Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

We may look for storyworld universals in the sequence of events that comprise the story proper, in the characters that enact those events, or in the settings in which the characters or events are embedded. (For the first and second, see “Story.”) One aspect of setting where we find cross-cultural patterns is imagery. We may define imagery as features of setting that are not simply a function of the causal trajectory of the events, but serve other purposes as well. For example, insofar as seasons operate in a story to guide the characters’ planting and harvesting, they are not operating as imagery. In contrast, they are operating as imagery insofar as they have a function outside that causal sequence (e.g., to suggest thematic concerns, such as the association of sin with death, by way of winter). Note that this broad definition of imagery does not exclude metaphor; imagery may be metaphorical. In addition, by this definition, imagery is not particularly visual; indeed, it is sensory-mediated only to the extent that setting is sensory-mediated. Note also that lyric poems have events, characters, and/or settings, and thus are encompassed in this definition. (On the relation of lyric poems and story sequences, see chapter five of Hogan, The Mind.) Indeed, the relatively limited presence of causal (story) sequences in lyric poems suggests that imagery is likely to play a particularly important role in lyric poetry. Finally, setting includes persons and events; it is merely differentiated from persons and events considered as part of the causal sequence of a given story.

General Principles

Perhaps the most striking universal in this area is the most basic or general one–the existence of imagery. Some storytellers and poets in perhaps all traditions, and certainly in large written traditions, develop apparently incidental features of the setting in such a way as to make those features relevant to the reader’s experience of the work. The relevance may be a matter of non-causal story functions, as when an image suggests future events in the story through foreshadowing. Otherwise, the relevance of imagery commonly bears on the emotional impact of the work (e.g., by enhancing mood) or the thematic implications of the work. By “thematic implications,” I refer to the work’s consequences for the recipient’s relation to the real world in which he or she lives. These implications are most often ethical or political.

Here, as in most cases, there is no need to posit a specific, innate propensity in order to explain this cross-cultural tendency. General cognitive and social structures along with convergent development appear sufficient to explain the recurrence of imagery in general, and even the recurrence of particular image forms and categories. Storytellers only had to notice that imagery could be recruited to make a sad story sadder, a suspenseful story more suspenseful (e.g., through foreshadowing), a theme more effective or evident. Once one storyteller noticed this—which would presumably happen fairly quickly—his or her use of the technique could spread within that tradition, through its self-conscious or implicit imitation by other storytellers.

Another broad, cross-cultural pattern is the tendency of traditions to develop standardized sets of shared images. In the West, an obvious example of this sort is to be found in the Petrarchan lineage of love poetry. But the use of standardized images is a feature of many written and oral traditions (see Hogan “Literary Universals and Their Cultural Traditions”; note that the present essay outlines some of the main conclusions of research in the area, but cannot enter into all the details covered in the various works cited). This occurs in part due to the simple formation of associative connections and processes of “priming,” which make some associations more likely to be activated than others. (Since some readers have been confused by this, I should explain that the formation of associative connections enables activation to spread through networks via priming; association is of course not priming itself, just as highways are not traffic.) Once one poet associates lovers with birds, other poets familiar with this initial work will be more likely to associate lovers with birds also. In addition, the set of associations of lovers with birds will tend to make the image more emotionally effective, and in some cases more thematically consequential too.

There are other broad, recurring tendencies as well. For example, traditions of verbal art tend to select species for animal imagery, rather than relying on higher level categories. For example, in individual cases and in standardized imagery, writers appear likely to refer to nightingales in a particular context, rather the mere birds—though the latter is more likely than some still more general classification, such as vertebrates (an apparently rare choice, despite its comic possibilities; both points obviously bear further empirical investigation, as do all hypotheses about literary universals, here and elsewhere). Authors and traditions select particular species for reasons bearing on the species themselves, often due to their mating or other behaviors, the musicality of their calls, their appearance, and related matters, as well as their cultural resonances (e.g., their place in ritual). A less frequent, but perhaps more striking recurrent practice is the literalization of imagistic associations and related metaphors and similes. We find cases of this ranging from allegory to the motif of metamorphosis (in for example Ovid, Kafka, or the Chinese tale of the “butterfly lovers,” Zhu Yingtai and Liang Shanbo [see “Newly Compiled”]).

Of course, universals of imagery are not confined to these points. Imagery may be universal in manifesting the same formal relations or in sharing some concrete, perceptual features. Formal relations are types of connection that give imagery significance in a work. Concrete, perceptual features may be directly experiential, as in performing arts, or a matter of guided simulation, as in purely verbal art. (Guided simulation is the imagination of particulars in line with instructions, such as those given implicitly by literary descriptions [on verbal art as a set of instructions for imagination, see Scarry].) Universals of imagery, then, may be formal (in that they follow the same principles, though their particular features may differ) or substantive (in that their particular features are the same or similar). The division is not absolute and rigid, since shared features may be very general, and even apparently idiosyncratic (formally defined) images often share some category with more commonly recurring concrete images. Moreover, recurring concrete features must enter into the usual formal relations if they are to count as imagery at all. But it is a practically useful division for examining universals of imagery. We may consider such universals in connection with each category. (For more elaborate discussion of imagery universals, as well as cross-cultural evidence, see Hogan “Literary Universals and Their Cultural Traditions,” “Beauty,” and “Shakespeare.”)

Formal Relations

Imagery may enter into at least two formal relations (there may be others as well). First, there is parallelism. Since readers have greatly misunderstood my point here, I should explain that imagery and parallelism are not the same; there are many forms of parallelism (e.g., in syntax) that have no bearing on the concerns of this essay. Moreover, imagery does not serve to establish parallelism. Rather, the point is that a range of genetically and areally unrelated traditions appear to make use of parallelism to give images thematic, emotional, anticipatory, or other import outside causal (story) sequences. That universality holds even when the precise images differ.

Parallelism itself takes two forms, internal and external. Internal parallelism involves congruity between two or more storyworld structures within a work. (This point has confused readers, so I should perhaps re-emphasize that imagery can be part of a story sequence. It is distinguished by having a non-story operation–emotional, thematic, and so on.) Internal parallelism is prominent among the cross-culturally recurring strata of what we might call “existential embedment,” the different levels of social and biological constituency: the individual body and mind or person, the family, society, and nature. In other words, two complexes of events and/or conditions may be causally unrelated, but still bear on one another—again, emotionally, thematically, or whatever. Thus chaos in society may be parallel to a storm in nature; the separation of a family may be parallel to the division of the land (e.g., by a river). The social chaos does not cause the storm, and the river does not cause the separation of the family (or vice-versa); however, the two networks of events and conditions are not simply irrelevant to one another.

Internal parallelism may also operate within a single stratum. Circularity, beginning and ending a work in the same place or type of place, the same situation or type of situation, and so on, is a cross-cultural feature of this sort. So too is foreshadowing (as already noted), a temporally directed form of parallelism in which images operate to suggest subsequent events (e.g., in a Sanskrit work, the appearance of separating cakravāka birds may parallel and foreshadow the separation of lovers).

External parallelism involves mapping a structure in the work at hand onto a structure in a precursor work or real situation. Examples would include a modern story about a political figure whose life and death may be linked with the Biblical story of Jesus or the narrative of a contemporary couple that recalls the story of Rāma and Sītā. A minimal case of external parallelism is found in allusion. Again, parallelism need not be a matter of imagery; in other words, not all parallelism is imagery-based. However, in many cases, parallelism is imagery-based. In those cases, parallelism defines the non-causal function of the image (i.e., makes an element of setting into an image). A simple example is the conflagration at the end of Deepa Mehta’s film, Fire. This alludes to the fire ordeal of Sītā and contributes to the work’s thematic development in that way. Here, as in other cases, parallels may be direct, or they may involve inversion or some other systematic alteration.

A second formal relation commonly bearing on imagery is that between foreground and background (or, alternatively, source and target). Literary works tend to involve the development of at least two of the standard levels of human existence (mind, family, society, and nature). Nonetheless, one of these levels is typically the object of primary attentional focus (the target), thus the foreground, while the other is the background, which is to say, it is perceived and understood, but it is not the object of attentional focus, except perhaps intermittently. The background (or source) may provide imagery for internal parallelism, as when the storm provides a background for the social chaos in Lear’s kingdom and the emotional chaos in Lear’s mind. The point holds, in a slightly altered form, for external parallelism as well. In that case, the precursor work is most often the background (source) work in that it is not the object of attentional focus (target). At least it is not the initial object of such focus. In some cases, the thematic point of a later work may be to comment on the earlier work, as when an Indian film or drama revises the Rāmāyana in order to provoke the viewer to reconsider some ethical norms presupposed by that revered poem. (This is in part the case with Mehta’s film.) But this too involves a background/foreground or source/target distinction.

With internal parallelism, the foreground figures tend to be those most deeply embedded in the list of standard strata—thus those that are constituent elements–and the background figures tend to be those that are more encompassing. For example, nature (e.g., the weather) is more likely to serve as background for society than the reverse. It is not clear whether this is true in the case of external parallelism, since the two works tend to focus attention on the same stratum (e.g., family relations). However, in external parallelism there is a further pattern as the background text tends to be one with equal or greater social or spiritual authority. In this case, the most relevant categorization seems to bear on types of text, rather than types of existence. Specifically, a distinction among, say, individual, communal, and divine texts—or perhaps a simpler division between individual and socially authoritative texts–appears to recur cross-culturally. In external parallelism, foreground or target texts tend to come earlier in this list. Put simply, understanding individual or personal texts (such as a particular novel or drama) may rely on external parallelism with divine texts (e.g., the Gospels), but understanding divine texts is less likely to rely on parallelism with individual or personal texts texts (with the qualifications already noted).

Concrete Particulars

Again, image patterns may recur in particular forms (for cases, see Hogan “Literary”). Many recurrent concrete particulars derive directly from the parallelism of mind, etc., as in the examples cited above. Some further, instances may be divided into those bearing on character and those bearing on events. Regarding character, heroes tend to be paralleled with creatures from the natural world. For example, military heroes may be paralleled with predatory land animals. Lovers tend to be paralleled with birds or similar creatures, though they too may be paralleled with predators if their sexual appetites are emphasized. Regarding events, sunset tends to be associated with death, separation, etc. (again, sunset does not cause death, etc., in these cases). Sunrise is more likely to be linked with renewal, birth or rebirth, reunion, and so forth. The season of natural rebirth (e.g., spring) tends to be associated with renewal, birth, and the reunion of lovers. The season of barrenness (e.g., winter) appears to be more commonly associated with despair, death, the separation of lovers, military loss, and so on. Water is often connected with new life. In keeping with these points, Pandit has argued that urban societies often establish a contrast between a partially degraded or corrupt place of civilization and a semi-idyllic green world (103).

Future Research

The most obvious tasks for future work in this area are the isolation of additional universals of imagery and their systematic organization. The former task includes the isolation of further types of formal relation as well as further sorts of concrete particulars. As to systematic organization, it would be valuable to see what patterns there may be across concrete particulars, beyond the division into character-related and event-related. It would also be valuable to know more about which images recur with the greatest frequency, which are limited in their appearance, and what cultural or other variables may govern such differences. Another potentially consequential task is elaborating on the consequences of internal and external parallelism (e.g., the ways in which they produce emotional effects in a reader or just what consequences they have for the communication of themes). Finally, it is important to integrate research on imagery with research on narrative and metaphor, and to consider the relation of foreground-background relations to non-directional integration (e.g., in conceptual blending theory).

(An earlier version of this article was published on the website of the original Literary Universals Project in 2002. That earlier version appeared in a Turkish translation, “Imgenin Evrenselleri,” trans. Özgen Felek, Bizim Külliye: Üç Aylik Kültür Sanat Dergisi 21 [September 2004]: 11-12. I have limited revisions of the article in order to preserve continuity with that earlier version.)

Works Cited

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Beauty, Politics and Cultural Otherness: India in the Study of Comparative Literature.” In Hogan and Pandit 3-43.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Literary Universals and their Cultural Traditions: The Case of Poetic Imagery.” Consciousness, Literature, and the Arts 6.2 (August 2005).

Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Shakespeare, Eastern Theatre, and Literary Universals: Drama in the Context of Cognitive Science.”  In Shakespeare East and West. Ed. Minoru Fujita and Leonard Pronko. Richmond, Surrey: Japan Library, 1996, 164-80, 189-90.

Hogan, Patrick Colm and Lalita Pandit, eds. Literary India: Comparative Studies in Aesthetics, Colonialism, and Culture. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995.

Mehta, Deepa, dir. Fire. Screenplay by Deepa Mehta. New Delhi, India: Kaleidoscope Entertainment, 1996.

“The Newly Compiled Tale of the Golden Butterflies,” trans. Wilt Idema, in The Columbia Anthology of Chinese Folk and Popular Literature, ed. Victor Mair and Mark Bender (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 505-551.

Pandit, Lalita. “Patriarchy and Paranoia: Imaginary Indfidelity in Uttararāmacarita and The Winter’s Tale.” In Hogan and Pandit, 103-133

Scarry, Elaine. Dreaming by the Book (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1999).


By: Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut