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A story illustrating an idea or a moral principle in which objects take on symbolic meanings. Characters may be given names such as Hope, Pride, Youth, and Charity; they have few if any personal qualities beyond their abstract meanings. These personifications are not symbols because, for instance, the meaning of a character named Charity is precisely that virtue
The repetition of the same consonant sounds in a sequence of words, usually at the beginning of a word or stressed syllable: "luscious lemons."
Allows for two or more simultaneous interpretations of a word, phrase, action, or situation, all of which can be supported by the context of a work.
The comparison of two things, which are alike in several respects, for the purpose of explaining or clarifying some unfamiliar or difficult idea or object by showing how the idea or object is similar to some familiar one
The character, force, or collection of forces in fiction or drama that opposes the protagonist and gives rise to the conflict of the story; an opponent of the protagonist, such as Claudius in Shakespeare's play Hamlet.
A protagonist who has the opposite of most of the traditional attributes of a hero. He or she may be bewildered, ineffectual, deluded, or merely pathetic. Often what antiheroes learn, if they learn anything at all, is that the world isolates them in an existence devoid of God and absolute values
Opposition, or contrast of ideas or words which establishes a clear, contrasting relationship between two ideas by joining them together or juxtaposing them, often in parallel structure.
• To err is human; to forgive, divine. --Alexander Pope
• I want you to be wise in what is good, and innocent in what is evil. --Romans 16:19b
• That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind. --Neil Armstrong
A brief statement which expresses an observation on life, usually intended as a wise observation. Benjamin Franklin's "Poor Richard's Almanac" contains numerous examples, one of which is Drive thy business; let it not drive thee. which means that one should not allow the demands of business to take control of one's moral or worldly commitments. A proverb.
An address, either to someone who is absent or dead and therefore cannot hear the speaker or to something nonhuman that cannot comprehend. In these lines from John Donne's poem "The Sun Rising" the poet scolds the sun for interrupting his nighttime activities:
Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
A term used to describe universal symbols that evoke deep and sometimes unconscious responses in a reader. In literature, characters, images, and themes that symbolically embody universal meanings and basic human experiences, regardless of when or where they live
A device in which a character in a drama makes a short speech which is heard by the audience but not by other characters in the play. In William Shakespeare's Hamlet, when Hamlet first appears onstage, for example, his aside "A little more than kin, and less than kind!" gives the audience a strong sense of his alienation from King Claudius.
The repetition of internal vowel sounds in nearby words that do not end the same, for example, "asleep under a tree," or "each evening."
Writing is bathetic when it strives to be serious but achieves only a comic effect because it is anti-climactic. "Anticlimax" is synonymous with bombast but can also refer to a bathetic effect which is intentional. In Tom Thumb the Great (1731), Fielding uses anticlimax for the purposes of satire, as when King Arthur observes the signs of love in his daughter: "Your eyes spit fire, your cheeks grow red as beef." Here figurative language that begins with an ennobling (though bombastic) fire metaphor then descends to the mean level of raw steak.
Cacaphony is an unpleasant combination of sounds. Euphony, the opposite, is a pleasant combination of sounds.
A Latin phrase which translated means "Sieze (Catch) the day," meaning "Make the most of today." This is a very common literary theme which emphasizes that life is short, time is fleeting, and that one should make the most of present pleasures. Consider these lines from Herrick's "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time":
Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles today,
To-morrow will be dying.
Meaning "purgation," catharsis describes the release of the emotions of pity and fear by the audience at the end of a tragedy
A person, or any thing presented as a person, e. g., a spirit, object, animal, or natural force, in a literary work. A static character does not change throughout the work, and the reader's knowledge of that character does not grow, whereas a dynamic character undergoes some kind of change because of the action in the plot. A flat character embodies one or two qualities, ideas, or traits that can be readily described in a brief summary. They are not psychologically complex characters. Some flat characters are recognized as stock characters; they embody stereotypes such as the "dumb blonde" or the "mean stepfather." They become types rather than individuals. Round characters are more complex than flat or stock characters, and often display the inconsistencies and internal conflicts found in most real people. They are more fully developed, and therefore are harder to summarize.
The method a writer uses to reveal the personality of a character in a literary work: Methods may include (1) by what the character says about himself or herself; (2) by what others reveal about the character; and (3) by the character's own
actions. Authors have two major methods of presenting characters: showing and telling. Showing allows the author to present a character talking and acting, and lets the reader infer what kind of person the character is. In telling, the author intervenes to describe and sometimes evaluate the character for the reader.
In Greek tragedies a group of people who serve mainly as commentators on the characters and events. They add to the audience's understanding of the play by expressing traditional moral, religious, and social attitudes.
An idea or expression that has become tired and trite from overuse, its freshness and clarity having worn off
The decisive moment in a drama, the climax is the turning point of the play to which the rising action leads. This is the crucial part of the drama, the part which determines the outcome of the conflict
Refers to a type of informal diction that reflects casual, conversational language and often includes slang expressions.
