What Is a Simile in Literature?

Imagine a world without literature, a world in which all ideas are transmitted via scientific and literal definitions. Not only would prose be uninspiring, but trying to explain everything to specific perfection would be verbose. Writers use figurative language such as similes, metaphors and personification to paint the picture of the action for the reader in an artistic, pleasing way. Similes create connections.

Simile Definition

All great writers of literature have the ability to make the typical seem new. Similes compare something to an item that the reader already knows. If an author says, "He is as slippery as an eel," she can express so much about a character's personality in a few words. The reader understands more intuitively than the words express because the reader knows how slippery an eel would be and that the character is therefore not trustworthy or easy to catch. Metaphors are comparisons, and similes are a specific type of metaphor that use the words "like" or "as."

Similes in Poetry

Similes are a mainstay of poetry, especially when word count is important. Authors paint the picture of the comparison to help the reader delve into the subject of the poem. Margaret Atwood's poem "You Fit Into Me" consists entirely of similes. "You fit into me / like a hook into an eye / a fish hook / an open eye" is the poem in its entirety. Atwood starts by comparing a relationship between two people to a hook and eye that might secure a door. This is a positive connection, where a metal hook would be connected perfectly to the eyelet into which it fits. The second, striking simile paints a very different picture in which the relationship is described by saying it is like poking a fish hook into an open eye. Although also very visual, this description shows the destructive and painful nature of the union. With a few words, Atwood explains so much.

Similes in Epic Tales

Epic similes, also known as Homeric similes for Homer, the author of "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," are extended similes that go on for several lines and often appear at moments of great action and emotion. When Odysseus is forced to poke out the eye of the cyclops with a hot stick in order to break free when he is trapped in its cave, Homer writes, "Heating the end of the pole until it was glowing red, we ran it toward the Cyclops like a battering ram, aiming it for his eye and driving it deep. The thing sizzled like hot metal dropped in water while I twisted it like an auger." Homer compares fighting the Cyclops to an army ramming its way in to a castle. This helps the audience understand the severity of the situation and picture the scene more clearly.

Similes in Fiction

Novels and short stories also employ similes in order to compare elements and paint the picture for the reader. In "The House on Mango Street," Sandra Cisneros writes, "But my mother's hair, my mother's hair, like little rosettes, like little candy circles all curly and pretty because she pinned it in pincurls all day, . . ." The speaker is comparing her mother's curly hair to candy circles to express how tightly woven it is. In S.E. Hinton's novel "The Outsiders," Ponyboy says, "Darry is as hard as nails" to describe his brother. In a few words, the author is able to explain Darry's tough character due to being someone whose parents died young and who has to raise his brothers.

About the Author

Kathryne Bradesca has been a writing teacher for more than 15 years. She has also contributed to newspapers and magazines such as "The Morning Journal" and "The Ignatius Quarterly." Bradesca received a master's degree in teaching from Kent State University.

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