Extended Metaphor in Literature

Extended Metaphors from Dickens, Dickinson, Twain, and More

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An extended metaphor is a common literary device used as a comparison between two, unlike things that are commonly used in descriptive prose or poetry. Sometimes, it is just a sentence or two, or sometimes it can be even longer, lasting a paragraph or more. This literary term is also known as a "conceit" or a "mega-metaphor." An extended metaphor is sometimes confused with allegory.

The various elements or images in an extended metaphor may fit together or complement one another in different ways.

"The endpoint of extended metaphorical processes is ​allegory."—David Punter, English professor and expert on Gothic fiction. ​

Allegory Versus Extended Metaphor

Allegory is often described as an extended metaphor, but this description only works if "extended" refers to the linguistic expression while "metaphor" refers to the conceptual structure.

For example, Peter Crisp, English professor for the Chinese University of Hong Kong, claims that "Extended metaphor... is different from allegory because it contains language that relates directly to both the source and target."

Literary Construct Only?

Extended metaphors are a literary construct as opposed to an ordinary-language metaphor. Extended metaphors are used consciously and sustained throughout a text or discourse. Unlike ordinary-language metaphors, they are not a one-off use of a description usually made out of necessity to get a point across.

According to some language experts, extended metaphors are the "exclusive property" of literary texts, although this is not conclusive because of the use of sustained metaphors in advertising.

Examples of Extended Metaphors

The best way to understand the concept of extended metaphor is to see it in use.

Authors and poets from all over the world, from all genres, and many time periods, have used or likely will use extended metaphor in one way or another.

Dean Koontz, "Seize the Night"
"Bobby Holloway says my imagination is a three-hundred-ring circus. Currently, I was in ring two hundred and ninety-nine, with elephants dancing and clowns cartwheeling and tigers leaping through rings of fire. The time had come to step back, leave the main tent, go buy some popcorn and a Coke, bliss out, cool down."

Michael Chabon, "The Yiddish Policeman's Union"
"It never takes longer than a few minutes, when they get together, for everyone to revert to the state of nature, like a party marooned by a shipwreck. That’s what a family is. Also the storm at sea, the ship, and the unknown shore. And the hats and the whiskey stills that you make out of bamboo and coconuts. And the fire that you light to keep away the beasts."

Emily Dickinson, "Hope Is the Thing With Feathers"
"Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune—without the words,
And never stops at all,

"And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

"I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me."

Charles Dickens, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood"
"Whosoever has observed that sedate and clerical bird, the rook, may perhaps have noticed that when he wings his way homeward towards nightfall, in a sedate and clerical company, two rooks will suddenly detach themselves from the rest, will retrace their flight for some distance, and will there poise and linger; conveying to mere men the fancy that it is of some occult importance to the body politic, that this artful couple should pretend to have renounced connection with it.

"Similarly, service being over in the old Cathedral with the square tower, and the choir scuffling out again, and divers venerable persons of rook-like aspect dispersing, two of these latter retrace their steps, and walk together in the echoing Close." 

Mark Twain, "Life on the Mississippi"
"One day [Mr. Bixby] turned on me suddenly with this settler—

"'What is the shape of Walnut Bend?'

"He might as well have asked me my grandmother's opinion of protoplasm. I reflected respectfully, and then said I didn't know it had any particular shape. My gunpowdery chief went off with a bang, of course, and then went on loading and firing until he was out of adjectives.

"I had learned long ago that he only carried just so many rounds of ammunition, and was sure to subside into a very placable and even remorseful old smooth-bore as soon as they were all gone." 

Henry James, "The Ambassadors"
"Unless she hid herself altogether she could show but as one of these, an illustration of his domiciled and indeed of his confirmed condition. And the consciousness of all this in her charming eyes was so clear and fine that as she thus publicly drew him into her boat she produced in him such a silent agitation as he was not to fail afterwards to denounce as pusillanimous. 'Ah don't be so charming to me!—for it makes us intimate, and after all what is between us when I've been so tremendously on my guard and have seen you but half a dozen times?' He recognized once more the perverse law that so inveterately governed his poor personal aspects: it would be exactly like the way things always turned out for him that he should affect Mrs. Pocock and Waymarsh as launched in a relation in which he had really never been launched at all. They were at this very moment—they could only be—attributing to him the full license of it, and all by the operation of her own tone with him; whereas his sole license had been to cling with intensity to the brink, not to dip so much as a toe into the flood.

But the flicker of his fear on this occasion was not, as may be added, to repeat itself; it sprang up, for its moment, only to die down and then go out forever. To meet his fellow visitor's invocation and, with Sarah's brilliant eyes on him, answer, was quite sufficiently to step into her boat. During the rest of the time her visit lasted he felt himself proceed to each of the proper offices, successively, for helping to keep the adventurous skiff afloat. It rocked beneath him, but he settled himself in his place. He took up an oar and, since he was to have the credit of pulling, pulled." 

Will Ferrell (Actor/Comedian), Commencement Address at Harvard University in 2003
"I graduated from the University of Life. All right? I received a degree from the School of Hard Knocks. And our colors were black and blue, baby. I had office hours with the Dean of Bloody Noses. All right? I borrowed my class notes from Professor Knuckle Sandwich and his teaching assistant, Ms. Fat Lip Thon Nyun. That’s the kind of school I went to for real, okay?"