Black Walnut Tree Essay

931 words - 4 pages

“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” This is a phrase that has been uttered numerous times to children by their parents. This aphorism has been used to not only apply to books but also people. In The Black Walnut Tree by Mary Oliver, the speaker faces a conflict between the literal and figurative meaning of a tree in her yard. In the beginning of the poem, the mother and daughter “debate” selling the tree to “pay off their mortgage.” But with a shift from literal language to figurative language comes a symbolic representation of the tree, one that represents family heritage and their ancestors’ hard work.
The poem commences with a debate between the mother and daughter about what they should do with the black walnut tree. Lines 1-15 are written in straightforward, easy to comprehend language. In these lines the speaker addresses why they should sell the tree. The two women give reasons by stating that the tree is growing weak, and given the tree’s proximity to the house, a storm will cause it to collapse into their house and pose a threat to their lives. In addition, the speaker claims that “roots in the cellar drains,” meaning the roots of the tree are getting bigger and spreading into the foundation of the house, thereby producing another danger to the well-being of the family. Moreover, the tree is getting older (“the leaves are getting heavier”), and the walnuts produced by the tree are becoming to gather. The tone of the mother and daughter shows their need for money but also a reluctance to selling the tree; they are desperately in need of money, but they don’t seem to be in favor of selling the tree. Although the reasons provided by the family are credible, they are not wholehearted. This is because the women “talk slowly…trying in a difficult time to be wise,” indicating that the women are trying to come up with reasons to sell the tree. If they were actually in support of selling it they would not have to “talk slowly.”
In line 16 there is a sudden shift from literal to figurative language. This represents the change in how the black walnut tree is portrayed. Now, it is represented as more than an object with monetary value; it is a symbol of strong family heritage. The speaker states “something brighter than money moves in our blood-an edge sharp and quick as a trowel that wants us to dig and sow.” This simile is in direct contrast to the speaker’s reasons for selling the tree. This sentence also extends the metaphor of the tree by indicating that its roots unite a family’s forebears to its offspring. As stated by the speaker, a family is meant to be dug and sown and not uprooted. The...

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