A work intended to interest, involve, and amuse the reader or audience, in which no terrible disaster occurs and that ends happily for the main characters. High comedy refers to verbal wit, such as puns, whereas low comedy is generally associated with physical action and is less intellectual. Romantic comedy involves a love affair that meets with various obstacles to heighten the comic effect (like disapproving parents, entertaining scoundrels, mistaken identities, deceptions, or other sorts of misunderstandings) but overcomes them to end in a blissful union. Shakespeare's comedies, such as A Midsummer Night's Dream, are considered romantic comedies. Modern comedies tend to be funny, while Shakespearean comedies simply end well.
A humorous scene or incident that alleviates tension in an otherwise serious work. In many instances these moments enhance the thematic significance of the story in addition to providing laughter. When Hamlet jokes with the gravediggers we laugh, but something hauntingly serious about the humor also intensifies our more serious emotions.
A type of novel where the protagonist is initiated into adulthood through knowledge, experience, or both, often by a process of disillusionment. Understanding comes after the dropping of preconceptions, a destruction of a false sense of security, or in some way the loss of innocence. Example: Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey.
A far-fetched simile or metaphor, a literary conceit occurs when the speaker compares two highly dissimilar things. In the following example from Act V of Shakespeare's Richard II, the imprisoned King Richard compares his cell to the world in the following line: "I have been studying how I may compare /
this prison where I live unto the world"
In the plot of a drama, conflict occurs when the protagonist is opposed by some person or force in the play.
Connotation and Denotation
The denotation of a word is its dictionary definition. The word "wall", therefore, denotes an upright structure which encloses something or serves as a boundary. The connotation of a word is its emotional content, associations and implications that go beyond the literal meaning of a word. In this sense, the word "wall" can also mean an attitude or actions which prevent becoming emotionally close to a person. In Robert Frosts "Mending Wall," two neighbors walk a property line each on his own side of a wall of loose stones. As they walk, they pick up and replace stones that have fallen. Frost thinks it's unnecessary to replace the stones since thay have no cows to damage each other's property. The neighbor only says "Good fences make good neighbors." The wall, in this case, is both a boundary (denotation) and a barrier that prevents Frost and his neighbor from getting to know each other, a force prohibiting involvement (connotation). Another example: the word "eagle" connotes ideas of liberty and freedom that have little to do with the word's literal meaning.
A common type of near rhyme that consists of identical consonant sounds preceded by different vowel sounds in words near each other in a line or lines of poetry: home, same; worth, breath. Consider the following example from Theodore Roethke's "Night Journey:"
We rush into a rain
That rattles double glass.
The repetition of the r sound in rush, rain, and rattles, occurring so close to each other in these two lines, would be considered consonance. Since a poem is generally much shorter than a short story or novel, the poet must be economical in his/her use of words and devices. Nothing can be wasted; nothing in a well-crafted poem is there by accident. Therefore, since devices such as consonance and alliteration, rhyme and meter have been used by the poet for effect, the reader must stop and consider what effect the inclusion of these devices has on the poem.
A characteristic of a literary genre (often unrealistic) that is understood and accepted by audiences because it has come, through usage and time, to be recognized as a familiar technique
Two consecutive lines of poetry that usually rhyme and have the same meter. A heroic couplet is a couplet written in rhymed iambic pentameter.
A French term meaning "unraveling" or "unknotting," used to describe the resolution of the plot following the climax.
A type of informational diction. Dialects are spoken by definable groups of people from a particular geographic region, economic group, or social class
An author's choice of words. Since words have specific meanings, and since one's choice of words can affect feelings, a writer's choice of words can have great impact in a literary work. Formal diction consists of a dignified, impersonal, and elevated use of language; it follows the rules of syntax exactly and is often characterized by complex words and lofty tone. Middle diction maintains correct language usage, but is less elevated than formal diction; it reflects the way most educated people speak. Informal diction represents the plain language of everyday use, and often includes idiomatic expressions, slang, contractions, and many simple, common words. Poetic diction refers to the way poets sometimes employ an elevated diction that deviates significantly from the common speech and writing of their time, choosing words for their supposedly inherent poetic qualities. Since the eighteenth century, however, poets have been incorporating all kinds of diction in their work and so there is no longer an automatic distinction between the language of a poet and the language of everyday speech.The writer, therefore, must choose his words carefully. Discussing his novel "A Farewell to Arms" during an interview, Ernest Hemingway stated that he had to rewrite the ending thirty-nine times. When asked what the most difficult thing about finishing the novel was, Hemingway answered, "Getting the words right."
In literature, usually a type of lyric poem, in which a character (the speaker) addresses a distinct but silent audience imagined to be present in the poem in such a way as to reveal a dramatic situation and, often unintentionally, some aspect of his or her temperament or personality
The female version of the Oedipus complex. Electra complex is a term used to describe the psychological conflict of a daughter's unconscious rivalry with her mother for her father's attention.
A mournful, contemplative lyric poem written to commemorate someone who is dead, often ending in a consolation.
A poetic line that has a pause at the end. End-stopped lines reflect normal speech patterns and are often marked by punctuation
In poetry, when one line ends without a pause and continues into the next line for its meaning. This is also called a run-on line.
In fiction, when a character suddenly experiences a deep realization about himself or herself; a truth which is grasped in an ordinary rather than a melodramatic moment.
