19 Best Metaphor Examples from Literature

Studying great metaphors is one of the best ways to learn to write them. Discover our guide with the 19 best metaphor examples from literature.

Metaphors are a common literary device used in all types of writing. Whether they are comparing falling in love to a rollercoaster or saying someone has a “heart of stone,” writers can use visual metaphors to make their writing richer and more effective. While metaphors are commonly used and studied in poetry, such as the works of the greats like Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson, you can also find examples of metaphors in prose writing, songs, and movies.

Here are some classic metaphor examples to get you thinking about how to use this figure of speech in your writing.

1. As You Like It by William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare via Wikipedia, Public Domain

As You Like It, one of the famous plays by William Shakespeare, uses the metaphor of the world being a stage and all of the people on it are the actors. This isn’t surprising because Shakespeare is well-known for using figurative language in his poems and plays. Many of the simple metaphors and similes he used in his writing have become common metaphors and phrases in our modern culture and language.

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

William Shakespeare, As You Like It

2. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

John Green
John Green via Wikipedia, Public Domain

The Fault in Our Stars tells the story of a young girl struggling with a terminal cancer diagnosis who meets her true love. This poignant, heart-wrenching tale explores what it means to be in love and alive and how to live life to the fullest despite a pending tragedy. The author, John Green, uses several different types of metaphors throughout the book, including this famous line:

“The sun was a toddler insistently refusing to go to bed; It was past eight-thirty and still light.”

John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

3. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

Romeo and Juliet is another classic Shakespeare play that uses many different types of literary devices. The story of the star-crossed lovers has many love-filled verses woven throughout it. In one of the most famous lines of the entire play, a direct comparison between Juliet and the sun is made, and this is an example of a metaphor.

“But soft! What light through younger window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.”

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

4. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald via Wikipedia, Public Domain

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is an example of classical literature. The author’s use of metaphors makes the writing interesting, painting images into the reader’s mind to make it more meaningful. This book tells of Jay Gatsby, a wealthy man who falls in love with Daisy Buchanan. It is best known for portraying life during America’s Jazz Age. In the book, many quotes contain metaphors, such as this one: “The frosted wedding cake of the ceiling.” The literal meaning of the ceiling being made of cake would not make sense, but the creative writing creates a word image in the reader’s mind. He also compares people to boats swimming upstream.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

5. “Hound Dog” by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller

Hound Dog is a 1950s blues song by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. It was made famous when the king of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, recorded it, and it made the 19th spot on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. The song compares the subject to a hound dog that cries but can never catch a rabbit. The term “hound dog” often refers to a promiscuous man, another metaphor within the lighthearted song.

“You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog,
Cryin’ all the time.
Well you ain’t never caught a rabbit
And you ain’t no friend of mine.”

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Hound Dog

6. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Khaled Hosseini
Khaled Hosseini via Wikipedia, Public Domain

The Kite Runner tells of 12-year-old Amir, who wants to win a kite-fighting tournament. As he and his friend head to the event, the Russians invade Afghanistan. Set in the 1970s, the book is a historical fiction work that explores a complex historical time. Though metaphor is not in every chapter, Khaled Hosseini does have one example in this quote where he compares the kite to a key to someone’s heart:

“Behind him, sitting on piles of scrap and rubble, was the blue kite. My key to Baba’s heart.”

Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner

7. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

Amy Tan
Amy Tan via Wikipedia, Public Domain

Amy Tan is a modern writer who uses metaphor in her work, The Joy Luck Club. This story tells of four Chinese women who create a bond when they immigrate to the United States. Meeting weekly to play mahjong and reminisce about life in China, all while raising daughters who are not connected to the Chinese culture, these women share a tight bond. Tan uses her storytelling abilities to help readers connect to these women, and she also includes a metaphor comparing one character to a pawn in the game of chess.

“In her hands, I always became the pawn. I could only run away. And she was the queen, able to move in all directions, relentless in her pursuit, always able to find my weakest spot.”

Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club

8. Inception

The movie Inception has many deep metaphors. In fact, the movie’s ending leaves the viewer wondering if the entire movie had just been one big metaphor or if the events occurred. Many reviewers believe the entire film is an extended metaphor for moviemaking, and the top that shows up throughout the movie is a metaphor for reality. Regardless of the metaphor you find when watching the film, it is clear that the film’s creator had an underlying meaning and comparison in mind when creating it.

“Do you want to take a leap of faith or become an old man filled with regret waiting to die alone?”


9. Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Macbeth is another Shakespeare play that is full of metaphors. This tragic play tells of the downfall of Macbeth as he gives in to his demons and the realities of guilt. After hearing a prophecy that he will be king, Macbeth commits murder, unraveling his life and his family. It shows the follies of too much ambition and the corrupting nature of power for most humans. In one famous stanza, the playwright compares time to seeds of grain.

“If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow and which will not,
Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear
Your favours nor your hate.”

William Shakespeare, Macbeth

10. The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline B. Cooney

The Face on the Milk Carton is a young adult novel about a 15-year-old girl, Janie Johnson, who sees her own face on the “missing child” picture on the back of her school lunch milk carton. This sends her on a journey of self-discovery as she realizes her life isn’t what she thought it was. This creates quite a bit of confusion, understandably, which Caroline B. Cooney captures in this metaphor:

“She was a mind floating in an ocean of confusion.”

