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English 11-12

Literary Techniques: Simile

Do you ever get confused between metaphor and simile? This article will clear up the confusion and show you how to identify and write about similes.

Struggling to write about similes for your school assignment? Are you unsure what a simile is? Don’t worry, in this literary techniques article, we unpack what similes are and how to analyse them!

Don’t forget, you can find our complete set of techniques toolkits, here.

Literary Techniques – Simile

Similes, like metaphors, are used in a text to convey ideas and meaning in a more direct way. The simile is an important technique to grasp, as they are extremely common within texts. Similes may also contain interesting connotations, or characterise certain people/things, that may be worth analysing in essays.

 

In this article, we’ll discuss:

 

Introducing similes

Similes are fairly easy to spot in texts because of its usual inclusion of the words “like” or “as”. Though, students shouldn’t just stop here! You will want to pay close attention to exactly what is being compared (is it a person? Place? Thing?) to what.

If a person is being compared to an animal, or an object, this may be showing you, as the audience, how the composer sees that person. You may also want to think about whether this comparison is positive, or negative, and whether they appear again, or change, later in the text.

Most of us will use similes in our day-to-day speech without even noticing it!

For example, you might say you feel “as sick as a dog” when you catch a cold, or that your kitchen is “as clean as a whistle!”.

These expressions may be quite hyperbolic, but the comparison provides much more meaning than merely saying “I feel unwell”, or “The kitchen is clean”.

blog english literary technique simile sick as a dog

What is a simile?

A simile is a literary technique in which one thing is directly compared to another using words such as “like” or “as”.

 

Similes are different from metaphors.

While similes are saying that one thing is like another thing, metaphors say that one thing is another.

For example, “she glared at me like a lion, hungry and focused” would be a simile. Though, the quote “she was a lion, glaring hungry and focused” would be a metaphor.

Similes directly say what metaphors imply.

The key is to look out for prepositions. That is, words that relate nouns to one another. The words “like” or “as”, in this case, key you into the fact that one thing is being directly compared to another.

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”.

How does a simile work?

Similes work by directly comparing two objects explicitly, usually through the use of “like” or “as”, in order to layer the attributes of one object onto the other.

Similes create a figurative comparison, and the reader is forced to think about how those two separate objects are similar. The two, or potentially more, objects being compared in a simile are known as the ‘comparands’. When both comparands – things that are being compared – are considered alongside each other, the writer is able to say something specific about the subject/object/person/place.

Consider this example from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale:

“She was carefully made up…rouge on the bones of her cheeks, over which the skin was stretched like a rubber glove pulled tight”.

In this example, the woman’s skin is being compared to a tight rubber glove. This simile could imply many things about the woman: that she is perhaps older, yet cares a lot about her appearance. Though, the example also tells us something about the narrator, in that she sees characteristics of a sterile, inhuman glove in the woman’s skin. What does this tell us about the way she views the woman? How could this example illustrate a greater theme in the novel?

Besides “like” and “as” it is useful to remember there are also other words that may serve to create a simile.

For example: “She glowed in the same way that the full moon did each month”.

In this example, though there is no “like” or “as” to immediately clue you into the fact that a simile is present, the writer is still encouraging their audience to view the supposed sameness as a comparison.

 

How to analyse a simile – step-by-step

Similes can be fairly easy to notice, but difficult to link back to your overall argument. It is important that you both identify the technique and state why this technique is useful in backing up your point!

Let’s go step-by-step, and take a look at how similes can be identified and analysed in texts.

  1. Ask yourself if the quote you’ve picked out satisfies the requirements of a simile.
  2. Look at what the two, or more, comparands are; how do they relate to each other.
  3. Consider, “how does this simile develop meaning in the text”?
  4. What themes does the comparison relate to?
  5. How can the simile support your argument?
  6. Describe your insights using the T.E.E.L structure.

Step 1: Is it a simile?

