Analysing a Metaphor

Similes and metaphors are rhetorical tropes, i.e. figurative language, which combine two semantic fields in order to enrich the meaning of one. Similes and metaphors are both figures of comparison, but there is a difference in execution and complexity. To start with the less complex one: A simile is an overt comparison, i.e. it makes the comparison explicit with the use of a particle of comparison ('like', 'as'). Take for instance your assessment of the culinary delights provided in mensa:

This Tofu-steak is like paper-maché.

In a simile one compares one thing to another in order to make a point about the first thing. So in the end there are three elements to a comparison: First, the item you are interested in at the moment (the steak). In rhetoric, this is called the primum comparandum. Second, the item you are comparing the first item to (paper-maché). This is called the secundum comparatum. Then there is a third element which is the element of similarity, the common ground, between the first item (the steak) and the second item (paper-maché). This is called the tertium comparationis (or ground). In the example with the mensa dish this would be something like: tasteless, of gluelike consistency.

A metaphor, in very simplified terms, is a covert comparison; a word or phrase from one semantic field is substituted with a word or phrase from another. There has to be at least one common characteristic between the two parts for the metaphor to work (common ground or tertium comparationis). No particle of comparison is used. A terminology, introduced by the critic I.A. Richards, distinguishes between tenor – the purport or meaning of the image – and vehicle – the image which conveys the meaning. Other terminologies distinguish between idea and image or target and source. Note that these concepts make slightly differenct distinctions than the terms from classical rhetoric.

Consider an example: Here is how you introduce your brother's new girlfriend, Brunhilda, when she cannot hear you:

Here comes the bulldozer.

Even though only one element is explicitly mentioned (the bulldozer), there are also three elements to this metaphor. Graphically, the relation between the three elements could be expressed thus:

primum comparandum

secundum comparatum

tertium comparationis
(large built, flattens everything around her)


In I.A. Richard’s terms, the vehicle of this metaphor is the bulldozer, the tenor, the purport of the image, in this case would be ‘Brunhilda is ungraceful, merciless, tactless, has no sense or feeling’, or something along those lines.

As becomes obvious from this very simple example, it is often impossible to determine the exact and only tenor of a metaphor. This is what makes metaphors complex and interesting as a tool in literary expression. Metaphors do not merely replace one meaning-generating expression with another one of the same meaning. Instead, the combination of the two semantic fields generates additional meaning which opens a range of possibilities for interpretation. It forces us to consider the world in new terms and it expands the meaning potential of language (for an accessible exploration of the complexities of metaphor see Bode 2001: ch. 4, for an example of interpretation see below and the So What section) It introduces ambiguity and thus a typically literary quality to a text.

When one tries to interpret a metaphor or a simile, the focus of attention is at first the tertium comparationis, the common ground between the two items, because this provides additional information about the primum comparandum (Brunhilda). The secundum comparatum (the bulldozer) is not really important in itself, it only ‘delivers’ the message about the girlfriend (and that is why it is also called ‘vehicle’). Obviously, the bulldozer has characteristics which are not likely to be relevant in this particular case: Maybe it has tracks instead of wheels, it runs on petrol and so on. Important for the immediate impact of the metaphor are those characteristics which Brunhilda and the bulldozer are likely to have in common (i.e. the common ground): forcefulness, unstoppability, size and mass. In addition, it may be significant to one's impression of Brunhilda that the secundum comparatum is from the semantic field of technology.

In most cases one identifies the common ground without thinking about it. It is, however, useful to be aware of the exact steps of the decoding process, especially when one wishes to explore the effects of an image in some detail. Take the following statement made by Richard of Gloucester in his opening speech in Shakespeare’s Richard III. In the late medieval war now referred to as the War of the Roses, Richard’s noble family, the House of York, have just defeated the House of Lancaster, and Richard’s elder brother Edward is now king:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York
(Richard III I, 1:1-2)

The tenor of this metaphor (three metaphors actually: winter, summer, sun) is something like this: Now the time of our unhappiness is past, it has been replaced by a time of well-being owing to the new king who is of the York family. As vehicles (i.e. as the actual images or secunda comparata) operate the words “winter”, “summer” and “sun”. A common association with ‘winter’ is darkness, dreariness, even death and these aspects offer themselves as likely common ground (tertium comparationis) for ‘time of discontent’. ‘Summer’ is easily associated with warmth, bloom, or ease. A comparison between ‘sun’ and ‘king’ is fairly common and the additional (homonymic) pun on sun/son makes this point quite clear, since the present King Edward is of the York family, i.e. a son of York.

Two things are worthy of remark at this point. First, the paraphrase is rather an impoverished rendering of the original expression and does not seem to exhaust the full potential of the image. It seems somehow more expressive to say “Made glorious summer” than to say “made a pleasant time”. Critics are thus of the opinion that an image always expresses something beyond its paraphrase (see also Language in Literature).

The second point to be made is that Shakespeare uses three metaphors here (winter, summer, sun) and all three taken from the same semantic field: the seasons. It also happens, however, that semantic fields are mixed incongruously, as in the following image:

A burning sense of injury flooded through her and was not to be rooted out.

In this example three semantic fields are mixed: fire (“burning”), water (“flooded”) and gardening (“rooted out”). In effect mixed metaphors are rather confusing because they become difficult to visualise. This happens when Lady Macbeth says to her husband:

[...] Was the hope drunk,
you dress’d yourself?
(Macbeth I, 7: 35f)

First, she personifies hope and describes him or her as drunk, i.e. not based on sober facts, but then she moves to the semantic field of clothes and the personified hope is turned into an item of clothing. This is confusing because one ends up with a drunken piece of clothing. Of course one can still work out the tenor of the metaphor which would be something like: ‘Was the hope you expressed just a delusion?’ In such cases one talks of mixed metaphor or catachresis. It has long been considered bad style to use mixed metaphors. The above example from Macbeth for instance, so shocked editors of Shakespeare that some editions changed it to “Was the hope drunk, / Wherein you bless’d yourself” or “Was the hope drunk, / Wherein you 'dressed [=addressed] yourself” (see Muir in Shakespeare, Macbeth ad loc.).



A symbol is an object or an event which represents an abstract idea. In this sense all letters of an alphabet for instance are symbolic, they are arranged into words which represent certain concepts that we link with objects in reality. In text analysis one looks for symbols in a more restricted sense of the word: for those objects and events that are symbolic for a concept immediately relevant to the development of plot or character.

Some symbols are known to everyone within a certain cultural community, they are public symbols. The cross for instance, which represents the Christian religion, is such a public symbol. The colour white, representing purity and innocence, can also be considered a public symbol. In literature one often finds private symbols, symbols that are not generally known and that can only be decoded from their usage in a specific text. In Charles Dickens’ novel Bleak House for instance, Mr John Jarndyce uses the expression ‘There is an east wind’ to indicate that he is distressed about tensions or unhappiness among people around him. The expression, which is normally merely about the weather, is thus used as a private symbol. In the following poem by Carl Sandburg, ‘grass’ functions as a private symbol for the world’s forgetfulness of the horrors of war and destruction:


Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work –
           I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
           What place is this?
           Where are we now?

           I am the grass.
           Let me work.


primum comparandum
secundum comparatum
tertium comparationis

tenor / vehicle
mixed metaphor

public symbol
private symbol