Caroline B. Cooney, The Face on the Milk Carton

11. Aladdin

In the Disney movie Aladdin, the prophetic word tells Jafar to seek a “diamond in the rough.” This common metaphor refers to someone who appears to be rough and unkempt but ends up being as valuable as a diamond when you get to know them. Aladdin fits the picture perfectly. He appears to be nothing more than a street urchin and thief, but he ends up worthy of Princess Jasmine’s hand.

“Seek the out the diamond in the rough”


12. Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf via Wikipedia, Public Domain

In her final novel, Between the Acts, Virginia Woolf tells the story of one day in the life of an English country family as they prepare for a pageant they are hosting in their house. She uses her stream-of-consciousness literary style to show everyday life even while planning a large event. Th writer’s colorful character descriptions and use of metaphor make this book endearing, particularly the metaphor comparing books to a mirror.

“Books are the mirrors of the soul.”

Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts

13. Rabbit, Run by John Updike

John Updike
John Updike via Wikipedia, Public Domain

Rabbit, Run is a modern novel that tells the story of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a young man who, deserts his family in search of fulfillment elsewhere. The author sets up the book masterfully, with the initial introduction of Rabbit making the reader like him, only for his true impulsive and selfish nature to gradually unfold. The book established John Updike as a skilled modern American novelist, and it includes this famous metaphorical quote comparing the hands of two lovers to a starfish:

“But it is just two lovers, holding hands and in a hurry to reach their car, their locked hands a starfish leaping through the dark.”

John Updike, Rabbit, Run

14. Hamlet by William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare uses metaphor in nearly every one of his plays, so it’s not surprising that Hamlet also makes this list. This play tells about Hamlet, the Prince of Demark, who is on a quest to kill the king, who happened to be his father’s murderer. Throughout the play, Hamlet feigns madness and makes many speeches about the meaning of life and death. His uncle, the king, also devises a plot to kill Hamlet, and betrayal is common throughout the story. One of the most famous quotes from this play uses a mixed metaphor, comparing two things, an army, and an ocean, to create the metaphor “sea of troubles” to represent the trials of life.

“To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them.”

William Shakespeare, Hamlet

15. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood via Wikipedia, Public Domain

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood captures the cliches of the 1930s and 1940s beautifully as it explores a suicide, what led to the suicide, and the aftermath of the death. It also has a novel-within-a-novel, which makes it particularly masterful writing. In one of the book’s most famous quotes, Atwood creates an implied metaphor between time and a rising ocean of water. It is implied because water is not directly named, but the thought of drowning creates the implied comparison.

“Time rises and rises, and when it reaches the level of your eyes you drown.”

William Shakespeare, Hamlet

16. Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward
Jesmyn Ward via Wikipedia, Public Domain

Men We Reaped is a memoir that pays tribute to five young men Jesmyn Ward knew in her hometown. She follows their life and death, the weaves in the story of Ward herself. Because she grew up in Mississippi, Hurricane Katrina played a major role in her childhood. She alludes to this throughout the book and even metaphorically compares life to a hurricane. You might also be interested in learning the definition of logos in literature.

“Life is a hurricane, and we board up to save what we can and bow low to the earth to crouch in that small space above the dirt where the wind will not reach.”

Jesmyn Ward, Men We Reaped

17. The Truman Show

The Truman Show is a film that stands as an extended metaphor. The main character, Truman, is under scrutiny as he is the subject of a reality TV show that he is unaware of. Many metaphors are woven throughout the movie, including the stairs representing freedom and the show’s creator representing a controlling government. Viewers wonder what a controlling government may look like in the future as they watch Truman seek his freedom.

“That’s the big guy. What a big paintbrush he’s got.”

The Truman Show

18. “Firework” by Katy Perry

Katy Perry
Katy Perry via Wikipedia, Public Domain

Modern culture often uses metaphors in songs and written and visual art. Katy Perry’s iconic single Firework compares the song’s subject to a firework waiting to explode into its own. She also compares people to plastic bags at the beginning of the song, capturing the feelings of hopelessness that many people experience. Listeners get inspired when they think of themselves as waiting to explode into beautiful sparks while listening to this song. You can also check out these antonym examples.

“‘Caus baby, you’re a firework
Come on, show them what you’re worth
Make ’em go “oh, oh, oh”
As you shoot across the sky.”

Katy Perry

19. Lord of the Flies by William Golding

William Golding
William Golding via Wikipedia, Public Domain

The 1954 book Lord of the Flies is sometimes considered an extended metaphor, but its symbolic quotes are woven throughout the story in addition to the larger symbolic meaning. This book tells what happens when a group of schoolboys gets stranded with no adult supervision on a deserted island. Their attempts to create society and survive are a tribute to human tenacity and the depravity of the human condition. It is considered one of the best examples of metaphor in English language literature, and it also contains this metaphor of the son being compared o a drop of gold.

“The sun in the west was a drop of burning gold that slid near and nearer the sill of the world.”

William Golding, Lord of the Flies

Looking for more? Check out our guide on how to analyze a poem!