Definition of Imagery:
Imagery is the use of descriptive language to appeal to and evoke the reader's senses. It can be broken down into the primary sensory categories: visual imagery appeals to the sense of sight, auditory to sound, tactile to touch, olfactory to smell, gustatory to taste, and kinesthetic to internal sensation. Figurative language such as similes and metaphors are often used to connect and heighten images.
Examples of Imagery in Literature:
“Then Bernice winced as Marjorie tossed her own hair over her shoulders and began to twist it slowly into two long blond braids until in her cream-colored negligée she looked like a delicate painting of some Saxon princess. Fascinated, Bernice watched the braids grow. Heavy and luxurious they were moving under the supple fingers like restive snakes.”
—F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Bernice Bobs Her Hair”
In this example, visual images of hair, specifically Marjorie’s braids, are the focal point. Marjorie is first described as appearing like “some Saxon princess,” highlighting her feminine beauty: fair skin and long fair hair. However, her braids are compared to “restive snakes,” offering a striking visual image as Marjorie pleats her hair. This image depicts Marjorie’s hair as unnatural or monstrous—which evokes the idea of Medusa, one of the the snake-haired Gorgons of Greek mythology.
“Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.”
—Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”
In this example, Arnold evokes a “grating roar” to describe the movement of pebbles on a beach, creating a vivid auditory soundscape. This detailed portrayal of the beach brings readers into a deeper sensory engagement with the poem. Arnold even figures the more abstract image of an “eternal note of sadness” being created by that “grating roar” of pebbles washing against a beach.
“A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a neat paper frill round its shin and beside this was a round of spiced beef”
—James Joyce’s “The Dead” in Dubliners
In this example, Joyce combines visual and gustatory imagery as he describes the food being served at a dinner party. The portrayals of the food contain visual cues, allowing readers to envision the spread, but by using descriptions like “peppered over with crust crumbs” and “strewn with sprigs of parsley,” readers are also able to imagine the tastes.