Metaphor & simile

Writers often use analogy to convey their message. An analogy is the comparison of two things. In language, we do this through metaphor or simile. By focusing on a writer's use of metaphor and simile, we begin to see how this important stylistic feature constructs meaning in the mind of the reader. In other words, comparing two things has an effect on the reader.  

This activity offers a simple but useful way of making an inventory of metaphors and similes in a text. We will focus on 'Shooting an Elephant' by George Orwell. You can apply this method to any literary text that you are studying for Parts 3 or 4 of your syllabus. 

Comparing X to Y 

Simile and metaphor are forms of figurative language that we use to compare two things or ideas. Here is a brief explanation of both, which will help you in the activity below. 

Metaphor - When we say X is Y, we are using metaphor. For example, if we way "My uncle is a bear," we are using metaphor.

Simile - When we say X is like Y, we are using simile. Simile also relies on words such as, 'as', and 'seem'. For example, if you say “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get, "(Forrest Gump), you are using simile. 'Life' (X) is compared to 'chocolates' (Y) in order to comment on life's unpredictable nature. 

In both metaphor and simile we use language to point to the characteristics that two things or ideas have in common.  

Below you will read a passage from 'Shooting an Elephant', a short story by George Orwell. As you read, look for four comparisons that are made (see left column in worksheet). Complete the table in which you explain what is being compared. Furthermore, explain 'how' they are compared: through simile or metaphor. Finally ask yourself what effect these comparisons have on the reader.

 An inventory of metaphor and similes

X is compared to... Y to these effects
Burmese people are compared to...
an audience that anticipates a show. We see this in the metaphor: "The crowd grew very still, and a deep, low, happy sigh, as of people who see the theatre curtain go up at last, breathed from innumerable throats."
This belittles the life of the elephant. His death becomes something sensational for spectators to enjoy. The comparison serves as a criticism of the crowd, as they view the shooting as entertainment, while the police officer and narrator lives the moment with guilt and compassion for the animal, as well as anger at his own inability to stop himself from pulling the trigger. The specific reference to a theatre curtain emphasizes the focusing of attention at the moment he charges his rifle. 
The cheers of the Burmese people are compared to...
a devilish roar. "I heard the devilish roar of glee that went up from the crowd." Their cheers are compared to the noises of animals or even Satan in this metaphor.
The crowd in this passage is attributed the characteristic of an animal through the use of the word 'roar'. The adjective 'devilish' next to the word 'glee' immediately confers a sense of madness, of unbridled energy, like that of Satan.
The elephant's fall is compared to...
a huge tower of rock tumbling down. "He seemed to tower upward like a huge rock toppling." Because it uses the word 'seemed', it is a simile. 
The comparison between the elephant and the rock, creates a greater contrast with the human crowd. The elephant becomes even larger than it actually is with this comparison. The image, and the memory, loom large in the narrator's eye.
The elephant's trunk is compared to...
a tree. "his trunk reaching skyward like a tree." This is a simile.
This animal belongs to the natural world, and shares some of the qualities of size and impressiveness with it. 

Shooting an Elephant
George Orwell
1936

There was only one alternative. I shoved the cartridges into the magazine and lay down on the road to get a better aim. The crowd grew very still, and a deep, low, happy sigh, as of people who see the theatre curtain go up at last, breathed from innumerable throats. They were going to have their bit of fun after all. The rifle was a beautiful German thing with cross-hair sights. I did not then know that in shooting an elephant one would shoot to cut an imaginary bar running from ear-hole to ear-hole. I ought, therefore, as the elephant was sideways on, to have aimed straight at his ear-hole, actually I aimed several inches in front of this, thinking the brain would be further forward.

When I pulled the trigger I did not hear the bang or feel the kick – one never does when a shot goes home – but I heard the devilish roar of glee that went up from the crowd. In that instant, in too short a time, one would have thought, even for the bullet to get there, a mysterious, terrible change had come over the elephant. He neither stirred nor fell, but every line of his body had altered. He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old as though the frightful impact of the bullet had paralysed him without knocking him down. At last, after what seemed a long time – it might have been five seconds, I dare say – he sagged flabbily to his knees. His mouth slobbered. An enormous senility seemed to have settled upon him. One could have imagined him thousands of years old. I fired again into the same spot. At the second shot he did not collapse but climbed with desperate slowness to his feet and stood weakly upright, with legs sagging and head drooping. I fired a third time. That was the shot that did for him. You could see the agony of it jolt his whole body and knock the last remnant of strength from his legs. But in falling he seemed for a moment to rise, for as his hind legs collapsed beneath him he seemed to tower upward like a huge rock toppling, his trunk reaching skyward like a tree. He trumpeted, for the first and only time. And then down he came, his belly towards me, with a crash that seemed to shake the ground even where I lay.

Towards assessment

Individual oral commentary - In preparation for the individual oral commentary, you will want to conduct several presentations in class. In these presentations, you can present passages from the works that you have read in class. Try finding passages in your Part 4 texts that are rich in metaphor and simile. Explain how the authors of these works use these forms of figurative language to convey a particular sentiment. 

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