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Expressing Comparison in Literature

Written by: Sidney Beck

Introduction

Why do we need comparisons? Poems tend to express a subject or feeling in a few words, many fewer than you would use in a short story or novel. Accordingly, metaphors and similes give maximum meaning with a minimum of words.

Comparison is a literary device in which a writer compares or contrasts two people, places, things, or ideas. In our everyday life, we compare people and things to express ourselves vividly. So when we say, someone is “as lazy as a snail,” you compare two different entities to show similarity i.e. someone’s laziness to the slow pace of a snail.

Comparisons occur frequently in literary works. Writers and poets use comparison in order to link their feelings about a thing to something readers can understand. There are numerous devices in literature that compare two different things to show the similarity between them, such as similemetaphoranalogy, and allegory, of which the two principal devices for comparison are simile and metaphor.

What is the difference between comparisons using simile and metaphor? How are they used differently? The original thing that’s being described is called the “subject” of the metaphor or simile, and what the original is being compared to is the “object.” In similes, subject and object are separated from the focus of comparison by specific words ” like/as/than”. For example, he’s like a pig or fat as a pig, or fatter than a pig. We may notice this is less intense than simply saying he’s a pig, which is the way metaphors are constructed - without such separating words as “like” etc. This separation/non-separation of subject and object directly explains why metaphor is a much more intense comparison than a simile.  

The main point about both methods of comparison is that they invite the reader to participate in the text. They try to show readers how the story works, rather than try to tell the story directly. They serve to help the reader understand a character, object, or point of view by comparing those subjects to something the audience already understands.

An important point here is that all similes are metaphors but not all metaphors are similes. Metaphor also denotes rhetorical figures of speech that achieve their effects via association, comparison, or resemblance (e.g., antithesis, hyperbole, metonymy, and simile, which are all types of metaphor). Metonymy has well-known examples in the word “suits” meaning business people, and the word “hand” meaning give me some help.

Simile

A simile is an open comparison between a subject and an object to show similarities between them. A simile draws resemblance with the help of words “like” or “as” or “than” between the subject and the object of the comparison. Similes are easy to grasp, and children with very little training can be successful at making them up.

Look at this line by Nabokov.“Elderly American ladies leaning on their canes listed toward me like towers of Pisa.” Here the comparison made between two contrasting things creates a hilarious effect. Any given poet can use both simile and metaphor to describe the same thing even within one single poem. Look at the poem “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas. He refers to “house high hay” in a metaphor. Later he also refers to “the hay fields high as the house” in a simile. Why does Thomas do it? The reasons are too complex to analyze fully, but part of his purpose is to repeat the sound of “h” in “house/hay/high” because this alliteration sounds like a running boy out of breath. Another example of a simile would be the description of a person who was uncommunicative as being as "silent as stone".

Metaphor

A metaphor makes a hidden comparison between two things or objects that are dissimilar to each other but have some characteristics common between them. Unlike simile, we do not use “like” or “as” or “than” to develop a comparison in a metaphor. Consider the following example:

In this quote.“All the world’s a stage and men and women merely players…”Shakespeare uses a metaphor of a stage to describe the world and compares men and women living in the world with players (actors).

The use of metaphor in poetry is one of the most important aspects of poetic style that should be mastered. Metaphor can be described as a figure of speech in which a thing is referred to as being something that it resembles. For example, a fierce person can be referred to as a tiger.

Metaphor works on many levels in poetry. The best way to show how a metaphor function is to study the use of sustained metaphor. Sustained metaphor refers to a metaphor that consistently runs through the entire poem and is therefore easily identifiable. Metaphors that are sustained also provide depth and inner complexity to the poem. Unlike similes, metaphors are not easy to create and need a good deal of practice.

Analogy

An analogy aims at explaining an unfamiliar idea or thing, by comparing it to something that is familiar. An analogy can be very similar to simile or metaphor….. The comparison in the analogy is explicit.

In “Noiseless Patient Spider”, Whitman uses an analogy to show the similarity between a spider spinning a web and his soul. Or look at these lines from Night Clouds, written by Lowell: “The white mares of the moon rush along the sky…..Beating their golden hoofs upon the glass Heavens”. Lowell constructs an analogy between clouds and mares. She compares in metaphor the movement of the white clouds in the sky at night with the movement of white mares on the ground.

Allegory

An allegory uses symbols to compare persons or things, to represent abstract ideas or events. The comparison in allegory is implicit.

In Orwell’s Animal Farm, it is implied that the “Pigs” can be compared to (are a symbol for) those who became the governing authority. ”Mr. Jones,” the owner of the farm, is likened to (symbolizes) the overthrown Tsar. “Boxer,” the horse, stands for, (is the symbol for), the laborer class.

Alliteration  / Personification / Onomatopoeia

In addition to simile or metaphor, poets may use words with repeated initial sounds in a technique called alliteration. An example would be “big bad Bertie”, and another might be “waiting for the weekly wash”. Alliteration may be useful to extend the comparison.  

Poets who are using both simile or metaphor may also be using personification to intensify the comparison. This is a technique for the portrayal of some non-living “thing” like an idea, a feeling, a machine, a structure, a bridge, a car, etc. The “thing’ is spoken of as if it were a person. The clearest example is when a ship is called “she”. “She weighs four thousand tons.” Another example is a car - “I wax and wash her every week”.

In their efforts to make good comparisons, poets may also use onomatopoeia. This a word or words which resemble actual sounds made by waterfalls, animals, bells, motors, crashing cars, explosions, etc. The list includes words such as swish/meow/moo/ding-dong/whirring/bang/boom, and so on. Each word brings a slightly different emotional response. The English language is littered with these mimicking words, from meowing cats to babbling brooks.

Summary and Conclusion

The above discussion of comparison techniques helps us realize that, in general, writers utilize different kinds of comparison to link an unfamiliar or a new idea to common and familiar objects. It helps readers to comprehend a new idea, which may have been difficult for them to understand otherwise. The understanding of a new idea turns out to be simpler when viewed with a comparison to something that is familiar to them. This is especially true when referring to poetry, a medium where brevity is usually essential. This is quite in contrast to prose writing where brevity often has no key role to play.

By making use of various literary tools for comparison, writers increase their chances of catching the attention and interest of their readers, as comparisons help them identify what they are reading as being relevant to their lives.