Definition of Metaphor

A metaphor is a rhetorical figure of speech that compares two subjects without the use of “like” or “as.” Metaphor is often confused with simile, which compares two subjects by connecting them with “like” or “as” (for example: “She’s fit as a fiddle”). While a simile states that one thing is like another, a metaphor asserts that one thing is the other, or is a substitute for the other thing.

A metaphor asserts a correlation or resemblance between two things that are otherwise unrelated. The English word “metaphor” originates from the Greek metaphorá, which means “to transfer” or “to carry over.” Indeed, a metaphor transfers meaning from one subject on to another so that the target subject can be understood in a new way.

Rhetoricians have further elaborated on the definition of metaphor by separating and naming the two key elements. There are a few different sets of names for these two parts: they can be called the “tenor” and the “vehicle”, the “ground” and the “figure”, or the “target” and the “source”. Consider this famous example of a metaphor from Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.

In this example, the world is the primary subject, and it gains attributes from the stage (ie, from theater). Thus, in the binary pairs, the world is the “tenor,” the “ground,” and the “target,” while the stage is the “vehicle,” the “figure,” and the “source.”

Difference between Metaphor and Simile, and Other Types of Analogies

Metaphor is a type of analogy, which is a class of rhetorical figures of speech that creates comparisons between different objects. Other examples of analogies are similes, allegories, hyperboles, and puns. Here are the key differences between these different terms:

  • Simile: As stated above, a simile posits a likeness or similarity between two things by connecting them with “like” or “as.” Since a metaphor asserts that one thing is, in fact, identical to another it is often considered a stronger form of analogy than a simile. For example, stating, “Frank is a pig” is a stronger statement of disgust than “Frank is like a pig.”
  • Allegory: An allegory is a complete story that uses an extended metaphor throughout the entire story to illustrate complex ideas in a comprehensible way. George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm is an allegory that uses the extended metaphor of animals starting a revolution on their farm to characterize the figures of the Russian Revolution.
  • Hyperbole: Hyperbole compares or describes things in an exaggerated way for the sake of emphasis. It is common, for example, to pronounce, “I’m starving” when one is merely hungry or “I’m freezing” when one is quite cold. The state of starvation is much more dire than mere hunger, and so we say we are starving to emphasize the need for food.
  • Pun: Like metaphor, a pun uses comparison to create cognitive links between two things. The difference between the two terms is that a pun does so for comedic effect. For example: “I’m glad I know sign language, it’s pretty handy.” In this pun, the word “handy” refers both to the usefulness of sign language and also to the fact that sign language relies on the speakers’ hands.

Examples of Metaphor from Common Speech

Many common sayings are metaphors. Here are just a few examples:

  • Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
  • It was raining cats and dogs.
  • Never look a gift horse in the mouth.
  • People who live in glass houses should not throw stones.
  • A watched pot never boils.

Significance of Metaphor in Literature

Metaphor is a key component of all forms of literature, including poetry, prose, and drama. This is not only because metaphor is a highly useful literary device, but also because it is such a vital part of all language and communication. Many cognitive theorists have researched and written about the importance of metaphor in the way we understand the world around us. For example, in western culture the phrase “time is money” is quite prevalent. This is not just a cliché, though; we talk about time in terms of wasting it, spending it, saving it, and so on. The metaphorical comparison of these two concepts ends up influencing the way people in cultures actually perceive time.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that there are examples of metaphor in literature from every culture. The use of metaphor allows authors to present unfamiliar ideas or situations in ways that the reader is able to comprehend by comparing unknown things to known things. This can be a good technique for fantasy writers or science fiction writers to make the worlds they create seem more familiar to the reader. Metaphors can also be used, however, to compare very common things to one another. This type of usage forges a cognitive link between previously unrelated objects and makes readers appreciate them in a new way.

Examples of Metaphor from Literature

Example #1

ROMEO: But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)

As one of the most famous romances of all time, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has many often-quoted lines about love. In this line, Romeo uses the metaphor of Juliet being the rising sun to demonstrate his devotion. Sunrise can signify new hope, which is how Romeo views his relationship with Juliet. Furthermore, the planet revolves around the sun and Romeo feels that his world now revolves around Juliet.

Example #2

He says, you have to study and learn so that you can make up your own mind about history and everything else but you can’t make up an empty mind. Stock your mind, stock your mind. You might be poor, your shoes might be broken, but your mind is a palace.

(Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt)

Frank McCourt’s memoir Angela’s Ashes is primarily about the poverty in which he grew up. This lovely excerpt, however, demonstrates how he was able to conceptualize his life as having a large amount of potential. Even though McCourt was poor, he could think of his mind as a palace and therefore have riches beyond belief available to him.

Example #3

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,
starving hysterical naked…
…who disappeared into the volcanoes of Mexico leaving behind
nothing but the shadow of dungarees and the lava and ash of
poetry scattered in fireplace Chicago.

(“Howl” by Allen Ginsberg)

Allen Ginsberg’s 1955 poem “Howl” contains hallucinatory images and wild descriptions. In this particularly vivid excerpt, Ginsberg slides from the imagery of Mexican volcanoes to the “lava and ash of poetry” left behind in fireplaces. The unexpected juxtaposition of these two images is a good example of how metaphor can work to broaden a reader’s conceptual base for a concept, in this case about poetry.

Test Your Knowledge of Metaphor

1. What is the correct metaphor definition?
A. A comparison between two things for comedic effect.
B. A comparison between two things using “like” or “as”.
C. A comparison between two things that states one thing is the other thing.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: C is the correct answer. A is the definition of a pun and B is the definition of a simile.[/spoiler]

2. Why is the following excerpt from Robert Frost’s “After Apple Picking” a metaphor example?

…there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples; I am drowsing off.

I have had too much
Of apple-picking; I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.

A. The speaker in the poem is thinking of the apples that have gone to waste and wishing that he had picked those apples as well.
B. The speaker in the poem is comparing the work of apple picking to life itself and feeling that, at the end of his life, he is ready to rest/pass away rather than keep working.
C. The speaker in the poem wishes he had more energy for apple picking.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: B is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

3. Which of the following lines from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18” contains a metaphor?

A. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”
B. “But thy eternal summer shall not fade”
C. “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see” 
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: B is the correct answer.[/spoiler]