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


Simile: A figure of speech (more specifically a trope) that compares two distinct things by using words such as like, as, or as if to link the vehicle and the tenor. Simile is distinguished from metaphor, another trope that associates two distinct things, but without the use of a connective word. To say “That child is like a cyclone” is to use a simile, whereas to say “That child is a cyclone” is to use a metaphor. In either case, the cyclone is the vehicle, the image used to represent the child, which is the tenor, or subject of the figure.

An epic, or Homeric, simile is an extended and elaborate simile in which the vehicle is described at such length that it nearly obscures the tenor.

EXAMPLES: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Adonais” (1821) uses a simile to figure life:

Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,

Stains the white radiance of Eternity,

Until Death tramples it to fragments… .

The following alliterative passage from Jane Urquhart’s Away (1993) concludes with a simile involving as if:

In this vibrant September he remembered the terror of late summer storms that had darkened noon and thundered at the door while lightning tore at the tops of thrashing pines, and because most of his previous life had been erased he played with these memories and even the fear connected to them as if they were bright new toys.

In Chocolat (1999; adapted to film 2000), Joanne Harris simply used as: “Happiness. Simple as a glass of chocolate or tortuous as the heart. Bitter. Sweet. Alive.”

The title of “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965), Bob Dylan ’s classic folk-rock anthem about phony freedom, is a simile that gets repeated in each refrain. Hip-hop artists routinely employ similes: in the Fugees’ “How Many Mics” (1996), Lauryn Hill used like to compare rapping without a microphone to making a beat without a snare drum; in “We Got the Beat” (2004), Talib Kweli used it to make comparisons to college radio, a cockpit, a French kiss, Loch Ness, the heart of darkness, and a target, all within the first stanza; and Lil Wayne used it in “Trigger Finger” (2013) to compare controlling his thoughts with taming sharks.