In literature, a word of phrase preceding or following a name which serves to describe the character. Consider the following from Book 1 of Homer's "The Iliad:"
Zeus-loved Achilles, you bid me explain
The wrath of far-smiting Apollo.
A mild word of phrase which substitutes for another which would be undesirable because it is too direct, unpleasant, or offensive
A type of comedy based on exaggerated, improbable incongruities on a humorous situation such as a bank robber who mistakenly wanders into a police station to hide. It is the situation here which provides the humor, not the cleverness of plot or lines, nor the absurdities of the character, as in situational comedy
In literature, a way of saying one thing and meaning something else. Take, for example, this line by Robert Burns, My luv is a red, red rose. Clearly Mr. Burns does not really mean that he has fallen in love with a red, aromatic, many-petalled, long, thorny-stemmed plant. He means that his love is as sweet and as delicate as a rose. While, figurative language provides a writer with the opportunity to write imaginatively, it also tests the imagination of the reader, forcing the reader to go below the surface of a literary work into deep, hidden meanings. Similes, metaphors and personification are figures of speech which are based on comparisons. Metonymy, synecdoche, synesthesia, apostrophe, oxymoron, and hyperbole are others.
A character in a work whose behavior and values contrast with those of another character in order to highlight the distinctive temperament of that character (usually the protagonist).
The metrical unit by which a line of poetry is measured. A foot usually consists of one stressed and one or two unstressed syllables. An iambic foot, which consists of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable ("away"), is the most common metrical foot in English poetry. A trochaic foot consists of one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable ("lovely"). An anapestic foot is two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed one ("understand"). A dactylic foot is one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed ones ("desperate"). A spondee is a foot consisting of two stressed syllables ("dead set"), but is not a sustained metrical foot and is used mainly for variety or emphasis. In scansion, a foot represents one instance of a metrical pattern and is shown either between or to the right or left of vertical lines, as in the following:
The meter in a poem is classified according both to its pattern and the number of feet to the line. Below is a list of classifications:
monometer: one foot
dimeter: two feet
trimeter: three feet
tetrameter: four feet pentameter: five feet
hexameter: six feet
heptameter: seven feet
octameter: eight feet
Since the line above is written in iambic meter, four feet to the line, the line would be referred to as iambic tetrameter.
The introduction early in a story of verbal and dramatic hints that suggest what is to come later.
Unrhymed Poetry with lines of varying lengths, and containing no specific metrical pattern.
A French word meaning kind or type. The major genres in literature are poetry, fiction, drama, and essays. Genre can also refer to more specific types of literature such as comedy, tragedy, epic poetry, or science fiction.
A Japanese poetic form which originated in the sixteenth century. A haiku in its Japanese language form consists of three lines: five syllables in the first and third lines, and seven syllables in the second line. A haiku translated may not contain the same syllabication. Designed to capture a moment in time, the haiku creates images and typically presents an intense emotion or vivid image of nature, which, traditionally, is designed to lead to a spiritual insight. Consider the following by the seventeenth-century poet, Basho. Note the bringing together of the images of the clouds and the moon.
Clouds come from time to time-
and bring to men a chance to rest
from looking at the moon.
A term coined by Aristotle to describe "some error or frailty" that brings about misfortune for a tragic hero. The concept of hamartia is closely related to that of the tragic flaw: both lead to the downfall of the protagonist in a tragedy
Hubris or Hybris
Excessive pride or self-confidence that leads a protagonist to disregard a divine warning or to violate an important moral law. In tragedies, hubris is a very common form of hamartia.
A figure of speech in which a boldly exaggerated statement adds emphasis without in-tending to be literally true, as in the following lines from Act 2, scene 2 of Shakespeare's "Macbeth." In this scene, Macbeth has murdered King Duncan. Horrified at the blood on his hands, he asks:
Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No. This my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.
Literally, it does not require an ocean to wash blood from one's hand. Nor can the blood on one's hand turn the green ocean red.
A metrical pattern in poetry which consists of five iambic feet per line. (An iamb, or iambic foot, consists of one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.) A metrical pattern of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable.
A word or group of words in a literary work which appeal to one or more of the senses: sight, taste, touch, hearing, and smell. The use of images offers sensory impressions to the reader and also convey emotions and moods through their verbal pictures and serves to intensify the impact of the work. The following example of imagery in T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," uses images of pain and sickness to describe the evening, which as an image itself represents society and the psychology of Prufrock, himself.
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table.
A judgement based on reasoning rather than on direct or explicit statement. For example, advised not to travel alone in temperatures exceeding fifty degrees below zero, the man in Jack London's "To Build a Fire" sets out anyway. One may infer arrogance from such an action.
In medias res
In medias res is a term used to describe the common strategy of beginning a story in the middle of the action. In this type of plot, we enter the story on the verge of some important moment.
