A simile is the simplest form of figurative substitution and the easiest one to detect in a work of literature. The clue is in the name: similarity. In practical terms what you need to do is look out for the word ‘like’ or words and phrases with the same function: ‘as if,’ ‘as unto,’ ‘as it were’. A simile, in other words, is a comparison of one object, action or experience with another and the purpose of the comparison is that of illustration. By using a simile, you may shed light on an object or an action or an experience and thereby more cleary demonstrate its particular nature. The literal meaning of the word ‘illustrate’ is exactly that: to illuminate or shed light on. But even though a simile may be easy to understand and detect, it is still capable of being extensive, complex and sophisticated.
In semiotics, a simile is primarily iconic in function, because it claims resemblance as the factor that ties two things together.
Examples of simile, with commentary
The man was as tall as a house.
This is the simplest form of simile, where the qualities of one object are used to describe another object of allegedly similar proportions. For a much more complex use of simile to describe something, please look to the exercise at the end of this section on tropes.
She is sly as a fox.
This is a simple simile on the surface, but it also contains an element of anthropomorphism, since the trait of slyness is human, strictly speaking. Animals – though not unintelligent – tend to act on instinct.
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim hors’d
Upon the sightless couriers of the air
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind.
(William Shakespeare, Macbeth, 1.7.21-24)
Here, we see an example of how a simile can quickly amass great complexity, and even begin to veer away from being merely a simile. This comes from a speech where Macbeth is debating with himself whether he should kill his king, Duncan, as has been prophesied, or whether it is best not to. This part of the speech revolves around the potential consequences of going through with the murder. We begin with the concept of ‘pity,’ which is an emotion of sorrowful sympathy. It is an abstract thing and its comparison with a naked new-born babe is not immediately illuminating. But if we think about word associations, we might conclude that a new-born child is innocent, and that Macbeth is contrasting the innocence of pity with the guilt of committing murder.
So far, so good. But, this naked, new-born babe is ‘striding the blast’ – which means that he is riding on the wind, somehow – and this does not count as typical behaviour for new-born children. And it gets weirder as the child may or may not be accompanied by angels (‘heaven’s cherubim’) who in their turn are ‘horsed’ (i.e. riding) upon sightless couriers, whatever that may be. It could mean they are invisible like the wind, or it could mean they are blind, such as Justice is, for example.
In any case, this baby, these angels and what could be blind horses are about to ‘blow the deed in every eye, / That tears shall drown the wind’. This image brings to mind the feeling you get when cold wind blows directly into the apple of your eye so it begins to water involuntarily. The wind, then, is the medium through which pity is distributed to the people of the country. Simply put, they will begin to cry when they hear of the death of their king. For an interesting attempt to capture these verbal images in a visual format, look here.
We shall not analyse this extravagant, extended image any further here and now, but we might conclude that even though it begins as a simile, this simile is made to contain imagery that does not rely on the words ‘like’ or ‘as,’ but which assert a more direct and perplexing form of substitution. They are metaphors, and metaphors are what we will look into next. (We will return briefly to similes later in this section on tropes and imagery.)
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