Examples of Synesthesia in Literature

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  • 0:02 What Is Synesthesia?
  • 1:30 Synesthesia in Everyday Life
  • 2:00 Synesthesia in Literature
  • 3:45 Synesthesia in Poetry
  • 4:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Robert Egan
Synesthesia is a neurological condition where people experience a blending of two or more of the five senses. It's also a common literary device used to enhance a reader's experience with a text. This lesson explores the role of synesthesia in literature.

What Is Synesthesia?

When you hear the word 'angry,' what color do you think of? How about the word 'sad?' For many people, 'angry' and 'sad' are associated with the colors red and blue. Think for a moment about what the words 'angry' and 'sad' describe. They're both emotions, something that people feel on the inside, but cannot be touched or seen. So logically, anger cannot be the color red and sadness cannot be the color blue, right?

Associating colors with emotions is an example of synesthesia, a neurological condition that causes activity in one sense to trigger sensation in another one. The majority of people have the power to feel all five senses: sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch. The brains of synesthetes, that is, people who experience synesthesia, process these five senses much differently than the average person. When one of their five senses is activated, they also experience a sensation in another sense.

For example, many synesthetes have close associations with sounds and colors. When famous musicians Billy Joel and Kanye West hear music, they can also see sounds. Both artists associate different tones and sounds with colors. For example, Billy Joel senses blue and green colors when he hears slow or soft music. Other famous synesthetes include Marilyn Monroe and Russian author Vladimir Nabokov.

Synesthesia in Everyday Life

Although most people do not experience synesthesia, they are often familiar with synesthetic descriptions, they just may not know it. On a frigid day in the middle of winter, you might describe the temperature as 'bitter cold.' The word 'bitter' is most commonly associated with how things taste. You cannot actually taste the cold weather, but the association with 'bitter' and 'cold' helps connect the two senses. The same goes for the description 'flowery music.' You hear music, but you see flowers.

Synesthesia in Literature

While synesthesia appears in everyday language, it's also popular in literature. Synesthesia is used as a literary device and creates vivid imagery and brilliant meaning for readers. Authors and poets frequently describe people, places, events, and emotions in terms of multiple senses. This helps to make the reader feel like they're inside the story.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's literary masterpiece The Great Gatsby uses vivid colors to create an experience for both the characters and the readers. At one of Gatsby's weekend parties, the narrator Nick Carraway describes the scene: 'The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a higher key.' In this passage, Fitzgerald associates cocktail music with the color yellow. For most people, yellow represents a warm and friendly color. You can visualize the general glow of the party and the happy tones from the music.

Like Fitzgerald, writer Oscar Wilde associates color with music. In his work An Ideal Husband, Wilde's character Lorde Goring comments: 'I believe they have got a mauve Hungarian band that plays mauve Hungarian music.' Mauve is a very washed out shade of purple, almost to the point of looking gray. Through Lorde Goring's description, you can not only imagine the drab band, but the pathetic and dull music they're playing.

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