Table of Contents
- Synesthesia in Literature
- Importance of Synesthesia as a Literary Device
- Synesthesia Examples
- Lesson Summary
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.
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).
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.
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.
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:
|And now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music||The Great Gatsby, Chapter 3||F. Scott Fitzgerald||The use of the word 'yellow' suggests warmth and happiness, making the party seem like a positive experience for the narrator.|
|I believe they have got a mauve Hungarian band that plays mauve Hungarian music||An Ideal Husband, Act I||Oscar Wilde||In this case, 'mauve', particularly because it is used twice, is intended to indicate that the Hungarian music is drab and dull.|
|The knave... hath all those requisites in him that folly and green minds look after and O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-eyed monster||Othello, Act II, Scene I and Act III, Scene III||William Shakespeare||Both of these examples of synesthesia connect the color green to jealousy. Today, this association is commonplace, but some believe that Shakespeare himself was the first to draw this synesthetic connection.|
All of the above examples serve not only to help readers understand the narrative, but also to create a more vivid and expressive narrative landscape. These synesthetic phrases tend to stick in the mind, developing strong visuals and sometimes even becoming culturally accepted associations.
When it comes to synesthesia, poetry is particularly fertile ground. Creative use of synesthesia is perhaps more common in poetry than in any other form of literature because poetry encourages unusual uses of language. The following poems use synesthesia, sometimes in unexpected ways:
|What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
|''Harlem''||Langston Hughes||The speaker uses synesthesia to link a 'dream deferred' to the smell of rotting meat and to the taste of sugar. As dreams are ephemeral ideas that do not either taste or smell, these connections are particularly striking.|
|With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
|''I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –''||Emily Dickinson||This is a subtle use of synesthesia where the speaker describes a fly's buzzing as blue. Of all the examples of literary synesthesia given here, this one is perhaps the closest to the actual neurological experience of synesthesia, where the sound of a fly buzzing might well look blue. This gives the poem a sense of interiority, making it a personal description of the speaker's own death.|
|While silver voices wake the waters o'er
'Mid asphodels on Anthemusia's leas.
|''Homer''||Henry Jerome Stockard||Stockard describes voices as silver, which evokes the idea that they are clear, sonorous, and beautiful. Interestingly, this poem is about ancient Greek poetry, which famously used its own form of synesthetic epithets to describe characters, places, and concepts.|
|And like a rose in vermeil tint and shape,
In fragrance soft, and coolness to the eye
|''Hyperion''||John Keats||This example links a fragrance to softness, a physical texture. It also links the physical sensation of coolness to vision.|
These examples are just a small representative sample of the many possible uses of synesthesia in poetry and literature. This literary device is a great way for writers to experiment with new forms of expression.
Synesthesia is a term for both a neurological experience and a literary device where two senses are blended together or experienced simultaneously. Many examples of literary synesthesia have made their way into everyday speech, including phrases like ''green with envy,'' ''bitter cold,'' and ''flowery music''. Shakespeare is thought to be responsible for the association between the color green and feelings of jealousy and envy; he makes the comparison in his famous play, Othello.
Writers can use synesthesia to produce a wide variety of effects in their work. For instance, F. Scott Fitzgerald describes ''yellow cocktail music'' in The Great Gatsby to convey a sense of warmth and happiness at a party. In another music-based example, Oscar Wilde describes a ''mauve Hungarian band'' playing ''mauve Hungarian music'' to suggest that the music is drab and boring. In his poem ''Harlem,'' Langston Hughes goes beyond the usual use of color in synesthesia and instead compares the idea of a ''dream deferred'' to both smell and taste.
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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.
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.
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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