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Imagery

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English Literature

Imagery is an essential part of literature as, without it, a text would be pretty boring to read. We don't want literature to read like a bland shopping list – we want it to be the main course, a feast for the imagination and the senses! As a detailed description that often uses sensory perception to describe an object or scene, imagery is a literary element that can help an author breathe life into their text.

Imagery: Definition

Imagery is a literary element that refers to the use of figurative language.

Imagery can be a vivid, detailed description of an object or scene. Imagery is used to create descriptions that appeal to the senses of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste, to convey feelings to the reader, such as those associated with movement and temperature.

Imagery also includes the use of personification and other aspects of figurative language such as similes, metaphors, and onomatopoeia.

Imagery can be used in all types of writing and speech, however, here we will focus on how imagery is used as a rhetorical device in literature.

Rhetorical device: uses words to evoke emotion within the reader.

Personification: giving something that is non-human human-like characteristics.

Simile: a figurative language tool that compares one thing to another using the words 'like' or 'as'.

Metaphor: a figurative language tool that replaces an object, concept, or action with another object, concept, or action that may not be literally applicable.

Onomatopoeia: when a word sounds like what it is describing, e.g., 'hiccup'.

Effect of Imagery

Imagery communicates a specific perception of an object or scene to a reader. It can be very difficult to describe abstract thoughts, feelings, and sensations at any given moment, and imagery can help to make intangible moments more tangible and easier to understand or imagine for a reader.

As imagery is used to aid the reader's understanding and communicate how the writer wants their audience to perceive occurrences in the text, imagery can also be analysed to gain further insight into the overall themes that are being explored.

A rainy day could be described with imagery to create different effects. This could add to the atmosphere of the story and also layer meaning around an event that takes place. A rainy day could be described using positive imagery that presents the rain as refreshing, reflecting a character's relief. On the other hand, a rainy day could also be described with imagery that has more negative connotations to create a darker, more ominous atmosphere.

Here is one example of imagery, taken from F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925). When reading the example, what feeling(s) does the imagery convey?

So we beat on, boats against the current, born ceaselessly back into the past.

Nick Carraway, the narrator, uses the imagery of boats pushing in vain against a current as a metaphor. The boats represent the people featured in the novel. Just like boats trying to move forward on a journey, the characters in the novel are trying to move forward in their lives and into the future. However, like a strong current, the influence of the past pushes back against their attempts to move towards their dreams.

Imagery enhances your writing as it helps to paint a picture for your reader. This makes it easier for readers to imagine the settings and scenarios that you are writing about.

Types of Imagery

Imagery is often used to engage our sensory perception with a text, and we can categorise different types of imagery depending on which sense is being appealed to.

Visual Imagery

Visual imagery works with our sense of sight and helps us to imagine how something looks. For example: 'Her hair was a flaming red.'

Imagery, Red hair, StudysmarterRed hair, pixabay Imagery, fire, studysmarterFire, pixabay

Auditory Imagery

Auditory imagery works with our sense of sound. For example: 'The dog whimpered in fear.'

Imagery, fearful dog, studysmarterFearful dog, pixabay.com

Gustatory Imagery

Gustatory imagery works with our sense of taste. For example: 'Her honeyed voice.'

Imagery, honey, studysmarterHoney, pixabay. Imagery, voice, studysmarterMouth open, pixabay.

Tactile Imagery

Tactile imagery works with our sense of touch and helps us to imagine what something might feel like.

For example: 'Her skin was smooth as silk.'

Imagery, Skin, StudysmarterSkin, pixabay.com Imagery, Purple silk, studysmarterPurple silk, pixabay.com

Olfactory Imagery

Olfactory imagery works with our sense of smell. For example: 'Something was making the room smell sour like vinegar – a sour kind of smell, like it hadn’t been looked after properly in a while.'

Imagery, Unkept room, StudysmarterAn unkept room, pixabay.Imagery, vinegar bottle, studysmaterA vinegar bottle, pixabay.

Imagery is not limited to sensory perception, although this is a common device used to create imagery. Remember, imagery can also include references to temperature, movement, and inner feelings and emotions. Furthermore, imagery may be used that appeals to the senses in multiple ways.

The imagery used in the description: 'her honeyed voice', could be described as both gustatory, auditory, and tactile. The image of sweet and sticky honey could reflect a pleasant, sweet tone in her voice that draws you in and is difficult to stop listening to.

When writing prose or poetry, you do not have to go down a checklist and tick off each type of imagery; however, using a combination of these types of imagery will enhance your writing and create a richer, more vivid description that your readers can immerse themselves in.

