Imagery, Symbolism, and Allegory
Imagery refers to language that creates mental “pictures.” Writers use a number of devices to help readers visualize the content of a story. One of the methods writers use is figurative language. Figurative language consists of “figures” of speech–especially metaphor, simile, and personification–which establish connections between ideas and objects. Sometimes figurative language also connects objects with other objects or even people with objects. Each of these figures of speech is essentially a comparison. For example, if I were to say, “I’m on fire today!,” you would probably not interpret the statement literally (meaning I am actually on fire); you would most likely assume I am happy with my performance and am comparing it to fire. This is the difference between the literal meaning and the figurative meaning of a statement. Some figurative language is so common we rarely notice it, as when we ask, “Don’t you see?” when we really mean, “Don’t you understand?” Here are the definitions of the most common forms of figurative language:
- metaphor: a comparison between one thing and another without the use of like or as. For example, “The eyes are the windows of the soul.”
- simile: a comparison that uses like or as (or some other connecting word) to associate one thing with another. For example, “Your eyes are like pools of water in the moonlight.”
- personification: a comparison that describes a nonhuman object in human terms. For example, “A furious wind was blowing across the valley.”
Two other types of figurative language are metonymy and synecdoche.
- metonymy: referring to something by substituting something commonly associated with it, such as “The Crown” for a monarch or “The pen is mightier than the sword,” where “pen” stands for the written word and “sword” stands for violence.
- synecdoche: a narrower form of metonymy in which the part is used for the whole, as in “All hands on deck!” or “Nice wheels!”
Yet another method for creating imagery is the use of sensory details, where authors describe objects in terms of the five senses, how they look, sound, smell, taste, or feel.
Symbolism is a commonly used word, but it is sometimes used incorrectly and can be easily confused with metaphor. Both terms refer to an object or character in a story that stands for an idea, or sometimes a “real” object or person which the symbol or metaphor alludes to or disguises. The difference between symbol and metaphor lies in the way they are presented.
A metaphor is always a figure of speech, a type of figurative language, such as a simile or personification. What these devices have in common is their function of comparison. Metaphors are contained within statements that compare the two terms of the metaphor. For example, in “Dover Beach,” Arnold says, “The Sea of Faith/ Was once, too, at the full….” In this line, Arnold compares the sea to faith because he wants to focus on the way the two things are alike.
A symbol differs from a metaphor in the way that it is presented. While a symbol also stands for something else, it does not come in the form of a statement that clarifies its meaning. Instead, the meaning is largely determined by the thematic context of the object. While this may seem more difficult to interpret, it allows for a more dynamic interpretation; a symbol may simultaneously represent multiple ideas or themes. When a story is composed entirely of symbolic elements, it becomes an allegory. One story that may be read as an allegory is the story of Adam and Eve from the book of Genesis. To interpret this story as objective history misses much of the point–whether or not there was a historical Adam and Eve seems hardly relevant in comparison with the interpretation that takes into account the universal themes of temptation, disobedience, and punishment. Many mythological stories contain universal themes expressed in a similar manner: The Odyssey, the story of Prometheus, Hercules, etc.
As you read the works for this week, try to identify symbols that work together to convey the themes. Do you recognize any patterns of symbols or metaphors? Could these stories be allegories? What insights about life do they illustrate?
How does the author use language to create imagery? Can you identify any specific examples of figurative language? Does the author use sensory details? Where? How do these details influence our interpretation? As always, be sure to read the chapter in the textbook, which elaborates on these ideas.
Short Stories: Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”; Thomas, “Do Not Go Gentle”; Arnold, “Dover Beach”; Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown”
From this book
- Beiderwell, Bruce and Jeffrey M. Wheeler. The Literary Experience,
Compact Edition. 2nd edition, Cengage, 2016. (ISBN: 978-0-8400-3076-2)