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Metaphor vs Simile

Updated on May 12, 2011

The simplest distinction between kinds of comparison, and usually the first one grasped by beginning students of literature, is between metaphor and simile. A simile makes a comparison with the use of like and as, a metaphor without. though this distinction is technical, it is not entirely trivial, for a metaphor demands a more literal acceptance. If you say, “A woman is a rose,” you ask for an extreme suspension of disbelief, whereas “A woman is like a rose” acknowledges the artifice in the statement. 

In both metaphor and simile, the resonance of comparison is in the essential or abstract quality that the two objects share. When a writer speaks of “the eyes of the houses” or “the windows of the soul,” the comparison of eyes to windows contains the idea of transmitting vision between the inner and the outer. When we speak of “the king of beasts,” we don’t mean that a lion wears a crown or sits on a throne (although in children’s stories the lion often does precisely that, in order to suggest a primitive physical likeness); we mean that king and lion share abstract qualities of power, position, pride, and bearing. 

In both metaphor and simile a physical similarity can yield up a characterizing abstraction. So if “a woman” is either “a rose” or “like a rose,” the significance lies not in the physical similarity but in the essential qualities that such similarity implies: slenderness, suppleness, fragrance, beauty, color - and perhaps the hidden threat of thorns. 

Every metaphor and simile I have used so far is either a cliché or a dead metaphor (a metaphor so familiar that it has lost its original meaning). Each of them may at one time have surprised by their aptness, but by now each has been used so often that the surprise is gone. I wished to use familiar examples in order to clarify that resonance of comparison depends on the abstractions conveyed in the likeness of the things compared.  

A good metaphor reverberates with the essential; this is the writer’s principle of choice.

So Flannery O’Connor, in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” describes the mother as having “a face as broad and innocent as a cabbage.” A soccer ball is roughly the same size and shape as a cabbage; so is a schoolroom globe; so is a street lamp. But if the mother’s face had been as broad and innocent as any of these things, she would be different woman altogether. A cabbage is also rural, heavy, dense, and cheap, and so it conveys a whole complex of abstractions about the woman’s class and mentality. There is, on the other hand, no innocence in the face of Shrike, in Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, who “buried his triangular face like a hatchet in her neck.”

Sometimes the aptness of a comparison is achieved by taking it from an area of reference relevant to the thing compared. In Dombrey and Son, Charles Dickens describes the ships’ instrument maker, Solomon Gills, as having “eyes as red as if they had been small suns looking at you through a fog.” The simile suggests a seascape, whereas in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey’s Ruckly, rendered inert by shock therapy, has eyes “all smoked up and gray and deserted inside like blown fuses.” But the metaphor may range further from its original, in which case the abstraction conveyed must strike us as strongly and essentially appropriate. William Faulkner’s Emily Grierson in “A Rose for Emily” has “haughty black eyes in a face the flesh of which was strained across the temple and about the eye sockets as you imagine a lighthouse-keeper’s face ought to look.” Miss Emily has no connection with the sea, but the metaphor reminds us not only of her sternness and self-sufficiency, but also that she has isolated herself in a locked house. The same character as an old woman has eyes that “looked like two pieces of coal pressed into a lump of dough,” and the image domesticates her, robs her of her light. 


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      Joseph Ray 3 years ago

      This was a very a good article on simile and metaphor. Your examples were excellent.