I am reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau and he likes word play. Specifically he likes to make silly analogies between things that aren’t usually put together. I am wondering what type of literary device these two quotes would be. Specifically the device of making humorous comparisons between two things. I guess they are metaphors (?), but there has to be a more specific name. My Wikipedia browsing came up with "syllepsis", maybe?

In the first his humor lies in referencing a Bible verse out of context, Matthew 5:39, “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also”:

and when the frost had smitten me on one cheek, heathen as I was, I turned to it the other also.

In the second his humor is in describing a village layout as if it were a setup for people to run the gauntlet. This is a long passage but I am in particular interested in the name for the type of overall humorous word picture he is painting:

I observed that the vitals of the village were the grocery, the bar-room, the post-office, and the bank; and, as a necessary part of the machinery, they kept a bell, a big gun, and a fire-engine, at convenient places; and the houses were so arranged as to make the most of mankind, in lanes and fronting one another, so that every traveller had to run the gauntlet, and every man, woman, and child might get a lick at him. Of course, those who were stationed nearest to the head of the line, where they could most see and be seen, and have the first blow at him, paid the highest prices for their places; and the few straggling inhabitants in the outskirts, where long gaps in the line began to occur, and the traveller could get over walls or turn aside into cow-paths, and so escape, paid a very slight ground or window tax. Signs were hung out on all sides to allure him; some to catch him by the appetite, as the tavern and victualling cellar; some by the fancy, as the dry goods store and the jeweller's; and others by the hair or the feet or the skirts, as the barber, the shoemaker, or the tailor. Besides, there was a still more terrible standing invitation to call at every one of these houses, and company expected about these times. For the most part I escaped wonderfully from these dangers, either by proceeding at once boldly and without deliberation to the goal, as is recommended to those who run the gauntlet, or by keeping my thoughts on high things, like Orpheus, who, "loudly singing the praises of the gods to his lyre, drowned the voices of the Sirens, and kept out of danger." Sometimes I bolted suddenly, and nobody could tell my whereabouts, for I did not stand much about gracefulness, and never hesitated at a gap in a fence. I was even accustomed to make an irruption into some houses, where I was well entertained, and after learning the kernels and very last sieveful of news—what had subsided, the prospects of war and peace, and whether the world was likely to hold together much longer—I was let out through the rear avenues, and so escaped to the woods again.

Or perhaps they are best described as two different literary devices.

  • The scope of the question seems too broad. I count at least eight "literary devices" of various stripes in the lengthy passage you quote. Consider editing the question by pruning the passage to something more manageable, (This looks painfully like an attempt to get the community to do a homework assignment...)
    – Rob_Ster
    Nov 9, 2017 at 13:47
  • Ha, I promise it is not homework. I haven’t taken an english class in something like a decade. I edited it to make it a little more specific.
    – xdhmoore
    Nov 9, 2017 at 16:40
  • I admit the second passage is long, but it contains the full length of the word picture whose type I am trying to determine. One of the reasons “syllepsis” seems like the wrong term is that this is a lengthy passage and not a single instance of word play, but maybe I am mistaken.
    – xdhmoore
    Nov 9, 2017 at 16:46
  • I think maybe the second could be considered a "parody"?
    – xdhmoore
    Jan 16, 2019 at 17:32

2 Answers 2


Your short example can be considered an instance of metalepsis.

Metalepsis (from Greek: μετάληψις) is a figure of speech in which a word or a phrase from figurative speech is used in a new context. - wikipedia

The original notion of turning the other cheek is a figure of speech about a non-retaliatory attitude towards being offended. Your quote takes this figure of speech and uses it in a new context, one in which the adventurer suffers frostbite (or at least frost) and, instead of retreating to safety, remains exposed to the elements.

Your long example may be treated as an allegory, or extended metaphor.

As a literary device, an allegory is a metaphor whose vehicle may be a character, place or event, representing real-world issues and occurrences. - wikipedia

Here, the author likens a village's layout to a piece of military machinery. It's not simply a metaphor because the story presses the comparison to the details of the machinery and its effect on the visitor.

  • 1
    Upvote and a tip of the hat for staying clear of the rhetorical weeds on this!
    – Rob_Ster
    Nov 9, 2017 at 17:20
  • 1
    Thanks, allegory is an interesting answer. I always thought allegory meant the text was conveying a purposeful/instructional message via a metaphor where the details were matched up almost one-to-one, even heavy-handedly. Here there does seem to be detailed one-to-one comparison, but I think the comparison is meant more as a joke than to convey a real message.
    – xdhmoore
    Nov 15, 2017 at 6:06

This broad question requires a broad answer. Thoreau was fond of a host of rhetorical devices and flourishes, arcane figures best catalogued at the brilliant but dense web site, Forest of Rhetoric at Brigham Young University. For something lighter, try M.H. Abrams, Literary Terms.

In general, the example contains several variations on appositio, a figure of restatement using various words and phrases. One might argue that the passage demonstrates synathachoesmus - a conglomeration of appositive terms - or perhaps metalepsis - a kind of metonymy often applied for comic effect.

To the extent that Thoreau deliberately distorts the meaning of a word, (e.g., "irruption") he may be convicted of catachresis.

I don't recognize syllepsis per se in the passage, but recalling his fondness for that figure (as for its cousin zeugma) I can certainly see how one might detect a certain adumbration of it.

  • +1 for noting that syllepsis doesn't describe the examples in the quesiton. (Thanks for the upvote and tip of the hat, by the way.)
    – Lawrence
    Nov 9, 2017 at 23:20

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