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The short passage extracted from the section “”Thanikama”” in the memoir Running in the Family written by Michael Ondaatje depicts a dark scene where the author’s father, Mervyn, is left alone near the end of the book. The scene is described in extreme detail to portray a clear mental picture of the atmosphere and setting, yet sparkled with figures of speech and other writing devices of which this paper is aiming to will focus on.
After only having read the very first miniature sentence, the reader can receive the negative vibes that Ondaatje is trying to send through his writing. The line “half empty” (1) is the negative way of saying that, in this case, the bottle of alcohol is actually half full. In establishing a generally sad, dark, lonely and negative mood to the scene, Ondaatje uses many features of which one is simply the presence of specific objects. As a matter of fact, Ondaatje’s diction is (not only in this short passage but in the entire memoir as well) much elaborated. In consequence, the statement that Mervyn is using a kerosene lamp creates two perceivable sensations being sight and hearing.
General knowledge states that a kerosene lamp will constantly emit a noise that is similar to running water; it is also obviously used in dark rooms, which comes to amplify the author’s details about the setting of the room. Continuing the description of the setting, Ondaatje uses the mirror in two different ways to improve the memoir’s effect. One way is to purely illustrate the condition of the room by putting a certain importance on the dirty mirror that had “brown water and rust hanging captive in the glass” (3). The latter sentence leaves an extreme feeling that the room was in extreme bad shape and not taken care of; this fact is later confirmed when he states that there has been “no sweeper for weeks” (7) and that he could see cobwebs.
The second way, this time more metaphorically, that Ondaatje uses the mirror as a literary devices is that usually a mirror is usually sparkling clean so that one can observe himself in it and see clearly. Perhaps that Mervyn could not see himself properly in the mirror since he was confused about himself, lost, and even drunk. Another reference to the mirror is further made stating that he was “scared of the presence of the mirror,” (19) a hint that perhaps he really could not accept himself, which goes hand in hand with the fact that the father would get drunk when living hard times. Ondaatje goes in depth in explaining the room’s appearance and the character’s actions.
For example the yellow pendulum of light that is caused by the swinging lamp the man held while walking. Ondaatje brings a more unique touch as he describes a property that is both part of the setting and the character’s sensations: temperature. This rather repugnant imagery about pocket money gathering moulds might be shocking when picturing it, but absolutely brings in a perfect explanation of the intense and humid heat Ondaatje is feeling.
Ondaatje does not only write about the setting though; he also refers to personification when stating that the “branches put their arms into the windows” (8). This is a very effective technique portraying the tea bush not only “becoming jungle,” (8) but also constantly moving, stretching in every direction grasping for anything at hand: “If you stood still you were invaded” (9). Near the end of the passage, Ondaatje uses another exclusive feature when referring to the battalion of ant. The ants are very famous for their cooperation together and their outstanding strength. As this detail is put to the end of the memoir when Ondaatje concludes his investigation about his dad, it suggests that the ants were associated to himself and his quest.
Like the ants, he had to communicate with others and never let go; a quest he finally accomplished in the end. The last sentence of this section of the memoir would be associated with the last moment before the death of the father, which would account for Ondaatje not referring to his father as still living past “”Thanikama”.” The midnight rat which is a disgusted, scary, dark, and feared creature would be a metaphor for the death getting closer and closer. Past this point, short entries from other people are added in saying how Mervyn was and used to be, which would seem right now that he has past away.
As this paper has shown, Ondaatje combined many literary devices in writing Running in the Family. Ondaatje’s writing style is unique in the sense that it does tell a story (or preferably called a memoir), but it also borrows writing features from the poetic structure, in the way that even though all readers reads the same book with the same plot, interpretations could change and alter being more precise than a poem but less than a story. Ondaatje’s exceptional skill to balance the metaphors with the statements and the personifications with the right choice of word in no particular chronological order results in a unique mind grasping memoir.