I recently came across this sentence in Raymond Chandler’s The High Window: “I seemed to be wading through mud as I went on into the room.” I feel strongly that there is some sort of literary or figurative device present in this sentence, but I can’t put a name to it. It is neither metaphor nor simile, the two most common figurative devices. Some colleagues of mine suggested idiom and analogy as possibilities, but I don’t think those would be quite right, either. It’s clearly some kind of imagery, but I wonder if anyone might know a name for this particular kind of language.
It meets at least one definition of a simile.
Here are a two definitions of simile, which set out the key elements that analysts would look for:
A simile is a figure of speech in which two fundamentally unlike things are explicitly compared, usually in a phrase introduced by like or as. "The simile sets two ideas side by side," said F.L. Lucas. "[I]n the metaphor they become superimposed" (Style). (ThoughtCo, a popular website that defines rhetorical/literary terms)
A simile (/ˈsɪməli/) is a figure of speech that directly compares two things. Similes differ from metaphors by highlighting the similarities between two things through the use of words such as "like" and "as", while metaphors create an implicit comparison (i.e. saying something "is" something else). (Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia)
In both of these definitions, we have:
A comparison between two things
The use of a marker, usually like or as (some sources will say similes always use "like" or "as," but I’ll explain below why "usually" and "such as" are fitting)
Conceptual nearness to metaphor, which is often construed as a more direct, implicit comparison
This usage is a simile that uses "seem to" as a comparative marker. Scholar David Fishelov, in his article "Poetic and Non-Poetic Simile: Structure, Semantics, Rhetoric" (Poetics Today, 1993, JSTOR) defines a simile around four elements:
Topic (T): "The thing about which the speaker is speaking and about which he wishes to say something"
Vehicle (V): "The image brought into the discussion because of its being analogous to T"
Simile marker (M): "Some sort of explicit marker that directs us to construct analogies (or "metaphorical" relations) between T and V"
Ground (G): "The aspect(s) shared by T and V, that is, the basis of the analogy between T and V, usually in the form of a predicate."
With the simile marker, Fishelov clarifies that this doesn’t have to be "like" or "as":
The situation with the M, however, is not an either/or one: in fact, there is a whole range of possible linguistic expressions that may function as the M, from the typical MS "like" and "as" to phrases which suggest the relationships of similarity only indirectly and in a more covert way (e.g., "seem to," "recall").
"Seem to" in particular would be a comparative marker because seem focuses on the appearance or likeness of something, not its actual state. This is the case for your example.
I seemed to be wading through mud as I went on into the room.
- The topic is the speaker "[going] into the room"
- The vehicle is "wading through mud."
- The simile marker is "seemed to"
- The ground is either a heavy atmosphere or something that hinders movement.
Because the comparison is marked rather than being implicit, it is a simile. The primary argument against this assessment is a rigid definition of "simile" that excludes some comparative markers.