Imagery Examples: Poetry, Prose, and Plays

Below are Imagery examples for poetry, Prose and plays

Poetry

Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white;/ Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk;/ Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font:/ The firefly wakens: waken thou with me./ Now droops the milk-white peacock like a ghost,/ And like a ghost she glimmers on to me.

Tennyson uses visual imagery in this poem to describe a summer night's scene. The narrator is spending a summer night waiting for their lover to come home. The imagery conveys the idea that whilst the narrator is waiting for their lover, the rest of the world is sleeping around them. The image of sleeping flowers, the 'crimson petal [...] the white', suggests that nature is winding down for the night after a long day, taking comfort in sleep as humans do. This reflects a feeling of all-encompassing sleepiness that not only affects the speaker, but also the speaker's entire surroundings, comforting to the speaker as they expect their lover to appear in their dreams. Tennyson uses the simile of 'like a ghost' to evoke the idea that the narrator's lover feels intangible and far away, a figment of their imagination.

Prose

I was spiteful. Full of a baby's venom. [...] Winter in Ohio was especially rough if you had an appetite for colour.

(Chapter 1)

The narrator is 'full of baby's venom', which is a reference to the baby ghost that haunts their home after being murdered several years ago. A baby being full of venom is an unusual description, as babies are usually associated with innocence rather than danger. This could show how unnatural and unfair the baby's life and death were. This also highlights the theme of generational trauma that is explored in the novel. Although having a baby is seen as something positive for many parents, for Sethe, having a baby only symbolises the possibility of continued pain as she fears the consequences of her child being born into slavery.

The imagery used also presents Ohio as being colourless, dreary, and therefore incompatible with people who prefer the colours of spring or summer. Describing these people as having 'an appetite for colour' indicates they may thrive on their surroundings being colourful and vibrant. Hence, the atmosphere is highlighted as being one that is draining rather than fulfilling.

The boy [Oliver] was lying, fast asleep, on a rude bed upon the floor; so pale with anxiety, and sadness, and the closeness of his prison, that he looked like death; not death as it shows in shroud and coffin, but in the guise it wears when life has just departed; when a young and gentle spirit has, but an instant, fled to Heaven, and the gross air of the world has not had time to breathe upon the changing dust it hallowed.

(Chapter 19)

This vivid imagery of death depicts casts a dark mood over the scene, reflected in the words 'death', 'shroud', 'coffin', and references to the afterlife. In this chapter, Oliver is under the care of Fagin, the leader of a gang of child thieves, and Fagin is contemplating using Oliver in his robbery plans. Oliver is still adjusting to being amongst Fagin and his seasoned criminals. He was scolded for trying to run away after being recruited, and now sleeps in a place that one imagines is suffocating and lacking any kind of comforting warmth. Oliver is described as being a shell of himself; where there should be the youthful spirit of a boy whose life is just beginning, there are only traces of a 'life [that] has just departed'.

Porter: Here’s a knocking indeed! If a man were porter of hell-gate, he should have old turning the key. Knock Knock, knock, knock, knock!

(Act 2, Scene 3)

Shakespeare uses onomatopoeia in this instance as the porter speaks about a knock on the door. This provides the reader with auditory imagery. Since this is a play, the loud and repetitive knocks would be done on stage, reflecting the insistence of whoever is knocking on the door. If you are just reading the script, the auditory imagery adds to your imaginings of the scene.

Romeo: O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!/ Her beauty hangs upon the cheek of night,/ Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear [...].

(Act 1, Scene 5)

This passage uses visual imagery to emphasise how bright and dazzling Juliet's beauty is. Shakespeare uses a simile in this imagery by comparing Juliet's appearance to the visually appealing contrast between a bright, colourful jewel and an Ethiopian's rich brown skin that makes the jewel stand out even more.

Writing a sentence with Imagery

When creating imagery, you want to paint a picture with your words and make the description so vivid that the reader can imagine themselves within it. Avoid using adjectives in excess. Instead, think about how the senses can be used in your description of something and which emotions you want to convey to the reader and how your descriptive choices can show this.

When writing imagery, think about how you can zoom in on and out from a scene. For example, on a rainy day, you can scale in to describe the feeling of the rain droplets on your skin. Then, you can zoom out and consider the effect of the rain on the wider setting. Are the rain droplets pleasant or unpleasant to the touch? What does this reflect about the atmosphere of the scene?

Imagery appeals to the senses and you can call on your past experiences to help you describe a scene in a vivid way. You know the smell of an egg in a pan and you know the sound: the smell is pungent and the sound is sizzling. You know the taste of an orange or an apple on your tongue: sweet and tart, respectively. You know the sound and movement of a large bus: sluggish movement accompanied by a muffled rumbling. Use your real-life experiences where possible and, where it isn't possible, your imagination is your best friend.

When creating your own imagery, remember that the best place to start is with familiar images that pretty much everyone can relate to.

'His voice was sweet as honey' works perfectly because tasting honey is an almost universal experience, so readers can immerse themselves in your writing much easier.

Here I have created a couple of examples of imagery in use. Why don't you have a go, too?

The Princess' wedding dress was a long trail behind her, its many jewels winking in the sunlight as she walked down the aisle. She smelled like fresh lilies and lemon on this fine spring morning. She even had the essence of spring about her, ready to bloom into something beautiful and captivating.

The use of the simile and olfactory imagery in 'she smelled like fresh lilies and lemon' reflects that the bride is refreshing and beautiful. Comparing her to spring also portrays her as a symbol for something new and good. The metaphor of 'jewels winking in the sunlight' is used to convey how the sun reflects on the jewels of her dress, creating an enchanting image.

The bear's tongue was rough and wet on his skin as it dragged across his face. He stood, as unmoving as the boulder next to him, and waited for the bear to be done with its poking and prodding.

This example uses tactile imagery as it describes the bear's tongue as 'rough'. The use of the simile 'as unmoving as the boulder next to him' aims to convey how still the man had to be in such a tense situation. The imagery of the bear 'poking and prodding' shows that the bear was mostly curious as it sniffed around the man.

Imagery - Key Takeaways

  • Imagery is a literary element that provides vivid, detailed descriptions and communicates a specific perception of an object or scene to a reader.

  • Imagery includes using personification, similes, metaphors, and language that appeals to the senses.

  • Imagery adds to the reader's understanding of a text and its themes.

  • The types of imagery are visual imagery, auditory imagery, gustatory imagery, tactile imagery, and olfactory imagery.

  • To write using imagery, you want to paint a picture with your words. To do this, you can use figurative language, such as similes, metaphors, and personification. Furthermore, you can zoom in and out of your chosen scene to relate small details to the wider atmosphere and setting. Use your past experiences to help you create imagery, and where you don't have any, use your imagination.

Imagery

You can find many examples of imagery throughout literature. For example, in Shakespeare's Macbeth (1623), Shakespeare uses onomatopoeia as the stressful sound of repetitive knocking is reflected in the repeated use of the word 'knock'. This provides the reader with auditory imagery.

Imagery is a literary element that refers to the use of figurative language. 

Imagery is a type of rhetorical device in literature. 

  • Paint a picture with your words and make the description vivid.
  • Include other figurative language tools such as similes, metaphors, personification, and onomatopoeia. 
  • Zoom in and out of your chosen scene. Look at the details and look at the bigger picture. 
  • Use your past experiences to help you create imagery, and where you don't have any, use your imagination.

Imagery is a literary element that refers to the use of figurative language. It is a vivid, detailed description of an object or scene. 

Final Imagery Quiz

Question

Is imagery a literary element?

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Answer

Imagery is a literary element that refers to the use of figurative language. 

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Question

Is imagery a rhetorical device?

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Answer

Imagery is a type of rhetorical device in literature. 

Show question

Question

What is imagery?

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Answer

Imagery is a literary element that refers to the use of figurative language. It is a vivid, detailed description of an object or scene.

Show question

Question

What can be included to create imagery?

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Answer

To create imagery, you can include a description of sensory perception and uses other aspects of figurative language such as similes and metaphors and personification.

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Question

What are the 5 types of imagery and what do they mean?

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Answer

  • Visual imagery: sense of sight involved in imagery. 
  • Auditory imagery: sense of sound involved in imagery.
  • Gustatory imagery: sense of taste involved in imagery.
  • Tactile imagery: sense of touch involved in imagery.
  • Olfactory imagery: sense of smell involved in imagery.

Show question

Question

What is an example of visual imagery?

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Answer

'Her hair was a flaming red.'

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Question

What is an example of auditory imagery?

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Answer

'The dog whimpered in fear.'

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Question

What is an example of gustatory imagery?

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Answer

'Her honey-sweet voice.'

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Question

What is an example of tactile imagery?

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Answer

'Her skin was smooth as silk.'

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Question

What is an example of olfactory imagery?

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Answer

'Something was making the room smell sour, sour like vinegar, the kind of sour like it hasn’t been looked after properly in a while.’

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Question

What kind of imagery is used in the following passage from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (1597)? 

‘O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!/ Her beauty hangs upon the cheek of night,/ Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear’ 

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Answer

Visual imagery is used. 

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Question

What is the effect of imagery?

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Answer

The effect of imagery is that it communicates to the reader a specific perception of an object or a scene. Imagery could also add to the overall themes of the text. 

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