A rhetorical question implies that the answer is obvious - the kind of question that does not need
actually to be answered. It is used for rhetorically persuading someone of a truth without argument,
or to give emphasis to a supposed truth by stating its opposite ironically. Rhetorical questions are often used for comic effect, as in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1 (1597) when Falstaff lies about fighting off eleven men single-handedly, then responds to the prince's doubts, "Art thou mad? Is not the truth the truth?" On the other hand, Iago uses rhetorical question for sinister ends, persuading Othello that his loving wife is a whore. Iago hints with questions ("Honest, my lord?" "Is't possible, my lord?"), encouraging Othello to view his own unjustified suspicions as foregone conclusions.
The repetition of identical or similar concluding syllables in different words, most often at the ends of lines. Rhyme is predominantly a function of sound rather than spelling; thus, words that end with the same vowel sounds rhyme, for instance, day, prey, bouquet, weigh, and words with the same consonant ending rhyme, for instance vain, feign, rein, lane. Words do not have to be spelled the same way or look alike to rhyme. In fact, words may look alike but not rhyme at all. This is called eye rhyme, as with bough and cough, or brow and blow. End rhyme is the most common form of rhyme in poetry; the rhyme comes at the end of the lines. The rhyme scheme of a poem describes the pattern of end rhymes. Rhyme schemes are mapped out by noting patterns of rhyme with small letters: the first rhyme sound is designated a, the second becomes b, the third c, and so on. Thus, the rhyme scheme of the stanza above is aabb. Internal rhyme places at least one of the rhymed words within the line, as in "Dividing and gliding and sliding" or "In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud." Masculine rhyme describes the rhyming of single-syllable words, such as "grade" or "shade". Masculine rhyme also occurs where rhyming words of more than one syllable, when the same sound occurs in a final stressed syllable, as in "defend" and "contend." Feminine rhyme consists of a rhymed stressed syllable followed by one or more identical unstressed syllables, as in "butter", "clutter." All the examples so far have illustrated exact rhymes, because they share the same stressed vowel sounds as well as sharing sounds that follow the vowel. In near rhyme (also called off rhyme, slant rhyme, and approximate rhyme), the sounds are almost but not exactly alike. A common form of near rhyme is consonance, which consists of identical consonant sounds preceded by different vowel sounds: "home", "same." Half rhyme occurs when the final consonants rhyme, but the vowel sounds do not (chill-Tulle; Day-Eternity).
Recurrences of stressed and unstressed syllables at equal intervals, similar to meter. However, though two lines may be of the same meter, the rhythms of the lines may be different. Depending on how sounds are arranged, the rhythm of a poem may be fast or slow, choppy or smooth. Poets use rhythm to create pleasurable sound patterns and to reinforce meanings. For example, if one were to read the last two lines of Robert Frost's, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" with equal speed, the lines would be the same in meter and rhythm. However, if one were to read the last line more slowly (as it should be read), the meter would be the same but the rhythm different. This is because while the meter of a line is identified by the pattern within each foot, the rhythm is accounted for by larger units than individual feet.
The part of a drama which begins with the exposition and sets the stage for the climax. In a five-act play, the exposition provides information about the characters and the events which occurred before the action of the play began. A conflict often develops between the protagonist and an antagonist. The action reaches a high point and results in a climax, the turning point in the play. We discover in the exposition of Shakespeare's "Othello" that the Moor, Othello, has married the Venetian maid, Desdamona. Her father objects strenuously to the marriage. However, during those objections, a messenger informs the Venetian council that the Turks are on their way to invade the island of Cypress. Othello, who is sent with troops to defend the island, brings Desdamona with him, planning a honeymoon to coincide with his military mission. One of Othello's officers, Iago, plants a seed of doubt about Desdamona's faithfulness in Othello's ear. This seed grows to the point where Othello becomes convinced that his wife is having an affair with his lieutenant, Michael Cassio. The play climaxes with the murder of Desdamona by Othello in a jealous rage.
In the Middle Ages, tales of exciting adventures written in the vernacular (French) instead of Latin. The medieval romances were tales of chivalry or amorous adventure occurring in King Arthur's court. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an example of a medieval romance.
A story of the exploits of a hero, or the story of a family told through several generations. Stories of the exploits of Daniel Boone are sagas in the former sense. Alex Haley's Roots would be considered a saga in the latter sense.
A piece of literature designed to ridicule the subject of the work. While satire can be funny, its aim is not to amuse, but to arouse contempt, and hopefully to "correct" vice or folly. Swift's Gulliver's Travel satirizes the English people, making them seem dwarfish in their ability to deal with large thoughts, issues, or deeds. Common targets of satire include individuals (personal satire), types of people, social groups, institutions, and human nature. Like tragedy and comedy, satire is often a mode of writing introduced into various literary forms; it is only a genre when it is the governing principle of a work.
The process of measuring the stresses in a line of verse in order to determine the metrical pattern of the line.
The physical and social context in which the action of a story occurs. The major elements of setting are the time, the place, and the social environment that frames the characters. Setting can be used to evoke a mood or atmosphere that will prepare the reader for what is to come. Sometimes, writers choose a particular setting because of traditional associations with that setting that are closely related to the action of a story. For example, stories filled with adventure or romance often take place in exotic locales.
A common figure of speech that makes an explicit comparison between two things by using words such as like, as, than, appears, and seems: "A sip of Mrs. Cook's coffee is like a punch in the stomach." The effectiveness of this simile is created by the differences between the two things compared. There would be no simile if the comparison were stated this way: "Mrs. Cook's coffee is as strong as the cafeteria's coffee." This is a literal translation because Mrs. Cook's coffee is compared with something like it—another kind of coffee.
A dramatic convention by means of which a character, alone onstage, utters his or her thoughts aloud. Playwrights use soliloquies as a convenient way to inform the audience about a character's motivations and state of mind. Shakespeare's Hamlet delivers perhaps the best known of all soliloquies, which begins: "To be or not to be." Hamlet questions whether or not life is worth living, and speaks of the reasons why he does not end his life.
A fixed form of lyric poetry that consists of fourteen lines, usually written in iambic pentameter. There are two basic types of sonnets, the Italian and the English. The Italian sonnet, also known as the Petrarchan sonnet, is divided into an octave, which typically rhymes abbaabba, and a sestet, which may have varying rhyme schemes. Common rhyme patterns in the sestet are cdecde, cdcdcd, and cdccdc. Very often the octave presents a situation, attitude, or problem that the sestet comments upon or resolves, as in John Keats's "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer." The English sonnet, also known as the Shakespearean sonnet, is organized into three quatrains and a couplet, which typically rhyme abab cdcd efef gg. This rhyme scheme is more suited to English poetry because English has fewer rhyming words than Italian. English sonnets, because of their four-part organization, also have more flexibility with respect to where thematic breaks can occur. Frequently, however, the most pronounced break or turn comes with the concluding couplet, as in Shakespeare's "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"
The voice used by an author to tell a story or speak a poem. The speaker is often a created identity, and should not automatically be equated with the author's self. See also narrator, persona, point of view.
In poetry, stanza refers to a grouping of lines, set off by a space, that usually has a set pattern of meter and rhyme.
An author's method of treating a character so that the character is immediately identified with a group. A character may be associated with a group through accent, food choices, style of dress, or any readily identifiable group characteristic. Examples are the rugged cowboy, the bearded psychiatrist, and the scarred villain.
Predictable, conventional reactions to language, characters, symbols, or situations. The flag, motherhood, and puppies are common objects used to elicit stock responses from unsophisticated audiences.
The stream-of-consciousness technique takes a reader inside a character's mind to reveal perceptions, thoughts, and feelings on a conscious or unconscious level. This technique suggests the flow of thought as well as its content; hence, complete sentences may give way to fragments as the character's mind makes rapid associations free of conventional logic or transitions. James Joyce's novel Ulysses makes extensive use of this narrative technique
The distinctive and unique manner in which a writer arranges words to achieve particular effects. Style essentially combines the idea to be expressed with the individuality of the author. Many things enter into the style of a work: the author's use of figurative language, diction, sound effects and other literary devices. Ernest Hemingway's style derives, in part, from his short, powerful sentences. The style of the Declaration of Independence can be described as elegant.
The secondary action of a story, complete and interesting in its own right, that reinforces or contrasts with the main plot. There may be more than one subplot, and sometimes as many as three, four, or even more, running through a piece of fiction. Subplots are generally either analogous to the main plot, thereby enhancing our understanding of it, or extraneous to the main plot, to provide relief from it.
A term denoting what a character means by what (s) he says when there is a disparity between diction and intended meaning. In irony a character may say one thing and mean something entirely different. The real meaning of the speech is the subtext.
The anxious anticipation of a reader or an audience as to the outcome of a story, especially concerning the character or characters with whom sympathetic attachments are formed. Suspense helps to secure and sustain the interest of the reader or audience throughout a work.
A person, object, image, word, or event that evokes a range of additional meaning beyond and usually more abstract than its literal significance. Symbols are educational devices for evoking complex ideas without having to resort to painstaking explanations that would make a story more like an essay than an experience. Conventional symbols have meanings that are widely recognized by a society or culture. Some conventional symbols are the Christian cross, the Star of David, a swastika, or a nation's flag. Writers use conventional symbols to reinforce meanings. Kate Chopin, for example, emphasizes the spring setting in "The Story of an Hour" as a way of suggesting the renewed sense of life that Mrs. Mallard feels when she thinks herself free from her husband. A literary or contextual symbol can be a setting, character, action, object, name, or anything else in a work that maintains its literal significance while suggesting other meanings. Such symbols go beyond conventional symbols; they gain their symbolic meaning within the context of a specific story. For example, the white whale in Melville's Moby-Dick takes on multiple symbolic meanings in the work, but these meanings do not automatically carry over into other stories about whales. The meanings suggested by Melville's whale are specific to that text; therefore, it becomes a contextual symbol. See also allegory.
A figure of speech wherein a part of something represents the whole thing. In this figure, the head of a cow might substitute for the whole cow. Therefore, a herd of fifty cows might be referred to as "fifty head of cattle." In Lycidas Milton refers to corrupt clergy as "blind mouths."
The ordering of words into meaningful verbal patterns such as phrases, clauses, and sentences. Poets often manipulate syntax, changing conventional word order, to place certain emphasis on particular words. Emily Dickinson, for instance, writes about being surprised by a snake in her poem "A narrow Fellow in the Grass," and includes this line: "His notice sudden is." In addition to the alliterative hissing s-sounds here, Dickinson also effectively manipulates the line's syntax so that the verb is appears unexpectedly at the end, making the snake's hissing presence all the more "sudden."
