I was listening to a bit of A Storm of Swords on the way to work Friday and heard a simile that struck me as classic George R.R. Martin:
“Brienne was always bound beside him. She lay there in her bonds like a big dead cow, saying not a word.”
Why classic? I wasn’t sure exactly why I got that impression when I heard it, but it just seemed so typical for the A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) novels. It has the pejorative angle towards women and has a kind of archaic sense to it (how often do you compare things to livestock?). After that, my ears were attuned to all the similes in the recording, and I began to think about how much a reader can learn about an author by the types of similes they return to again and again.
When I got home I searched “like a” in Storm of Swords and tracked all the similes that came up to see if my sense that there is a “classic Martin simile” was correct or if I was being unfair. Here’s the word cloud showing all the things Martin compared other people and objects to:
The most frequent simile in the novel is “like a man,” often with an adjective or other descriptive phrase qualifying the specific type of man. For instance, we see lines like “You speak like a man with a great horde at his back,” or “You look like a man who likes his bloody mutton,” or “Brienne looked more like a man in a gown than a proper woman.” Clearly the “like a man” comparison allows for a large range of meaning.
With equal frequency comes the simile “like a baby” or “like a babe,” but here the meaning is much less varied. The simile always refers to infant’s crying or its dependence on others for nourishment and transport. It is always an insult or a way of expressing another character’s unflattering distress.
Nearly as common as the previous similes are “like a little girl” comparisons. Here are a few: “You are a woman now, and should not dress like a little girl;” “You look different now. Like a proper little girl;” “Dany giggled like a little girl;” “Lady Lysa giggled like a little girl;” “She looked like a little girl;” “She played at being a queen, yet sometimes she still felt like a scared little girl.”
Similar to the “like a babe” similes and in stark contrast to the “like a man” similes, these “like a girl” similes are infantilizing and unflattering. There are very few similes comparing anyone to a grown woman (only two, in fact), so it’s clear that the qualities Martin draws upon most for similes associated with the female gender are those associated with immaturity and powerlessness. Of course, this makes sense within the world Martin created. It’s a world of men in power. Women and children are at the bottom of society. And most of the time these similes are delivered from the mouths of the sexist characters that populate the novel, so it would be unfair to pin the sexism behind them on Martin. Yet it seems kind of pathetic that in a series in which Martin is trying to build up strong females like Dany, Circe, Brienne, and Arya and often gives these women the narrative POV, they don’t voice anything other than the sexist similes their male counterparts use. Yes, these strong women are clearly the product of a male-dominated society, but is it so unrealistic that they might imagine being compared to something female as remotely positive?
Gender issues aside, it’s interesting to see how frequently Martin returns to specific comparisons and images. In 185 “like a” comparisons, six comparisons are made to rats, four are made to dogs/hounds, and six are made to variants on pig. I understand the frequency with which someone would compare a person to a rat or a dog. They are common enough insults, and Martin intentionally uses them in that way.
But his thing for comparing people, and particularly women, to pigs (which includes sow, swine, boar, etc.) and doesn’t usually end up just describing someone as colloquially “piggy” or “piggish” is a little odd to me. It gets back to my original sense that his quote about Brienne being like a “big, dead cow” is classic Martin. He likes comparing women to livestock. I wonder if he knows that about himself?
It’s a warning to all writers. Beware your writing patterns. I feel like by analyzing Martin’s use of similes I’ve gotten a little closer to his psychological make-up, and I confess that I don’t like it: it’s filled with gender trouble and pigs. We all fall in love with images and phrases. But that doesn’t mean we need more than one glimpse at that favorite simile per book. I think one reference to Brienne as a pig or a cow per ASOIAF novel is more than sufficient.