You may understand what metaphors (and similes) are, but what about extended metaphors? We hear and read them all the time, but could you identify one? Here, we dive into the meaning of extended metaphors, how they differ from regular metaphors, and examples of this figurative language in literature.
What is an extended metaphor?
A metaphor is a literary device that makes a statement about its subject by figuratively comparing it to another. An extended metaphor is a metaphor that spans multiple sentences or paragraphs.
Here is an example of a metaphor:
Grad school is a marathon.
This metaphor evokes images of pacing oneself while running a long distance, potentially facing inclines, declines, and obstacles along the way.
A second sentence that continues the metaphor makes it an extended metaphor:
Good friends are the water breaks.
This sentence extends the metaphor by adding detail to the original comparison, creating a secondary comparison that supports the first. Just like water breaks are crucial to making it through a marathon, good friends are key to making it through grad school. A third sentence further extends the metaphor.
Your professors are your coaches and trainers.
Types of extended metaphor
There are two types of extended metaphor:
An allegory is a work that thematically discusses abstract ideas in a narrative. For example, George Orwell’s Animal Farm is an allegory about power and revolution. Usually, an allegory does not explicitly state its theme. Rather, it tells a story that can be read and understood literally. Just like any other story, an allegory has characters, a setting, a plot, a conflict, and a narrative.
A conceit is an intricate, sometimes multilayered, extended metaphor. With a conceit, the author presents a unique perspective on their writing’s subject. Conceits are often found in poetry, particularly Renaissance and metaphysical poetry. One well-known example of a conceit is the poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot:
“Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky Like a patient etherized upon a table.”
In this conceit, like others, the author intentionally shocks the reader with a stark, disturbing, or unexpected image. Here, Eliot does so by comparing the night sky with a patient awaiting surgery.
Structure of extended metaphors
Structurally, an extended metaphor is the same as a standard metaphor. Metaphors include the following two components:
The tenor is the initial concept, and the vehicle is the comparison that turns the statement into a metaphor. Take a look at the following examples. In each, the tenor is bolded and the vehicle is italicized:
- A book is a conversation with somebody you’ve likely never met, who possibly lived hundreds or thousands of years before you.
- Their family gatherings are rock concerts. Ours are symphonies.
- My cat is a monster.
Extended metaphor examples
Extended metaphor is often used in poetry, songs, and even rhetoric because of its ability to connect with readers and listeners. Here are a few excerpts from famous extended metaphors:
But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East, and Juliet is the sun! Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon, Who is already sick and pale with grief That thou her maid art far more fair than she. Be not her maid, since she is envious. Her vestal livery is but sick and green, And none but fools do wear it.
—Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare
Because I could not stop for Death— He kindly stopped for me— The Carriage held but just Ourselves— And Immortality.
—“Because I Could Not Stop for Death” (479) by Emily Dickinson
In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.
—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech:
Extended metaphor FAQs
What is an extended metaphor vs. a metaphor?
A metaphor is when a word or phrase is applied to something to which it’s not obviously applicable; an extended metaphor is a metaphor that spans multiple sentences or paragraphs.
How does an extended metaphor work?
An extended metaphor works by establishing a metaphor and then building on it in subsequent sentences and paragraphs.
What are the different kinds of extended metaphors?
- Allegory: An allegory is a story that serves as an extended metaphor. Not all extended metaphors are allegories, but allegories rely on extended metaphors.
- Conceit: A conceit is an intricate extended metaphor that presents its subject in an unexpected way. The goal of a conceit is to challenge the reader to view the subject through a new or unique lens.