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Here's a paragraph from chapter 14 of The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood:

The sitting room is subdued, symmetrical; it's one of the shapes money takes when it freezes. Money has trickled through this room for years and years, as if through an underground cavern, crusting and hardening like stalactites into these forms. Mutely the varied surfaces present themselves: the dusk-rose velvet of the drawn drapes, the gloss of the matching chairs, eighteenth century, the cow's-tongue hush of the tufted Chinese rug on the floor, with its peach-pink peonies, the suave leather of the Commander's chair, the glint of brass on the box beside it.

What does "one of the shapes money takes when it freezes" mean? I'm sure it doesn't have a literal meaning like money is a liquid that's capable of freezing. So, what is the meaning?

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This is an extended metaphor in which money is compared to water. The narrator says that “money has trickled through this room for years and years”, meaning the wealthy and powerful men who have met the Commander in this room, the deals that were done on those occasions, and the bribes or backhanders that enriched the Commander and allowed him to furnish the room so opulently. The rich furnishings are the solid evidence left behind by this flow of money, and they are compared to two different kinds of solids that can result from the flow of water: first to ice (“the shapes money takes when it freezes”), and then to dripstones (“crusting and hardening like stalactites”). The nuances here are that the deals were done in secrecy (“as if [in] an underground cavern”) and the the resulting opulence is hard (like stone) or cold (like ice), not warm and welcoming.

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  • Thank you so much! I understand it a lot better now.
    – Golnaz
    Jan 30, 2023 at 10:41
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As an extension to, rather than a disagreement with, Gareth Rees answer, it is an extended metaphor of money as a liquid substance. But beyond that, it's using an existing extended metaphor in finance, economics, and everyday English. The change from liquid to solid - freezing - is one type of phase change. And in Capital Vol 1, that's how Marx describes the conversion of material commodities into money.

Now let us examine the circuit M—C—M [Money-Commodity-Money] a little closer. It consists [...] of two antithetical phases. In the first phase, M—C, or the purchase, the money is changed into a commodity. In the second phase, C—M, or the sale, the commodity is changed back again into money. The combination of these two phases constitutes the single movement whereby money is exchanged for a commodity, and the same commodity is again exchanged for money; whereby a commodity is bought in order to be sold, or, neglecting the distinction in form between buying and selling, whereby a commodity is bought with money, and then money is bought with a commodity.

By the twentieth century, economists are using "liquidity" to describe why cash money is more useful than assets which are more difficult to sell. Famously, John Maynard Keynes in The General Theory:

But this decision having been made, there is a further decision which awaits him, namely, in what form he will hold the command over future consumption which he has reserved, whether out of his current income or from previous savings. Does he want to hold it in the form of immediate, liquid command (i.e. in money or its equivalent)? Or is he prepared to part with immediate command for a specified or indefinite period, leaving it to future market conditions to determine on what terms he can, if necessary, convert deferred command over specific goods into immediate command over goods in general? In other words, what is the degree of his liquidity-preference — where an individual’s liquidity-preference is given by a schedule of the amounts of his resources, valued in terms of money or of wage-units, which he will wish to retain in the form of money in different sets of circumstances?

And this sense of liquidity is the finance jargon we see used in the market today, to refer to something that is easy to sell, or the volume of freely trading items on a commodity market. Atwood has taken a submerged metaphor that has worked its way from scholarship into everyday English, and followed through with its poetic implications: money flowing through the room like river water, freezing into fixed capital, and being transformed into opulent material.

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  • Thank you so much for explaining this🙏
    – Golnaz
    Jan 30, 2023 at 10:48

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