Literal language is based on the words as they exist on the page, and a narrative’s literal meaning comes entirely from these words. In other words, the literal meaning of a passage is one that adheres to the ordinary construction of the words. Within narrative theory, the meaning of a story is often considered on many different levels, of which the literal meaning is the first-level, the starting off point for interpretation of a narrative.
Figurative language is an extension of literal language. It requires the reader to use her imagination to fully understand the narrative. Figurative language often makes comparisons between two unrelated things or between something familiar and something unfamiliar. These comparisons create depth in a narrative by complementing its literal meaning with an additional level of complexity.
Narratives often make extensive use of images, also known as imagery. According to Holman and Harmon’s “Handbook to Literature,” images are literal and concrete representations of sensations or sensory experiences. Because they are representations, images can be literal or figurative. Furthermore, while figurative language often uses images, not all images are figurative.
Literal and Figurative Meaning of Images
A literal image is one whose interpretation does not involve any changes to the meaning of the words. In other words, a literal meaning of an image comes directly from its words and it is the most direct interpretation of those words. A figurative image, on the other hand, is one whose interpretation creates a sensory representation of the literal object. A figurative image is much more than a direct meaning of the words that describe it because it is created through a manipulation of the literal meaning of the words.
The following is a sentence that may be found in a narrative: He ran like a turtle. A possible interpretation of this sentence is that the man actually has short turtle legs, and moves like a turtle. This is the literal meaning of the sentence. Another interpretation of the sentence is that the man runs very slowly, like a turtle, except that he is not actually a turtle. The second interpretation is the figurative meaning of the sentence. It makes a comparison between two objects -- the man and the turtle -- to add an additional level of meaning. It is also called a simile.