The use of imagery in short fiction can be discussed in a number of different ways. One of the most obvious ways is to discuss imagery associated with the five different senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste.
Several of these different kinds of imagery are present, for example, in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Indeed, the story opens with the nervous, excited narrator asserting that some unspecified
disease had sharpened my senses, not destroyed, not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How then am I mad?
Part of the irony of this question, of course, is that the question pretty much answers itself, especially in light of the evidence provided in the preceding sentences. (How can any sane person claim to hear all things in heaven and earth and many things in hell?) In any case, as the story develops, it employs a number of other kinds of imagery rooted in the various senses, including the following:
- The sense of sight (visual imagery). The narrator memorably describes the eye of the old man (whom he eventually kills precisely because of that eye) by saying,
One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture -- a pale blue eye with a film over it.
This is a memorable description in every way. The juxtaposition of the ugliness of the vulture with the beauty of the “pale blue” color is striking, especially since the beauty of the “pale blue” is then undercut by the reference to the “film.”
- The sense of touch or feeling (tactile imagery). Referring to the old man’s eye (just described), Poe’s narrator says, “Whenever it fell upon me my blood ran cold.” Although this phrase might seem a cliché, many people in fact know exactly how it feels, physically, when one’s blood does indeed run cold (or at least seems to do so). The speaker is not simply using a metaphor here but is alluding to an actual physiological feeling.
- The sense of hearing (auditory imagery). Later, just before the narrator kills the old man, he thinks he hears “a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton.” He associates this sound with the beating of the old man’s heart, but there is of course good reason to think that the sound he hears is purely a product of his own imagination. Yet there is also good reason to think that whatever its source, he does indeed have the sensation of hearing. Hearing, of course, is the primary sense emphasized in this work. As the story draws to its conclusion, more and more imagery associated with hearing appears.
- The sense of smell (olfactory imagery). A good example of olfactory imagery appears in a short story by Kate Chopin titled “A Little Country Girl,” where the narrator describes a character by reporting that
She sniffed the air, heavy with the smell of saw-dust and animals, and it lingered in her nostrils like some delicious odor.
Olfactory imagery seems far less common in creative writing than visual imagery, but when it is used, as it is used here, it can be very vivid.
- The sense of taste (gustatory imagery). Imagery of taste seems even less common than imagery of smell, but one memorable passage in which such imagery appears (along with many other kinds of sensual imagery) in a short story by Vernon Lee titled “A Wicked Voice,” where the narrator refers to “a perfume that made me think of the taste of certain peaches.”
To add to the above list of imagery, which is the representation through language of sense experience, there is that which also appeals to senses other than the five main senses considered part of the human makeup. For, the word image most often suggests a mental picture; that is something perceived in the mind rather than by senses per se. Thus, there is also
- organic imagery - This type of imagery creates the mental picture of internal sensations such as hunger, thirst, nausea, or fatigue.
- kinesthetic imagery - This type of imagery appeals to the mental perception of tension or movement in the muscles or joints.
Such imagery as organic and kinesthetic as well as those mentioned above also evoke the emotions that accompany these sensations. With this sensuous language writers can convey much with few words as well as include the reader in their expression of thought. Here is an example of the combination of organic and kinesthetic imagery in lines from Edward Arlington Robinson's poem "Richard Cory":
So on we worked [kinesthetic] and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread [organic]
Certainly, the emotion of despair is also conveyed in these lines written in the time of the Great Depression of 1870,