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Glossary of Literary Terms

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Alliteration

Alliteration describes when the initial sounds of words are repeated in close proximity. Alliteration is based on repeated sounds, not letters: car keys is alliterative, but city cardis not. Alliteration can add emphasis, playfulness, or rhythm.

Example: from Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”

Had we but world enough, and time,

This coyness, lady, were no crime.

We would sit down, and think which way

To walk, and pass our long love’s day.

Allusion

An allusion is a reference, usually implicit, to a person, place, thing, event, or idea in history or literature. Allusions tap into readers’ cultural knowledge and create an in-group of readers who catch the reference.

Example: Though many people who use the phrase probably aren’t aware of this, using the phrase “going down the rabbit hole” to describe starting a disorienting, confusing, and lengthy experience is an allusion to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), in which Alice ends up in Wonderland by following the White Rabbit down his rabbit hole.

Analogy

An analogy is a comparison in which an idea or thing is compared to something quite different from it. Analogies are more extensive than similes and metaphors.

Example: from James Russell Lowell’s “An Epistle to George William Curtis”

“No mud can soil us but the mud we throw”

The mud in this sentence clearly isn’t literal dirt. Just like we cannot touch mud without getting dirty, we cannot speak ill of others without sullying ourselves. Mud here is analogous to slander—it makes us dirty.

Antagonist

The antagonist is a character or force that comes into conflict with the protagonist, the central character, in fiction or drama.

Example: In the Harry Potter series, Lord Voldemort is Harry’s antagonist, as are, at various points, Draco Malfoy and Severus Snape.

Assonance

Assonance is the repetition of internal vowel sounds in nearby words that do not rhyme. Alliteration occurs at the start of words; rhyme, at the ends; and assonance, in the middle. “Moon” and “spoon” rhyme; “moon” and “mood” are assonant.

Example: from Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish”

I caught a tremendous fish

and held him beside the boat

half out of water, with my hook

fast in a corner of its mouth.

He didn’t fight.

He hadn’t fought at all.

He hung a grunting weight,

Ballad

Historically, ballads were story songs passed down orally; thus, they usually cannot be traced to particular authors. Ballads usually offer dramatic, short, and impersonal stories. Literary ballads are narrative poems that are written in a form that imitates traditional ballads.

Example: For an example of a traditional ballad, read “Get Up and Bar the Door”: http://www.bartleby.com/40/20.html

For an example of a literary ballad, read John Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”: http://www.bartleby.com/126/55.html

Ballad Stanza

The ballad stanza, named because it is frequently used in ballads, consists of four lines. The first and third lines have eight syllables (tetrameter); the second and fourth have six (trimeter). Usually, only the second and fourth lines rhyme.

Example: from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

The Sun came up upon the left,

Out of the sea came he!

And he shone bright, and on the right

Went down into the sea.

Biography

A biography is the story of a person’s life, presumed to be factual. An autobiography is a story one writes about one’s own life.

Example: The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is an autobiographical account of slavery.

Cadence

Cadence refers to the natural rhythm of language, the rising and falling “tune” of a piece of writing, based on stressed and unstressed syllables. Cadence is present in prose as well as in poetry.

Catharsis

Catharsis refers to the release of emotions of pity or fear at the end of a tragedy. As audience members watch a play and see the misfortunes of the characters, they might feel scared or sorrowful for them, but at the end, these negative emotions are “purged,” tensions are released, and viewers are left calm.

Example: When watching or reading William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the scene when Romeo believes Juliet to be dead might make us recall our own lost loves and thus to release our emotions.

Characterization

Characterization is the process by which the writer reveals the personality of a character. Direct characterization tells the audience about the character. Indirect characterization shows the audience the character’s personality. There are five different forms of indirect characterization: we learn about characters through their speech, thoughts, effect on others, actions, and looks.

Characters who grow and change over the course of the story are dynamic; those who don’t are static. Characters who are vivid, three-dimensional, and lifelike are round; those who aren’t are flat.

Chorus

In a tragedy, the chorus is a group of people who function as commentators on the characters and their actions.

Cliché

A cliché is an overused idea or expression. Clichés are usually seen as signs of poor writing.

Example: describing someone as “as old as the hills” or “fit as a fiddle”

Concrete Poem

Concrete poems use typography to make a picture of the subject on the page.

Example: Take a look at George Herbert’s “Easter-Wings”: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173626

Conflict

Conflict is the dramatic struggle between two forces in a story. There are several kinds of conflict common in fiction: human vs. human, human vs. nature, human vs. society, human vs. self.

Example: In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen is involved in all of these kinds of conflict. Her battles against the “Careers” are human vs. human. Her struggles to find water and food are human vs. nature. Her struggles to bring down her corrupt government are human vs. society. Her difficulty in deciding whether or not she loves Peeta is human vs. self.

Connotation

The connotation of a word is the associations we have with it that go beyond its literal meaning, thanks to how it has commonly been used.

Example: Both “house” and “home” can mean a structure in which one lives, but they have different connotations. A “house” is just a building; but a “home” is a space filled with warm and fuzzy feelings.

Denotation

The denotation of a word is its dictionary definition. (The alliteration here—denotation=dictionary—makes this easier to remember.)

Dialect

Dialects are particular ways of speaking that are associated with groups of people from different regions, races/ethnicities, or social classes. Dialect provides a way for writers to contrast their characters’ backgrounds.

Example: Think about the differences between the dialect of Jim, an escaping slave, and Huck, a poorly educated Midwestern boy, in this excerpt from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

[Jim] says: “I doan’ want to go fool’n ‘long er no wrack. We’s doin’ blame’ well, en we better let blame’ well alone, as de good book says. Like as not dey’s a watchman on dat wrack.”

“Watchman your grandmother,” I [Huck] says; “there ain’t nothing to watch but the texas and the pilot-house; and do you reckon anybody’s going to resk his life for a texas and a pilot-house such a night as this, when it’s likely to break up and wash off down the river any minute?” Jim couldn’t say nothing to that, so he didn’t try. “And besides,” I says, “we might borrow something worth having out of the captain’s stateroom. Seegars, I bet you—and cost five cents apiece, solid cash. Steamboat captains is always rich, and get sixty dollars a month, and they don’t care a cent what a thing costs, you know, long as they want it. Stick a candle in your pocket; I can’t rest, Jim, till we give her a rummaging.”

Dialogue

Dialogue is the term for when characters talk to one another. (For an example, see the dialogue between Huck and Jim above.)

Diction

Diction means word choice. When you examine an author’s diction, you should think about the words’ connotations as well as their denotations. You should also think about whether the language is formal or informal.

Example: Both of these sentences convey essentially the same message—be quiet—but the differences in diction make them feel and mean differently.

Shut yer trap, will ye?

Please resume a respectful silence.

Dramatic Irony

Dramatic irony involves a situation in which the reader knows something that the character does not know. Because of our knowledge, we can recognize that the character’s actions are inappropriate to the circumstances or that he/she expects the opposite of what fate holds in store.

Example: In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo believes Juliet to be dead when we know she is not. As a result, he makes a bad decision that we in the audience perceive as ironic.

Dramatic Monologue

A dramatic monologue is a kind of poem in which the speaker addresses a silent audience imagined to be present.

Example: from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

And indeed there will be time

To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”

Time to turn back and descend the stair,

With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—

(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)

My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,

My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—

(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)

Do I dare

Disturb the universe?

Elegy

An elegy is a melancholy contemplative lyric poem written in memory of someone who has died. These poems often end with peace and consolation.

Example: Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” is an elegy for Abraham Lincoln.

Epic

An epic is a long narrative poem, told in a formal style, which chronicles a heroic journey and events significant to a culture or a nation. Epics often include superhuman deeds, highly stylized language, and a blending of the lyric and the drama.

Example: Homer’s Odyssey and Illiad

Epigram

An epigram is a short, witty poem that usually makes a satiric point.

Example: Consider this example, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Sir, I admit your general rule,
That every poet is a fool,
But you yourself may serve to show it,
That every fool is not a poet.

Epistle

An epistle is a letter in verse form. When novels are written in the form of letters, they are written in epistolary form.

Example: Elizabeth Bishop’s “Letter to N.Y.”: http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index/index.php?date=2006/07/22

Essay

An essay is a form of writing, usually in prose, which varies in length from a few pages to a full book. Essays aren’t works of fiction, but instead discuss a topic or variety of topics.

Example: John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding

Euphemism

An euphemism is the substitution of a mild expression for a harsh or blunt choice of words.

