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As human beings, we understand the world through our senses—what we see, what we hear, what we smell, what we taste, and what we touch. To represent this process in their literary works, storytellers and poets use vivid language designed to appeal to these senses. This language is called imagery. Let me give you one example:
In Kate Chopin’s short story “The Story of an Hour,” a woman named Mrs. Mallard is told that her husband has just been killed in a railroad accident. After retreating to her room to grieve, she looks out her window. Chopin writes:
She could see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver with new spring life. The delicious breath of rain was in the air. In the street below a peddler was crying his wares. The notes of a distant song which someone was singing reached her faintly, and countless sparrows were twittering in the eaves.
In this passage, Chopin’s imagery appeals to a variety of senses: the sight of quivering trees, the smell of rain, the sound of twittering sparrows, and so on.
As this passage suggests, imagery often does more than simply present sensory impressions of the world: it also conveys tone, or the attitude of a character or narrator towards a given subject. By concentrating on what Mrs. Mallard experiences at this moment-- quivering trees, singing birds, and smells of rain –Chopin’s narrator allows readers to understand the complex way in which Mrs. Mallard views her husband’s death—as both a tragic event and a rebirth of sorts in which the spring imagery conveys the freedom she imagines beyond the confines of her marriage.
Instead of telling us these thoughts through exposition or explanation, Chopin’s narrator shows us the worldview of her character and encourages us to interpret what this imagery means. This difference is crucial for students interested using the term “imagery” in their literary essays. Rather than writing that imagery is good or bad, vivid or dull, students should instead try to connect imagery to the thoughts of a character, narrator, or speaker.
H.D.'s short poem "Oread" offers students a good opportunity to practice linking imagery to the worldview of her speaker. In the poem, a forest nymph sees the waves of the sea as "pointed pines," a strange metaphor that gives may provide insight into that creatures way of experiencing the world.