Definition of Synesthesia

When used as a literary term, synesthesia is a figure of speech in which one sense is described using terms from another. Examples of synesthesia often are in the form of a simile, as this is an easy way to link two previously unconnected images. For example, you might say, “The silence was as thick as a forest.”

The definition of synesthesia as a rhetorical device comes from the neuropsychological phenomenon in which a person perceives a sensory stimulus through another sense, such as seeing colors when hearing music or sensing the personalities of numbers, days, months, etc.

Common Examples of Synesthesia

Some common idioms are examples of synesthesia. For example:

  • I smell trouble.
  • You could cut the tension in the air with a knife.
  • Actions speak louder than words.
  • She spoke in honeyed tones.

There are some advertisements that take advantage of synesthesia as a rhetorical device, such as:

  • Skittles: Taste the Rainbow
  • Pepsi: You’ve never seen a taste like this
  • Coca-Cola: Life tastes good

It is also well known in the advertising community that customers perceive certain colors and tastes to represent certain things. For example, due to the light blue color of Tiffany’s familiar packaging, customers generally associate this shade with elegancy and luxury. Similarly, there is a certain taste that people associate with energy drinks—a very unusual and unnatural taste that can be found in Red Bull and Monster drinks, among others. When manufacturers have tried to develop energy drinks without this specific flavor they’ve found that customers do not believe the drink will give as much energy, regardless of the other ingredients used. This is true, too, for the color of cola drinks. Pepsi tried to create clear-colored drink with the traditional “cola” flavor (again, a completely unnatural construct). This was the drink for which they created the slogan “You’ve never seen a taste like this.” It backfired, however, because consumers believe that colas should have a rich, dark-brown color, independent of any rationale besides the fact that this taste has come to be associated with that color.

Significance of Synesthesia in Literature

Authors use synesthesia as a rhetorical device in their works for many reasons. One simple reason is just to use a new simile or metaphor, thereby connecting previously unconnected images and forming new synapses.

The use of synesthesia in Romantic poetry was more purposeful, however. Romantic poets considered there to be a hierarchy of the senses, as follows: touch, taste, smell, sound, and then sight. It has been noted that the “lower” senses have fewer words and vocabulary terms to describe them, while the “higher” senses have many more descriptive words available. It makes sense that sight would have the most words available, as that is the primary sensory input that most humans use to understand the world. When considering the transfer of sensory vocabulary, it is generally understood that using the vocabulary from a “higher” sense creates emotional depth, while using vocabulary from a “lower” sense is humorous. Consider the following two examples:

  • Higher to lower: The room had a light purple smell, of the glorious bounty of spring.
  • Lower to higher: The metal band sounded salty like sweat.

Examples of Synesthesia in Literature

Example #1

IAGO: Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.

(Othello by William Shakespeare)

This is a famous metaphor from William Shakespeare’s Othello in which Iago characterizes jealousy as a green-eyed monster. It is also an example of synesthesia. Jealousy becomes a living, colored thing. Our common idiom now of being “green with envy” comes from this Shakespeare quote, and is an example of how a color becomes associated with a feeling.

Example #2

And the hyacinth purple, and white, and blue,
Which flung from its bells a sweet peal anew
Of music so delicate, soft, and intense,
It was felt like an odour within the sense.

(“The Sensitive Plant” by Percy Bysshe Shelley)

Percy Bysshe Shelley was one of the major Romantic poets, who ascribed to the theory of synesthesia described above in the “Significance of Synesthesia in Literature.” This poem, written in 1820, uses the image of a “Sensitive Plant” in a garden and compares it to others flowers. Shelley creates the tender image of a hyacinth by comparing its smell to the sound of delicate, soft, and intense music. The sense of sound was considered “higher” than that of smell, and thus Shelley deliberately uses this synesthesia example to add emotional weight to the stanza.

Example #3

JOKANAAN: Back! daughter of Babylon! Come not near the chosen of the Lord. Thy mother hath filled the earth with the wine of her iniquities, and the cry of her sins hath come up to the ears of God.
SALOMÉ: Speak again, Jokanaan. Thy voice is wine to me.

(Salomé by Oscar Wilde)

The characters of Jokanaan and Salomé both use the image of wine to describe things that do not have to do with taste. Jokanaan first talks about “the wine of her iniquities” to describe Salomé’s mother’s wrongdoings. Salomé then rifts on this usage of synesthesia by countering that Jokanaan’s voice “is wine” to her. In this case, Salomé is using the sense of taste to describe the sense of sound.

Example #4

LORD GORING: I have promised to look in at the Hartlocks’.  I believe they have got a mauve Hungarian band that plays mauve Hungarian music.

(An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wild)

This is an example of synesthesia in which a color is used to describe both a band and its music. Oscar Wilde used many examples of synesthesia in his works, and in this case used it to humorous effect. There is no obvious sense that a reader can conjure with imagining a band or music as “mauve,” yet it’s effective in conveying the character Lord Goring’s dismissal of both the band and its music.

Example #5

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’s famous poem “Harlem” uses many examples of idioms, which are also all examples of synesthesia. The concept of “a dream deferred” is abstract and without definition, and thus Hughes uses many different potential images to bring it to life. He uses the sense of smell in the line “Does it stink like rotten meat?” and the sense of taste in “Or crust and sugar over— / like a syrupy sweet?” He also uses the sense of either touch or sight in the remaining lines about whether the dream dries up, festers, or sags. All of these images of decay help the reader to better picture the concept Hughes is writing about.

Example #6

But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.

(“After Apple-Picking” by Robert Frost)

Robert Frost used several different synesthesia examples in his poems. In the poem “After Apple-Picking,” the narrator is thinking of his apple harvest as he starts to drift off to sleep. The narrator is both able to smell the more obvious “scent of apples,” as well as the “essence of winter sleep,” a subtle use of synesthesia.

Test Your Knowledge of Synesthesia

1. Which of the following statements is the best synesthesia definition?
A. A code in which advertisers try to convince people they want to buy a product.
B. An idiomatic turn of phrase that uses a simile.
C. A figure of speech in which one sense is described with terms from another.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: C is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. Consider the following paragraph from Oscar Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray:

She looked at him in horror. He repeated his words. They cut the air like a dagger. The people round began to gape. A lady standing close to her tittered.

Which of the lines contains an example of synesthesia?
A. She looked at him in horror.
B. They cut the air like a dagger.
C. The people round began to gape.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: B is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

3. Which of the following sentences is a synesthesia example?
A. His green jealousy sat thick in his stomach.
B. The scent of turkey and apple pie came from the kitchen and made my mouth water.
C. The orchestra played such beautiful music I started to cry.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: A is the correct answer.[/spoiler]