Remember, a simile is essentially a figurative comparison. You want to make sure your example includes words such as “like” or “as”, among others, to ensure you have truly picked out a simile, and not a metaphor!

Consider the following example from T. S. Eliot’s ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’:

Every street lamp that I pass / Beats like a fatalistic drum.

In this quote, the use of the word “like” signals the existence of a simile! Had the phrase instead been written as “every street lamp that I pass is a beating, fatalistic drum”, though, you would be analysing a metaphor.

Now that we have concluded that a simile is present, let’s unpack the meaning behind its usage!

blog english literary technique simile lamps in a row

Step 2: How do the comparands relate to each other?

In the above example, Eliot is directly comparing two distinct things:

  1. the passing of street lamps.
  2. A beating drum.

You can easily imagine the lamps, evenly spaced out along the street, their lights hitting the narrator like a steady rhythm as he passes under each one. Though, it is worth thinking about how these two things relate to each other. Is it common to compare passing under lamps to drumbeats? What meaning is established here?

You can choose to interpret this simile in whatever way you like (such is the joy of English!), though it is worth considering two key things:

  1. What are the connotations or symbols surrounding each comparand?
  2. How do those connotations interact with each other?

It is useful, in this example, to consider the use of the word “fatalistic” to further characterise the drumbeats. Fatalism is a philosophical ideology that focuses on the belief that all events in our lives are predetermined. So, the street lamps that the narrator passes are not only rhythmic, but they also carry a sense of inevitability. As the narrator walks, he is certain to pass under each light. The next lamp will be sure to come after the next, and so on.

The simple image of passing street lamps is now given a more unique tone, and deeper meaning.

 

Step 3: “how does this simile develop meaning in the text”?

Techniques are not exactly worth much in an essay if they cannot be used to support your answer to the question!

It is always a good idea to ask yourself: what theme does this simile relate to?

In the above example, the monotonous, inescapable nature of the passing street lamps could coincide with the theme of fate, or humanity’s lack of free will.

Once you have identified what theme the simile is relating to, it is necessary to ask how the simile is representing this theme. Is it in support of, or challenging, the theme? How does it fit into your essay’s argument as a whole?

 

Step 4: Describe how the simile develops meaning using a T.E.EL structure

T.E.E.L stands for:

  • Technique: The technique used in the example
  • Example: the quote/shot itself.
  • Effect: Your explanation of the effect of this technique and how it develops meaning.
  • Link: An explanation of how this example supports your argument.

Let’s use this structure to analyse the above simile:

  • Technique: Simile
  • Example: “Every street lamp that I pass / Beats like a fatalistic drum”
  • Effect: The narrator’s experience of moving under street lamps is presented as fatalistic and never-ending by comparing the lamps to the rhythmic beating of a drum.
  • Link: This comparison figuratively demonstrates Eliot’s belief in the notion of fate, and the way the modern world leads and controls the movements of humanity.

When you put all of those elements together, your analysis may look something like this:

Within T S Eliot’s ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’, the simile “[e]very street lamp that I pass / [b]eats like a fatalistic drum” figuratively demonstrates Eliot’s belief in the notion of fate. Here, the narrator’s passing under street lamps is compared to the rhythmic, monotonous beats of a drum. This phrase highlights the way the modern world controls the movements of humanity, as the experience is characterised as inevitable, repetitive and never-ending.

 

Need help analysing similes?

Learn how to analyse and discuss similes in your English response with Matrix+! We provide you with clear, structured online lessons, resources and feedback to support your learning. Learn more.

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Written by Julia Saab

Julia Saab is a sometimes Arts/Law student at the University of Sydney, sometimes writer, born and raised in Sydney. Julia has worked with Matrix Education since 2016. She is particularly interested in short fiction, and writes pieces based around human experiences and interactions, fascinated by the inner workings of memory and attachment. She has also worked with the Sydney Institute of Criminology, and hopes to pursue a career in Criminal Law.

 

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