Synesthesia in Literature

Sasha Blakeley, Robert Egan
  • Author
    Sasha Blakeley

    Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor's in English Literature from McGill University and a TEFL certification. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for seven years.

  • Instructor
    Robert Egan
Explore synesthesia in literature. Learn the definition of synesthesia and understand its importance as a literary device. Discover examples of synesthesia. Updated: 01/11/2022

Table of Contents


Synesthesia in Literature

Synesthesia is a term for a literary device that actually has its origins in neurology. In order to fully understand the ''synesthesia'' literary definition, it is helpful to have a grounding in the origins of the term. Synesthesia is a harmless neurological condition in which a person experiences more than one sense (taste, touch, smell, etc.) simultaneously. For instance, upon hearing a foghorn, a person with synesthesia might see the color orange, or the sound of rain might taste like chocolate. Some kinds of synesthesia are more common than others, with one of the most common being an association between letters of the alphabet and colors. People with this form of synesthesia might feel very strongly that the letter A is green, that Q is turquoise, and so on.

Synesthesia in literature differs from the neurological condition in which senses are blurred

A visual representation of letters and numbers as perceived by a synesthete

Synesthetic associations are unchanging throughout a person's life, though they do vary from one synesthete to another. The prevalence of this condition is debated, with estimates ranging from one in 20,000 to one in 200 people experiencing some form of synesthesia. Some people go years or decades without realizing that their synesthetic experiences are not the norm for those around them. Some visual artists and musicians are widely believed to have had synesthesia that informed their craft, including artists Wassily Kandinsky and Vincent Van Gogh, and composer Aleksandr Scriabin. Although synesthesia is relatively rare, writers and artists do not need to experience it themselves in order to be inspired by synesthetic experiences. Many writers incorporate synesthesia into their works as a literary device regardless of their own neurological experiences: the phrase ''bitter cold'' is commonly understood to mean ''very cold'' but is in fact a synesthetic association between taste (bitterness) and physical sensation (cold).

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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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Importance of Synesthesia as a Literary Device

In addition to its neurological definition, ''synesthesia'' can be a term for a literary device. When writers use descriptions that blend two or more senses, they are using the synesthesia literary device. Many commonly accepted associations between ultimately disparate concepts exist in contemporary culture, whether most people are aware of them or not. For instance, black is associated with mourning and sadness, while red is associated with anger and passion. There is nothing about these colors that necessarily links them to their associated emotions, making the link essentially synesthetic in nature but shared by a large group of people. The same is true of phrases like ''flowery music'' or ''green with envy.'' When writers exploit these connections, they are using synesthesia.

Some instances of literary synesthesia are less reliant on commonly accepted cultural associations. Creative uses of literary synesthesia can help writers evoke unusual and specific moods and ideas. In Dante's Divine Comedy, for instance, the author uses the line ''back to the region where the sun is silent'' (Inferno, Canto I), connecting the visual of the sun with the auditory experience of silence. This is not a common association, but it is an expressive one that helps readers understand the experience that the speaker is going through.

Synesthesia Examples

Artwork by Kandinsky was likely influenced by synesthesia

A painting by Kandinsky called Yellow Red Blue that looks to have been inspired by synesthesia

There are many synesthesia examples in literature; indeed there are so many that one might struggle to find a novel that does not employ synesthesia at least once. Although the practice of using synesthesia is very common, most such examples use commonly accepted associations. The following synesthesia examples come from novels, plays, and poetry, and each one helps draw the reader into the fictional world. Just as there are several forms of neurological synesthesia, many of these examples use colors as a synesthetic element, though some use tastes and other senses.

Synesthesia in Literature

The following novels and plays are prime examples of synesthesia in literature. Readers quickly get a sense of the meaning of the words even when the association is not necessarily familiar:

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is an example of synesthesia in poetry?

The poem ''The Spirit of Poetry'' by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow includes the line ''And her silver voice / Is the rich music of a summer bird.'' Describing people's voices as silver is a common form of poetic synesthesia.

Is synesthesia a rhetorical device?

Synesthesia is a literary device, sometimes also described as a rhetorical device. It is a way for writers to incorporate multiple senses into their descriptions to make them more evocative.

What is the effect of synesthesia in writing?

Synesthesia can have numerous effects in writing. Often, it serves to develop increased interiority, letting readers see things from the protagonist's or speaker's perspective. Sometimes, synesthesia is used for humorous purposes or to evoke a commonly understood association between, for instance, a color and a mood.

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