What are the Four Master Tropes and Why are they Important?

It is impossible to analyse literature without addressing tropes, the figurative use of words or expressions. We use tropes in an attempt to describe and understand the world around us. In all essence, to make sense of our existence. 

While it is not necessary to know of all the tropes, it is imperative to understand the four fundamental ones, formally known as “The Four Master Tropes”. They are: metonymy, irony, synecdoche, and metaphor. These four categories are overarching concepts from which all other rhetorical devices fall under. Keep reading for a detailed explanation of each master trope!


Metaphor:

Let’s begin with a simple example: “Life is a Highway”. Life is not literally a highway but instead shares certain characteristics with one, as they are both a journey that lead to an endpoint. So, by drawing on certain characteristics of a highway, this metaphor in fact describes life. 

Therefore we can establish that metaphors are implied comparisons. It is usually two things that seem unrelated but the metaphor shows that “A” is to “B” in terms of “C”. “A” and “B” being subjects and “C” the ground for comparison (what they have in common). 

When comparisons use “like” or “as” they are typically regarded as a similes, which are a type of metaphor.

Metaphors are used to engage the reader, as it presents a clear image in their mind, and deepens their understanding regarding the subject or concept. It is a golden tool for imagery and adds variety, rendering the text more interesting. For example, which sentence provides a more compelling image in your mind?

  1. It became dark 
  2. The curtain of night fell upon us
“The curtain of night”

The first sentence is merely a description, but the second sentence is so much more; it provides an experience. I can almost see the sun’s rays disappearing and the dark settling in quickly, equivalent to closing a dark and thick curtain. This image was achieved with so few words, as I have previous knowledge of what it is like to close a curtain, which is what makes this comparison so effective. So in addition to making an implied comparison, metaphors draw on one or more of our five senses to paint a clear and colorful image in the reader’s imagination. 

Example of a visual metaphor

Metaphors aren’t only in writing! There are also visual metaphors, where a picture provides a comparison, alluding to a certain message. This is very popular for advertisements. If you want to learn more about visual metaphors, I have a post where I analyze one that’s in the form of an advertisement: Visual Metaphors-Advertisements.

Irony:

Although there are many types of Irony, the basis for all irony is the same. It is when there is a deviation of what is understood versus what really happens. There are three main types of irony:

  1. Verbal irony: When what the character says is the opposite of what they really mean. 
  2. Dramatic irony: The audience knows something the character does not. Usually what the character perceives is the opposite of reality, but only the audience knows this due to extra information that the character lacks. This type of irony is also referred to as tragic irony if it occurs in a tragedy. A play that is a great example of this is Shakespeare’s Othello (link).
  3. Situational Irony: There is a discrepancy between expectations of something to happen, and what actually happens instead. For example, if a fire station burns down this is ironic, as you would expect fireman, who extinguish fires for a living, to keep their own building safe from fire.

Irony caught on camera

Metonymy:

This just an intimidating word for the term “symbol” which may sound more familiar. Symbols are concrete objects that represent the abstract world (things you cannot physically touch). More simply put, symbols represent ideas. For example, you cannot physically touch the idea of power, but a crown (concrete) can be a symbol of power (abstract). 

Some common symbols are:

  • A dove for peace
  • A rose for love
  • A skull for death

In pieces of literature symbols are very important as they always relate back to a thematic idea. The more a symbol appears in a story, the more important it is.

Another way to think of metonymy is using one object’s name for another thing. Take this sentence as an example : The suits are in a meeting. Here we are drawing on the idea that all business executives wear suits, so instead of saying business executives we have resorted to using the word “suit” to allude to them. Metonymy adds variety to writing and helps group things together. For example, when referring to a meal we don’t want to name every food item but might resort to calling it simply “a dish”.

Synecdoche:

This rhetorical device is similar to metonymy, but instead of completely replacing one object with another, a part is made to represent the whole. An example is “check out my wheels”, as without referring to the whole car you are still alluding to it by referring to a certain part.


Next Steps….

Congratulations, now you have a better understanding of the four master tropes! These four golden pillars (metaphor!) of rhetoric are essential when it comes to analyzing and understanding literature.

To solidify your understanding I suggest you listen to some of your favorite songs and try to identify any one of these four tropes. Comment your discoveries down below or any questions/comments you may have!


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