Figures of Thought
Words or phrases used in ways that effect an obvious change (or “turn”) in their standard meaning.One kind of trope depends on a comparison between two very different objects, or else on a transference of qualities associated with an object, experience, or concept not literally connected with it.Simile, metaphor, personification, pathetic fallacy, synecdoche, metonymyA second kind of trope depends on a contrast between two levels of meaning, or a shift from one level of meaning to another.Irony, paradox, oxymoron, understatement, litotes, hyperbole, and periphrasis
Simile, Metaphor, Personification, pathetic fallacy, Synecdoche, & Metonymy
A figure of thought in which one kind of thing is compared to a markedly different object, concept, or experience; the comparison is made explicit by the word “like” or “as”EXAMPLE: Barbara’s room is as dirty as a pig sty.“Death lies on her like an untimely frost / Upon the sweetest flower of all the field” ~Romeo & Juliet
A word or phrase that in literal use designates one kind of thing isapplied to aconspicuously different object, concept, or experience, without asserting an explicit comparison.EXAMPLE: Barbara’s room is a pig sty.
Tenor & vehicle
Tenor: the literal subject; the aspect that “holds” the meaningVehicle: the analogy; the part that “conveys” the comparisonEXAMPLE: Barbara’s room is a pig sty.
Occurs when two or more incongruous vehicles are applied to the same tenorInstead of clarifying some aspect of the subject, the figure confuses it by linking images that clash.EXAMPLE: She felt a heavy burden of guilt, but she would not let it engulf her resolve.”The word “burden” is already a vehicle for the tenor, her guilt; it clashes with the second vehicle, “engulf.” The image of being weighted down is confused by the conflicting image of being surrounded and swallowed up, drowned.
A metaphor that is sustained through several lines.I do knowWhen the blood burns, how prodigal the soulLends the tongue vows. These blazes, daughter,Giving more light than heat, extinct in bothEven in their promise, as it is a-making,You must not take for fire.~Hamlet
An abstract concept, animal, or inanimate object is treated as though it were alive or had human attributes.EXAMPLE:“She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die; / And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips / Bidding adieu.”~John Keats
A special type of personification in which inanimate aspects of nature, such as the landscape or the weather, are represented as having human qualities or feelings.EXAMPLE: The bloody battle ofChancellorvillein Stephen Crane’sThe Red Badge of Courageis set on a lovely summer day. On the eve of the battle, the naïve young private Henry Fleming sees nature as attuned to his need for consolation:“There was a caress in the soft winds; and the whole mood of the darkness, he thought, was one of sympathy for himself and his distress.”
A figure of thought in which the term for part of something is used to represent the whole, or, less commonly, the term for the whole is used to represent a part.EXAMPLE:A fleet of ships may be described as “forty sails”Athletes have been nicknamed “muscles” and “the Toe”Manual laborers called “blue collar” workersThe food needed for sustenance has been called “daily bread”“The crown” for an aristocratic ruling body
A trope which substitutes the name of an entity with something else that is closely associated with it.EXAMPLE:“The throne” is a metonymic synonym for “the king”“Shakespeare” for the works of the playwright
Irony, hyperbole, understatement, paradox, oxymoron, litotes, periphrasis, & pun
Irony is an incongruity between what we expect to happen and what actually happens.It is the broadest class of figures of thought that depend on presenting a deliberate contrast between two levels of meaning.
Types of Irony:VerbalStructuralDramaticTragicCosmic
Verbal irony consists of implying a meaning different from, and often the complete opposite of, the one that is explicitly stated.Usually, the irony is signaled by clues in the context of the situation or in the style of expression.EXAMPLE: Jonathan Swift’s bitter satire “A Modest Proposal” purports to present a happy solution to the famine in the author’s native Ireland: using the infants of the starving lower classes as a source of food. At no point does the narrator abandon his pretense of cool rationality or complacency: the reaction of horror is left to the reader.
Structural irony refers to an implication of alternate or reversed meaning that pervades a work.A major technique for sustaining structural irony is the use of a naïve protagonist or unreliable narrator who continually interprets events and intentions in ways that the author’s signals are mistaken.EXAMPLES:Voltaire’sCandide, despite several experiences of horrendous suffering and corruption, persists in his conviction that “everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.”The narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” is paranoid and hallucinatory. He claims that his preternaturally acute senses and clear motives for murdering an old man are proofs that he is “not mad.” A reader who accepts this self-defense at face value is missing the story’s well-sustained structural irony.
