A Short Guide to Imagery, Symbolism, and Figurative Language

                                                                           by Andrea Clark



Imagery can be defined as a writer or speaker’s use of words or figures of speech to create a vivid mental picture or physical sensation.  Many good examples of imagery and figurative language can be found in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” a sermon delivered by the Puritan minister Jonathan Edwards.  For example, Edwards creates a powerful image figurative language when he says: 


‘We find it easy to tread on and crush a worm that we see crawling on the earth; so it is easy for God, when he pleases, to cast his enemies down to hell.”


The image Edwards creates here is the vivid mental picture of someone crushing a worm.  Edwards is also using figurative language because he compares the ease with which God can “cast his enemies down to hell” with the ease of our crushing a worm beneath our feet.  The point he is making is that human beings are as small and powerless in the eyes of God as worms are to us; just as a worm is at our mercies for its existence, so we are at God’s for our existence.  The most important reason to analyze a writer’s usage of imagery and figurative is to recognize how it contributes to the point he is trying to make or the effect he is attempting to create.  This is true whether the writer is Jonathan Edwards attempting to inspire terror in the hearts of his congregation or a sports writer for a newspaper trying to help his readers experience the excitement of a football game they were not able to see.  If writers just throw a surplus of images and figures of speech into their writing, it seems artificial and amateurish, and it can be annoying.


Types of Imagery

Although the word “imagery” most often brings to mind mental images, imagery is not always visual; it can appeal to any of the five senses. Here is a list of some types of imagery that appeal to different senses:

  • Auditory imagery appeals to the sense of hearing.

·         Gustatory imagery appeals to the sense of taste.

·         Kinetic imagery conveys a sense of motion.

·         Olfactory imagery appeals to the sense of smell.

·         Tactile imagery appeals to the sense of touch.

·         Visual imagery is created with pictures (many visual images are pictures of things representing well-known sayings or phrases).


Writers often create images through the use of symbolism.  Carl Jung defined a symbol as “a term, a name, or even a picture that may be familiar in daily life, yet that possesses specific connotations in addition to its conventional an obvious meaning.”  Symbols can be based on culture, such as a country’s flag (stars and stripes=USA) , or religion (the cross=Christianity), or other things.  Cultural symbols can vary from one culture to another.  For instance, to most people in our culture, white is a symbol of innocence and purity, but this is not so in all cultures.  Other symbols seem to be almost universal across cultures. For instance, in the literature of many lands, light is a symbol for knowledge, and darkness is associated with the unknown.  Likewise, snakes often represent temptation, curiosity, and the pitfalls that we as human beings must face in order to learn, grow, and change.  We see this in myths such the creation story in Genesis and “The Search for Everlasting Life” in The Epic of Gilgamesh. 


Types of Figurative Language

When a writer compares something to something else it is not really like literally, he is using a metaphor.  Human beings are not literally worms, but Edwards uses them to make his point.  When an author makes a comparison using the word “like” or “as,” he is using a type of figurative language called a simile.  A simile is exactly the same as a metaphor except that it has to have the words “like” or “as.”  For instance, if Edwards had said, “We are like worms to God” or “God can crush us as easily as a worm,” he would have been creating a simile. 


Another common type of figure of speech is hyperbole, an obvious exaggeration.  For instance, during the first week of class I was monopolizing the faculty Xerox machine at CYP for long periods of time, much to the chagrin of other instructors who also needed to make copies.  The reason I had to make so many copies is that the ACC bookstore did not order enough copies of the textbooks for most of my classes.  As I was attempting to make copies of about 40 pages from the textbook for my World Literature I class, I apologetically explained to one of my colleagues that the bookstore had not ordered nearly enough copies of your text. “So you’re making copies of the whole book?” she asked in exasperation.  “No,” I replied in response to her hyperbole, “this is only The Epic of Gilgamesh. 


When I was a teenager attending the First Missionary Baptist Church of Buna, I was forced to endure the sermons of Brother Drew Sheffield, a pastor who fancied himself East Texas’ answer to Jonathan Edwards.  However, while this preacher equaled Edwards with regard to the frequency of references to hellfire and brimstone in his sermons, he unfortunately was not Edwards’ equal with regard to education.  While Edwards had graduated from Yale prior to beginning his ministry, Brother Sheffield had driven a beer truck prior to beginning his.  While St. Paul saw the light and was converted on the way to Damascus, Brother Sheffield ran a red light while sampling too much of his employer’s product on road to the brewery.  This may seem like a strange route to take to the ministry, but I digress.   Despite his lack of formal education, Brother Sheffield could craft an image just as effective, if not as polished as Edwards’.  Brother Sheffield’s favorite phrase was “the sulphurious smell of bodies burning in hell.”  Every Sunday for two years I flinched and squirmed on the pew next to my mother as these words simultaneously assaulted my ears and my nose.  To this day, I can’t light a sulphur match without flinching.  Brother Sheffield was making highly effective use of olfactory imagery, which appeals to the sense of smell.  He was also getting in a little alliteration, a type of figurative language an author uses when he repeats sounds for poetic effect “sulphurious smells” and “burning bodies.”


Another common type of figure of speech is personification.  A writer uses personification when he gives human qualities, feelings, action, or characteristics to nonhuman entities.  The nonhuman entities can be animals or inanimate (non-living) things.  Here are some examples of the use of personification in the poetry of Emily Dickinson.  In poem # 712, “I Could Not Stop for Death,” Emily presents Death as the driver of a carriage.  In poem #986, “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass,” Dickinson gives human qualities to a snake when she refers to him as a “Fellow” and one of “Nature’s People.”



Please check out this link if you would like a little more informative about imagery and figurative language: