Whooops!! My Misadventures in eBook Cover Design….

By: Shane Lambert

I completed a short story in early 2018. At first, I didn’t know what to do with it. When I started writing the short story, it was more like I was scratching an itch than thinking about a final product. However, when I finished it I definitely wanted it to be read by others. I self-published it at Amazon and part of this process involved creating an eBook cover.

I don’t know much about art, at least not the kind involving painting or drawing. All the marketing tips I read said that I should have a nice eBook cover to represent the book, something I agreed with wholeheartedly. So, I went to the freelancers online to try and create something that might ‘draw’ in some readers.

But, before I did this, I had to think of a cover design that I wanted to be drawn. I didn’t want an artist to have to read the short story and then think of a cover by himself or herself. That would be time-consuming and, I assumed, it would then cost more money to get the job done.

While I’ve made a lot of extra money over the years writing, as of yet self-published eBooks haven’t really brought me in that much. My writing-related income comes mainly from writing for websites. Since my first attempts at self-publishing back in 2012, I’ve only sold about 1500 eBooks. That doesn’t mean that the effort, for some of them, hasn’t been worth it but you can see how it has not really been a clearly successful venture for me.

Due to this, I didn’t want to spend a ton of money on an eBook cover. Instead, I decided that I would try to find a talented artist who needed to establish himself or herself, someone who would be willing to work for an hour on this project for something very affordable.

My short story, which can now be found on short-stories-online.com, is about a well-meaning man who decides to pick up a hitchhiker. Subsequently, he wonders if the hitchhiker, who is female, is suspicious of his intentions. That manifests into a concern that the man has that others, people the hitchhiker talks to at a rest stop, might actually think that the man is a serial killer.

In the end, the man develops what could be viewed as a paranoia over his image. Others might see the man’s concern as reasonable and not the result of paranoia. That’s a question posed in the story.

My question was how do I represent the short story in an eBook cover in a way that might intrigue people?

At one point, I thought that I could put anything on the cover and just let the reader run wild with metaphorical interpretation. However, I abandoned this idea when I found an artist that had some significant ability and was willing to work cheap. I described the scene to her that should be on the cover as follows.

Three people were to be illustrated as pushing a car off of a cliff. The vehicle was to have a terrified male driver sitting at the wheel. The three people doing the pushing were to be depicted as a female hitchhiker, a member of the public, and a police officer. In the background, I instructed that a Ted-Bundy-like serial-killer character is supposed to be engaged in sardonic laughter as the driver of the vehicle suffers for something he, the actual serial killer, did.

It was all was supposed to show, metaphorically, how four people were involved in stifling congenial behavior in society. The driver of the car stopped to help a stranded traveler as an act of kindness but this act was instead distorted. You may have to read the story to understand the point in view. But as for the eBook cover, to make sure we were on the same page I offered this juvenile sketch to my hired help:

The setting of the story is in the Canadian Rockies, as depicted by the rocky ‘waves’ in the background. The sign in the sketch is a common one that highway users see when they travel. That sign is a part of the story but I won’t get into that here too much. I just wanted to point out that everything in the sketch is relevant to the plot — nothing is arbitrary.

The next step in the cover design was getting some work back before the artist did too much on her own. She sent a first draft after both getting my instructions and seeing the simple sketch above. Importantly, the sketch below, while not completed, is far better artwork than I could draw myself.

What you are looking at is a man being pushed over the edge of a cliff in a car. However, my opinion was that the car looked more like a small pick-up truck and that was taken up with the artist.

The driver is the protagonist, someone I call “Fictional Me” because I often write fiction in the first person. The woman with the backpack on (pictured on the right) is the hitchhiker and she’s giving an ironic thumbs-up as she aids in pushing Fictional Me and my car over a cliff.

The man in the middle is a guy she speaks to at a gas station, ‘alerting’ him to the fact that Fictional Me is an individual who picks up female hitchhikers. He’s pushing the car with one hand and scrutinizing Fictional Me with a magnifying glass with the other.

The police officer is both finger-wagging and helping to kill Fictional Me. In the background, you can see the actual serial killer who is enjoying the mess that he created. The serial killer finds twisted humor in the fact that someone else is being tormented for what he, the serial killer, did.

The next draft looked like this:

Was this the final draft? At this point, I had some opinions — all of which were entirely irrelevant.

Part of me didn’t think the three ‘pushers’ looked active enough in pushing. I also didn’t think that it made sense that they could push so hard as to get a car through the rail on the side of the highway.

On another matter, I thought the outline of the car was a little wonky as it looks like the front is the back and the back is the front to me. Lastly, the mountains seemed red and arid while the setting of the story was in an area where the mountains were tree-covered and dark or silver.

