William Carlos Williams has a tendency to hyperbolize and glorify objects in order to demonstrate their importance to the functioning of human society. This is done to the effect of creating “unsung heroes” out of everyday objects and encourages the reader to understand the value of little things in all situations. Interestingly, he does all of this without personifying his subjects. In “The Great Figure”, Williams describes a fire truck rushing down an urban street in the rain to put out a fire.
In “Red Wheelbarrow”, Williams fondly describes how “so much depends/upon/a red wheel/barrow” (Williams). Since both poems are quite brief, one must not only look at the words being used, but the poetic structure itself to find the meanings both works have in common. “Red Wheelbarrow” plainly states that very much of the way life works in a rural area depends upon the wheelbarrow. Though it is only sixteen words long, the way that the poem is written forces the reader to focus on every single word and its significance to the poem.
Its structure, in which every stanza contains a line with three words, and then a single two-syllable word, creates a very unhurried, deliberate flow, stressing the last word of every stanza. This presentation is reminiscent of the slow pace at which things in the country move in a positive manner, because the slow pace allows one to really focus and understand the importance of certain things. It also highlights the simplicity of a rural way of life, where because there is less going on, the duties of keeping a sense of order within one’s environment can rest upon a single object.
The wheelbarrow, while seemingly mundane, has stood the test of time and has proven that it carries much of the burden of the rural way of life. In “The Great Figure”, Williams describes a fire truck as it rushes down the street to presumably put out a fire in the city. As with “Red Wheelbarrow”, pacing is very important. This poem moves much more quickly than the other, with the whole poem being one big stanza with more words, but the emphasis on details and single-words is still present.
This is consistent with Williams’ perception of things as being a lot more than what they may simply are based on what they do and seeing them in action. He initially sees a gold number 5 and immediately associates the gold number with the fire truck: “I saw the figure 5/in gold” (Williams). All Williams really needed to see was the number five, and though a fire truck is very large and loud and has flashing lights, he still focuses upon the number 5 he associates with the truck, since the title is “The Great Figure” and he refers to the number as a figure.
According to this, the fire truck is not just “the fire truck”, it is “the number 5 fire truck”. This creates a distinction between the fire truck Williams saw and all of the other fire trucks. Since he is creating a distinction between the fire truck he saw and the others that he has probably seen, the importance of just one fire truck in the grander scheme of life in the city is the main theme of the poem, much like the red wheelbarrow in his other poem.
While there may be other fire trucks, this fire truck is the one that Williams can see doing its job firsthand: “moving/tense/unheeded/…through the dark city” (Williams). There are two other very important details that both of these poems have in common: both of the objects of focus are red, and both are observed either in the rain or after rain has fallen. These details are what really help to unify these two poems, even more so than the integration of Williams’ rural, analytical attention-to-detail and tendency to hyperbolize.
The color red is very significant, as the color has many meanings emotionally and symbolically. While the emotional response one may have to the color red is somewhat subjective, the use of the color symbolically has always centered around things being perceived as: energetic, courageous, passionate, confrontational, determined, sacrificial. Red is a very bright and engaging color, but does not necessarily demand attention the way that other colors such as orange and yellow do. If something is red, it is red to convey to the human observer that it is there to get things done.
This is likely why fire trucks are red, and many lawnmowers are red, and many car companies that choose a sort of “flagship” color for its vehicles choose red. The inclusion of rain in both poems is also of great symbolic importance. The fire truck is depicted as rushing through dark, rainy streets to reach its destination, and this is exactly the way Williams wants the reader to picture it in their head. As stated earlier, Williams’ perspective on the subjects of his poems is that, while they are inanimate objects, they are worthy of admiration and attention simply because of what would not get done if they were not around.
He does not want the reader to just see a fire truck in the rain, he wants the reader to see and admire the brave, determined, figure 5 fire truck barreling down the street to put out a fire in the dark, rainy city when nothing else was around to do the job. The rain in the wheelbarrow, similarly to the fire truck in the rain, symbolizes the conditions that the wheelbarrow will work under. Even though it is not shown being used, the rain water that has collected in it can easily be dumped out and then the wheelbarrow is ready for use.
He does not want the reader to see a red wheelbarrow sitting out in the yard. He wants the reader to see the red wheelbarrow, slumped over to the side in the yard from heavy use, in the rain, awaiting the next time it is to wheel around anything that anybody might need assistance carrying. He wants to honor the little things that help us as humans to keep simple, daily tasks in order, whether it is a wheelbarrow to simply pick up loose branches in the country, or a fire truck rushing to save people from certain harm and put out a fire to restore order in the community.