The central meaning or dominant idea in a literary work. A theme provides a unifying point around which the plot, characters, setting, point of view, symbols, and other elements of a work are organized. It is important not to mistake the theme for the actual subject of the work; the theme refers to the abstract concept that is made concrete through the images, characterization, and action of the text. In nonfiction, however, the theme generally refers to the main topic of the discourse. The theme provides an answer to the question What is the work about? There are too many possible themes to recite them all in this document. Each literary work carries its own theme(s). The theme of Robert Frost's "Acquainted with the Night" is loneliness. Shakespeare's King Lear contains many themes, among which are blindness and madness. Unlike plot which deals with the action of a work, theme concerns itself with a work's message or contains the general idea of a work.
The central idea of an essay. The thesis is a complete sentence (although sometimes it may require more than one sentence) that establishes the topic of the essay in clear, unambiguous language.
The author's implicit attitude toward the reader or the people, places, and events in a work as revealed by the elements of the author's style. Tone may be characterized as serious or ironic, sad or happy, private or public, angry or affectionate, bitter or nostalgic, or any other attitudes and feelings that human beings experience. The tone of John Steinbeck's short novel Cannery Row is nonjudgemental. Mr. Steinbeck never expresses disapproval of the antics of Mack and his band of bums. Rather, he treats them with unflagging kindness.
A story that presents courageous individuals who confront powerful forces within or outside themselves with a dignity that reveals the breadth and depth of the human spirit in the face of failure, defeat, and even death. Tragedies recount an individual's downfall; they usually begin high and end low. Shakespeare is known for his tragedies, including Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, and Hamlet. The revenge tragedy is a well-established type of drama that can be traced back to Greek and Roman plays, particularly through the Roman playwright Seneca (c. 3 b.c.-a.d. 63). Revenge tragedies basically consist of a murder that has to be avenged by a relative of the victim. Typically, the victim's ghost appears to demand revenge, and invariably madness of some sort is worked into subsequent events, which ultimately end in the deaths of the murderer, the avenger, and a number of other characters. Shakespeare's Hamlet subscribes to the basic ingredients of revenge tragedy, but it also transcends these conventions because Hamlet contemplates not merely revenge but suicide and the meaning of life itself. A tragic flaw is an error or defect in the tragic hero that leads to his downfall, such as greed, pride, or ambition. This flaw may be a result of bad character, bad judgment, an inherited weakness, or any other defect of character. Tragic irony is a form of dramatic irony found in tragedies such as Oedipus the King, in which Oedipus ironically ends up hunting himself. The story depicts the trouble part of the hero's life in which a total reversal of fortune comes upon a person who formerly stood in high degree, apparently secure, sometimes even happy.
A type of drama that combines certain elements of both tragedy and comedy. The play's plot tends to be serious, leading to a terrible catastrophe, until an unexpected turn in events leads to a reversal of circumstance, and the story ends happily. Tragicomedy often employs a romantic, fast-moving plot dealing with love, jealousy, disguises, treachery, intrigue, and surprises, all moving toward a melodramatic resolution. Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice is a tragicomedy. See also comedy, drama, melodrama, tragedy.
A statement which lessens or minimizes the importance of what is meant. For example, if one were in a desert where the temperature was 125 degrees, and if one wee to describe thermal conditions saying "It's a little warm today." that would be an understamement. In Shakespeare's "Macbeth," Macbeth, having murdered his friend Banquo, understates the number of people who have been murdered since the beginning of time by saying "Blood hath been shed ere now." The opposite is hyperbole.
A generic term used to describe poetic lines composed in a measured rhythmical pattern, that are often, but not necessarily, rhymed. See also line, meter, rhyme, rhythm.
The semblance to truth or actuality in characters or events that a novel or other fictional work possesses. To say that a work has a high degree of verisimilitude means that the work is very realistic and believable.
A type of fixed form poetry consisting of nineteen lines of any length divided into six stanzas: five tercets and a concluding quatrain. The first and third lines of the initial tercet rhyme; these rhymes are repeated in each subsequent tercet (aba) and in the final two lines of the quatrain (abaa). Line 1 appears in its entirety as lines 6, 12, and 18, while line 3 reappears as lines 9, 15, and 19. Dylan Thomas's "Do not go gentle into that good night" is a villanelle. See also fixed form, quatrain, rhyme, tercet.
The conclusion of a plot's conflicts and complications. The resolution, also known as the falling action, follows the climax in the plot and which establishes a new norm, a new state of affairs-the way things are going to be from then on. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet climaxes with the death of the two lovers. Their deaths resolve the feud between the two families. In the play's resolution, Lords Capulet and Montague swear to end their feud and build golden monuments to each other's dead child.
The moment in a story when previously unknown or withheld information is revealed to the protagonist, resulting in the discovery of the truth of his or her situation and, usually, a decisive change in course for that character. In Oedipus the King, the moment of recognition comes when Oedipus finally realizes that he has killed his father and married his mother.