The reason my opinions were irrelevant was because I’m a reasonable person and I knew that I couldn’t push someone too hard at revisions when I was only paying $25US. Unwilling to spend more, I was happy with what I got for what I paid, I left the artist a great review, and I put the eBook cover up as a better cover than the site-generated ugly ones. Even if I end up -$25US on the project, it definitely made me smile to work on it.

If you want to read the short story, it won’t cost you anything. It’s called “On Being Indistinguishable” and it’s on this website.

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” – The Not-So-Omniscient Narrator

By: Shane Lambert

Ambrose Bierce (1842 to ~1914) was an American writer. One of his enduring literary works is called “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” a short story that was published in 1890. This story will be looked at in this article so be warned now that the following sections CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS. If you want to read “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” with the ending preserved, then use this exit link here. The point that I want to make about the short story will follow.

One thing that readers should note is that I am going off of the version of the story that first appeared in the July 13th, 1890 edition of The San Francisco Examiner. This published version is different than later versions in some small ways.

July 13th, 1890. San Francisco Examiner. Page 11-12. Note the “Once upon a time” variation of the first sentence.
:/ :/ :/ :/ :/ :/

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” – Plot Summary, narrative Criticism, theme, and Bierce’s method for creating a twist ending

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is a short story with a twist ending. That means that the ending takes the reader in a different route that the one that seemed to already be established.

How Bierce accomplished this is actually pretty simple when you break it down into a procedure, something I will do at the end of this article. However, this goal is little more than just a motivator to look at the story in some depth. A complete look at the twist ending involves summarizing the plot, examining the narration, and exploring the theme. All of this will be done en route to understanding how to use Bierce’s simple procedure to set up a twist ending.

Public domain. Original publication in July 13th, 1890 San Francisco Examiner. The original publication was different.

A front-to-back summary of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” can either tell you where the twist is when the first seeds are planted or leave that until the end. Since I’ve already warned you of plot spoilers, I’ll take the former path in this article.

Bierce’s story, broken into three short parts, is set in northern Alabama during the American Civil War in the 1860s. Bierce, in real life, was a veteran of this war, a war which was between Abraham Lincoln’s North and the Confederate States of the South in the United States of America.

In Part I of the story, we are in the present. At this point, we quickly learn that we’re about to read of a man who is about to be hanged. He is standing on the titular bridge, awaiting his fate.

In Part II of the story, we go the recent past. At this point, we learn what it was that lead to this man’s fate: Farquhar, the man who is about to be hanged, had claimed to someone who he thought was a Confederate soldier that he, Farquhar, wanted to sabotage the North’s advance into the South. However, this soldier ended up being a spy for the North and it is implied in the story that this is what lead to Farquhar’s arrest.

In Part III of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” we, the readers, are taken back to the present. It’s at this point where we are presented with Farquhar’s escape, at least before the twist ending reverses that understanding of events. In the final statement of the story, we learn that Farquhar only imagined his escape in the moments before his neck was snapped.

There is some jumping around as the presentation of the story is not linear. However, while the plot is simple enough, the narration in the story is a little more difficult to grasp. It has been referred to as “Stream of consciousness” narration which, in my opinion, seems to be little more than the tool of a writer who can’t really grasp on to a steady narrative perspective.

The narrator in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” in fact, could called a third-person narrator that lacks omniscience or, perhaps better, a third-person narrator that toggles in and out of omniscience. That’s a little different than the conventional third-person narrator for the day and so this story is significant to look at.

The following narrative excerpt comes from Part I of the story. The “platform” mentioned should be understood as being on the bridge that Farquhar is on, one that he will be thrown off of with a noose around his neck. The first usage of the word “him” applies to Farquhar. The statements below are not from the protagonist but from the narrator.

Ask yourself: what perspective does this narrator have? I would submit that the perspective is inconsistent within this short passage.

From one point of view, the narrator seems omniscient as he knows the rank of an officer to be “a captain.” From this point of view, the narrator might seem all-knowing because he knows details of peripheral characters, even details that don’t seem that important.

However, in this same passage there’s uncertainty about the roles of the sentinels. The narrator claims that it “did not appear to be the duty of these two men” to know about the hanging. Furthermore, there is some question as to the “civil life” of the sergeant. Importantly, a truly omniscient narrator, a literary entity that knows everything about the fiction he’s presiding over, wouldn’t have doubts about anything. Doubts are reflected in the passivity of the narrator’s claim when he said “did not appear” (my emphasis). Normal people talk like this when they aren’t sure of something so, at first glance, it’s a bit odd for a narrator that already seemed to know some trifling details to be un-authoritative on others.

In contrast, the final sentence of the quoted passage would best have been written: “These two men did not have a duty to know what was occurring at the center of the bridge,” if, in fact, that was true. An omniscient narrator that has doubts is absurd and this passage is part of the reason I see the third-person narrator as toggling in and out of the all-knowing state. You can call that “Stream of consciousness” narration if you want but I see it as contradictory and that type of narrating style simply legitimizing writings where an author may not be good enough to stay in mode.