Example: Using “passed away” instead of “died”

Extended Metaphor

An extended metaphor is exactly what it sounds like—an metaphor used in an extended way. In a poem that makes use of extended metaphor, all (or at least a significant portion) of the lines consist of a series of related metaphors.

Example: Emily Dickinson’s “My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun”: http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/gun.html

Fable

A fable is a short narrative, written in other prose or verse, which ends with a moral, either stated or implied. Often, the characters in fables are animals or inanimate beings.

Example: Check out Aesop’s fables, believed to be the first collected fables, here: http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/aesop/

Fairy Tale

Fairy tales are a form of folk literature, originally passed through the oral tradition. Fairy tales are usually written in prose and tell the story of the travails of a hero or heroine who, after some supernatural adventures, lives “happily ever after.” The middle of the story, however, is often quite unhappy.

Example: The three major collections of European fairy tales are Charles Perrault’s Contes de ma mère l’Oye (better known to readers of English as The Tales of Mother Goose), Kinder- und Hausmärchen (or Household Tales) by the brothers Grimm, and Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales.

Figurative Language

Figurative language is language that isn’t meant to be taken literally, at face value.

Example: metaphors, similes, hyperbole

Flashback

A flashback is a scene that breaks into the present tense of a narrative in order to explain events that took place before the text’s starting point.

Example: All the scenes in the Harry Potter series in which older people remember what it was like when Voldemort took power the first time are flashbacks.

Folk Tale

The folk tale is an expansive literary category that includes things like legends, fables, tall tales, and ghost stories. Folk tales are usually passed down orally. They often feature local characters.

Example: Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle,” about a man who sleeps through the American Revolution and parties with Henry Hudson in the Catskills, is based on German folklore.

Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing is the introduction of hints early in the story that suggest events to come.

Example: Early in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, a madman/prophet foresees the sinking of the Pequod and warns Ishmael and Queequeg.

Free Verse

Free verse refers to poetry that doesn’t conform to patterns of meter, rhyme, and stanza. Since the section breaks in free verse aren’t regular, these sections aren’t referred to as stanzas—instead, they are called verse paragraphs.

Example: Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”: http://www.bartleby.com/142/86.html

Graphic Novel

A graphic novel is a book-length story developed in comic-strip format.

Example: Art Spiegelman’s Maus

Haiku

Haiku is a kind of lyric poetry of Japanese origins. Haikus often present an intense emotion or image of nature. Traditionally, a haiku consists of three unrhymed lines—five syllables, seven syllables, five syllables.

Example: Consider this example, by Michael R. Collins:

Freeway overpass—

Blossoms in graffiti on

Fog-wrapped June mornings.

Historical Fiction

Historical fiction is a kind of fiction that reconstructs a particular historical moment imaginatively. The characters might be actually historical figures or they might be imagined characters placed into a real historical moment.

Example: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is an example of historical fiction—though written in the mid-nineteenth century, it is set in colonial Massachusetts.

Hyperbole

Hyperbole is an intentionally exaggerated statement that adds emphasis.

Example: “I studied a million hours for my Praxis exam!”

Iambic Pentameter

Iambic pentameter is a popular meter for poetry in English. Each line consists of 10 syllables, five pairs of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.

Example: from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

“But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?

It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.”

Idiom

An idiom is a set expression not meant to be interpreted literally. Idioms are culturally bound and difficult to translate.

Example: hitting the road, calling the shots, seeing eye to eye, pulling the wool over one’s eyes, pulling someone’s leg, raining cats and dogs… consult Amelia Bedelia for more information.

Imagery

Imagery refers to language used to engage our physical senses. Imagery is commonly associated with the idea of creating mental pictures, but appeals to touch, smell, taste, and hearing count too.

Example: from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations

“It was a rimy morning, and very damp. I had seen the damp lying on the outside of my little window, as if some goblin had been crying there all night, and using the window for a pocket-handkerchief. Now, I saw the damp lying on the bare hedges and spare grass, like a coarser sort of spiders’ webs; hanging itself from twig to twig and blade to blade. On every rail and gate, wet lay clammy; and the marsh-mist was so thick, that the wooden finger on the post directing people to our village–a direction which they never accepted, for they never came there–was invisible to me until I was quite close under it.”

