In this post, we explain what metaphors are, how they work, and how to discuss them in your essays.
Welcome to our glossary of Literary Techniques METAPHOR post. This post gives a detailed explanation of one of the many techniques you can find in our Glossary of Literary Techniques for analysing written texts.
Below are some commonly asked questions about metaphor:
In this post, we explain what metaphors are, how they represent meaning, and walk you through a step-by-step process for writing about them in your responses.
Metaphors are an important and effective means of representing ideas in a text. While metaphors are common, they are difficult to develop and carry a lot of meaning. Metaphors are useful techniques to discuss in essays where you analyse texts. Metaphors are widespread in society – really powerful metaphors become so widespread in usage that fall into popular idiom (day-to-day speech).
For example, when we see something expensive we say that it “costs an arm and a leg.” It doesn’t really. Paying for expensive things with body parts would be a poor economic model in the long term, but we understand that the expression means the cost is onerous. Most idioms were once metaphors, but we hear them so often we take their ingenuity for granted.
A metaphor is a literary technique where one thing is compared to another by stating they share the same qualities.
Metaphors are different to similes.
Similes compare two things by likening them to one another. Similes rely on words such as “like” or “as” to make the comparison. “Like” and “as” often work as prepositions. Remember, a preposition is a word which which relates nouns to on another. For example, in the sentence “the boy was in the bath”, “In” tells us where the subject, “the boy,” is located in relation to the object, “the bath” – he is “in” it.
Thus, when “like” or “as” are used the comparison is an explicit one. We are saying explicitly that one object is similar to another.
In contrast, a metaphor is not suggesting something is like something else. Rather, a metaphor states that the thing is something else.
For example, “life is like a journey” is a simile. So, too, is “live life as a journey.” However, “life is a journey” is a metaphor, because it is saying one thing, “life”, is something else “a journey”.
A metaphor compares two objects in order to apply the attributes of one of the objects (in metaphor theory, this is known as the ‘vehicle’) to the other (the ‘tenor’). This process allows the speaker to say something innovative or useful about the tenor – the object that is described.
For example, in a metaphor when a poet compares love with a journey, she is suggesting that like a journey, a relationship has its ups and downs, or that like a journey, all loves come to an end. Consider the following flowchart:
Metaphor is one of the most fundamental figures of speech, and indeed aspects of language itself. Many of our popular idioms, that is, our day-to-day expressions, rely on metaphor to convey information.
For example, when we talk about “grasping the idea of trigonometry” we don’t mean that we physically hold the concept of trigonometry in our hands. That would be both absurd and impossible. Instead, we are using the tactile metaphor of holding something (the vehicle) to describe our relationship with the idea of understanding trigonometry (the tenor).
Literary texts are typically dense in metaphor. In the cases of writers such as Shakespeare, it is impossible to understand the text without constantly unpacking metaphors.
Metaphors are often easy to spot, but hard to describe. Sometimes a metaphor can be difficult to spot, too. The best way to become adept at spotting a metaphors is to practice analysing them.
It is possible to be systematic in your approach to learning how to spot and analyse metaphors.
Let’s have a look at an overview for the step-by-step process used for identifying and analysing a metaphor:
Now we have an overview of how to do identify and discuss a metaphor, let’s discuss how to do it in detail. Then we can look at some practical examples and see how to discuss a metaphor.
A metaphor implicitly compares a pair of things. Remember, this means they don’t use words such as “as” or “like” to make a comparison between things.
Let’s have a look at an extract from the final act of Shakespeare’s The Tempest as an example:
PROSPERO: He[Caliban] is as disproportion’d in his manners
As in his shape. Go, sirrah, to my cell;
Take with you your companions; as you look
To have my pardon, trim it handsomely.
CALIBAN: Ay, that I will; and I’ll be wise hereafter
And seek for grace. What a thrice-double ass
Was I, to take this drunkard for a god
And worship this dull fool! (5.1.xxx-xxx)
In the above example, there is a metaphor and a simile. Can you spot both of them?
Now we have spotted two objects being compared, we need to decide if the example is a metaphor or a simile.
When Prospero states that Caliban is “as disproportion’d in his manners as in his shape,” he is explicitly comparing Caliban’s behaviour to his physical deformities (Caliban is described as a misshapen man who appears to be part fish). The use of the word “as”, which works as a preposition, signals that this is not a metaphor. Clearly this must be a simile.
When Caliban states “What a thrice-double ass was I, to take this drunkard for a god and worship this dull fool,” he is comparing himself to an “ass” (a donkey) of great size (“thrice-double”). To do this, he says he “was” an ass. This is using a verb to state he was something, not that he was like something. This is a metaphor!
Now that we have determined that the phrase is a metaphor, we need to unpack it to see how it is representing meaning.
Clearly “What a thrice-double ass was I, to take this drunkard for a god and worship this dull fool” is a metaphor. But what does it mean and how does it work? Let’s have a look.