That the third-person narrator in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” isn’t all knowing is clearer if more passages are looked at. But first, I want to show that the narrator has omniscience in some contexts. In the following passage, the narrator has access to the main character’s thoughts. It occurs near the end of Part I, where Farquhar is thinking about how to escape. The pronoun that starts the excerpt refers to Farquhar.

Having access to someone’s mind is either due to a first-person perspective (ie. access to your own mind) or an omniscient one. In this case, it must be the latter or else “he thought” would be written as “I thought.” From this excerpt, the narrator is clearly omniscient.

But then sticking with Part I, the narrator previously had described Farquhar as “apparently about thirty-five years of age.” The use of the word “apparently” is strange here. It’s as though the narrator is looking at Farquhar and offering an opinion on his age based on how he looks. Yet, if the narrator is omniscient, then Farquhar’s age could be stated with certainty.

If we imagine some kind of third-person narrator that’s not omniscient then the statement kind of makes sense but then how does this person know what Farquhar’s thinking so much? If the narrator is Farquhar then we’re into the Twilight Zone because it would mean a character in a story has overtaken the omniscient narration. But even then, you’d think an uppity man like Farquhar would know his own age. All that really follows is that the narrator is a little bit weird. Maybe Bierce wants to establish a narrator that doesn’t tell the whole story and/or isn’t immaculately credible.

Farquhar (Robert Enrico; also directed) as depicted in the short film based on the short story. This became a Twilight Zone episode. Check it out at IMDB.

Clearly, Bierce is using a narrator that, at least, holds back on the readers. That’s done most clearly in Part III where the narrator doesn’t divulge that Farquhar started to fantasize about an escape but simply allows us to believe he has genuinely escaped. Thus, the twist ending is dependent on the reader trusting the narrator to be comprehensive yet, as we’ve seen with some details, the narrator in this story is not.

If Bierce’s toggling in and out of omniscience is not deliberate then he could be viewed as a writer who isn’t of literary quality. It could mean that he doesn’t know how to employ an omniscient narrator properly or that he didn’t refine his work. If the toggling in and out of omniscience is to be viewed as deliberate, then we can look at why. Doing that, I submit, requires looking at Farquhar’s fantasy.

In the moments before he is executed, Farquhar, as presented by the not-so-omniscient narrator, escapes from the claws of death. The narrator allows us to believe that the rope broke when he was dropped from the bridge. A truthful narrator might instead state that Farquhar couldn’t face the stress of being executed via hanging so he fell into the world of illusion, which is actually what happens.

That the narrator isn’t square with the reader creates a bit of an Easter Egg hunt: we can look for clues that we’re watching something that sets up the twist ending. One big clue to the fact that there is deception going on is perhaps the mentioning of a snake.

When Farquhar seems to escape from his executioners, he falls into Owl Creek and a snake passes him in the water. Snakes are often a symbol of deception in literature, maybe because of their forked tongues or maybe because of the Garden of Eden as presented in the bible. A fox on the shore would have worked just as well as they, don’t ask me how, have a reputation as being tricky.

The snake isn’t the only clue that suggests that readers shouldn’t trust what’s going on. The title itself says “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (emphasis added). “An Occurrence” would be to focus on a single event and one that occurs at the single location, that being the bridge. This isn’t a short story that traverses the country side — it is bound to what happens on the bridge. It’s a tiny clue that anyone that buys into the story of escape of from that bridge is going outside the scope of the actual story.

Another Easter Egg just has to do with the head-scratching part of the fantasy-line plot where Farquhar manages to escape. In the fantasy line, Farquhar is actually dropped from the bridge to be hung. However, luck intervenes in his favor and the rope breaks.

If you actually know something of hangings, then you know this kind of luck is not actually incredibly fantastic. There are botched hangings in history so a breaking rope is not difficult to accept.

What’s hard to believe is that Farquhar got out of his predicament after he fell into the water below. He has a tightened rope around his neck, his hands are bound, and he is near the bottom of a shallow creek. Even if he avoids drowning, he would still have to avoid strangulation from the tight rope around his neck.

With this predicament, Bierce faces a challenge at this point. If Farquhar magically escapes from the bonds then the realism of the situation might not remain intact from the readers’ points of view. Yet, borderline magic is actually what is needed for Farquhar to live.

In order to save himself, for starters, he needs to free his hands. Mr. Bierce doesn’t make things difficult on himself at this point as author of this story. Instead, the following passage explains how Farquhar freed his bound hands while at the bottom of creek with a tight noose around his neck:

“What splendid effort!–what magnificent, what superhuman strength! Ah, that was a fine endeavor! Bravo! The cord fell away; his arms parted and floated upward, the hands dimly seen on each side in the growing light.”