Irony

Irony uses contradictory statements or situations to reveal a reality different from what seems to be true. Sarcasm is a form of verbal irony, when someone says something but really means the opposite. Dramatic irony is created by a difference between what a character thinks and what the reader knows is true. Situational irony is created by a difference between what is expected to happen and what actually happens due to forces out of our control.

Example: Consider this (really) short story, by W. Somerset Maugham:

http://www.k-state.edu/english/baker/english320/Maugham-AS.htm

Legend

A legend is a story that lies somewhere between myth and verifiable fact. Legends are about particular individuals.

Example: Stories about King Arthur, Robin Hood, or Faust

Limerick

A limerick is a humorous form of poetry consisting of five lines rhyming aabba (the first, second, and fifth lines rhyme with one another, as do lines three and four). Lines 1, 2, and 5 contain three feet (see description of meter if you are picturing toes), and lines 3 and 4 contain two.

Example: from Edward Lear’s A Book of Nonsense:

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, ‘It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!

Lyric Poem

A lyric is a short poem that expresses the emotions and thoughts of one speaker (not to be confused with the poet herself). The dramatic monologue, elegy, haiku, and sonnet are all examples of lyric poetry.

Example: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 43”: http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/how-do-i-love-thee-sonnet-43

Metaphor

A metaphor is a comparison of two dissimilar things, without using “like” or “as.”

Example: Check out Anne Bradstreet’s “The Author to Her Book,” which likens the poet’s book to a child: http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/author-her-book

Meter

Meter refers to a rhythmic pattern of stresses in a poem. Meters get their names from the pattern of stresses and from the number of feet, or rhythmic units, in a line. So, for example, iambic pentameter is called iambic pentameter because each line contains five (“pent”) iambs (pairs of unstressed and stressed syllables). A foot customarily contains one stressed and one or two unstressed syllables. The process of determining meter is called scansion.

Metonymy

Metonymy is a subgroup of metaphor in which we substitute the name of something closely associated with our subject for the subject itself.

Example: saying “the White House” when we mean the president, or “suits” when we mean businessmen

Mock Epic

A mock epic is a work of poetry that uses the lofty tone and language we associate with the epic to discuss a trivial subject in order to render the subject ridiculous.

Example: In The Rape of the Lock, Alexander Pope writes of a riff between two families resulting from a man cutting off a lock of a woman’s hair. Check out the beginning of the poem:

What dire offence from am’rous causes springs,

What mighty contests rise from trivial things,

I sing—This verse to Caryl, Muse! is due:

This, ev’n Belinda may vouchsafe to view:

Slight is the subject, but not so the praise,

If she inspire, and he approve my lays.

Mood

Mood refers to the feeling the readers get from reading a piece, the atmosphere, the vibe. Setting, tone, and diction all contribute to the mood.

Example: Consider how this description of the prison-door, which appears at the beginning of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, manages in a single paragraph to convey the fact that Puritan New England is a repressive place, but one where hope and beauty surprisingly remain. The description of the door gives the reader a gloomy, hopeless feel, which Hawthorne then reverses with his description of the fragile rose.

“Certain it is, that, some fifteen or twenty years after the settlement of the town, the wooden jail was already marked with weather-stains and other indications of age, which gave a yet darker aspect to its beetle-browed and gloomy front. The rust on the ponderous iron-work of its oaken door looked more antique than any thing else in the new world. Like all that pertains to crime, it seemed never to have known a youthful era. Before this ugly edifice, and between it and the wheel-track of the street, was a grass-plot, much overgrown with burdock, pig-weed, apple-peru, and such unsightly vegetation, which evidently found something congenial in the soil that had so early borne the black flower of civilized society, a prison. But, on one side of the portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rose-bush, covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems, which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him.”

Moral

The moral is the lesson to be learned from a literary text.

Example: Once again, consult Aesop’s fables: http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/aesop/

Mystery

Mystery is a genre of fiction in which a crime needs to be solved. The reader along with the characters must unravel the clues to arrive at the truth in the end.

Example: Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is the first detective story. Read it here: http://poestories.com/read/murders

Myth

A myth is a story not taken to be factual involving supernatural beings. Myths usually explain how something came into being.

Example: The Ojibwe myth “How the Bear Lost His Tail”: http://www.uwosh.edu/coehs/cmagproject/ethnomath/legend/legend5.htm

Narrative Poem

A narrative poem is a poem that tells a story.

