Examples of Metonymy in Literature

Metonymy is a rhetorical device that is widely used in literature and everyday language. By employing this powerful tool, the writers convey the complex ideas in a memorable and precise manner.

Definition of Metonymy

Metonymy is a figure of speech, where a thing is called by the name of something connected with it. The term is considered as subtype of metaphor.

In metaphor, two objects having no connection are compared, whereas metonymy connects two objects because of their association in context. Metonymy was derived from the Greek word “metōnymía”, which means ‘change of name’.

Metonymy contains an association that depends on different relations, such as part to whole, cause to effect, or container to contents. This is a good strategy, as it makes the communication engaging and conveys the message with brevity.

Functions of Metonymy

Metonymy performs numerous functions in language and literature:

1. Economy of Language


Metonymy enables the writers or speakers to convey complex ideas with fewer words. For instance, one can combine terms and say “the crown” while discussing a king or queen without having to explain the entirety of monarchy each time.

This economy of language tends to be very useful when it is used in the poetry and prose writing, where the number of words and rhythm are prime consideration.

2. Evocative Imagery

Metonymy always yields appealing concepts and emotions. For instance, using a word like “White House” instead of “President of the United States” gives the feeling of a lofty and powerful leadership figure.

This makes the content easier to understand since it appeals to the side of human brain that can help to conjure images and that, in turn, helps to engage the audience more deeply.

3. Cultural and Contextual Relevance

Metonymy tends to be contextual and is used with the help of cultural expectations and associations.

This reliance can make the link between the speaker and the audience better since it is assumed by the mutual understanding.

For example, the way “Hollywood” is used to point out the American film industry is perfectly comprehensible since everyone knows that Hollywood is the films’ production capital.

4. Aesthetic and Stylistic Appeal

In literature, the employment of metonymy relieves the task of going through a layer of stylistic enhancement.

It can improve the demonstration of the textual content from the aesthetic perspective by supplementing the semantic load, defeating slang clichés, and impacting the entire general texture of the text.

Examples of Metonymy in Literature

Example#1

“Julius Caesar” by Shakespeare

Cassius: “But, for mine own part, it was Greek to me. I could tell you more news too: Marullus and Flavius, for pulling scarfs off Caesar’s images, are put to silence. Fare you well. There was more foolery yet, if I could remember it.”

Cassius uses “put to silence”, which refers to remove decorations from Caesar’s statues. Here, the use of “put to silence” is a metonymy.

It means Marullus and Flavius have been punished or silenced for their actions. The term “silence” reflects a metonymic expression. It is a broader sense of repression or punishment.

Example#2

“1984” by George Orwell

“The Ministry of Truth contained, it was said, three thousand rooms above ground level, and corresponding ramifications below.”


In this case, “The Ministry of Truth” is a symbolic name for government organization controlling the information, which is involved in fabricating it.

Rather than stating the specific functions which the government conducts propaganda and misinformation, Orwell employs the term Ministry of Truth to embrace all the functions of the given government agency.

The use of metonymy emphasizes the theme of irony, as the Ministry of Truth is involved in telling, and perhaps creating, falsehoods.

Example#3

“Moby-Dick” by Herman Melville

“As for the men, though some of them lowly rumbled, their fear of Ahab was greater than their fear of Fate. But as with the Pequod, so with the place where she sailed.”

In the text, ‘the Pequod’ is a metonym to represent the whaling expedition and the overall experience, the circumstances of its voyage, trials, and fate of the crew.

Instead of narrating the specific movement of every person on the ship or the voyage, Melville refers to the ship as “the Pequod” and fosters a direct link between it and its outcome.

Such metonymy helps to intensify the connections between the fate of the crew and the story of their failed attempt. It reflects their obsession or the inevitable race of their destiny, and Ahab’s single-minded determination to pursue the white whale.

See also: Examples of Meter in Literature

Example#4

“A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens

“The time was to come, when that wine too would be spilled on the street-stones, and when the stain of it would be red upon many there.”

