affinity for “the thing” reveals the changed course for the man. He loses his feelings for her and instead starts to hate her. That’s the “perversion” or changed course: he started out as a man who was interested in true romance with Hilda Horribell (also sounds like Whory Belle) but ended up a man who hated her.

In the final paragraphs, the narrator changes the wording of the slogan in the advertisement from “What is Life without Hope” to “What is Life without Love.” The last line of the short story, “And I am in the business,” is ambiguous but can’t really be read to mean that he’s in the horseradish business. It could be read to mean that he’s in the advertising business but it could conversely be read to mean that he’s in the business of “Life without Love.” That could be his lament at not finding romantic love in his life and the effect that it had on his soul. It is a very grim statement for him to make.

Getting back to Jack the Ripper

So who is a man that hated prostitutes in England at about the time of this story’s publication? Jack the Ripper is the best answer and real-life Charles Lechmere is a strong suspect for being Jack. It could be that the author of “The Story of a Perversion” believed Charles Lechmere to be a suspect and named him Charley Lechmere in this story as a reference. Maybe this short story is an Easter Egg that Ripperologists were supposed to find.

For those that think that Charles Lechmere was Jack the Ripper, “A Story of Perversion” should be intriguing. That’s because it’s a story that tells the tale of one Charley Lechmere, a man who changes from an adoring suitor to someone much more bitter. What causes that bitterness? Something as trivial as advertisements if you take the plot literally. But, in this case, I think a literal translation might be shallow.

I think prostitution is between the lines in the story based on the setting at a night-time hotel and based on the fact that prostitution ran rampant in England at this period in history — as rampant as the advertisements so described in the story. I think that the content of the short story reveals growing animosity within the protagonist toward Hilda, who could be viewed as a representation of all prostitutes. Could be that’s got something to do with one Charles Lechmere, a historical figure with a strong circumstantial case against him for killing prostitutes.

It’s a weird coincidence to say the least.

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"We So Seldom Look on Love" – Barbara Gowdy Kept it Weird

Author: Shane Lambert

Necrophilia is mental disorder characterized by sexual attraction that is felt toward the dead. It has a little bit of a tradition in literature, perhaps most famously represented in Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee,” a poem where acts of necrophilia are implied. As far as clear representation goes, it was a major part of Barbara Gowdy’s short fiction, a Canadian author who often wrote about characters that were unusual to say the least.

Gowdy’s characters in her fiction included a mutant who had an extra pair of legs coming out of her torso. She also told a story of a set of Siamese twins, only one of which was born with control of ‘their’ limbs. He eventually attempts to use this advantage to kill the other.

If that strikes you as a bit odd, then note that bizarre characters were the flavor of the day with Gowdy — and why not? It doesn’t make her any less of a writer to use the bizarre to capture people’s attention. Her work might be called disturbing for some but then whose to blame for that? If the market is attracted to tales of twisted and strange people, then authors will have to bend that. It’s not surprising that her best known work of fiction focuses on a necrophiliac — a necro that had a bit of twist if we look into the history of necrophilia.

Necrophiliacs are usually, if not always, males, which kind of makes sense when you think about the nature of sex. An aroused male could penetrate a dead corpse but it’s hard to picture a woman giving a dead man an erection.

Returning to “Annabel Lee,” Poe’s poem, the necrophiliac was a male. The poem tells of a man and woman who are in love before the woman dies. Her high-class kinsmen then entomb her in a “sepulchre,” an old word meaning a small room where a dead body is laid to rest. That the male in the poem is a necrophiliac is suggested in the final stanza.

“For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee: —
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling — my darling — my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea —
In her tomb by the sounding sea.”

Read the full poem “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe

He says he lies “down by the side” of Annabel Lee which isn’t exactly mounting her. However, “(feeling) the bright eyes” does suggest a mounting position, I think. In general, this poem has been taken to describe necrophilia.

Does that make Poe a weirdo? One “Princess George” of Greece actually argued that Poe himself was a necrophiliac after performing a psychoanalysis of his work. That’s according to a short article I found in the August 6th, 1933 edition of The Birmingham News (page 24; no author of the article listed).

