“The death of her husband is what is hanging over her head…”

Poor woman, death hanging over her head. My student doesn’t reveal whether it’s hanging over her in the form of guilt or grief, but there it is.

But wait, as a beginning violin student once said during his performance at a junior high concert as he turned the page: there’s more!

“The death of her husband is what is hanging over her head and dragging behind her.”

The sentence begins as wordy and awkward, with that “is what is” vitiating its energy and its point by needlessly complicating its structure, injecting two verbs of being and a relative pronoun, not generally considered sources of interest.

And then we come to the complete image-blindness of the writer. I can see that death hanging over her head, like the black cloud that hovered over good old Joe Btfsplk in Al Capp’s glory days (if you want to see Joe, click the link and it will take you to his entry in Wikipedia). Actually, if someone were to draw my student’s whole image, I’d prefer James Thurber over Al Capp; those vague giant forms he sometimes created would exactly do the trick for me. (See, for example, “House and Woman,” which a  New York Times blogger has used effectively albeit out of context here.)

Thurber’s ghosts and monstrous women and other ha’nts are also amoebic enough to accomplish both images at once: hanging over her head and dragging behind her (like Marley’s chains, or like Polonius once Hamlet has made “guts” of him?). Is the death of her husband darkening the air, threatening to fall and crush her or rain all over her, or holding her back at every step and leaving a viscous trail behind?

By guilt or grief, this husband’s death is making life pretty hard for his widow. “Beset” wouldn’t begin to describe her.…

“Mixed metaphor” is the name of this game. It doesn’t do much for the reader who seeks to comprehend the writer’s actual thought, but it does a lot for the one who’s looking for a good laugh in a swamp of murky prose.


About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

2 responses to ““The death of her husband is what is hanging over her head…”

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