The function of metaphor in literature is twofold. The first, and more practical, function is to allow the reader greater understanding of the concept, object, or character being described. This is done by comparing it to an item that may be more familiar to the reader. The second function is purely artistic: to create an image that is beautiful or profound or otherwise produces the effect that the writer desires. For these reasons, writers have used the metaphor since the earliest recorded stories.
The term metaphor is used broadly in this sense to describe any instance when something is figuratively compared to something else. This includes the simile, which compares things by using words such as like or as. In contrast, the metaphor in its usual meaning dispenses with such words, describing something by calling it another thing, as when Shakespeare’s Romeo says, “Juliet is the sun.” Other metaphorical figures of speech include metonymy, using a single word to represent a complicated idea; for example, the word Hollywood is often used to describe the film industry. The metaphor in literature serves to make writing more accessible and colorful at the same time.
Examples of the metaphor in literature appear in the earliest surviving literary works, including the Epic of Gilgamesh, from 1000 B.C., and Homer’s Odyssey. Homer in particular was noted for his extended epic similes that would compare characters to objects or animals at considerable length. Shakespeare’s metaphors, often used in dialogue in his stage plays, are praised for their beauty. This fulfilled the second function of metaphor in literature as well as the first. The Romantic poets of the 18th century developed this beauty further, such as Scottish poet Robert Burns writing, “My love is like a red red rose.”
In modern times, writers may put the metaphor to more complicated uses, such as the extended metaphor. For example, in his play The Crucible, Arthur Miller uses the Salem Witch Trials as a metaphor for the anti-communist hysteria of 1950s America. This metaphor is not spelled out in the work itself and requires knowledge of history and the writer’s intentions to be evident. Science fiction, in particular, provides many examples of the extended metaphor in literature. Stories in the Star Trek and X-Men series often use aliens or human mutations as metaphors for racism, sexism, and homophobia.
The use of the metaphor requires some care on the part of the writer. A poorly chosen metaphor can take the reader out of the story and is a common fault of untrained writers. A mixed metaphor occurs when two unlike metaphors are applied to the same subject, as in “up the creek without a clue.” Expert writers, on the other hand, can use metaphors in surprising and creative ways, as Margaret Atwood does in her short poem “You Fit into Me.” The poem reads, in its entirety: “You fit into me/Like a hook into an eye/A fish hook/An open eye.”