I don’t like the way that people teach about Metaphors vs. Similes. I don’t like the way that the difference is defined.
“A simile,” they say, “Is where you say that the man was like a wolf as he approached the young woman. A metaphor is when you say that the man was a wolf.” As if the mere presence or absence of the word “like” made a difference in the sentence.
But the presence or absence of the word “like” is an accident of language. The real determination must be found in a semiotic distinction.
In semiotics, we define the difference between a “signifier” and what is “signified”, the symbol and what the symbol stands for. What the symbol stands for should be considered the “real” thing, which is signified in a symbol. In this case, the actant in the sentence is a man (“signified”), he is really a man, but he is represented by the symbol of a wolf (“signifier”).
You can leave out the word “like” in this sentence and it really isn’t going to make a damn bit of difference. Not when it comes to how the audience perceives it. Because in both cases, we are introduced to an actant who is a man, and then we are told he is a wolf. We know that no one can be both wolf and man at the same time, so regardless of the presence or absence of that magical word that’s supposed to turn gold into simile, we have to consider the actant as a man who is being compared (the actual meaning of “simile”) to a wolf.
“The man then lunged at her. He was a (like) wolf, tearing at her clothes to get at the flesh beneath.”
Whether or not we include the word, there is really only one way to read that.
So compare this sentence:
“The wolf stepped out of the bushes and spoke to the little girl.”
Let us be very clear about this: wolves, in our external reality, are not capable of speech. Therefore, we must assume while we’re doing a literal reading of this bit of text, that the wolf isn’t actually a wolf, that he is a stand-in for a man who will later devour her until she can be rescued by a woodsman.
However, this reading is not supported by the text, it is merely allowed. Only the signifier is present in the sentence, leaving any theoretical signified object to cast its shadow upon our imaginations. We can read the line as a metaphor, but the text does not compel us to.
That, to me, is the true difference between a metaphor and a simile. A simile tells us exactly what is going on and then provides an image we can compare it to. A metaphor just tells a story and leaves any hidden meaning to our collective imaginations.