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4.11: Rhetorical and Literary Devices

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    Snail, Shell, Figure, Keyboard, Slowly

    Image from Pixabay

    Rhetorical Devices

    Now you know how to search for connotation and denotation in a text, but how do you tell which words you should examine closely? If you were to spend time doing a close reading of every word in a story, you would never finish. Thus, you want to look for rhetorical devices when you read. Rhetorical devices are words that serve a special function in the text. Authors include them in order to convey a meaning to the reader. Listed below are some of the most common rhetorical devices.

    Metaphors and Similes

    Two of the most common rhetorical devices are metaphors and similes. These are both means of comparison. A metaphor compares two things by saying they are the same, while a simile uses the words “like” or “as.”


    The following table contains a list of examples.
    Metaphor Simile
    My Great Dane is a vacuum. My Great Dane is like a vacuum.
    That linebacker is a wall. That linebacker is like a wall.
    She is a cheetah. She runs as fast as a cheetah.

    In the first example, we know that the Great Dane isn't really a vacuum. Both the metaphor and simile, however, imply that the dog consumes a large amount. The main difference is that the metaphor creates a stronger comparison. However, in the last example, only the context will tell you that the metaphor is not talking about a real cheetah. If we were talking about a runner, saying “she is a cheetah” would carry the denotations of speed, grace, agility, litheness, et cetera. But if we are looking at the simile, we only see that the runner is fast.


    Repetition is another powerful rhetorical device. When you read, you should always keep your eyes open for repeated words and phrases. This can be tricky, as sometimes the repeated words appear close together and other times they are spread out in a text as a motif. For instance, in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, a green light is mentioned repeatedly; however, these references are spread throughout the text, never appearing more than once or twice per chapter. Therefore, you will need to keep your eyes open for repetition while reading a story. If you see a word or phrase appear more than once, make a note of it – it is likely that the author included the repetition intentionally.

    Literary Devices


    Imagery is language that makes an appeal to the senses. It can apply to any of the five senses or a combination of multiple senses. Although imagery often comes in phrases or complete sentences, a word can evoke the senses.

    Here are some examples.

    Touch The dog's fur was smooth and silky, as though it had just been brushed.
    Smell The delicious scent of freshly-baked cookies wafted out of the window.
    Taste Dinner was mouthwatering! We ate buttery rolls and a savory chicken dish with a side of rich gravy.
    Sound 1st Street was a cacophony of car horns, people on cell phones, and police sirens.
    Sight The apple was a deep red, like the sky moments before the sun comes up.

    Every time you find imagery in a text, it brings up a set of connotations. For instance, the scent of freshly-baked cookies might bring up connotations of childhood, comfort, or home. When you see a particularly striking image in a text, think of what it denotes to you. Ask yourself, “Why describe this thing in detail instead of describing something else?” An author often uses imagery to call attention to a particular idea, character, setting, or plot point. Imagery can also be used to create the mood of a text. For instance, a story that includes a great deal of rain imagery might have a very dark, dreary mood.

    Dark rainy city street in Hamburg

    Image from Flickr user nelesch14 (CC BY-SA 2.0)


    Symbolism is a practice of using symbols, or anything that represents something larger than itself. Common examples of symbols are a country's flag and a heart symbol, which represent the country and love. Each has suggestive meanings – the flag brings up thoughts of patriotism and a unified country while a heart symbol indicates care and affection.

    What is the value of using symbols in a literary text? Symbols in literature allow a writer to express a lot in a condensed manner. The meaning of a symbol is connotative or suggestive rather than definitive which allows for multiple interpretations.


    An allegory, on the other hand, has a fixed meaning. According to, an allegory is "a representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning through concrete or material forms; figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another."

    Exercise 4.11.1

    Ralph Waldo Ellison was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Ellison’s father, Lewis, a manual laborer who delivered ice and coal, was an avid reader who named his son after Ralph Waldo Emerson and who hoped that his son would grow up to be a poet. Unfortunately he died of a work-related accident when Ellison was three, which left the two brothers, Robert and Herbert, to be raised by their single mother, Ida. The absence of his father would remain a recurring theme in Ellison's work.

    Screen Shot 2019-10-25 at 4.03.54 AM.png

    Read the first chapter of Invisible Man, "Battle Royale," by Ralph Ellison.


    1.What is the significance of the protagonist’s dream? What does his grandfather’s appearance symbolize?

    2. Why do you think the protagonist still gives his speech even after he’s been humiliated?

    Video 4.11.1 : Symbols in Literature

    Contributors and Attributions

    This page titled 4.11: Rhetorical and Literary Devices is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Heather Ringo & Athena Kashyap (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .

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