Literary Terms

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Imagery is a term used when referring to any descriptive language used by a writer.  When you see something in real life, or in a photo or a film, you see an image.  When you read a description of something a writer wants you to visualize (or sense in some other way), he/she must use imagery to get the picture across to the reader.

Symbolism is one thing that stands in for or represents another.  Colors are common symbols in literature:  white for purity, virginity or cleanliness; red for passion, anger or evil.  Usually a color or other object needs to be repeated in order for the reader to understand that the writer intends it to be symbolic.

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Imagery  is defined as any type of description that relates to a person's five senses.  Technically, however, there are seven types of specific imagery related to our senses:

  • Visual:  related to things that may be seen
  • Auditory:  related to things that may be heard
  • Olfactory:  related to things that may be smelled
  • Gustatory:  related to things that may be tasted
  • Tactile:  related to things that may be touched (with the hand or some other body part)
  • Kinesthetic:  related to motion and/or movement
  • Organic:  related to feelings inside the body (i.e. hunger, emotions)

Symbolism refers to things that represent other ideas.  For example, a white lamb in a poem may be a symbol for innocence.

So, although there might be symbols used in descriptive images, the two terms are not interchangeable.

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What is the difference between metaphor and imagery? 

Imagery is probably the easier of the two terms to define. Imagery is all about what you as the reader can see, hear, taste, touch, or smell. When you read a story and can really picture what's going on because the writing is descriptive (and not simply because your imagination fills in all the gaps), imagery is at work.

Metaphor is a comparison of two very different things, without using a term such as "like" or "as." Metaphors often use imagery. If you say "he's not's the brightest bulb in the room" or "the sharpest tool in the toolshed" or whatever, you're using a metaphor. The guy you're talking about isn't literally a lightbulb or handsaw.

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What is the difference between "symbol" and "imagery"?

Symbolism is the representation of something abstract with something concrete. For example, a peace sign is a symbol. It's something concrete (meaning that it can be detected by the senses; in this case it can be seen). It represents or symbolizes an abstract idea--the idea of peace. Peace is not something you can detect with the senses, although you can detect evidence of it. In a similar way, the dollar sign is something concrete that symbolizes the abstract idea of wealth.

In literature, writers can create symbols through language. In Lord of the Flies, the pig's head can be said to symbolize or represent the danger of mindless superstition. The pig's head is concrete, mindless superstition is abstract.

Imagery, on the other hand, is the use of words that appeal to the senses. When a writer uses imagery, he is usually describing something rather than trying to create symbolic meaning. Look at the following line from Wordsworth's poem "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud."

"The waves beside them danced; but they outdid the sparkling waves in glee."

Here, the word danced creates an "image" for the reader--we can see the moving waves in our mind. "Sparkling" creates another image, and we can see the sun glinting off the water. Thus, by using words that appeal to the senses, the poet has created imagery that makes the poem something closer to a real experience.

Keep in mind that writers also use words that enable readers to engage their other senses, it doesn't have to be sight.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:

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