The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Image: Most commonly, a visual, physical representation of something (such as a photograph) or a mental picture of some visible thing or things. Images can also involve senses other than sight; for instance, the sound of musical chords, the smell of freshly cut grass, or the heat of the sun can contribute as much to an image of playing the guitar outside on a hot summer’s day as the shape of the guitar or the color of the grass. In The Paying Guests (2014), novelist Sarah Waters invoked smell and sound to conjure up the image of an old lady’s bedroom: “It was the sort of room she could remember from childhood visits to ailing great-aunts. All it really lacked, she thought, was the whiff of a commode, and the little bell for summoning the whiskery spinster daughter.”

In literature, image most often denotes descriptive terms or figurative language used to produce mental impressions in the mind of the reader as well as the impressions themselves. Finally, the term may also be used to mean “idea” or “vision.” A slave living in the antebellum American South, for instance, likely had an image of Canada related not to appearance but to an intellectual and emotional perception of the country as a place of freedom; similarly, one can speak of an artist’s or author’s image of life or suffering to mean his or her conception of it.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: Iconic images include J. Howard Miller’s “Rosie the Riveter” poster (1942) proclaiming “We Can Do It!”; the 1963 snapshot of John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father’s coffin as it passed by; the June 1985 National Geographic cover photo by Steve McCurry of a young Afghan girl with piercing green eyes, finally identified in 2002 as Sharbat Gula; and an image that confirmed abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq by depicting a hooded man standing atop a box, his arms outstretched, with electrical wires attached to his hands (2003).

The following stanza from John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” (1819) demonstrates that images can involve a wide range of sensory perceptions, some of them involving memory:

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,

Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,

But, in embalmèd darkness, guess each sweet

Wherewith the seasonable month endows

The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;

White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;

Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;

And mid-May’s eldest child,

The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,

The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

In Dai Sijie’s short novel Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise (Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress) (2000), the protagonist, sent as a teenager to a remote village during China’s Cultural Revolution with his best friend Luo, recalls, “It was all such a long time ago, but one particular image from our stint of re-education is still etched in my memory with extraordinary precision: a red-beaked raven keeping watch as Luo crawled along a narrow track with a yawning chasm on either side.”

In her debut novel Sharp Objects (2006), Gillian Flynn foregrounds the term image in the uneasy thoughts of her protagonist, a young reporter who often uses alcohol to stave off the desire to cut herself: “I’ve always been partial to the image of liquor as lubrication — a layer of protection from all the sharp thoughts in your head.”