Definition of Metaphor
A metaphor is a figure of speech that makes a comparison between two unlike things. As a literary device, metaphor creates implicit comparisons without the express use of “like” or “as.” Metaphor is a means of asserting that two things are identical in comparison rather than just similar. This is useful in literature for using specific images or concepts to state abstract truths.
For example, one of the most famous metaphors in literature is featured in this line from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East, and Juliet, the sun! In this metaphor, Juliet is compared to the sun. In fact, this figure of speech claims that Juliet is the sun. Of course, the reader understands that Romeo does not believe that Juliet is literally the sun. Instead, the comparison demonstrates the idea that Romeo equates Juliet with the beauty, awe, and life-giving force of the sun. To Romeo, symbolically, Juliet and the sun are the same.
Common Examples of Metaphor
There are many common examples of metaphor in everyday conversation and writing. Here are some well-known uses of this figure of speech:
- Laughter is the best medicine.
- She is just a late bloomer.
- Is there a black sheep in your family?
- His heart of stone surprised me.
- I smell success in this building.
- He’s buried in a sea of paperwork.
- There is a weight on my shoulder.
- Time is money.
- No man is an island.
- That actor is a tall drink of water.
- Age is a state of mind.
- Last night I slept the sleep of the dead.
- The new parents had stars in their eyes.
- The criminal has blood on his hands.
- There is a garden in her face.
- Our family is a patchwork quilt.
- She has been living in a bubble.
- Your argument is a slippery slope.
- We found it under a blanket of sand.
- I’m pleased to meet your better half.
Examples of Metaphor in Movie Lines
Some of the most well-known lines in movies feature metaphor. Here are some memorable movie lines that showcase metaphor as an effective device:
- A Dream is a wish your heart makes. (Walt Disney’s Cinderella)
- The rain on my car is a baptism. (Say Anything)
- Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something. (The Princess Bride)
- Fasten your seat-belts; it’s going to be a bumpy night. (All About Eve)
- Life is a cabaret, old chum. (Cabaret)
- Say ‘hello’ to my little friend. (Scarface)
- It was beauty killed the beast. (King Kong)
- Hell is a teenage girl. (Jennifer’s Body)
- You sit on a throne of lies. (Elf)
- I drink your milkshake. (There Will Be Blood)
Famous Examples of Metaphor
- Your heart is my piñata. (Chuck Palahniuk)
- Life is a highway. (Tom Cochrane)
- For woman is yin, the darkness within, where untempered passions lie. (Amy Tan)
- Love is a battlefield. (Pat Benatar)
- Each friend represents a world in us. (Anais Nin)
- You are sunlight and I moon. (Miss Saigon)
- If music be the food of love, play on (William Shakespeare)
- Adults are just obsolete children and the hell with them. (Dr. Seuss)
- Time is a drug. Too much of it kills you. (Terry Pratchet)
- Hope is the thing with feathers (Emily Dickinson)
Difference Between Metaphor and Simile
It can be difficult in some instances to distinguish between metaphor and simile as literary devices. Both are figures of speech designed to create comparisons. In fact, simile is a subset of metaphor. However, they are distinguished by the presence of one of two words: “like” and “as.” Metaphors create direct comparisons without using either of these words. Similes feature either like or as in making a comparison.
A good example to distinguish between these two literary devices comes from the movie adaptation of the novel Forrest Gump by Winston Groom. One of the movie’s themes is based on a comparison between life and a box of chocolates. The main character, Forrest Gump, quotes his mother: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” In this case, the comparison between life and a box of chocolates is a simile due to the presence of the word like.
In a different scene, the audience hears Forrest’s mother say: “Life is a box of chocolates, Forrest. You never know what you’re going to get.” This comparison is a metaphor due to the absence of the word like (or as). Both quotes feature comparative figures of speech. However, the uses of metaphor and simile create subtle differences in the meaning of comparing life to a box of chocolates.
Overall, as a literary device, metaphor functions as a means of creating a direct comparison between two seemingly different things. This is effective for readers in that metaphor can create an association between two dissimilar entities or ideas that, as a result of the metaphor, illuminate each other and deepen the meaning of both. Metaphor is an essential figure of speech for writers of both poetry and prose.
It’s important that writers construct proper metaphors so that the comparative meaning is not lost for the reader. In fact, metaphors are dependent on the understandable combination of a principal term and a secondary term. The principal term conveys the concrete or literal entity, and the secondary term is used figuratively to add meaning. For example, in the metaphor “the car was a lemon,” the principal term is “car” and the secondary term is “lemon.” The use of lemon adds figurative meaning for the car.
Here are some ways that writers benefit from incorporating metaphor into their work:
Metaphors allow writers to create imagery for readers that is limited by description alone. In other words, an effective metaphor eliminates the need for excessive explanation or description on the part of the writer. Instead, by implicitly comparing two different things, an image is created for the reader to allow for greater meaning and understanding. This imagery is a powerful result of using metaphor as a literary device.
Evoke Thought and Emotion
When writers utilize metaphor as a literary device, it often causes the reader to think about the “logic” or truth in such a comparison. These thoughts, in turn, may evoke emotion in the reader with a successful metaphor through the realization that the comparison is valid. This is especially effective in poetry as a means of portraying truths in a lyrical yet concise manner.
Examples of Metaphor in Literature
Metaphor is a very effective literary device. Here are some examples of metaphor and how it adds to the significance of well-known literary works:
Example 1: Fire and Ice (Robert Frost)
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
In this poem, Frost compares end-of-world destructive forces to both fire and ice. These are metaphors that serve as figures of speech in the sense that the poet does not literally mean that the world will end because of fire and ice. Instead, fire represents destructive forces associated with desire, such as power, jealousy, and anger. Similarly, ice represents destructive forces associated with hate, such as prejudice, hostility, and isolation. These metaphors are an effective literary device in that it causes the reader to consider that desire and hatred are as destructive as fire and ice.
Example 2: Dreams (Langston Hughes)
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
In this poem, Hughes utilizes metaphor to compare life to a broken-winged bird and a barren field as consequences to the loss of dreams. In the first stanza, Hughes claims that if dreams die then life is a “broken-winged bird that cannot fly.” This is a significant use of metaphor in that it characterizes life without dreams as something fragile that has been irreparably harmed. The metaphor creates an image for the reader of a bird that is wounded, grounded, and unable to reach its purpose or potential. If life is this bird, then, without dreams, it is also wounded, grounded, and thwarted in purpose.
Hughes utilizes a second metaphor in the second stanza for life without dreams. In this case, when dreams go, life is a “barren field frozen with snow.” This metaphor creates a comparison between life and an empty, frozen wasteland. Therefore, due to Hughes’s use of metaphor as a literary device in this poem, life becomes death and a burial ground without dreams.
Example 3: since feeling is first (E.E. Cummings)
we are for eachother: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life’s not a paragraph
And death i think is no parenthesis
In this poem, Cummings uses metaphor in a clever way to compare life and death to the constraints of a writing formality and punctuation. In fact, it is a negative comparison in the sense that the poet states life is “not” a paragraph and death is “no” parenthesis. The use of metaphor as a literary device in this work is both poetic and self-reflexive in significance. The metaphors for life and death are poetic because the poet is showcasing that life and death are concepts too monumental to be “contained” in writing or “enclosed” by punctuation (paragraph and parenthesis). Yet, the metaphors are also self-reflexive in that the comparisons of life and death are simultaneously “contained” in and “enclosed” by the poem itself.