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In The Crucible, during act 4 (Danforth's monologue), he says

While I speak God's law, I will not crack its voice with whimpering.

When looking at this quote the only technique I can see is onomatopoeia but I feel like this quote has more than that. I think it demonstrates Danforth's dogmatic belief in the intrinsic goodness of theocratic justice quite well. How can I analyze it?

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    Hint: Danforth says, "its voice", when one might expect him to say, "my voice". Oct 21 '21 at 11:46
  • Could you please explain why you thought of onomatopoeia? I can't see anything in the quote that matches the definition of that term. If I understand your question correctly, you are not looking for an explanation of the quote's meaning but for literary devices used in it?
    – Tsundoku
    Oct 21 '21 at 13:49
  • @Tsundoku I thought crack was imitative of a whipping sound and hence onomatopoeia
    – Quippy
    Oct 21 '21 at 21:31
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    I don't understand what the close voters are thinking: there's nothing wrong with this question. Oct 22 '21 at 19:23
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    @bobble Open-ended analysis or interpretation of short passages of literature is surely on-topic here? I've added interpretation in case that helps Oct 23 '21 at 9:30
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There is no onomatopoeia (strictly) in this excerpt. Onomatopoeia in the most restrictive sense is a word which resembles or evokes a sound in a directly sonic way. For example, if the sound of a car moving past quickly has a certain windy sound, people might find the word “whoosh” sonically approximates that sound. The word “crack” refers to a sound phenomenon semantically. It means a certain sound in the voice, rather than sounding like that sound.

The most relevant poetical device to characterise the sentence is probably metaphor. An intuitive way of thinking about metaphor is anything that is not literally true. The character says they will not crack the voice of God’s law. But God’s law is a law, and a law doesn’t have a voice. What can the speaker mean by cracking the voice of a law? They mean they will not make the law appear less magnificent and authoritative than it is, in the way that a person speaking nervously makes a message seem less dominant.

You can also use this strong utterance as an opportunity to consider the psychology of the character and the themes of the work.

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I can see the following rhetorical devices in this sentence.

  1. Personification.† Danforth says that “God’s law” has a “voice”, thus creating an image of the law as a person who can speak. The effect of this device is to disclaim responsibility for Danforth’s actions: he is not responsible for killing nineteen people, he says, it is God’s law.

  2. Prosopopoeia.† It is surely Danforth’s voice that will (or will not) crack, not “its [God’s law’s] voice”. So Danforth is saying that when he speaks, it is really God’s law speaking through him. In this way he claims greater authority for his words, while disclaiming responsibility for their consequences.

  3. Onomatopoeia. You were quite right to spot this! The words “crack” and “whimper” are both “echoic” (as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it): that is, a crack sounds like “crack”, and a whimper sounds like “whimper”. The effect of this is to undercut Danforth’s denial: he says that he won’t do these things, but his choice of words means that he has already done them.

How should we interpret these devices? We could take them to be “tells” that some part of Danforth knows that what he is doing is wrong. Or we could take them to be the playwright’s ironic commentary on the character’s zealousness. An actor could play the part either way.

† Some reference works synonymize these two devices, but I prefer to make a distinction between the representation of an object as a person, and the projection of one’s own words onto another.

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