Example: Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”: http://poestories.com/read/raven

Nursery Rhyme

Nursery rhymes have their origins in the oral tradition. They are collections of verses recited or sung by adults to very small children.

Example: “Old Mother Hubbard”

Onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia are words that resemble the sounds they describe.

Example: buzz, sizzle

Paradox

A paradox is a statement that seems contradictory at first but actually makes sense.

Example: Pay attention to the last line in John Donne’s “Death, Be Not Proud”: http://www.bartleby.com/105/72.html

Persona

A persona is the speaker who tells a story or narrates a poem. The persona is neither a character in the story nor the voice of the author herself.

Example: Diedrich Knickbocker, a (fictional) Dutch historian, is a persona through whom Washington Irving narrates his historical work.

Personification

Personification means giving a thing, idea, or animal human qualities.

Example: from A.E. Housman’s “Loveliest of Trees”:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Plot

The plot is the structure of a story, the arrangement of the story’s events. Plot has five parts:

Exposition: the start of the story, before the action starts

Rising action: the actions and conflict that lead to the climax

Climax: the turning point

Falling action: the events that lead to the resolution

Resolution/Denouement: the conclusion of the story

Note that a story (especially a long one) may go through this sequence more than once.

Example: In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the exposition occurs when the book begins at the Dursleys’ house, describing Harry’s miserable life before he learns he is a wizard. Hagrid’s surprising visit to tell Harry his true past, Harry’s acclimation to Hogwarts, and the development of the friendship between Harry, Ron, and Hermione, among other things, comprise the rising action. The climax of the book arrives when the three children go down the trap door to protect the stone and Harry faces off with Voldemort. The falling action includes Harry’s recovery from his encounter and explanations from Dumbledore. Finally, the resolution occurs when Gryffindor wins the house cup and the school year ends.

Point of View

Point of view refers to who is telling the story. (When point of view is used to describe nonliterary texts, usually it means the author’s perspective on the subject he is discussing.)

Objective Point of View: The narrator tells the story without stating more than can be inferred from the action and dialogue.

Third Person Omniscient Point of View: The narrator knows everything about the characters and shares their thoughts and feelings with the reader.

Third Person Limited Point of View: The narrator can only see into the mind of a single character.

First Person Point of View: The story is told by a character within it.

Example: Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is told in the objective POV. The Brothers Grimms’ “Hansel and Gretel” is told in the third person omniscient POV; the narrator knows what both siblings and their parents are thinking. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is told in the third person limited POV; we’re only in Elizabeth Bennet’s head. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is told in the first person POV; Nick Carraway, the narrator, is also a character in the story.

Prose

Prose is how we ordinarily use language, when we speak and write in sentences that don’t rhyme or conform to a particular meter. Fiction is (usually) written in prose.

Example: this website

Rhyme

Rhyme is the repetition of identical or similar last syllables in different words. Rhyme is usually a matter of sound, not spelling, so “prey” and “ray” rhyme, while “enough” and “bough” do not. Rhyme usually occurs at the end of lines of poetry, but not always. You can label a poem’s rhyme scheme by placing the same lowercase letter next to each rhyming word.

Example: Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice”

Some say the world will end in fire, (a)

Some say in ice. (b)

From what I’ve tasted of desire (a)

I hold with those who favor fire. (a)

But if it had to perish twice, (b)

I think I know enough of hate (c)

To say that for destruction ice (b)

Is also great (c)

And would suffice. (b)

So, the rhyme scheme of this poem is abaabcbcb.

Rhythm

Rhythm is used to refer to the repetition of stressed and unstressed sounds in a poem. Prose also can have rhythm—reading aloud will help you to hear it.

Satire

In a satire, an author mocks something in order to expose it to criticism so it can be corrected. People, ideas, institutions, even other works of literature are all fit subjects for satire.

Example: Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is filled with satire. For example, when Huck decides he’s willing to go to hell to protect Jim the slave from being reenslaved, we realize how corrupt Huck’s culture is: Huck thinks helping another man achieve freedom is going to stop him from achieving salvation, when we know he is actually far more moral than the world in which he lives.

Science Fiction

Science fiction is a genre of fiction concerned with scientific experiment, technological development, and the future. Science fiction defies our received understandings of how science works.

Example: H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds

Setting

Setting is where and when a narrative takes place.

Example: Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities takes place in London and Paris during the turbulent days of the French Revolution.

Simile

A simile is a comparison of two unlike things using the words “like” or “as.”

Example: Robert Burns’ “A Red, Red Rose” contains multiple examples: http://www.poetsgraves.co.uk/Classic%20Poems/Burns/a_red,_red_rose.htm

Sonnet

A sonnet is a poem containing 14 lines, usually written in iambic pentameter. There are two main kinds, the Italian sonnet and the English sonnet, which differ mainly due to their rhyme schemes. The Italian sonnet is divided in an octave, a set of 8 lines that rhymes abbaabba, and a sestet, a set of 6 lines with no set rhyme scheme. You’re probably more familiar with the English sonnet, the kind of sonnet Shakespeare wrote. English sonnets are made up of three quatrains (groups of 4 lines) and a couplet (a pair of rhyming lines. The rhyme scheme for the English sonnet is abab cdcd efef gg.

Example: William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18: http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/shall-i-compare-thee-summers-day-sonnet-18

Stage Directions

Stage directions are a playwright’s descriptive or interpretive comments that provide readers (and actors) with information about the dialogue, setting, and action of a play. Dialogue in a play is clearly marked by character; everything not marked by character is a stage direction.

Example: In Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie elevates the stage direction to an art form.

Stanza

A stanza is a group of lines, separated from others by a space, which usually has a set meter and rhyme. Remember that since free verse is irregular, it is made up of verse paragraphs, not stanzas.

Example: Here are the first two stanzas of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee.” Note the space between them.

It was many and many a year ago,

In a kingdom by the sea,

That a maiden there lived whom you may know

By the name of Annabel Lee;

And this maiden she lived with no other thought

Than to love and be loved by me.

 

I was a child and she was a child,

In this kingdom by the sea,

But we loved with a love that was more than love—

I and my Annabel Lee—

With a love that the wingèd seraphs of Heaven

Coveted her and me.

Style

Style refers to the individual and unique way a writer uses his/her words to achieve particular effects. Every writer makes lots of choices, from choosing the right words to using literary devices, and all these things together make up a writer’s style.

Symbolism

Symbolism means imbuing a person, object, or event with meaning beyond the literal. Symbols can be shared across texts (a red rose as a symbol for love) or significant only in context (the scarlet A in The Scarlet Letter).

Example: The title of Elie Wiesel’s Night alerts us to the fact that throughout the text, night will be used a symbol for the metaphorical darkness of the Holocaust.

Tall Tale

A tall tale is a greatly exaggerated story, usually about a hero with larger-than-life abilities. Tall tales are a kind of folklore.

Example: Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”

Theme

The theme of a piece of literature is its central meaning or idea. The theme of a text is not the same thing as the subject.

Example: The subject of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is the consequences faced by a woman who commits adultery with a minister in Puritan New England. The theme, however, is that our social rules and judgments cause us to misunderstand others, mistaking saints for sinners and sinners for saints.

Tone

Tone refers to the author’s attitude toward what he/she writes about as revealed through the text’s style. We describe tone using the kinds of words we use for feelings.

Example: sad, embittered, neutral, playful, nostalgic, satirical

Understatement

Understatement is means downplaying a statement, usually for ironic or comic effect. Understatement is the opposite of hyperbole.

Example: Holden Caulfield states the following in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye: “I have to have this operation. It isn’t very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain.”

Unreliable Narrator

An unreliable narrator is a narrator who can’t be trusted due to his/her ignorance, bias, age, or mental instability. Unreliable narrators only appear in texts told in the first person.

Example: Scout Finch, who narrates Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, is an unreliable narrator because she is only 6 years old. Since she is so young, many aspects of Tom Robinson’s case fall outside her life experience and understanding.

Voice

Voice refers to the way narrators tell their stories, the author’s writing style and point of view. Voice is part of what makes a literary text a distinct production of its writer.

To write these definitions, I relied on the following sources:

Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry, by John Frederick Nims and David Mason

The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory, by J.A. Cuddon

Bedford/St. Martins LitGloss, http://bcs.bedfordstmartins.com/litgloss/

Literary Devices: Definitions and Examples of Literary Terms, www.literarydevices.net

American Academy of Poets, www.poets.org