Literary Techniques: Imagery
Posted on September 20, 2017 by Patrick Condliffe
Welcome to our glossary of literary techniques: imagery post. This post expands on the definitions found in our Literary Techniques Part 1: Techniques for Analysing a Written Text post.
Here are some common questions asked about imagery:
- What is imagery?
- Are there different types of imagery?
- How do I analyse imagery in a text?
- How do I explain what imagery does in a text?
In this post, we will discuss the literary technique of IMAGERY. Read on while we show you some examples, discuss its effect in these examples, and explain how you should discuss it in your responses.
Table of Contents
Imagery is one of the most common and most effective techniques used in texts. It describes things for a reader so they can get an accurate sense of what the composer is trying to represent.
What is Imagery?
Imagery is language that evokes one of the five senses, and you must always refer to the specific kind. In other words, never use simply ‘imagery,’ but always ‘olfactory imagery,’ ‘tactile imagery,’ ‘visual imagery,’ ‘auditory imagery,’ or ‘gustatory imagery.’
Clearly there are different types of imagery. Let’s see what they are and how they work!
As we mentioned above, there are several different varieties of imagery:
- Olfactory imagery – Olfactory refers to that which we can smell. Thus, olfactory imagery refers to descriptions of smells and odours. For example, “The mechanic stank of petrol.”
- Tactile imagery – Tactile refers to the sense of touching things. Tactile imagery describes how things feel to the touch. For example, “The toad was slimy in her hands.”
- Visual imagery – Visual imagery describes how things appear. When people think of imagery, they usually think of visual imagery. For example, “The boy had rosy cheeks.”
- Auditory imagery – Auditory refers to how things sound. Auditory imagery conveys how things sound to an audience. For example, “Tom Waits is famed for his coarse gravelly voice.”
- Gustatory imagery – Gustatory refers to how things taste. When composers use gustatory imagery, they describe how things taste. For example, “Suzy tasted the acrid flavour of high octane fuel as her pit crew filled the tank.”
It is important that you be specific when you discuss different types of imagery in your essays, so your markers get a clear picture of how you are using it to support your ideas.
Imagery is an effective technique, because it is readily recognised as describing something from a sentient point of view. As humans, we experience the world through our senses. This is why we can relate quickly to the thing being described because it reflects how we engage with the world – we look, see, touch, smell, taste, and hear.
Composers know this, and they use it as a means of convey complex ideas and experiences to their audiences.
Think about that for a moment.
We can easily share our experiences with one another because our sensory experiences give us a common language to use to refer to things.
An Example of Olfactory Imagery
Let’s look at an example:
Most people recognise petrichor, the smell of rain, even if they don’t know the word for it. It is a distinct smell, so when a composer wants to share a character’s experience of the weather with readers, they will draw on this shared experience.
The composer could write “Josephine paused outside her front door as the sky growled in the distance. The perfume of rain and hot tarmac serenaded her. She enjoyed it for a moment, before dashing back inside to grab her umbrella.”
This example uses two types of imagery, auditory, in the distant sound of thunder, and Olfactory, the smell of petrichor and hot road surface.
This use of olfactory imagery is recognisable to readers used to Australian summer thunderstorms. Using imagery in this way is a quick and very effective way to represent these experiences to an audience. This example will appeal to audiences better than “Josephine went outside and smelled petrichor. She dashed inside to get her umbrella.”
Notice, too, how the composer doesn’t need to use complex amounts of adjectives and adverbs to describe things. Imagery is an effective way of “showing” rather than “telling” because it compels readers to draw on their own experiences.
It is possible to be systematic when analysing imagery. Let’s see what this process looks like:
- Read the passage to see if there is something recognisable to the senses;
- Identify the examples using sensory imagery; and then
- Figure out which sense is being used;
- Ask yourself, “what sense does this example use?”;
- Ask yourself what this imagery is representing?
- Write about what this imagery does, and how it supports your argument using a T.E.E.L structure.
