Visual Metaphor (Examples in Literature & Explanation)

Definition of Visual Metaphor

A visual metaphor is a figurative representation that uses an image, symbol or the icon for the purpose of conveying meaning or concept. This device is vital in the field of visual communication giving a comparison between two objects which may not be directly associated.

Words may not be involved here. These metaphors operate as per the ability of the viewer in order to explain and understand the implied connection between the visual elements and the desired message.

Common Examples of Visual Metaphor

Some common examples of visual metaphor is as under:

  1. The “light bulb” icon representing an idea or innovation.
  2. A heart shape symbolizing love or affection.
  3. A road or path signifying a journey or progress.
  4. A clock or hourglass representing time or deadlines.
  5. A chain or shackles depicting oppression or constraint.
  6. A butterfly emerging from a cocoon, symbolizing transformation or rebirth.
  7. A puzzle piece representing a solution or missing element.
  8. A bridge connecting two disparate elements, signifying unity or collaboration.

Examples of Visual Metaphor in literature


“Macbeth” by William Shakespeare

“Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

In the passage, the writer juxtaposes life to the candlelight and a walking shadow. This suggests its transient and insubstantial nature.

The metaphor of a poor player strutting and fretting upon the stage further emphasizes the idea that life is a brief performance, full of noise and commotion but ultimately meaningless. These visual metaphors create a powerful image of the fleeting and futile nature of human existence.


“The Old Man and the Sea” by Earnest Hemingway

“The sea was very dark and the light made prisms in the water. The myriad flecks of the plankton were annulled now by the high sun and it was only the great deep prisms in the blue water that the old man saw now with his lines going straight down into the water that was a mile deep.”

Here, the writer equates the sea with a deep blue prism that is shown collecting sunlight in repetitive glistening prism effects around the water. It is a widely recognized image that is used philosophically and symbolically to denote the complexity, depth, and majesty of the sea. It also hints at its capacity for change. 

The ever decreasing sweep of the old man’s fishing lines farther into the one-mile deep water stresses us with the magnitude and depth of water more.


“Mirror” by Sylvia Plath

“I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful ‚
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.”

The writer refers to the mirror, ascribing human qualities to it in her analogy between the mirror and the matter of objective self-examination. The mirror said that “the silver and exact”, which refers to it being accurate in reflecting reality. 

It seems like the poet is referring to the mirror which ‘gulps down’ what it is showing us and then says that it is neutral hence without any bias whatsoever. With this analogy of the mirror of a little god Plath emphasizes, how it is able to demonstrate the exact truth about yourself, regardless of its being unpleasant or even ugly.


“The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

“The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic—their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose.”

Fitzgerald proceeds to describe a sign for the advertisement consisting of two yellow eye spectacles belonging to an anonymous pair of eyes. This is a means for the writer to indicate that the movie represents not only broken morals but also a world without God watching over the characters in the book. 

The color of the eyes is stated to be “blue and gigantic” which suggests a sense of wisdom and omniscience. The fact that, they look out of no face and pass over a nonexistent nose further create emphasize on the idea of a detached and impersonal presence observing the events of the story.


“Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte

“He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being. So don’t talk of our separation again: it is impracticable; and—”

He paused, and humbly added—

“Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being. So don’t talk of our separation again: it is impracticable.”

In the passage, the character Catherine Earnshaw uses a visual metaphor to demonstrate the depth and intensity of her connection to Heathcliff. The phrase “I am Heathcliff” shows that their identities are intertwined and inseparable. This visual metaphor conveys the idea that Heathcliff is not just a part of her life but an important part of her very being.

The repetition of “always, always in my mind” further creates emphasize on the constant presence of Heathcliff in the thoughts and emotions of Catherine. The comparison of Heathcliff to her own being highlights the profound and unbreakable bond between the two characters even though their relationship is disturbed.

The writer by using the visual metaphor allows the readers to grasp the all consuming nature of Catherine’s love for Heathcliff. It shows the way in which their identities have become merged. It adds depth and complexity to their relationship, which emphasizes the themes of passion, obsession and the disrupting of boundaries between self and other.

Visual Metaphor Examples
Visual Metaphor Examples

Functions of Visual Metaphor

I- Simplifying Complex Concepts

Visual metaphors simplify the complex ideas. They have the power to make these ideas more accessible to the viewer. These metaphors facilitate to understand and hold the information by drawing parallels between abstract concepts and familiar visual elements.

II- Evoking Emotions

Visual metaphors have capability to evoke strong emotional responses in to the mind of the viewers. They seize our shared cultural experiences and associations and allow us to connect with the message on a in-depth level.

They evoke emotions, such as joy, sadness, fear and inspiration, which leave a long lasting impact on the audience.

III- Enhancing Persuasion

In the advertising and marketing sphere, visual metaphors are (quite often used as) a tool to win the hassled audience and change their views. 

This is among the ways how marketers can achieve this goal by transferring a product or brand into positive visual metaphors.

Such a move would result in a positive association that, in turn, would be a trigger for desired action as purchasing a product or engaging with the brand.

IV- Encouraging Critical Thinking

Visual metaphors foster critical thinking and bestow viewers with the ability to crack the underlying meaning preserved within these symbolic representations.

This is done by challenging the viewers to interpret the symbolic imagery. Such tunes involve either the incorporation of a question or a challenging riddle leading to the creative audience taking part in the process of interpreting it.

Read also: Metaphor vs Metonymy

Importance of Visual Metaphor

Visual metaphors are the support tools that ensure the success in visual communication, not only in the sectors of advertising, art, education, but also in media. 

They emphasize the capability to contribute to the cause of a message regardless of language barriers and to indicate well to an assorted group of people. 

In the same way, visual metaphors for those considering the same journey may provide an opportunity to relate to one another by diving into a shared experience and emotions. However, they are also capable of turning narratives, changing minds and rallying support, being a big deal in both social and policy fields alike.

Visual metaphors are regarded as an surprising tool in visual communication. It helps us to have a deeper understanding of complex ideas that we cannot otherwise interpret.

On the other hand, they evoke emotions and ask critical questions. They establish connections between issues and concerns which might not seem related at first. 

Through the campaigns, the art, music or the books, visual metaphors jump across the language obstacles and root into the deep wells of experience sharing. By employing the potential visual metaphors can help us to achieve the creation of images and words.

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