Shoes: One Soul in Two Bodies

On personifying shoes, an excerpt from Martín Adán’s “Cardboard House”.
Vincent van Gogh, A Pair of Shoes (1886) — Not immaculately polished


Shoes are light, tight, and immaculately polished, they are replaceable and irreplaceable, they come with identical siblings, with willy cousins, with colour variations, straps, studs, belts, laces, eyelets, soles for souls, a unique body odour, a sense of humour, and a rapacious hunger for stripy socks they swallow but never digest.

They live in the cupboard, on the stairs, under the bed, behind the coat stand, and on top of other shoes. They’re found in Van Gogh’s paintings, in ultracrepidarian, in someone else’s walked mile.

They are what makes you yearn to sit down after a long night out and what makes you want to keep going on a long slog home.

They bite the dust, even when you don’t, they take one for the toes, they retaliate with the heel, they kick, dribble, squelch and chork. They dance, they lounge, they sneak away when you need them most, and they give you ten inches of height when you’re young at the price of giving you bunions when you’re old. They are loved and hated, lauded and sexualised, they are bought at a discount only to be returned, they are dragged through the gutter, draggled through the mucky lawn, they are torn, tattered, discarded then rediscovered, they are thrown in protest, they are thrown at vermin, they are forced upon horses, pets, and children. They can kill and they can liberate.

Trainers, boots, high heels; slippers, sandals, flip-flops. Just think: the pressure of their workplace, the ignominy of their position, the assault of odours, the taste of dog fluids, the scraping, the freezing, the frying, the up-close imagery of the lowest places that collect the worst gunk. They take it all in silence; occasionally they squeak.


They protect and serve, almost as much as a police force; they provide security, hope, and companionship almost as much as a family member. They may trip you up, but more often they will break your fall. Even when your tie is crooked and your blouse has wrinkles, they make you decent.

Without shoes in a city you are homeless; without shoes in the wild you are dead.

Shoes are heroes.

My paean to shoes focuses on their function and relation to us, their nimble-footed, demanding customers. Whilst in doing so, I personify shoes, I barely dip into the psychology of any such creature we may deign to “wear”.

There are many ways to treat a subject as human.

In modern interpretation, personification, or prosopopoeia, is a figure by which an animal or inanimate object or idea is given human characteristics. It can be thought of as metaphor’s ultimate sophistication (assuming one thinks of humans as being’s ultimate sophistication.)

Traditionally, prosopopoeia (pronounced /ˌprɒsə(ʊ)pəˈpiːə/) comes from the Greek, meaning to make faces or masks or persons. It was part of the progymnasmata, a set of basic rhetorical exercises, and involved giving a speech that impersonated someone else. I take prosopopoeia to be an umbrella term both for modern personification, and for impersonating those who exist or existed but aren’t present, those who are known fictional figures, and those who are completely invented by the author. Most generally, authors engage in prosopopoeia every time they create fictional characters, and even when they are just writing in their own “voices”. Their voices are their masks.

In that sense, imbuing objects with life on the page requires the author to play at least two different kinds of god: one that creatively animates that which is traditionally still, and one that mimics that animation in writing.

(Rendering humans in fiction requires mimicking that which exists in everyday life, then mimicking that mimicry on the page. The process is arguably less imaginative than in the case of objects, but more demanding: readers spot inaccuracies more easily.)

My paean spotlighted the apparent day-to-day functions of shoes, but it was inspired by Martín Adán’s insightful, intimate, warm (and incomparably more nuanced) personification of their existence. Were I allowed to label this excerpt of his, I would call it: The Inner Life of Shoes.

The after-dinner conversation of shoes, a short nap: a bootleg shakes the shoelaces loose; a toe cap yawns; the afternoon wrinkles its hide, tired of walking all morning; the right shoe turns on its side and snores. Shoes in their underwear; the uppers, made of yellow fabric, hang out, intimately, like a shirttail . . . Shoes, silent old people, in couples, disappointed spouses, together at the heels, separate at the toes. Their past married life unites them forever and alienates them at the hour when they, he and she, would like to be twenty years old again, the right shoe and the left, the male and the female, the husband and the wife — to be twenty years old and marry badly or take a good lover . . . The children’s booties and slippers meet above, toe to toe, face to face, almost kissing, behind the folds of the nursemaid’s apron. Shoes that are adolescent, elegant, languid, crazy, always misdirected, never decently parallel . . . shoes going through the bad years, the awkward age, weak lungs and robust tendencies . . . Old shoes, one soul in two bodies and not even loving each other . . .

from The Cardboard House (translated by Katherine Silver)

I’m sure most of us relish our state of not being one soul in two bodies. Most of us, that is, who are not shoes.


This is part of a series about Martín Adán’s only novel The Cardboard House (translated by Katherine Silver). I analyse his vivid lyrical prose and learn from it.

On Figures of Speech:

  1. Sun: Turning Dogs into Gold Ingots
  2. Sky: The Dirty Cup Filled with Sugar
  3. Idea: A Rugged Rope

On Personification:

  1. Shoes: One Soul in Two Bodies

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

7 thoughts on “Shoes: One Soul in Two Bodies”

  1. Ha, this reminds me of a childhood Poem,
    New shoes, new shoes
    Red and pink and blue shoes,
    Tell me what would you choose,
    If they’d let us buy.

    Buckle shoes, bow shoes
    Pretty pointed toe shoes
    Like some?
    So would I

    But, fat shoes, flat shoes
    Wipe ‘em on the mat shoes
    Stomp along like that shoes
    That the sort they’ll buy.

    Sorry that was so long, but I just had to share.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for posting that! I like hearing other people’s associations 🙂 I tried finding out a bit more about the poem. It seems to be “Choosing Shoes” by a Frida Wolfe, but further information or date or context wasn’t obvious. Any hints?


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