Definition of Simile
Simile is an explicit comparison between two unlike things through the use of connecting words, usually “like” or “as.” The technique of simile is known as a rhetorical analogy, as it is a device used for comparison. The other most popular rhetorical analogy is metaphor, which shares some traits and is often confused with simile. We explain the difference in greater detail below.
Difference Between Simile and Metaphor
As stated above, simile and metaphor are often confused. Though the difference is simple between the definition of simile and that of metaphor, it can be profound. While simile compares two things with the connecting words “like” or “as,” metaphor simply states that one thing is the other. For example, a simile would be, “He was as aggressive as a tiger in that argument,” whereas a metaphor would be, “He was a tiger in that argument.” Metaphors are thus subtler and can be stronger in a rhetorical sense, because they equate the two things in comparison rather than just present them as similar. Similes, however, allow for truly bizarre comparisons that make the reader stretch to understand the connection between them.
Common Examples of Simile
There are many clichéd similes in the English language that we use regularly. Here are some examples:
- Strong as an ox
- Fit as a fiddle
- Bright as the sun
- Sweating like a pig
- White as a sheet
- His heart was as cold as ice
- Sleeping like a log
- Fast as lightning
- Dance like no one is watching
Significance of Simile in Literature
Simile can be an excellent way for an author either to make an unusual thing seem more familiar (i.e., “The planet Zenoth was as cold as ice”) or a familiar thing seem more unique (i.e., “Her smile was jagged like a broken zipper”). In this way, similes can help the reader imagine the fictive world of a piece of literature. Good similes can also make readers think about things in a new way, and can sometimes create a lasting effect. Scottish poet Robert Burns’s declaration that his “luve’s like a red, red rose” forever linked the concepts of love and red roses in our minds.
Simile can also sometimes be used to show a comparison, though with the conclusion that these two things really are unalike or even at odds with each other. This can either be a negative simile, which might come in the form of “A is not like B” (see Example #1 below) or an ironic simile, which communicates the opposite of what is expected at the beginning of the statement. For example, the famous feminist quote popularized by Gloria Steinem, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” ultimately concludes that a woman has no need for a man.
Simile can help to make new connections for the reader. One of literature’s purposes is to help better explain the world around us, and the technique of simile is one of those ways in which we are able to see things in a new way. All types of analogies are cognitive processes of transferring meaning from one thing to another, and thus the use of simile in literature has real synaptic effects. For this reason, and for aesthetic purposes, simile has been a popular literary technique for many hundreds of years.
Examples of Simile in Literature
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
(“Sonnet 130” by William Shakespeare)
This excerpt from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130” is an example of a negative simile. Shakespeare goes against the expectation praising his mistress’s beauty and instead says what she is not like. Her lips are not as red as coral, her skin is not pure as snow, and so on. This striking simile example plays with both the tradition of sonnets as well as the usual function of similes.
Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
(A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens)
This excerpt from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol also plays with the tradition of similes. Dickens knowingly uses the clichéd simile “dead as a doornail” (perhaps more clichéd now than even in his day). He then investigates the simile, humorously pointing out that there is nothing “particularly dead about a doornail” and that a coffin nail would have provided a better simile. But, as he concludes, some similes display “the wisdom of our ancestors,” which is to say, not much wisdom at all.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
(“Harlem” by Langston Hughes)
Langston Hughes uses five examples of simile in this short poem, “Harlem.” Each simile is one possibility that Hughes imagines for “a dream deferred.” The imagery was so striking in this poem that playwright Lorraine Hansberry named her famous play A Raisin in the Sun after the first simile in the poem. All of the similes in this poem share a sense of decay and burden, just like a dream that does not come to fruition.
The Radley Place fascinated Dill. In spite of our warnings and explanations it drew him as the moon draws water, but drew him no nearer than the light-pole on the corner, a safe distance from the Radley gate.
(To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)
The classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee centers around the tragedy of Boo Radley, a man falsely accused for a crime. This evocative simile at the beginning of the novel somewhat foreshadows the main characters’ relation to Boo: the children Scout and Jem are fascinated by him as well as terrified of him. This fascination and terror draws their friend Dill “as the moon draws water,” an allusion to the way the presence of the moon changes the tides.
I wait, washed, brushed, fed, like a prize pig.
(The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood)
This simple example of simile in Margaret Atwood’s dystopic novel The Handmaid’s Tale is not so simple when looked at more closely. The protagonist of the novel is Offred, a woman whose sole purpose is to reproduce with the higher social classes. Women in this new society have had their rights entirely taken away, even to the point of their humanity. Therefore, Offred’s comparison between herself and a prize pig shows that she is treated no differently than—and no better than—an animal.
Test Your Knowledge of Simile
1. Choose the correct simile definition:
A. A comparison where one thing is stated to be another.
B. A comparison between two unlike things, usually using the connecting words “like” or “as.”
C. A contrast between two things, showing how they are unalike.
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2. Which of the following excerpts from Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin contains a simile?
There are moments we return to, now and always. Family is like water – it has a memory of what it once filled, always trying to get back to the original stream.
Some people think love is the end of the road, and if you’re lucky enough to find it, you stay there. Other people say it just becomes a cliff you drive off…
Try to describe the taste of a peach. Try to describe it. Feel the rush of sweetness…
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3. Does the following excerpt from Shakespeare’s Macbeth contain a simile, a metaphor, or both?
LADY MACBETH: Look like th’ innocent flower, / But be the serpent under ‘t.
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