Dramatic irony occurs when the audience is privy to knowledge that one or more of the characters lacks. This technique may be used for a comic or tragic effect.EXAMPLEInTwelfth NightShakespeare lets us in from the first scene on the secret that Viola is disguised as a boy and that she is smitten with the duke whom she is serving as page. We can therefore enjoy the humorous dramatic ironies that result when the Countess Olivia, the object of the duke’s courtship, falls in love with the charming messenger.
When dramatic irony occurs in tragedies, it is called tragic irony.EXAMPLEInOedipus Rex, Oedipus seeks to cleanse his kingdom by finding the murderer of King Laius, only to discover that the culprit is himself, and that the king was his father and the widowed queen, whom he has married, his own mother.
Cosmic irony refers to an implied worldview in which characters are led to embrace false hopes of aid or success, only to be defeated by some larger force, such as God or fate.EXAMPLEMacbeth believes that he is protected by the weird sisters’ prophecies, but he is betrayed by their fiendish duplicity.Arthur Miller’s WillyLomankills himself to secure his family the insurance payment that his suicide will, in fact, make invalid.
The trope in which a point is stated in a way that is greatly exaggerated.The effect of hyperbole is often to imply the intensity of a speaker’s feelings or convictions by putting them in uncompromising or absolute terms.It may be comic or serious.EXAMPLEOthello, greeting his new wife after surviving a perilous storm, says:O my soul’s joy!If after every tempest comes such calms,May the winds blow till they have wakened death!
A form of irony in which a point is deliberately expressed as less, in magnitude, value or importance, than it actually is.EXAMPLEInRomeo & Juliet,Mercutiodismisses the fatal wound he has just received as “a scratch.” He elaborates on the figure with a second understatement: “Marry, ‘tis enough.” The effect is to create a sort of double take, with the force of the implied meaning—here, thatMercutiois well aware that he has suffered a death blow—intensified by the restraint with which it is expressed.
A trope in which a statement that appears on the surface to be contradictory or impossible turns out to express an often striking truth.EXAMPLE“Less is more” suggests thatsparenessand selectivity are more important in achieving aesthetic beauty than expansiveness and inclusiveness.John Donne’s sonnet “Batter my heart, three-personedGod” expresses the speaker’s yearning to be forced violently into the pious faith that he feels incapable of attaining on his own. The poem ends with a startling vision of God as a masterful seducer, to whom the speaker pleads: “Take me to you, imprison me, for I / Except You enthrall me, never shall be free, / Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me.” In other words, the paradox implies, only in total servitude to the power of the deity can the worshipper achieve genuine autonomy.
An oxymoron is a compressed paradox that closely links two seemingly contrary elements in a way that, on further consideration, turns out to make good sense. As with paradox, the effect is to suggest a subtle truth.Often in literature an oxymoron is a sign of a speaker’s conflicted feelings.EXAMPLEWhen Juliet discovers that her new husband has just slain her cousinTybalt, she exclaims: “O serpent heart, hid with a flowering face!... / Beautiful tyrant! fiend angelical!” Juliet is outraged at the seeming rift between Romeo’s physical beauty and the moral corruption that she thinks is revealed by the violent act.
Litotes is a figure of thought in which a point is affirmed by negating its opposite. It is a special form of understatement, where the surface denial serves, through ironic contrast, to reinforce the underlying assertion.EXAMPLE“He’s no fool” implies “He is wise”“Not uncommon” means “frequent”
Periphrasis is a figure of thought in which a point is stated by deliberate circumlocution, rather than directly.One prominent use of periphrasis is in euphemisms, such as “passed away” for “died” and “in his cups” for “drunk.” There the aim is to cushion the painful or embarrassing effect of the explicit term.It can also signal a deliberate attempt to avoid unpleasant truths, a frequent device of politicians, as in such terms as “ethnic cleansing” for “genocide.”
A pun is a figure of thought that plays on wordsthat havethe same sound (homonyms), or closely similar sounds, but have sharply contrasting meanings. The usual affect is a witty or humorous double meaning.EXAMPLEA more serious example occurs inHamlet, when the prince answers his despised uncle’s public inquiry about his continued melancholy—”How is it that the clouds still hang on you?” with a pun: “Not so, my lord. I am too much in the sun.” The retort is a reminder to the listening court and to Claudius, who has succeeded Hamlet’s father on the throne, that the prince both dislikes this light of royal favor being shone on him (“sun”) and that he feels too strongly his father’s loss (as his “son”) to celebrate Claudius’s ascension. The pun is both ingenious and ominous. It announces the prince’s instinctive loathing for the man who he will soon discover has murdered his father, and it suggests the roundabout, intellectual nature of Hamlet’s weapon of choice, “words, words, words.”
Hamilton, Sharon.Essential Literary Terms. New York: People’s Education, 2007.