I’m not sure I would put much faith in psychoanalysis to be honest, especially when the analysis involves reading fiction which often needs characters that add shock value in order to be of interest to the public. However, if you want to digress for a moment, you can read the article below for whatever you think its worth. Personally, I think it’s good for nothing but a laugh.

Ted Bundy.

Real-life and known necrophiliacs are less poetic. It will come as no surprise to those familiar with the deeds of Ted Bundy that he was a necrophiliac. Other American serial killers also committed the act, including Edmund Kemper, Earle Nelson, and Gary Ridgway — all male necrophiliacs, of course, for the obvious reason already stated.

In “We So Seldom Look on Love,” Gowdy’s best known work, the protagonist necrophiliac is a woman. Perhaps that could only happen in a work of fiction.

In doing research for this blog post, I did find one possible female necrophiliac in history. Alleged murderer Louise Vermilya is listed among the necrophiliacs at Wikipedia.

However, her description there says she liked washing dead bodies which might be sexual but that’s not quite the same as the weirdo in “We So Seldom Look on Love,” a woman who devises a way to give dead men erections and then mounts them. In the newspaper articles I read of Vermilya, I found no reference to her being a necrophiliac. If anything, she may have been a murderer but the last article I read on her states that she was let go, perhaps for lack of evidence.

Quad-City Times, April 18th, 1915. Page 1.

In “We So Seldom Look on Love,” the fictional female-necrophiliac works in a funeral home, one where she has concocted a way to give dead men erections using a fluid in a syringe. Whether that’s creative writing or whether it would actually work isn’t a matter I know of. However, a character that is weird enough to be a necrophiliac is going to grab some attention, even if the character is a male. That the protagonist in “We So Seldom Look on Love” is unique among necrophiliacs due to her female sex makes the story doubly-intriguing.

How she commits her acts, I’ve spoiled. But why she does it, when she’s so pretty and could score easily, is a different matter. I won’t spoil this but, for me, the short story was a memorable one. I would say that “We So Seldom Look on Love” is not to be missed.

Are hitchhikers weird? What about the people that pick them up? Check out another short story where a hitchhiker and driver seem to be in a battle of wits.

Upcoming publications at short-stories-online.com

By: Shane Lambert

I currently have two major projects in the works. Firstly, I’d like to complete a novella that I have called “The Pellet Gun.” It’s the first work of fiction of mine that isn’t written with a first-person narrator. I started it as a short story but I’ve found that the length has gone on.

“The Pellet Gun” is mainly set on Vancouver Island near the town of Chemainus. In this short story, I used a pellet gun to drive a family narrative.

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Conflicts arise since the characters in the story all have different perspectives on the gun. A young boy, like in the picture above, sees the pellet gun as something he has to master and even as just a way to kill time. His grandparents view it as a way to keep their grandchild occupied. Lastly, the boy’s cousins see the pellet gun as a threat: one sees it a the center piece of a competition while another doesn’t want anything to get shot with it — especially cute little rabbits.

Another work of fiction that I’m working on remains untitled. It’s a first-person full-lengthed novel mainly set in Jasper, Alberta about a young man striving to travel the world. It starts with a six-month hotel job in the Canadian Rocky Mountains where he experiences the trials and tribulations of being a resort-town work living in staff accommodation and then it goes from there.

If you would like to be notified when these stories are available then stay in touch at the Facebook group for this website! To read other short stories by the same author, visit the following links:

“On Being Indistinguishable”

“Budget Travel”

George Orwell’s “A Hanging”: Short Story or Essay?

Author: Shane Lambert

George Orwell. Eric Arthur Blair was his pen name.

George Orwell is my favorite writer. When I went to England, I made a point to go up to Oxford and then over to Sutton Courtenay to visit his grave. This involved taking a very long walk because, although it was several years ago now, I remember getting off at the wrong station.

