AP Exam – Part II – A Literary Analysis of a Given Passage
The following received a score of nine, the highest grade a student may receive.
“What would it mean for one such as I to pick up a mirror and try to see her face in it?” Meena Alexander questions her own ability to know who she is in this quote, extracted from her autobiography, Fault Lines. She uses numerous literacy devices to illustrate her plight in finding herself. Two such devices are metaphor and symbols. The metaphors exemplify different paths her life might follow, and the symbols reveal the expectations she feels have been placed upon her.
The first metaphor Alexander employs is the snake as an analogy for destruction “…tales that closed back on themselves, as a snake might, swallowing its own ending…” This snake, fighting for survival, is a direct metaphor for despair. It shows the custom of Alexander’s country of birth, India, for people to have their lives set out for them. Alexander is trying to convey the message that her life seems predetermined and that her fate is doomed. This snake, a metaphor implying ruin, is part of Alexander’s fear and disgust. Alexander does not want any part of a prearranged marriage and sees it as part of a cycle that continues in emptiness “birth, an appropriate education – not too much, suitable birth and background, somewhere within the boundaries of India.” The words “appropriate,” “suitable” and “boundaries” carry a sarcastic tone and add to the author’s message: she is revolted by the snake’s stupidity to eat itself alive, but at the same time understands that this viscous cycle is supposed to be her destiny as well.
A second metaphor in this passage is the development of a tree to a wife. The way Alexander personifies the bud of the plant blossoming and becoming a full grown gulmohar tree represents another path that her life might have taken. The tree becomes a wife and a caring companion. “The tree trunk well rooted in a sweet, perpetual place,” seems so comforting and permanent. Alexander states that this route would be her “perfect life,” and admits that she has “sometimes longed to be a bud on a tree, blooming with the season.” She even equates the tree/life metaphor with her mother. The thriving gulmohar Alexander envisions is rooted in the “rich solid outside my mother’s house in Tiruvella.” The tree is the path that would lead to eternal happiness for the author and perhaps in her internal questioning, she has desired this path the most.
Alexander expresses a sense of hope in the creation of a third metaphor: Broadway, a sort of haven or miracle place. “All that is here comes piecemeal, though sometimes the joints have fallen into the place miraculously, as if the heavens had opened and mango trees fruited in the rough asphalt of upper Broadway.” Broadway, and New York City in general, are seen as places where “miracles” can happen. This is the path of life that Alexander finds herself traveling upon at the present. She is living in a confusing town but awes at its capability to create order. Broadway is a metaphor for hope. The mangoes Alexander refers to are a sweet fruit and an ethnic treat. This ethnic feel emitted from the fruit creates a very accepting atmosphere. The author’s description of the mango trees flowering above Broadway actuates a New York that can accept diversity. Yet, even though New York appears this way, the entire metaphor is a fantasy. Mango trees do not really bear fruit from the heavens, nor can Alexander really experience inner peace. In her next sentence she relates, “but questions persist.” At this time, she is still like a child, unaware of the strings of life that are yet to tug at her soul.
In addition to these metaphors, Alexander employs symbols to illustrate her situation. The symbols she uses show how confusing life can be and also shed light on the expectations placed upon her by others. An extremely important symbol is the “plate glass window.” Here, this piece of glass is a symbol of the author’s identity because it provides a chance for her to see her reflection, to see herself. As she sits by it, her gaze falls upon her face. “I caught my two eyes crooked, face disfigured.” The window, or identity, shows how Alexander does not have a firm grasp of her character. She wonders repeatedly what it would be like to have an identity. “What might it mean to look at myself straight, see myself?’ With these words, it is apparent that Alexander is soul searching, searching for herself. The glass, therefore, is just a symbol of her confusion with her own identity.
The Oxford English Dictionary is a second symbol used by Alexander. This well-known reference book is a symbol of the expectations placed upon the author. It is who other people want her to be. At one point, she mentions that she had lived in England. The reinforcement of the dictionary serves to exemplify Alexander’s dependence upon others’ opinion of who she is.
She was shipped off to England, and she feels compelled by some force to look up a word: fault, nonetheless. In searching for the meaning of the word, Alexanders allows others to give their interpretation of what it should mean to her and her life. She sees a definition of “fault” as “deficiency,” “defect,” and “imperfection.” All of these words suggest that in the eyes of the creators of this dictionary and in her own eyes, she is inadequate. Further on, she finds a second geographical meaning: “dislocation,” and “upheaval,” both of which clarify the fact that Alexander blames her shattered psyche on the incessant uprooting of her life. In order to find her identity, she must discard this book full of other people’s ideas and find a permanent home.
Alexander’s Fault Lines is a good example of personal confusion for all people of all nationalities. It is obvious that she is struggling with the concept of who she is and is trying desperately to solidify her self-image. In sharing her plight, Alexander uses metaphors and symbols to illustrate the paths that her life might take and to explain the expectations placed upon her by others. Although there are deterrents along her road to self-discovery, there are also sparks of hope in the form of the tree and Broadway. Yet, at the close of this passage, Alexander leaves the reader on a somewhat dismal note. She admits, “That’s all I am, a woman cracked by multiple migrations. Uprooted so many times she can connect nothing with nothing.” Her only means for feeling complete is when she reminisces about her childhood. “Till my mind slipped back to my mother – amma- she who gave birth to me…” Reflecting upon the times she spent with her mother, Alexander concludes that her only true sanctuary is the “shelter of memory.” In a beautifully written excerpt from her autobiography, Alexander lets us know that we are not alone in the search for our true selves.
In this essay the writer offers a well-developed analysis of how Meena Alexander explores her “fractured identity” through the use of such literary devices as metaphor and symbol. The author makes reference to three metaphors: a snake, a tree and a street, Broadway. For each, she quotes specific lines from the text and includes a cogent rationale for her interpretation. In regard to symbols, she explores “a plate of glass” and a reference book, explaining how each contributes to theme and the general meaning of the text. The essay is written in a sophisticated yet clear style, with language appropriate to the analysis of literature. Moreover, it is tightly organized and offers a persuasive analysis of Meena’s struggle with her identity.