He barely noticed when he ran out of the woods onto the bare red road. It streaked beneath him like fire hardened and only gradually as his breath choked him did he slow down and begin to take his bearings. The sky, the woods on either side, the ground beneath him, came to a halt and the road assumed direction.

  1. What does the writer mean by 'fire hardened'?
  2. Is 'hardened' here an adjective for 'fire'?
  • 1
    I think this will explain "fire hardened". – StoneyB on hiatus Apr 8 '13 at 20:37
  • 1
    I was completely wrong. See my comment to Malvolio's answer. – StoneyB on hiatus Apr 8 '13 at 22:17
  • Your third question has been asked before, several times in fact, so I'm taking it out. See here, for example, and check out the related questions linked from there. In the future, please do not ask several unrelated questions in one, precisely because of this. – RegDwigнt May 5 '13 at 17:39

Like fire hardened here is a simile for the bare red road, which in other words has the appearance of fire, if fire were somehow hardened into a surface. As you surmise, hardened here functions as an adjective modifying fire. The clause could alternatively have been written

It streaked beneath him like hardened fire …

It streaked beneath him, like fire hardened, …

In the second clause, does is an auxiliary. It inverts positions with the subject when it is paired with only and a subordinate clause that restricts the main action to certain conditions. This word order emphasizes the restriction:

Only when we believe do we understand.

Only after the rains fall do the flowers bloom.

But if we change the order of the sentence to put the main action first, we would not use do at all:

We understand only when we believe.

The flowers bloom only after the rains fall.

  • It was great your detailed definition, just another question: with your clarification, and this simile, is the image a road that rushed beneath the boy like a fire that is more intense? Or it is a road that mark beneath him in color of a hardened fire? – Peyman Apr 8 '13 at 21:47
  • @Peyman It does not need to be one or the other. We know that the road physically appears red with streaks, like a flame, but I think the author has chosen this wording to evoke a metaphorical understanding as well, of the intensity and speed of fire. – choster Apr 8 '13 at 22:04
  • +1 You got it: look at this – StoneyB on hiatus Apr 8 '13 at 22:37

I think there's a typo somewhere.

Fire-hardened is an adjective (see StoneyB's link), so could be there's a missing word:

It streaked beneath him like fire-hardened [something]

What that something could be, I don't know.

The sentence

Only gradually as his breath choked him did he slow down and begin to take his bearings.

might be easier to analyze stripped down:

Only gradually did he slow down.

This started life as "He slowed down only gradually" but reversed for emphasis (which required the additional "did").

  • Thank you , it was so helpful. May the first sentence mean the road formed streaks as [it is] fire-hardened? Or The road rushed beneath him as fire-hardened[bricks] ? Hah? – Peyman Apr 8 '13 at 21:32
  • It's not a typo; the excerpt is from a Flannery O'Connor story. – choster Apr 8 '13 at 22:06
  • 3
    No, I read carelessly. O'Connor obviously mean that the beaten red clay of the road is like fire grown hard. I should have known that; I spent a good part of my youth on red-clay roads. – StoneyB on hiatus Apr 8 '13 at 22:17
  • @StoneyB I think this is the best clarification, 'the road is like fire grown hard' – Peyman Apr 8 '13 at 22:29
  • @Peyman Choster got it right first, without the advantage of knowing that it was a story by Flannery O'Connor--which points inexorably toward Georgia red clay. – StoneyB on hiatus Apr 8 '13 at 22:35

Keep reading this sentence "It streaked beneath him like fire hardened and only gradually, as his breath choked him, did he slow down and begin to take his bearings." it does make sense, punctuation will help break it up a bit. The "did" is used to add emphasis to the sentence, as in he wouldn't have slowed down but he had no choice.

Fire hardening is a process of making wood brittle by removing the moisture. Maybe the writer is saying it looked as if the road was being fire hardened? "...ran out of the woods onto the bare red road."

  • Thank you , it was so helpful. Could you help me about the meaning of 'fire hardened' too? May it mean that the road was like bricks which rushed beneath him or it is a road like a line or mark made with fire beneath him – Peyman Apr 8 '13 at 21:35
  • amended the post above, take a look. – Edward Apr 8 '13 at 22:29

"The bricks streaked below him as if they specially treated to be fire resistant" would add more clarification to the fire hardened bricks; so as not to confuse anyone into thinking that the the bricks appeared to be fire-like in appearance. Nevermind the William Shatner-esque turn of phrase "It streaked below him like fire, hardened"

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