A four-line stanza which may be rhymed or unrhymed, the most common stanzaic form in the English language. A heroic quatrain is a four line stanza rhymed abab. John Donne's "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning" is a poem of nine heroic quatrains.
The hero or central character of a literary work; its central character who engages the reader's interest and empathy. In accomplishing his or her objective, the protagonist is hindered by some opposing force either human (one of Batman's antagonists is The Joker), animal (Moby Dick is Captain Ahab's antagonist in Herman Melville's Moby Dick), or natural (the sea is the antagonist which must be overcome by Captain Bligh in Nordhoff and Hall's Men Against the Sea.
A kind of open form poetry that is printed as prose and represents the most clear opposite of fixed form poetry. Prose poems are densely compact and often make use of striking imagery and figures of speech.
Point of View
Point of view is the perspective from which a narrative is presented; it is analogous to the point from which the camera sees the action in cinema. The two main points of view are those of the third-person (omniscient) narrator, who stands outside the story itself, and the first-person narrator, who participates in the story. The first type always uses third-person pronouns ("he," "she," "they"), while the latter narrator also uses the first-person ("I"). The all-knowing third-person narrator may choose to guide the reader's understanding of characters and the significance of their story. This type of narrator may be intrusive (commenting and evaluating, as in the novels of Austen, Dickens, and Tolstoy), or unintrusive (describing without much commentary, as in Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Hemingway's short stories). Another possibility is the limited omniscient narrator, who describes in the third-person only what is experienced by a few characters or one alone. The first-person narrator is a character within the story and therefore limited in understanding. He or she might be an observer who happens to see the events of the story (as in Conrad's Heart of Darkness ), or play a minor role in the action (as in Melville's Moby-Dick, or might be a protagonist (as in Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Other points of view include the self-conscious narrative, which draws attention to its own fictional nature (as in Fielding's Tom Jones; its cousin the self-reflexive narrative, which describes an act of fictional composition within its story (like a play-within-a-play); and the fallible or unreliable narrator, as in Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. In addition, a second-person narrator, you, is also possible, but is rarely used because of the awkwardness of thrusting the reader into the story, as in "You are minding your own business on a park bench when a drunk steps out and demands your lunch bag."
The structure of a story or the sequence in which the author arranges events in a story. The structure of a five-act play often includes the rising action, the climax, the falling action, and the resolution. The plot may have a protagonist who is opposed by antagonist, creating what is called, conflict. A plot may include flashback or it may include a subplot which is a mirror image of the main plot. For example, in Shakespeare's, "King Lear," the relation ship between the Earl of Gloucester and his sons mirrors the relationship between Lear and his daughters.
A form of metaphor in which human characteristics are attributed to nonhuman things. Personification offers the writer a way to give the world life and motion by assigning familiar human behaviors and emotions to animals, inanimate objects, and abstract ideas. Consider the following lines from Carl Sandburg's "Chicago:"
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the big shoulders:
Carl Sandburg description of Chicago includes shoulders. Cities do not have shoulders, people do. Sandburg personifies the city by ascribing to it something human, shoulders.
The persona was the mask worn by an actor in Greek drama. In a literary context, the persona is the character of the first-person narrator in verse or prose narratives, and the speaker in lyric poetry. The use of the term "persona" (as distinct from "author") stresses that the speaker is part of the fictional creation, invented for the author's particular purposes in a given literary work. The persona may be completely different from the author, as in the naive narrator of Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726), or may seem to be identifiable with the author, as in the lyric poems of Wordsworth and Keats. But even in the latter case the persona can only be an aspect of the author - a mood or attitude adopted for the purposes of a particular work, and which changes subtly or drastically from one work to another.
A Greek term for deep emotion, passion, or suffering. When applied to literature, its meaning is usually narrowed to refer to tragic emotions, describing the language and situations which deeply move the audience or reader by arousing sadness, sympathy, or pity. There are many examples in Shakespeare's King Lear, such as Cordelia's acceptance of defeat:
"We are not the first / Who with best meaning have incurred the worst."
Pathos which seems excessive or exaggerated becomes melodramatic or sentimental, and when its disproportion to its subject results from anticlimax, pathos becomes bathetic. Modern tastes usually prefer pathetic effects achieved through understatement and suggestion, rather than an extended focus upon suffering, though some movies still attract large audiences by offering a good cry.
A literary work that has to do with shepherds and rustic settings. Christopher Marlowe's "The Passionate Shephard to His Love" is an example.
A humorous imitation of another, usually serious, work. It can take any fixed or open form, because parodists imitate the tone, language, and shape of the original in order to deflate the subject matter, making the original work seem absurd. Anthony Hecht's poem "Dover Bitch" is a famous parody of Matthew Arnold's well-known "Dover Beach." Parody may also be used as a form of literary criticism to expose the defects in a work. But sometimes parody becomes an affectionate acknowledgment that a well-known work has become both institutionalized in our culture and fair game for some fun.
A repetition of sentences using the same structure. This line from Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address provides an example:
The world will little note nor long remember what we say here,
but it can never forget what they did here.