I have friends that are fans of Orwell’s as well and I’ve used the fact, quite fallaciously, that I have visited his grave to ‘prove’ that I’m a superior fan. The truth is, going to a writer’s grave doesn’t really make you an expert on the writer’s works. There are some major works of Orwell’s that I’ve never read, at least not in full. However, I have no problems using false logic to ‘win’ an argument, so long as the venue is just a bar.

I’ll try to be more reasonable here.

One debate about Orwell that I remember from my university days has to do with his publication, “A Hanging.” We read it in English 101 and noted that it had been designated as an essay. This is despite the fact that it seems a lot like a short story.

The publication starts with a setting and it does so immediately. The first sentence of “A Hanging” is “It was in Burma, a sodden morning of the rains.” We soon learn that we have a first-person narrator and that he is working in a prison or camp. Essays don’t have a setting in a proper way nor do they have narrators while short stories do.

“A Hanging,” unlike essays, also has characters. In this case, an important character is a prisoner who is about to be killed.

Orwell is a character too as he’s writing in the first person and this appears to be written from memory, something you’re allowed to do in fiction but not really allowed to do when writing an essay where you have a burden of proof. This is an important point of contention for those that consider this work an essay.

If “A Hanging” was an essay then every fact stated would have to be provable to the finger-waggers. Those standards are a part of scholarly works — but they are not a part of fiction. What that means is that Orwell’s memory of the events that he used to make his point in “A Hanging” could be called into question. As a writer that has written from first-person experience, I can tell you authors don’t have such amazing memories as to be able to represent their lives in detail when describing historical events.

Also, fiction writers are afforded something called “Artistic License.” When writing fiction from personal experience, there is no pressure to be 100% accurate. Works of fiction often say “Based on a true story” but that’s not the same as claiming that everything is true. In an essay, the standards are higher.

Another character is “Francis, the head jailer,” a superintendent, a playful dog, and others that are mentioned. If you were to turn this story into a film then you’d likely need 10 to 15 actors.

The plot of the story has something to do with the title. A man is about to be killed, he is lead to the gallows, and then those that killed him go on with their day.

The conflict in the story has to do with a crisis of conscience, one that Orwell clearly has as reflected in the often-quoted paragraph below. After the prisoner sidesteps a puddle on the way to his death, Orwell noted:

“It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide…..His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned — reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone — one mind less, one world less. “

Did Jack The Ripper’s name appear in a short story from 1894?

The other characters in the story have consciences too. The superintendent of the jail makes the following remark regarding the hanging: “Well, quick march, then. The prisoners can’t get their breakfast till this job’s over.” In this statement, he, the superintendent, orders that the hanging be completed in a timely manner. The way he frames hanging a man as a philanthropic act so that the living prisoners can be fed is interesting. It reflects guilt management.

One can also manage guilt with the bottle. Toward the end of the short story, everyone takes to drink even though it would only be shortly after 8AM. That’s an odd time to be drinking so perhaps we’re supposed to infer that an eye opener is needed to help you deal with committing an early-morning murder.

For theme, I would submit that the short story’s is morality. However, this shouldn’t be confused with a thesis. That the short story is on the didactic side doesn’t make it an essay. Orwell was a didactic writer and even some of his longer works of fiction, his famous novels, could be described that way.

Orwell’s point in “A Hanging” is that people shouldn’t be killed but in an essay you explicitly argue, not implicitly coax. In implying his point, Orwell has represented people that are negatively affected by the killing of another. However, there is no way to falsify these memories and that’s important to note. In order for something to be scholarly, an essay has to be falsifiable. You can’t really do that with fiction writing where the author can represent people however he wants and that’s what Orwell has done with “A Hanging.”

The moral instruction in the story is only implied at times but it is more strongly stated in the often-quoted paragraph. If you want to spin that into being “an argument” then you would have to be a little bit fanciful.

You could say that the ‘thesis’ is “Don’t kill people or you will feel bad and drink” but then so many points like this can be pulled out from the world of literature. If you allow yourself to designate “A Hanging” as an essay then any short story or even novel that is didactic in nature could be framed as such. Make sure you’re being consistent.

Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case” and the “picture-making mechanism” phrase

Author: Shane Lambert

Willa Cather published “Paul’s Case” in 1905 as part of a small collection of stories known as The Troll Garden (pictured below). One phrase that students often have trouble with when reading this short story occurs within the following quotation:

“(Paul) felt something strike his chest, and that his body was being thrown swiftly through the air, on and on, immeasurably far and fast, while his limbs were gently relaxed. Then, because the picture-making mechanism was crushed, the disturbing visions flashed into black, and Paul dropped back into the immense design of things” (emphasis added).

The cover of Willa Cather’s book, where Paul’s Case originally appeared. I found this in the June 11th, 1905 edition of The Nebraska State Journal (page 8).

The phrase that students often trouble with is the one in italics. Cather isn’t talking about an early camera or anything of that sort. She appears to be talking about a faculty of Paul’s brain — but not necessarily the entire brain itself.

Willa Cather. A public domain photo.

In this paragraph Paul’s death at his own hands is depicted. He has stepped in front of a train, it struck him in the chest, and that’s why he was “thrown swiftly through the air.” It’s clear that in Cather’s imagination, dying from the impact of a train might leave you alive for a few short moments before the catastrophic and massive injuries of the impact killed you. The “picture-making mechanism” being “crushed” can best be understood as brain damage that, in Paul’s case, was nearly immediately terminal.

Some might say that “the picture-making mechanism” is actually a metaphor for Paul’s brain, however, I wouldn’t state that. The brain itself is a complex organ and it is known to have divisions that have differing responsibilities. So “the picture-making mechanism” is likely just describing the part of the brain where the sensory-data input from the eyes is processed or where we see dreams when our eyes are closed.

How did Cather know of this part of the brain? In short, she probably didn’t know about it in a specific way (ie. she probably couldn’t literally point to the part of the brain with “the picture-making mechanism” during an autopsy). Maybe she just suspected or even deduced that this part of the brain existed. If you think about, how could it not?

Noam Chomsky’s most famous linguistics book is called Syntactic Structures. Photo by Hans Peters/Anefo, who donated it to the public domain.

To get what I’m talking about, let’s visit a theory in the field of linguistics. Noam Chomsky, a linguist who taught at MIT for many years, uses the term Language Acquisition Device to describe a part of the brain that he thinks is responsible for humans learning how to speak a language. He’s not using the phrase “Language Acquisition Device” metaphorically — it’s just the name he assigns to the part of the brain that he thinks exists through abstract theory and logic.

If we acquire language, then we must have a native ability to do so. The part of the brain that enables us to do this is what Chomsky calls the Language Acquisition Device.

The phrase “Language Acquisition Device” and “picture-making mechanism” actually remind me of one another. I don’t see either phrase as metaphorical but rather I see them as reflecting a certain amount of infancy when it comes to understanding the compartments of the brain: the names are simplistic. We can figure out what goes on in our brain on a certain level but the organ remains mysterious in so many ways.

Perhaps the phrase “mechanism” could make the entire phrase into a metaphor. Mechanisms, when used literally, are more commonly associated with machines. Analogies between humans and machines in terms of how we function have been made for generations. Thus, you could argue that Cather is presenting Paul as a machine in her statement, metaphorically speaking.

However, I don’t actually see it as a metaphor anymore than the word “device” is from Chomsky’s usage. I think “picture-making mechanism” is just a primitive description for a part of the brain that really wasn’t understood in 1905, when Cather’s story was published. Nearly all aspects of the paragraph in question could be read literally, even the very last statement about “the immense design of things” which I will get into at another time. In conclusion, re-read the paragraph but take everything literally except for maybe the word “immeasurably.” When you read “picture-making mechanism” understand it to be a phrase that literally is part of Paul’s brain, not metaphorically.

“He felt something strike his chest, and that his body was being thrown swiftly through the air, on and on, immeasurably far and fast, while his limbs were gently relaxed. Then, because the picture-making mechanism was crushed, the disturbing visions flashed into black, and Paul dropped back into the immense design of things”

A portrait of Willa Cather. Taken from the April 16th, 1905 Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette. Page 20.