How to Analyze the Use of Metaphors in Literature

Analyzing any element of writing requires you to think beyond a basic summary and consider the purpose and intent of the element along with its relationship to the whole text. This technique also applies to analyzing literary elements and devices, such as a metaphor. Metaphors -- comparisons of two unlike things without using “like” or “as” -- are commonly used in prose and poetry to advance a theme, setting, character or plot.

Uncovering the Meaning

To analyze a metaphor, you must first identify it. Mark the passage with a highlighter or pen to indicate the exact metaphor. A simple metaphor will consist of a single phrase or line, while an extended metaphor may transcend the entire passage. Next, determine the two elements of comparison. Use the margins of the text to write out the literal element and the descriptive or unlikely comparison. Once you have identified the metaphor’s components, analyze them for relevance, application and purpose. By interpreting the metaphor and applying it to the entire text, you will discover a new layer of meaning in the text.

Revealing Settings

The process of analyzing metaphors may reveal more about the setting by providing the reader with a vivid mental picture. For example, an excerpt from Gary Soto’s poem, “Oranges,” reads, “I peeled my orange / That was so bright against / The gray of December / That, from some distance / Someone might have thought / I was making a fire in my hands.” The metaphor “the gray of December” exposes a dull and dreary day, which when applied to the rest of the statement and the entire poem juxtaposes a drab winter day against the joy the narrator is experiencing on his first date.

Exploring Theme

Analyzing a metaphor often reveals a text’s theme. For example, Edgar Lee Masters’ poem “George Gray” compares a sailboat to a person’s life: “And now I know that we must lift the sail / And catch the winds of destiny / Wherever they drive the boat.” Masters suggests that a life and a sailboat are both at the mercy of destiny: The captain isn’t fully in control of either. The use of metaphor in this poem creates depth and helps the reader understand the theme.

Developing Characters

Authors use metaphor to develop dynamic characters both physically and emotionally. Because metaphors enable writers to create new meanings and account for the many lapses in our ability to understand the world around us, characters become more vibrant and accessible through metaphors.

For example, in the play “Romeo and Juliet,” Shakespeare uses Romeo to describe Juliet as “a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear-- / Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!” By comparing Juliet’s appearance to that of a rich man’s jewel, she is solidified in the reader’s mind as beautiful and highly valued.

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