In the novel, the use of the spilled wine is a metonymy, which reflects the bloodshed during the French Revolution.

Wine soaked on the street-stones expressing the revolutionary movements showing that blood of the innocent will be shed.

The author employs wine as the symbol of blood to increase the expectation of the coming battle’s outcome and the change it is bound to bring.

Example#5

“The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning—”

The use of the green light in the excerpt is a metonym. It reflects dreams of Gatsby and his obsessive desire for Daisy.

The green light that is seen at the end of Daisy’s dock could be easily seen from Gatsby’s mansion and sets out the reminder of his goal. It indicates his ambition not only for Daisy, but for a future, where all his dreams and ambitions come true.

The writer by using “the green light” focuses on entire quest of Gatsby and the novel main themes of hope, ambition and the American Dream.

Example#6

“Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad

“The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it.”

The use of ‘ivory’ is a metonymy, which symbolizes the voracious desire of European colonizers for African resources.

Unlike other colonial novels where the main issue of colonialism and inhumanity towards the native population is highlighted, Conrad hides it behind the titular “ivory” as a main commodity for which the entire enterprise is conducted.

It indicates the obsession of the colonizers with ivory as a symbol of wealth and power. It also reveals the moral decay and dehumanization. Through this, the author indicates the damaging effects of the colonial mentality over the oppressed territories.

Example#7

“Hamlet” by William Shakespeare

“Let us impart what we have seen tonight
Unto young Hamlet; for, upon my life,
This spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him.
Do you consent we shall acquaint him with it,
As needful in our loves, fitting our duty?
Let’s do’t, I pray; and I this morning know
Where we shall find him most conveniently.”

Thus, the term “spirit” is used in the passage, which is the metonym. It reflects the ghost of the King Hamlet.

The metonymy applied here is the spirit, which is used to refer to the overall importance of the ghost or the message that he has for the family.

The characters also pay attention to the ghost as something significant, referring to it as ‘this spirit’ which implies that it is their responsibility to relay such an experience to the young Hamlet.

Metonymy is employed in this context to draw the audience’s attention to the interdependence between the ghost and the progression of the dramatic action of the play.

Two Literary Terms Related to Metonymy

1. Synecdoche

A figure of speech, which reflects the part of something as the whole and vice versa. It is related to metonymy. However, the difference lies in the relationship between the part and the whole.

For instance, in the phrase “all hands on deck”, the “hands” attributes to sailors. It is used a part (hands) to represent the whole (sailors).

Synecdoche emphasizes the essential relationship between the part and the whole. Metonymy depends on a broader associative relationship i.e., “the crown” for the monarchy, whereas the synecdoche involves a part-whole connection.

See also: Metonymy Vs. Euphemism

2. Metaphor

Metaphor involves comparing two things that are assumed to be different without using ‘like’ or ‘as’. The difference between metonymy and metaphor is that while in metonymy one thing is compared with another by their association, whereas in metaphor, comparison is made on similarity.

For example, in the phrase “Time is a thief”. Here, the time is referred to as a thief which effectively conveys that time takes away the moments of our lives.

This juxtaposition gives a clear imagery and ushers physical elements in portraying the existence and progressive nature of time. The key difference between metaphor and metonymy is that the former is based on similarity, while the latter is based on contiguity.

Examples of Metonymy in Literature
Examples of Metonymy in Literature

To conclude, metonymy is revealed as a flexible device that enriches language and literature. This is because metonymy enables the economical articulation of what are in fact recondite ideas, helps cobble out appealing mental pictures and takes advantage of cultural association to intensify closeness between the writer and the audience.

For decades, it has served writers, whether it be Shakespeare or Fitzgerald, as a means of conveying importance and urgency.

Learning or comprehending metonymy including similar terms like synecdoche, metaphor contribute significantly towards comprehending language and enabling a broader perspective when it comes to the use of language in the society. Still, metonymy remains a ubiquitous component of rhetoric and literature that can help to enhance clarity as well as inventiveness.

See also: Literary Devices That Start With M

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