Imagery is a very common term in Modern criticism. It stands for all the objects and qualities of sense perceptions referred to in a poem or any other literary writing. It is thus the conveying of sense impressions through words. There are five main types of imagery, each related to one of the human senses:

      • Visual imagery (sight)
      • Auditory imagery (hearing)
      • Olfactory imagery (smell)
      • Gustatory imagery (taste)
      • Tactile imagery (touch)
      • Imagery can also be kinesthetic (related to movement) or organic (related to sensations within the body)

Imagery means to use descriptive and figurative language to represent objects, actions, and ideas in such a way that it appeals to our physical senses. Imagery is the language used by poets, novelists and other writers to create images in the mind of the reader. Usually, it is thought that imagery makes use of particular words that create a visual representation of ideas in our minds. Though imagery contains the word “image,” it does not only refer to descriptive language that appeals to the sense of sight. Imagery includes language that appeals to all of the human senses, including sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. While imagery can and often do benefit from the use of figurative languages such as metaphors and similes, imagery can also be written without using any figurative language at all.

It was dark and dim in the forest.
The words “dark” and “dim” are visual images.

The children were screaming and shouting in the fields.
“Screaming” and “shouting” appeal to our sense of hearing, or auditory sense.

He whiffed the aroma of brewed coffee.
“Whiff” and “aroma” evoke our sense of smell or olfactory sense.

The girl ran her hands on a soft satin fabric.
The idea of “soft” in this example appeals to our sense of touch or tactile sense.

The fresh and juicy orange is very cold and sweet.
“Juicy” and “sweet” – when associated with oranges – affect our sense of taste or gustatory sense.

The function of imagery in literature is to generate a vibrant and graphic presentation of a scene that appeals to as many of the reader’s senses as possible. It aids the reader’s imagination to envision the characters and scenes in the literary piece. The images drawn by using figures of speech like metaphor, simile, personification, and onomatopoeia, serve the function of beautifying a piece of literature.

Many people confuse the relationship between imagery and figurative language. Figurative language is the language that creates a meaning that is different from the literal interpretation of the words. For instance, the phrase “you are my sunshine” is figurative language (a metaphor, to be precise). It’s not saying that you are a beam of light from the sun, but rather is creating an association between “you” and “sunshine” to say that you make the speaker feel warm and happy and also give the speaker living in the same way sunshine does.

Imagery is essential to nearly every form of writing, and writers use imagery for a wide variety of reasons.

It engages readers: Imagery allows readers to see and feel what’s going on in a story. It fully engages the reader’s imagination and brings them into the story.

It’s interesting: Writing without imagery would be dry and dull while writing with imagery can be vibrant and gripping.

It can set the scene and communicate character: The description of how a person or place looks, moves, sounds, smells, does as much to tell you about that person or place as any explanation can. Imagery is not just “window dressing,” it is the necessary sensory detail that allows a reader to understand the world and people being described, from their fundamental traits to their mood.

It can be symbolic: Imagery can both describe the world and establish symbolic meanings that deepen the impact of the text. Such symbolism can range from the weather (rain occurring in moments of sadness) to the symbolism that is even deeper or more complex, such as the way that Moby-Dick layers multiple meanings through his descriptions of the whiteness of the whale.

In Moby-Dick, Herman Melville describes the ocean in the moments after a destroyed ship has sunk into it. Notice how Melville combines visual, auditory, and kinesthetic imagery (“small fowls flew”; “white surf beat”), and how the imagery allows you to almost feel the vortex created by the sinking ship and then the silence left behind when it closes.

Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.

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Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature since 2006. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges coming under this directorate and is now posted at the Department of English, Government College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of the lecture notes that she prepared by referring to various sources, for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.

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