What is Imagery? Transcript (English and Spanish Subtitles Available, Click HERE for Spanish Transcript.)

By Raymond Malewitz, Oregon State University Associate Professor of American Literature

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. 

Further Resources for Teachers:

H.D.'s short poem "Oread" and Leslie Marmon Silko's short story "The Man to Send Rain Clouds" offer students two different good opportunities to practice linking imagery to the worldview of certain speaker. 

Writing Prompt #1: In H.D.'s poem, a forest nymph sees the waves of the sea as "pointed pines," which is a very strange metaphor. How does this imagery provide insight into ways that that creature experiences the world?

Writing Prompt #2: In Silko's story (which was published under the name Leslie Chapman), the fourth section drops into what might be called a "close" third-person aligned with the priest's perspective on the ritual he is performs. But instead of providing his actual thoughts, Silko chooses to present how he sees the world through detailed imagery.  What does this imagery convey about his thoughts on the ritual and why might Silko has chosen this oblique or indirect style to convey it?

Interested in more video lessons? View the full series:

The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms