AP Lit Skill Spotlight: Literal and Figurative Meanings

This skill, AP* Lit FIG 5.A, asks students to distinguish between the figurative and literal meanings of words and phrases. Once again, this ties back to ambiguity and interpretation. While the author may use one word, darkness for example, the connotations of that word (night, evil, black) could take the poem’s meaning down a different track. Therefore, it’s important to understand the difference between what a text says with what it means.

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Teaching Figurative Meaning with Big Fish

Big Fish Carl the Giant - AP Lit & More figurative vs. literal meanings

One of my favorite movies of all time is Tim Burton’s Big Fish. When possible, I like to show the whole movie to Honors or Pre-AP® students and have them study it for poetic elements. When there isn’t time, however, just a few of its clips can showcase the difference between literal and figurative meaning.

The story of Big Fish follows the life of Edward Bloom, a salesman who makes himself out to be a bit more, calling himself “a big fish in a small pond.” Bloom spends his life telling outrageous stories about his amazing life, stories which seem too good to be true. As his son, Will, grows, he begins to resent his father and lose faith in his truthfulness.

Clips for Big Fish

Big Fish circus scene - AP Lit & More figurative vs. literal meanings

It’s hard to show this movie in short bits and many of the clips online cut off valuable scenes, but it is possible. The first clip I’d recommend showing is when Edward Bloom meets Carl, a giant living on the outskirts of town. Edward explains that they have a lot in common and that they should journey together.

The second clip shows Carl’s reception at the circus, where he immediately becomes the new giant in residence. At the same time, Edward meets “the love of his life” and time stands still (literally).

The last clip moves to the end of the film. Will has returned home to be with his father in his final days as he battles cancer. Although Edward always bragged that he knew how he died (a witch showed him in childhood), he wakes suddenly in the hospital, asking Will, “How do I go?” Will can’t remember the story, so he makes one up. The final scene shows Edward being carried past all of the characters from his escapades in life to the lake, where he returns his wedding ring to his wife and is transformed into his true self: a big fish.

Literal vs. Figurative in Big Fish

I am unable to find the funeral scene online anywhere, but if you own the movie I would show that as well. If not, here’s the synopsis. At Edward’s funeral, Will is surprised to meet the real live versions of the characters from Edward’s stories. There was a Carl and he is giant, just not a giant. Edward didn’t really meet Siamese twins during World War II, but he did meet identical twins who helped him escape captivity. And Edward really did buy an entire town to keep it from falling into bankruptcy (although he may not have rebuilt every building as he seemed to claim).

Big Fish funeral scene - AP Lit & More figurative vs. literal meanings
Screenshot from Edward’s funeral, with Carl the giant standing and giving the eulogy.

Will learns that his father wasn’t lying, he was speaking figuratively. Every person in his story became the metaphorical version of who they really were. Dark and mysterious people became witches. Beautiful creatures became supernatural. And Edward himself was the bigger-than-big hero of his own life.

Ask students to look back at the scenes and explain what figurative elements are at play. What seems metaphorical or exaggerated, and why would Edward enhance them? What do you make of a man who always speaks figuratively? Is he, as Will believes, a liar? Or just a dreamer?

Focus Poem: “Those Winter Sundays”

The poem I chose for this standard is “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden. I love this poem because it grows in depth and meaning the longer you study it, but it’s not complicated or difficult even in its first reading.

Questions for Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays”

  1. What does the speaker’s father do every Sunday? What is implied by the sentence, “No one ever thanked him?”
  2. Which words or phrases have figurative meanings?
  3. What are the connotations of the following words: cracked (3), blaze (5), cold (6, 11), and warm (7)?
  4. Which literal objects or images from this text convey figurative meanings through their connotations?
  5. How does this poem’s diction and its connotations contribute to this poem’s meaning or themes?

Teacher’s Guide for “Those Winter Sundays”

AP Lit & More - Those Winter Sundays poem lesson
I sell this lesson on TpT if you’re in need of additional teaching materials for “Those Winter Sundays.”
  1. The speaker’s father gets up early in the cold to light the house’s furnace. Only after the house is warm does he wake the rest of his family. The last phrase implies that the father works tirelessly “in the weekday weather” and even takes these extra measures on the weekends, but it goes unacknowledged.
  2. Line 6 says that the cold was “splintering, breaking.” While floorboards or a home can do this, the cold literally cannot. Line 9 mentions the “chronic angers of that house.” This personifies the house, which cannot actually have chronic anger (although its inhabitants can). Line 10 mentions that the father has “driven out the cold,” which can be true both literally and figuratively.
  3. “Cracked” may remind some of fractured, broken, or damaged images. It also has associations with losing mentally, like if someone is described as cracked. “Blaze” has associations with heat and fire burning out of control. It can also be used to describe someone hot-headed or with a bad or violent temper. “Cold” has many connotations, emotionally (hate, cold-blooded, violent, calculated) and physically (frigid, bitter, winter). Finally, “warm” has similar connotations of emotional words (kind, gentle, nurturing, friendly) and physical descriptions (hot, comfortable, sultry).
  4. The cold described in line 2 is “blueblack,” giving it a unique characterization as an oppressive being of the house and regular inhabitant of winter. The “blueblack cold” must be driven out each day, and the speaker’s father does it before anyone else wakes up. Later, that same cold is defeated in figurative terms with its “splintering, breaking.” As the father brings in the warm, the house grows not only in comfort but in love. Although the father doesn’t speak at all in this poem, his actions are a sign of love and nurture; they are warm. Finally, love is spoken about figuratively in the final line of having “austere and lonely offices.” The speaker, looking back now, realizes that people show love in unique ways. His father showed love through his somber and solitary action of driving out the cold and bringing in the heat every day, without thanks.
  5. This poem employs many words describing the opposites of temperature, warm and cold. These play on their emotional connotations of being kind or mean. The speaker’s father could be described as cold in his demeanor, but his actions are warm. Conversely, his family lives in comfort of a warm house. But as no one ever thanked him, and the speaker worries they are actually cold. This contributes to the poem’s true topic, not of a glorious father, but of a regretful son. The speaker is looking back at his father’s actions and feels sorry that he never thanked or acknowledged him. The final lines offer up his only excuse, which was “what did I know?”

Suggested Poems for Studying the Significance of Figurative Meanings

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Thanks to the educators on the AP® Lit Facebook group for all of the great suggestions for poems to study literal versus figurative meanings. I added a few of my own favorites to this list, but almost any poem in the world can work for studying figurative versus literal meanings!

  • “Warning” by Jenny Joseph
  • “Traveling Through the Dark” by William E. Stafford
  • “Oxygen” by Mary Oliver
  • “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks
  • “Famous” by Naomi Shihab Nye
  • “When Puffy says, and we won’ t stop, ’cause we can’ t stop.” by Rasheed Copeland
  • “The Leash” or “What it Looks Like to Us and the Words We Use” by Ada Limón
  • “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath
  • “Eating Poetry” by Mark Strand
  • “Coal” by Audre Lorde
  • “Because I Could Not Stop For Death” by Emily Dickinson
  • “pity this busy monster, manunkind” by e. e. cummings
  • “Childhood” by Margaret Walker
  • “How to Write a Poem in a Time of War” by Joy Harjo
  • “Bedecked” by Victoria Redel
  • “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar
  • “A Poet to His Baby Son” by James Weldon Johnson
  • “Ode to My Socks” by Pablo Neruda
  • “Let Me Try Again” by Javier Zamora
  • “Problems With Hurricanes” by Victor Hernández
  • “Nikki-Rosa” by Nikki Giovanni
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Looking for other lessons to help with AP® Lit skills? Check out the rest of them here.

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