If I am honest, I never really thought about WHY we use metaphors until the day one of my colleagues came across the hall and asked for help. Her 10th-graders were reading Hamlet, and she’d asked them to identify uses of rhetorical devices and explain why Shakespeare used them.
“Great!” I said. “So what’s the problem?”
She brought me into her classroom and asked a student to repeat his answer.
The boy nodded and said, “Hamlet says, ‘Denmark is a prison.’ That’s a metaphor.”
“OK,” my colleague said, “so why did Shakespeare use that metaphor?”
“Because it’s a comparison of two unlike things, saying they’re similar,” he replied.
“Aha,” I said, exchanging a glance with my colleague, who gave me a look as if to say, See what I mean?
“That’s the definition of ‘metaphor,’” she said, “but that’s not WHY he used it. Why do you think he used it?”
“Yes,” I chimed in, “why didn’t he just say, ‘Denmark sucks’?”
The class giggled, but no one could figure it out. I thought for a moment, then wrote “PRISON” on the front board. “OK, everybody. Take 90 seconds and write down everything that comes to mind when you see this word.”
They bent their heads and wrote furiously. Unfortunately, many of them knew a lot.
When we wrote their ideas on the board (punishment, locked up, torture, oppression, lack of freedom…), they realized that the word “prison” evokes many more feelings and ideas than “Denmark sucks” would have. People with different background knowledge about “prison” react to the word differently and thus form different interpretations of Hamlet’s statement. With just one word, the metaphor adds layers of meaning.
I pointed out that this example demonstrates why everyone’s reading of a text is different: our varied experiences and knowledge lead us to understand the text in different ways. Good writers use this fact to their advantage and choose words with care.
This is what our students learned that day: Metaphors are tools that multiply meaning and give readers more to think about, more to feel. They enable our writing to have more impact. That’s why we use them.
*This entry was adapted from The Literacy Cookbook (available for order HERE).