In this metaphor:
This means the main object being compared is Caliban himself. Caliban [the tenor] is comparing himself to a “thrice-doubled ass,” this is the vehicle. We understand this to mean that Caliban is saying he is an “ass” for believing that somebody else (a character called Stephano) was a “god”.
Now we can see what is being compared and how, we need to figure out what meaning is being represented.
We can understand the meaning of Caliban’s metaphor “What a thrice-double ass was I, to take this drunkard for a god and worship this dull fool” by considering the qualities of the vehicle: “a thrice-double ass”.
Now that we have identified the metaphor; unpacked it; and understood how it has developed meaning, we need to discuss the metaphor in our writing. Let’s have a look at how to do this.
It is not enough to present an example of a metaphor and identify the technique used in it as a metaphor, we also need to explain how this metaphor develops meaning for the reader. This means you need to use a T.E.E.L structure to explain what you perceive the metaphor to be saying.
T.E.E.L stands for:
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 a metaphor.
Let’s put this together into a complete piece of analysis about this metaphor:
Caliban uses the metaphor “What a thrice-double ass was I, to take this drunkard for a god and worship this dull fool” to demonstrate his realisation that he has made a mistake. This statement marks a moment of personal insight, also known as anagnorisis, where he realises that Stephano is just a drunkard and not a god. Caliban is forced to reassess one of his earlier discoveries, and this changes his perspective on himself. While he perceives himself as being a fool, such self-reflection also marks him as distinctly human. Self-reflection and contrition are highly-esteemed humanist qualities.
Take a minute and read that a few times to understand how it works together.
Now we have gone through the step-by-step process of analysing a metaphor, let’s take a look at a couple of examples of metaphors from different texts to see how we could write about them.
Metaphors are quite common. You will find metaphors in many texts set for study. This is especially true of texts set for the HSC. HSC texts tend to be significant texts that are rich in the use of literary techniques such as metaphor. So, to make sure you fully understand what metaphors are and how they work, let’s have a look at two more examples. To help you learn to write about metaphors, we have included a sample response for each example.
Let’s consider the second stanza of Ted Hughes’ Red:
When you had your way finally
Our room was red. A judgement chamber.
Shut casket for gems. The carpet of blood
Patterned with darkenings, congealments.
The curtains — ruby corduroy blood,
Sheer blood-falls from ceiling to floor.
The cushions the same. The same
Raw carmine along the window-seat.
A throbbing cell. Aztec altar — temple.
In this stanza, the persona describes their bedroom after their wife has painted it red. The persona describes the red decoration of the room with imagery of blood. In the final sentence of the stanza, the persona uses a metaphor “Aztec altar – temple” to describe the room. This is a complex metaphor that has powerful connotations (that is, implied meanings).
Aztec altars were used ceremonially to cut out the hearts of sacrificial victims. Here, the persona is using the metaphor of the Aztec altar as the vehicle to imply that the redecorated bedroom, the tenor, was now a place where they had their metaphorical heart removed.
If we were to write about this use of a metaphor in an essay we would say that:
In Red, Ted Hughes’ uses the extended metaphor of an “Aztec altar – temple” to describe the couple’s bedroom. The persona uses strong bloody imagery describing “The carpet of blood”, “the curtains – ruby corduroy blood / sheer blood falls from ceiling to floor” to develop the description of the couple’s bedroom as an altar. The Aztec’s used ceremonial altars to remove the hearts of sacrificial victims. The connotation of this metaphor is that the persona’s wife redecorated the bedroom, a site of intimacy, to better emotional torment or hurt him. Rather than a place of love, the bedroom was a now a place where the persona has his heart cut out, again and again.
Let’s consider the third part of TS Eliot’s Preludes:
In this stanza, the persona is describing the actions that an individual (presumably a reader from the early 1920s) does in bed.
The persona uses an extended metaphor (a metaphor that runs over several lines) of a cinema (the vehicle) – “watched the night revealing / The thousand sordid images / Of which your soul was constituted; They flickered against the ceiling” – to describe the subject’s dreams (the tenor). The persona is describing an individual’s moment of self-reflection and self-criticism where they, in a light state of sleep, agonize over their past errors.
If we were to discuss this analysis of the metaphor in an essay we would say:
TS Eliot poetry is often concerned with the corruption brought about by modernity. In the third part of Preludes, the persona describes how an individual “lay upon your back, and waited; / You dozed, and watched the night revealing / The thousand sordid images / Of which your soul was constituted; / They flickered against the ceiling.” In this extended metaphor, sleep is described as an activity where individuals represent on the “sordid” events of which their “soul is constituted” as if they were in a cinema. This bleak imagery asserts that modernity corrupts individuals with the excess and materialism it brings. The power of this metaphor is compounded by the use of the 2nd person pronouns, “you” which place the audience inside this figure to relive their own anxious anxiety each night.