Rail yard background, from the Library of Congress


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Literary Tropes
[Page 2]

Metaphor and Simile

A metaphor compares two things that have no necessary connection. The comparison has two parts: the tenor is the subject of the metaphor is described by the vehicle. For example, when Homer Simpson says, "Television! Teacher, mother, secret lover," he constructs three metaphors. Television is the tenor of each metaphor, and we understand Homer's relationships to television through the three vehicles he chooses: teacher, mother, and secret lover.

For another example, in the first line of this poem, e.e. cummings creates a more subtle metaphor. The line reads, "the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls," and the adjective "furnished" creates a metaphor by linking the explicit tenor, "souls," with the implied vehicle of things we conventionally call "furnished," such as apartments or houses. To see what cummings does with that metaphor, read the rest of the poem. Does this become an extended metaphor, which takes an initial metaphor and work through multiple connections between the tenor and vehicle?

When people criticize metaphors for being ineffective, they generally do so with allegations of mixed metaphors or dead metaphors. A mixed metaphor combines elements of two or more metaphors that do not make sense together. For an example that illustrates the nature of a mixed metaphor and the way hostile critics respond to one, here is a segment of Matt Taibbi's review of Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat. Taibbi writes,

  Here's what [Friedman] says:

    I stomped off, went through security, 
    bought a Cinnabon, and glumly sat at the
    back of the B line, waiting to be herded 
    on board so that I could hunt for space 
    in the overhead bins.

  Forget the Cinnabon. Name me a herd animal 
  that hunts. Name me one.

  This would be a small thing were it not for 
  the overall pattern. Thomas Friedman does 
  not get these things right even by accident. 
  It's not that he occasionally screws up and 
  fails to make his metaphors and images agree. 
  It's that he always screws it up. He has an
  anti-ear, and it's absolutely infallible;
  he is a Joyce or a Flaubert in reverse, 
  incapable of rendering even the smallest 
  details without genius. The difference 
  between Friedman and an ordinary bad 
  writer is that an ordinary bad writer will, 
  say, call some businessman a shark and 
  have him say some tired, uninspired piece 
  of dialogue: Friedman will have him spout 
  it. And that's guaranteed, every single 
  time. He never misses. 

In Taibbi's attack on Friedman, as in all writing, we can see some dead metaphors, or metaphors that have become so common that we need to pay special attention even to remember that they are metaphorical. When Taibbi says at the end of this passage that Friedman "never misses," Friedman becomes the tenor of a metaphor, with the implied vehicle being a hunter or target shooter. Because this use of "misses" is so common, the metaphor will be dead for most readers. Though all language includes dead metaphors, careful writers will often try to minimize them. Indeed, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley placed the revitalization of metaphor at the center of his Defence of Poetry.

A simile is like a metaphor, but a simile makes the comparison explicit, usually by employing "like" or "as." For that clarity, a simile sacrifices directness. A basketball player looking to intimidate an opponent would likely prefer saying, "I'm your worst nightmare!" to saying, "I'm like your worst nightmare!" The same virtues of simplicity and directness often direct good writers to prefer metaphor over simile, but similes work well when the writer wants to call attention to a comparison as a literary device. For example, by opening this poem, "O my Luve's like a red, red rose," Robert Burns uses a simile to call attention to the literariness of the comparison between his love and a rose. The nature of the connection between tenor and vehicle will be a subject of the poem in some ways, so Burns calls extra attention to it by inserting "like" in the first line.

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