Adam's intellectual awakening comes when he delves into Dr. Rabinowski's book on the "blindness" of the human race to their own cognitive biases. Powers uses metaphor to illustrate this awakening: "There's a big old OUT OF ORDER sign hanging from his species' pride-and-joy organ" (61) and "Whole new rooms open up in Adam's brain, waiting to be furnished" (61). The first metaphor is a humorous one, suggesting that our brain is like a broken-down toilet, out of order and thus incapable of fulfilling its job. The second metaphor uses the image of rooms opening up upon rooms, but those rooms needing to be furnished. We imagine this empty, massive house and furniture eventually coming to populate its rooms, as we are to imagine Adam's brain opening up to new theories, new ideas, and new possibilities.
Simile: Cut Trees
Douglas's awakening comes when he is driving along the highway, admiring the trees, and realizes after a bit of investigation that they are only a screen, a facade, a fake-out for the destruction that he discovers. When he gazes out at the disaster, he thinks, "It's like alien death rays have hit, and the world is asking permission to end" (87). This simile helps the reader see a type of devastation that does not seem earthly, and that prompts nature to beg to end it all. Douglas then comments on that scrim of trees that "the trees are like a few dozen movie extras hired to fill a tight shot and pretend to be New York" (87). Here he bitterly and humorously compares them to extras in a movie that suggest a larger crowd, as in Manhattan, by way of the camera's lens and angle. The trees along the road, then, give the impression of fullness but they are misleading.
Metaphor: Silicon Valley
Neelay and the other coders and programmers of the prelapsarian Silicon Valley love that they are free to do what they like and free to give out their creations for free to those who want to play. Over time, though, capitalism and self-interest get in the way of this, and Powers writes, "But by his eighteenth birthday, paradise is sprouting fences" (108). The "paradise" of pure philanthropy that Neelay loves is now fenced off; game developers have their copyrights and private companies and giving away things for free no longer seems tenable.
Simile: Patricia's life
One of the most powerful similes in the text describes what happens to Patricia once her article on the communal nature of trees is discredited by the letter to the editors: "Meaning drains from her like green from a maple in fall" (127). In the simplest way Powers conveys—appropriately, by using a simile derived from nature—that her life loses its meaning, its luster, its potency, in the wake of her dressing-down. Readers can imagine a single, vibrant maple leaf slowly draining of color until it is a brittle, dull thing—just as Patricia feels herself to be.
Patricia is content with her mostly solitary life as a researcher. She is wary of most people, though she has come to enjoy her fellow researchers in the time of her life when her early research was vindicated. She is surprised, though, when Dennis comes into her life: "All her flowers have long since faded. But here's the bee" (143). Unsurprisingly, Powers uses a metaphor derived from nature to show how Patricia feels that she is a like a flower well past its prime—not dead, but whose bloom has faded—but remarkably still attracts a "bee" willing to "pollinate" it with love and companionship.
Metaphor: The Bill
Watchman (Nick) explains to Adam that humans have been taking from the land in a gratuitous and greedy fashion for too long, but that this is unsustainable: ". . . the bill is coming, and we won't be able to pay" (320). He uses the metaphor of a bill to show that humans have been accruing "debt" and not "paying" what they "owed" the natural world, but that this cannot last forever and soon they will be presented with a bill that is so high, so unpayable, so reflective of their gross ignorance of what they were taking without compensating, that life as they know it will certainly come to an end.
The Overstory Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Overstory is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.