Understanding and interpreting figurative language

One of the trickier parts of the SAT Reading Test involves interpreting figurative language: metaphors and other writerly devices that work by indirectly comparing one thing to another.

These devices are especially common in literary fiction passages, but you’re likely to encounter them in other passage types, too. Figurative language is tricky for two main reasons: first, by subtly describing people, places, or situations with reference to something else entirely, these statements make it harder for the reader to know what’s really going

Second, since many of the works of literary fiction on the SAT are fifty or even a hundred and fifty years old, they may make comparisons to objects, people, or cultural practices that aren’t familiar to you.

One of the best ways to familiarize yourself with figurative language is to work through some examples on your own time, and at your own pace. You can take them from online or print practice tests, or from books that you’re reading for school assignments or for fun.

Whenever you come across a passage that doesn’t make sense if you take it literally, or that you’re inclined to skip because it’s too hard, give it a closer look. Don’t worry about coming up with a fast interpretation at the start; you’ll get faster naturally with practice.

Take this example, from the College Board’s fifth free online practice test—the passage is from William Maxwell’s 1945 novel, The Folded Leaf, and describes Mr. Peters, the father of the main character, who has come to visit his son in a restaurant:

He straightened his tie self-consciously and when Irma handed him a menu, he gestured with it so that the two women at the next table would notice the diamond ring on the fourth finger of his right hand.

Both of these things, and also the fact that his hands showed signs of the manicurist, one can blame on the young man who had his picture taken with a derby hat on the back of his head, and also sitting with a girl in the curve of the moon.

The young man had never for one second deserted Mr. Peters. He was always there, tugging at Mr. Peters’ elbow, making him do things that were not becoming in a man of forty-five.

Who is the “young man”? Is he literally there in the restaurant, tugging on Mr. Peters’ sleeve? Is it Mr. Peters’ son? Is it one of Mr. Peters’ best friends from childhood? Or is this device an example of figurative language, and really an account of Mr. Peters himself?

To work it out, remember to use context—the statements around the figurative language. This will help you avoid both inappropriate literal interpretations of metaphors, and overly hasty assumptions about what the metaphors refer to. In context, there’s no textual support for a literal interpretation.

The narrator never describes the man at Mr. Peter’s elbow as a literal presence in the restaurant. The context also strongly suggests that the young man metaphorically refers to Mr. Peters: despite being forty-five, he behaves as he did when he was younger, flashing his ring and self-consciously straightening his tie.

While we’re at it, what’s a “derby hat,” and what does it mean to wear it on the back of your head? Or to have your picture taken with a girl in the curve of the moon? You don’t need to have a detailed answer to puzzle out the metaphor, but having a vague idea might help.

In context, we can see that these things have associations with youth and frivolity: the narrator uses the word “blame” when discussing the young Mr. Peters’ influence on his flashy older self, suggesting that the things he did when young were a little outlandish.

To a certain extent, you can even use the date of a book’s publication as an imaginative aid as you work out unfamiliar references. Do this with caution, though—just because a book is published in a certain year doesn’t mean it’s set in the same time. In fact, Maxwell’s The Folded Leaf, while published in 1945, is set in the 1920s—a detail that isn’t revealed explicitly anywhere in the excerpted passage.

Be careful, too, about jumping to big interpretive conclusions if you don’t know many details about a particular time. If you are given a story published in 1903, say, and the only thing you know about that year is that the Wright Brothers became the first people to fly an airplane, don’t let that information inform your reading too single-mindedly.

People had other things on their minds that year, too. Think about your own life: while many memorable events occur in the course of any given year, there will also be many times when your attention is simply focused on the day-to-day.

For a number of writers, these times, which might otherwise go unrecorded, are a major source of inspiration—for example, the Irish novelist James Joyce’s book Ulysses, that describes the events of a single day in Dublin: June 16th, 1904. Some people in the book notice newspaper headlines and talk about politics, but others are more preoccupied by their private hopes and dreams.

Still, knowing the date of a story’s publication can help you rule out certain possibilities, and envision other ones. Since The Folded Leaf was published in 1945, it’s clear that the “derby hat” wasn’t a snapback, and the photo wasn’t for Snapchat.

So even if you don’t know about the nineteenth-century novelty portrait fad the sentence is referring to (see image below), you can use what you do know to keep your interpretations on the right track.

If you practice these methods with enough tricky figurative passages before you take the SAT, you’ll feel more comfortable handling the Reading Test’s literary fiction passages. You can find more practice tests here.

Also, these skills are very transferable! They’ll serve you well in university literature courses, and in your own personal reading.

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