Last week, when a year 12 English literature student told me that a simile was “describing something using like or as” I was perturbed. Okay, so they were sort of right. But surely, in an English curriculum where an undue amount of time is given to explicit instruction of what a metaphor and simile is, year after year, writing unit after writing unit, surely a student should be able to tell me more than that.
Strictly speaking, a simile is, as a quick Google search reveals:
…a figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of a different kind, used to make a description more emphatic or vivid e.g. ‘Brave as a lion.
Succint as this definition is, it overlooks one vital point:; a carefully constructed simile is an opportunity. An opportunity to make the reader think about something in a way they’d never thought possible; an opportunity to make a reader understand abstract concepts by making connections to the concrete; and, most importantly of all, an opportunity to make the reader feel something about the quotidian. Because of this, teachers need to go further than simply telling students, year on year, and writing unit after writing unit, that similes are simply ‘describing something using like or as.’
Whenever I teach metaphor or similes, I always ensure that students- whether they’re eleven years old, or seventeen- are absolutely familiar with the three component parts of a metaphor as coined by the critic I.A. Richards. These are: the Tenor, Vehicle, and Ground. We’ll use the following metaphor as a model to explain the concepts:
…Juliet is the sun.
The tenor is the thing being described. In this case, Juliet. It’s easier to remember because ‘thing being described’ and ‘tenor’ both begin with ‘t’. The vehicle is the thing that carries the weight of the metaphor; it’s the thing that the tenor is described as – in this case, the sun. Finally, the ground is the common ground between the two items, or, as I prefer to explain, the characteristics of the vehicle that the writer wants us to ascribe to the tenor. The ground of this simile is myriad:
- Juliet is hot
- Juliet is bright
- Juliet is in the sky
- Juliet is a huge mass of incandescent gas
- Juliet brings life
- Juliet could be harmful
- The world revolves around Juliet
- Juliet is orange
The range of interpretations is huge. Of course, some interpretations are simply wrong. But there are a lot that we can assume to be correct: Romeo does find Juliet ‘hot.’ She is bright in as much as she stands out for him above everyone else at the Capulet party. She is on a higher plane than him, both literally-in her positioning on the stage ‘aloft’, upon a balcony-and figuratively-in that Romeo apotheosises her. Romeo does feel reborn upon meeting Juliet and sure enough, just as the sun has the power to destroy, so too does Juliet.
Once students are familiar with the terms, tenor, vehicle and ground, discussion and teaching of metaphors and similes becomes more fluid purely because a shared language exisists to facilitate deeper discussion. We can get students to think meta-cognitively about the metaphors and similes they write with questions such as, ‘What is the ground of this metaphor?’; ‘Are metaphors with more ground better than those with less?’ We can prompt students who struggle with creative writing by getting them to list the characteristics of an object they want to convey – What ground of the tenor do you want to get across? Okay, make a list. Now, what vehicles have most of these characteristics? Which fits best with what you want your reader to feel?
In a lesson context, I’d open the lesson with the ‘Juliet is the sun’ metaphor written on the board. I’ll then write, near it, ‘This is the best metaphor the world has ever seen. Why?’ Once students have discussed and fed back, I’ll then explain the concepts as I’ve outlined them above, and explain that never before has so much ground been covered in so little words. This metaphor of just four words, three of which don’t exceed three letters, has a multitudinous range of interpretations; that’s why it’s the best metaphor the world has ever seen, in my opinion.
Once these concepts have been embedded, then the hard work can begin. Often heralded as the weaker sibling of metaphor, I like similes because they acknowledge that however something is perceived, a small part of it will always retain an element of its true state: in similes people can be brave as lions but that’s okay; they won’t end up tearing us to shreds because they’re still human. A classroom can be hot as hell but that’s okay; It’s still a classroom- windows can be opened. And, with similes, a young Italian man can be in desperate love with a young Italian woman he perceives to outshine all others , but – because he remembers she is human -he needn’t die due to a blinding devotion that mars his ability to make rational and informed decisions.