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Figurative Language Definition: language that conveys meanings that are interpreted imaginatively rather than literally

Figurative language is used in both prose and poetry to create layers of meaning which the reader accesses through the senses, symbolism, and sound devices. Figurative language brings the reader deeper into the theme of the work, without the author having to explicitly lay out the theme for the reader. It is a way for the reader to enter the words with their minds and emotions, rather than simply comprehending a story or poem. Figurative language is a way for the author to add layers of meaning into their words and into the story. For example, in “The Scarlet Ibis” by James Hurst, Doodle’s life and impending death are symbolized by the scarlet ibis who dies after alighting in a tree in the yard. The reader sees that the ibis is a tropical bird who has made a long journey to a place where he doesn’t really belong. His death foreshadows Doodle’s, as he falls to the ground with lanky legs crossed and an outstretched neck.

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Notable Examples of Figurative Language in Literature


“He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.”

“Is this a dagger which I see before me
The dagger toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee!
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.”

“The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.”



Be sure to check out our article, "Figurative Language"!

Learn more about various devices in literature in our Picture Encyclopedia of Literary Elements!
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