Basic Rhetorical Figures in Spanish Literature

Instructor: Aida Vega Felgueroso

Aida has taught Spanish at the University in Italy. Spanish is her mother tongue and she has a master's degree in Spanish Language and Literature.

We will see several rhetorical figures used in Spanish literature: the metaphor, the simile, personification, hyperbole, onomatopoeia, and alliteration. We'll also see examples of each of these rhetorical figures in famous Spanish poetry and prose.

Literary Language

It is possible to describe a scene as follows: Era un día oscuro y el hombre estaba triste. (It was a dark day and the man was sad.) And it is possible to describe like this: Diluir mi tristeza // en un vino de noche // en el maravilloso cristal de las tinieblas (To dilute my sadness // in the wine of the night // in the marvelous crystal of the dark).

As soon as we read the two texts, we realize that in the first sentence, the language is used in a conventional way with proper grammar and syntax; however, in the second text, the language is used in an artistic way, using figuras retóricas (rhetorical figures). Rhetorical figures are unconventional ways of using words to create an impactful, sensorial meaning.

Let's examine some rhetorical figures used in Spanish literature.

Símil & Metáfora

A very frequent resource when we describe something is to compare it with something else. The comparison is the basis of several rhetorical figures, including the símil (simile) and metáfora (metaphor).

The símil (simile) is a rhetorical figure that consists of comparing indirectly one thing with another. Similes are very present in literature of all ages, and, moreover, they are frequently used in the usual spoken language. Some examples:

  • Tus ojos son como esmeraldas. (Your eyes are like emeralds.)
  • Tus manos son como el terciopelo. (Your hands are like velvet.)
  • Es manso como un corderillo. (He is as meek as a little lamb).

The metáfora (metaphor) is another figure of comparison. The author, when he uses the metaphor, goes a little further than when he uses the simile. In metaphor, one thing is directly identified with another, usually because they have similar characteristics. Observe the difference between the simile and the metaphor.

  • Simile: Tus ojos son como esmeraldas. (Your eyes are like emeralds.)
  • Metaphor: Tu cara es una joya. (Your face is a jewel.)

In metaphor, the object of comparison replaced by the term with which it is compared. Metaphors are used a lot in poetry but also in prose literature. Look at this verse of García Lorca:

Su luna de pergamino // Preciosa tocando viene (Preciosa comes playing // her moon of parchment).

Preciosa is a gypsy; the moon of parchment she plays is the tambourine. In the verse, there is no reference to the tambourine, which has been replaced by the image with which it is compared.

Garcia Lorca: Su luna de pergamino

Hipérbole & Personificación

In addition to comparing, there are other ways to make a description vivid and beautiful. Two other rhetorical figures that help describe are hipérbole (hyperbole) and personificación (personification).

Hipérbole (hyperbole) is to exaggerate the characteristics of an object, a person, or a situation. Hyperbole is used a lot in literature, but also in advertising or for humorous purposes.

In literature, hyperbole is widely used to describe heroes or extraordinary events. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, García Márquez frequently uses hyperbole. For example, when he wants to tell the great force of the protagonist Jose Arcadio Buendia even in his old age, he writes:

…conservaba su fuerza descomunal, que le permitía derribar un caballo agarrándolo por las orejas. (…he retained his enormous strength, which allowed him to take down a horse by grabbing it by the ears.)

This, of course, is an exaggeration, a hyperbole.

Personificación (personification) consists in attributing human characteristics or human behavior to animals, nature, or inanimate objects.

In the poem, La guitarra (The guitar), García Lorca uses personification:

Empieza el llanto // de la guitarra (…) Llora por cosas // lejanas. // Arena del Sur caliente // que pide camelias blancas. (It begins, the lament // of the guitar. (…) It cries for // distant things. // Sands of the hot South // that demand white camellias).

The guitar, in fact, does not cry or regret; these are human behaviors.

Garcia Marquez: derribar un caballo agarrandolo por las orejas

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