Now we have an idea of what this process looks like, let’s examine it in detail.
Step 1: Read the passage to see if it represents sensate experiences
Imagery conveys sensory experiences. When we analyse a passage to for it, we need to look for depictions of sensory experience. As you read, ask yourself is a sensory experience being represented here?
Let’s consider a passage from Act Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s The Tempest:
Caliban:all the infections that the sun sucks up
From bogs, fens, flats, on Prosper fall and make him
By inch-meal a disease! His spirits hear me
And yet I needs must curse. But they’ll nor pinch,
Fright me with urchin–shows, pitch me i’ the mire,
Nor lead me, like a firebrand, in the dark
Out of my way, unless he bid ’em; but
For every trifle are they set upon me;
Sometime like apes that mow and chatter at me
And after bite me, then like hedgehogs which
Lie tumbling in my barefoot way and mount
Their pricks at my footfall; sometime am I
All wound with adders who with cloven tongues
Do hiss me into madness.
If we read through this passage we can see that Caliban is describing the torments that the tyrannical magician Prospero is inflicting on him. He is describing sensory experiences. This is imagery. Now we need to figure out what kinds it is and what it is doing.
Step 2: Identify the examples and types of imagery used
To identify imagery, we need to figure out what senses the examples are using to convey meaning.
In this example, Caliban describes how things look, how they sound, and he describes how things feel. So, let’s see what these examples are doing:
- Sound: “sometime like apes that mow and chatter at me” “sometime am I / All wound with adders who with cloven tongues / Do hiss me into madness” – this is auditory imagery.
- Sight: “But they’ll…Fright me with urchin–shows” – this is visual imagery.
- Touch: “then like hedgehogs which / Lie tumbling in my barefoot way and mount / Their pricks at my footfall” – this is tactile imagery.
Now we’ve broken the sensory imagery down into groups of senses, we need to figure out what Shakespeare is representing with these images.
Step 3: Understand what the Imagery is representing
Now we’ve found the imagery, we have to understand what it is doing.
In this extract, Caliban is complaining about how Prospero, a magician, torments him. He describes the different creatures and and spirits that the crotchety and cruel tyrant uses to keep Caliban in line.
Caliban describes how Prospero would torment him:
- By scaring him with visual imagery – “But they’ll…Fright me with urchin–shows”
- By terrifying him with auditory imagery – “sometime like apes that mow and chatter at me” “sometime am I / All wound with adders who with cloven tongues / Do hiss me into madness”
- By physically torturing him with tactle imagery – “then like hedgehogs which / Lie tumbling in my barefoot way and mount / Their pricks at my footfall”
Now we need to describe how this is conveying this to the reader in a such a powerful manner.
Step 4: Describe how the imagery is representing meaning in the text
We have ascertained that Caliban is complaining about his treatment at the hands of Prospero. Caliban uses visual, auditory, and tactile imagery to describe this.
So how do we discuss this in our essay?
We use a T.E.E.L structure.
T.E.E.L stands for:
- Technique: The technique used in the example;
- Example: The example;
- Effect: Your explanation of the effect of this technique and how it develops meaning;
- Link: An explanation of how this example supports your argument.
You can find a more detailed explanation of using T.E.E.L in our post on paragraph structure (this post is part of our series on Essay Writing and shows you the methods Matrix English students learn to write Band 6 essays in the Matrix Holiday and Term courses). Let’s use this T.E.E.L structure to write about this example of imagery.
- The techniques being used are visual imagery, auditory imagery, and tactile imagery.
- The examples of the technique used here are:
- “But they’ll…Fright me with urchin–shows”
- “sometime like apes that mow and chatter at me” “sometime am I / All wound with adders who with cloven tongues / Do hiss me into madness”
- “then like hedgehogs which / Lie tumbling in my barefoot way and mount / Their pricks at my footfall”
- The effect of this technique is that Caliban represents how Prospero tortures him unless he does the magician’s bidding.
- The link to our argument about discovery is that Caliban’s representation of his struggles, changes the audience’s view of Prospero as a benevolent ruler, to one who is cruel. Caliban gives insight into the nature or colonial rule.
Let’s put this together into a complete piece of analysis about these examples of imagery:
Shakespeare challenges the audience’s perceptions of Prospero when Caliban describes his torment at the hands of the magician. Caliban describes how Prospero would “fright me with urchin-shows,” using visual imagery to convey how the magician would keep Caliban terrified. In addition, Prospero’s innumerably cruelty is clear in the traps Prospero would leave “tumbling in [Caliban’s barefoot way… / their pricks at [his] footfall” and the phantasmal snakes that “hiss [Caliban] into madness.” Here auditory and tactile imagery represents Caliban’s suffering in vivid manner, depicting to the audience Prospero’s true nature as a cruel and bitter ruler. This challenges the audience’s initial discovery of Prospero’s benevolent manner, adding tot he complexity of the text.
Now we have an understanding of how to analyse imagery, let’s look at a few more examples.
Now we have looked at what imagery is, how it works, and how to analyse it in your texts, let’s have a look at some examples. For each of these examples we have explained what the technique is, how it works, and then provided a sample response.
Some students notice that ‘visual imagery’ is something of a tautology (that is, it seems to say the same thing twice), and they omit the adjective ‘visual’ when referring to this category. Do not do this! Always be specific when discussing imagery!
The opening of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ is filled with overwhelming visual imagery:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
Effect: The accumulation of intense visual imagery sustains, for the reader, the sense of the sublime, which was so important in Romantic verse.
Imagery occurs in Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. Let’s have a look at an extract from Part One, Chapter 1:
[Winston] took down from the shelf a bottle of colourless liquid with a plain white label marked VICTORY GIN. It gave off a sickly, oily smell, as of Chinese rice-spirit. Winston poured out nearly a teacupful, nerved himself for a shock, and gulped it down like a dose of medicine.
Instantly his face turned scarlet and the water ran out of his eyes. The stuff was like nitric acid, and moreover, in swallowing it one had the sensation of being hit on the back of the head with a rubber club. The next moment, however, the burning in his belly died down and the world began to look more cheerful.
In this example, Orwell has used various types of imagery. Let’s see what they are, and how you should describe the technique and effect and how it develops meaning.
Visual Imagery describes the liquid: “[Winston] took down from the shelf a bottle of colourless liquid with a plain white label marked VICTORY GIN.”
Effect: The gin is presented as an innocuous and bland liquid.
Olfactory Imagery describes the smell of the liquid: “It gave off a sickly, oily smell, as of Chinese rice-spirit. Winston poured out nearly a teacupful, nerved himself for a shock, and gulped it down like a dose of medicine.
Effect: The gin is described as having an unpleasant smell. The audience perceives it as unappetising, but Winston drinks it anyway. This characterises Winston and the setting.
How to discuss imagery in an essay:
‘Orwell’s use of imagery in describing Victory Gin gives readers an insight into the rudimentary and run-down condition of Airstrip One. Visual imagery describes the liquid as an innocuous “colourless liquid with a plain white label,” this contrasts with the olfactory imagery that describes its unpleasant “sickly, oily smell, as of Chinese rice-spirit.” Victory Gin is representative of the impoverished nature of Airstrip One, people struggle to cope with its smell and taste but rely on it to make “the world [begin] to look more cheerful.”‘
Want to take your textual analysis to the next level?
- Return to the Literary Techniques Part 1: Techniques for Analysing a Written Text post to continue learning how to analyse literary techniques in poetry and prose with reference to all the major techniques.
- Read the article: Literary Techniques Part 2: How to Analyse Poetry and Prose to learn how to analyse literary techniques in poetry and prose with reference to all the major techniques.
- Apply your analysis and learn how to write a a Band 6 essay beginning with the perfect thesis statement!
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