What is an extended metaphor?

An extended metaphor is a detailed comparison that extends through multiple lines, paragraphs, pages, or an entire work. Much like a standard metaphor, extended metaphors use figurative language to compare two things that are not alike yet have some underlying connection.

Extended metaphor definition

A writer uses an extended metaphor for various purposes that help their audience understand and connect to the ideas they present. The versatility of extended metaphors makes them a useful literary device in poems, books, speeches, and song lyrics.

Purpose of an extended metaphor

Authors incorporate extended metaphors to develop complex comparisons, elaborate on the subject matter, present insightful connections, or add humor to their work:

  • Complex comparison: Writers present connections between two ideas that play a vital role throughout the text, allowing readers to visualize complex comparisons in concrete ways.
  • Elaborative effect: Extended metaphors are not limited by a single comparison, which allows writers to identify more parallels between the subjects.
  • Insightful connections: Authors use extended metaphors to provide insightful connections that may have otherwise gone unnoticed.
  • Humor: Extended metaphors can emphasize the absurdity of the connection between two subjects.

Purpose of extended metaphor

Extended metaphor examples

Examples of extended metaphors are everywhere—famous poems, literature, and speeches, as well as in various areas of popular culture.

Consider the following general examples:

  • Someone providing commentary on social issues might use sharks and minnows as an extended metaphor by depicting the animal's qualities that are similar to human traits.
  • Poets can express the impact of a relationship using extended metaphors. Using objects such as fire and ice, they can emphasize two contrasting emotions by developing a detailed comparison.
  • An author describing a character's childhood difficulties might employ an extended metaphor concerning a lost puppy who must become independent to find his way home.

Extended metaphor poems

Examples of extended metaphors found in poems include:

"The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost

Frost uses an extended metaphor to compare life's path to "two roads diverged in a yellow wood."

Initially, each path represents a different life choice, yet the narrator eventually indicates that both are essentially the same. Frost incorporates the metaphor to suggest that people believe their choices are unique and give their lives meaning.

"Mother to Son" by Langston Hughes

Hughes incorporates an extended metaphor by comparing a crystal staircase to the speaker's life.

The poet highlights the differences between the staircase and the life of the titular mother, emphasizing how her path was not like climbing crystal stairs. Instead, it "had tacks in it, / and splinters, / and boards torn up."

Hughes showcases how an extended metaphor can create contradictory images, helping him develop the contrast needed to understand the poem’s meaning.

These poems also contain extended metaphors:

  • "Hope is the Thing with Feathers" by Emily Dickinson
    • Comparison: Feeling of hope to a little bird
  • "The Skunk" by Seamus Heaney
    • Comparison: Speaker's wife to a skunk
  • "Wires" by Philip Larkin
    • Comparison: Actions of a young cow to human behavior

Extended metaphors in literature

Examples of extended metaphors used in longer literary works include Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare and The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway.

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

In the famous balcony scene, Romeo compares Juliet to the sun:

"But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun."

Shakespeare’s Romeo suggests that like the “fair sun,” Juliet can "kill the envious moon," representing the misery created by his previous love's rejection. Juliet has the power to end Romeo's despair and bring him into the light.

Extended metaphor poetry example Romeo and Juliet

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway utilizes an extended metaphor to compare Santiago, the old man, and the marlin he catches.

Much like Santiago's battle against his advancing age, the marlin fights for its survival, so much so that the fisherman sees himself in the fish. He recognizes its endurance and dignity. However, as hard as the marlin fights for its life, it succumbs to Santiago's spear.

Like the marlin, Santiago will one day perish despite his strength and fortitude.

The following novels also contain popular extended metaphors:

  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
    • Comparison: The eyes of T.J. Eckleburg to the various characters
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy
    • Comparison: The road to the life of the father and son
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding
    • Comparison: Sow's head to the inherent nature of evil

Extended metaphor in speeches

These examples showcase how speechwriters use extended metaphors to make information more relatable and easier to understand:

  • Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream"
    • Comparison: Promise made to all Americans to cashing a check
  • President John F. Kennedy's "We Choose to Go to the Moon"
    • Comparison: Landing on the moon to human history

Extended metaphors in pop culture

Lyricists and scriptwriters use extended metaphors to make abstract concepts easier to comprehend. Examples include the following:

  • "Firework" by Katy Perry
    • Comparison: Fireworks to the song's listeners
  • "Hound Dog" by Elvis Presley
    • Comparison: Significant other to a dog
  • Avatar
    • Comparison: Na'vi vs. humans to British colonization

Extended metaphor example from Avatar

Conceit and extended metaphors

Conceit makes a comparison of two seemingly unrelated objects then explains how the comparison is valid or relevant. Some find conceit synonymous with extended metaphors; however, others find conceit more far-fetched and elaborate.

Renaissance writers such as William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer, and John Donne were well known for using this type of extended metaphor.

"The Flea" by John Donne

  • Donne provides a comparison between a flea and the physical act of love to convince a woman to reject the social standards that restrict her from certain actions before marriage.

Sonnet 130 ("My mistresses' eyes are nothing like the sun") by William Shakespeare

  • Shakespeare uses a conceit to critique the overly flowery use of extended metaphor in poetry. Instead of suggesting his mistress is perfect, he focuses on her negative traits.

Extended metaphor structure

An extended metaphor includes two parts, the tenor and the vehicle. The tenor is the initial concept, while the vehicle is the second concept figuratively compared to the first.

Extended metaphor structure

In the Shakespeare comedy As You Like It, one of the main characters remarks:

All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players.

In this metaphor, the tenor is the world, and the vehicle is the stage. Shakespeare expands upon the comparison within the monologue, thereby classifying it as an example of an extended metaphor due to its length.

How do metaphors and extended metaphors differ?

Metaphors and extended metaphors differ based upon their length. Unlike a simple metaphor that can be presented in just a few words (America is a melting pot), an extended metaphor takes place over multiple lines, paragraphs, or an entire poem.

Learn more about different literary terms, including similes, dead metaphors, mixed metaphors, and implied metaphors.

What you learned:

After working your way through this lesson and video, you have learned:

  • The definition of extended metaphor.
  • The purpose and structure of extended metaphors.
  • Examples of extended metaphors in poems, literature, pop culture, and famous speeches.
  • How extended metaphors differ from regular metaphors.
  • The definition of conceit and how it compares to extended metaphors.
Instructor: Malcolm M.
Malcolm has a Master's Degree in education and holds four teaching certificates. He has been a public school teacher for 27 years, including 15 years as a mathematics teacher.

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