If you ever write a short story and paint your protagonist into a corner then just write the crap in the first sentence to get him out of his spot: “What splendid effort!–what magnificent, what superhuman strength! Ah, that was a fine endeavor! Bravo!”

That Bierce might be a little bit weak here is one possibility. From another point of view, that Farquhar has done something so completely fake could be viewed as a clue that we’re reading something that is likewise fake. After all, “superhuman strength” could be something that belongs to the fantasist.

As the story carries on, we’re taken through Farquhar’s imaginary escape. This fantasy ends with a reunion with his wife.

Then, right at the very end of the story, Farquhar is back on the bridge and his neck breaks from being hung. It’s at this point that we learn that his escape didn’t actually occur in the story line and we’re left to conclude that we were party plot events that were nothing except the fantasy of the protagonist.

I don’t like the narration in this story. I think the so-called “Stream of consciousness” narration is for the weaker writer that can’t surmount the challenges that come with sticking to the conventions of either a first-person or third-person narration.

Yet, the inconsistencies in the story’s narration are probably best viewed as contributory to the story as opposed to goof-ups. For the thinking reader, catching the ‘omniscient’ narrator (remember — the narrator has access to the main character’s thoughts) not knowing stuff is a hint that that we can’t trust it, the narrator. Thus, Bierce has created a backdrop of quasi-narrative-goofs that allows us to accept the part where the narrator doesn’t let us into the know when it comes to revealing that Farquhar is a fantasist as opposed to a realist. This lines up well with a theme of the story: deception.

A more particular theme for the story could definitely be self-deception. From this point of view, Farquhar is facing something that’s too harsh to face — his imminent death. Anyone that is faced with something that one can’t confront might go a little bit crazy. The entire section of the story involving his escape can thus be viewed as the imaginations of someone who goes temporarily insane in order to avoid the mental anguish of reality.

There is definitely a lesson to be learned from this story, in fact, I think it’s one that’s very pertinent and for me it rescues the short story. Consider that Farquhar is able to live vicariously in a dream world, one where he is free and one where he is back at home with his wife. This dream ends when his neck breaks in the real world.

Mr. Ambrose to humanity: Don’t live in a bubble!

The lesson, then, is that you can live in a dream world only so long as the real world allows it. When Farquhar’s neck breaks, then fantasy time is over.

Thus, there is a good point to be made about not living in a bubble just because you find it more comfortable. It’s something that we might all note as we’re probably all a little guilty of comforting self-deception from time to time, whether in regard to trifles or important matters.

I would say that this short story is therefore on the didactic side. It’s certainly not as didactic as the literary writings of George Orwell but a point can be taken away from the reading, one that is valuable to life. I would also state that the point that can be extracted from “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is relevant to all human cultures.

Don’t pretend a volcano won’t erupt just because you don’t want it to.

For a real-life example from history, we can imagine that some people who lived in Pompeii before the eruption of Vesuvius might have been happy where they lived and, because of this and only this, they ignored the warnings of the impending volcanic eruption. However, the dream world can’t be lived in when the real world kills you. Dreams of Vesuvius not erupting end when you get covered in lava because then Cather’s the picture-making mechanism stops working.

Scarlett O’Hara as depicted in film by Vivien Leigh in 1939’s “Gone With the Wind”

As for a literary comparison, let’s stick with the Civil War fiction. Scarlett O’Hara was a naive rich kid of the South who paid no attention to the news of the advancing army from the North. That ignorance kind of ran into a brick wall when she almost starved to death. Her character didn’t die but the boundaries of self-deception can still be explored: she could pretend all she wanted to but a lack of food in your stomach is such a strong dose of reality that it can only be bubble bursting.

Additionally, I think there is a real-life point for those that deny human-caused global warming to take note of. The dream world, the one where we can pollute the atmosphere and deforest the world with no side effects, could end if your section of the real world becomes uninhabitable. Better smarten up.

That Bierce has made a good point about the potential futility of living in a dream world can be taken away from “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” I would say that a writer that creates work with a point that transcends his life by several generations is definitely worthwhile. However, I do think his narrative style is that of a lesser writer. The writer that feels as though he can toggle in and out of omniscience as needed is not as talented as the one’s that work within the confines of more rigid conventions.

What Bierce did

One writing technique that you can note from this story is that a tongue-in-cheek narrator can set up a twist ending.

  • Step one: use a narrator that appears to be authoritative, if not omniscient.
  • Step two: lie to the reader with it.
  • Step three: make a statement that emphatically contradicts the ‘omniscient’ narration when you want the twist employed.

What will result is a reader who is turned right around and that’s basically what the twist-ending is supposed to do.

All Rights Reserved.

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

Author: Shane Lambert

Necrophilia is a 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.

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.