A person whose role in the story is mostly important because of his or her likeness to another character, especially the main character. Example: In the children's novel The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the main character Mary Lennox is a spoiled, neglected child who eventually learns to care for a garden and to feel sympathy for others. Partly, she is able to change because of her interactions with her cousin Colin Craven, who is even more spoiled and even more neglected. Colin's role in the story is to show Mary and the reader how badly she needs to change, before she becomes as friendless and helpless as Colin. Parallel characters often have Subplots of their own, which reflect the main plot and its themes.
A statement that initially appears to be contradictory but then, on closer inspection, turns out to make sense. For example, John Donne ends his sonnet "Death, Be Not Proud" with the paradoxical statement "Death, thou shalt die." To solve the paradox, it is necessary to discover the sense that underlies the statement. Paradox is useful in poetry because it arrests a reader's attention by its seemingly stubborn refusal to make sense.
A brief story, told or written in order to teach a moral lesson. Christ's tale of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 30-7) is an example.
A condensed form of paradox in which two contradictory words are used together, such as used by Romeo in Act 1, scene 1 of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet:"
Why then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
O heavy lightness, serious vanity;
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!
A literary device wherein the sound of a word echoes the sound it represents. The words "splash." "knock," and "roar" are examples. The following lines end Dylan Thomas' "Fern Hill:"
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.
The word "whinnying" is onomatopoetic. "Whinny" is the sound usually selected to represent that made by a horse. Onomatopoeia can also consist of more than one word; writers sometimes create lines or whole passages in which the sound of the words helps to convey their meanings.
A Freudian term derived from Sophocles' tragedy Oedipus the King. It describes a psychological complex that is predicated on a boy's unconscious rivalry with his father for his mother's love and his desire to eliminate his father in order to take his father's place with his mother. The female equivalent of this complex is called the Electra complex.
A relatively lengthy lyric poem that often expresses lofty emotions in a dignified style, usually in praise of something divine or expressing some noble idea. Odes are characterized by a serious topic, such as truth, art, freedom, justice, or the meaning of life. There is no prescribed pattern that defines an ode; some odes repeat the same pattern in each stanza, while others introduce a new pattern in each stanza. In "Ode on a Grecian Urn," expresses his appreciation of the beauty of a work by a Grecian artisan.
The voice telling the story, not to be confused with the author's voice.. This voice might belong to a Character in the story whom other characters can see, hear, interact with, etc.; or the voice might appear to belong to the author. The narrator may fit into one or more of these categories:
First-person narrator: stands out as a character and refers to himself or herself, using "I." Example: Jane Eyre narrates Charlotte Bronte's novel Jane Eyre, which allows Bronte to let her readers know just how the limitations of Jane's life galled her, and how Jane secretly fell in love with her employer, Mr. Rochester.
Second-person narrator: addresses the reader and/or the Main Character as "you" (and may also use first-person narration, but not necessarily). Example: This technique is rarely used, except briefly; Beatrix Potter addresses the readers near the end of Peter Rabbit in order to underline the "proper" moral which the bulk of the story undermines.
Third-person narrator: not a character in the story; refers to the story's characters as "he" and "she." This is probably the most common form of narration.
Limited Narrator: can only tell what one person is thinking or feeling. Example: in Peter Rabbit, we don't find out what Mr. McGregor thinks about, or what Mother rabbit thinks about, or what Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail thought about - only what Peter thinks about.
Omniscient narrator: not a character in the story; can tell what any or all characters are thinking and feeling. Example: In Cinderella, several important plot events, such as the finding of the glass slipper, take place when Cinderella herself is not present; in these scenes, the audience sometimes knows what other characters, like the Prince or the stepmother, are thinking.
Reliable narrator: everything this narrator says is true, and the narrator knows everything that is necessary to the story.
Unreliable narrator: may not know all the relevant information; may be intoxicated or mentally ill; may lie to the audience. Example: Edgar Allan Poe's narrators are frequently unreliable. Think of the delusions that the narrator of The Tell-Tale Heart has about the old man, or consider the lying narrator in Poe's Black Cat.
The type of narrator telling the story can be vitally important to you as the reader or interpreter, especially if the narrator is unreliable. Not every unreliable narrator is as easy to spot as Poe's in The Tell-Tale Heart; there may be a lot of scholarly debate about whether a given narrator is reliable or not, and obviously you need to know how much of the narration you can trust. If you cannot trust the narrator to tell you what happened, then just summarizing the events of the story can be very challenging. A first-person narrator may easily be a little unreliable, since everyone wants to tell his/her own story in a way which shows himself or herself in a good light. If the narration is limited, why has the author chosen to show readers only this person's thoughts? If the narrator addresses the reader directly, does that draw you in or alienate you? All these issues and more arise when discussing the narrators.
A poem which tells a story. Usually a long poem, sometimes even book length, the narrative may take the form of a plotless dialogue as in Robert Frost's "The Death of the Hired Man." In other instances the narrative may consist of a series of incidents John Milton's "Paradise Lost."
A motif is a recurring concept or story element in literature. It includes concepts such as types of incident or situation, as in the parting of lovers at dawn; plot devices, such as the lady's love token, which inspires courage in her lover, or the recognition tokens in plots of mistaken identity; plot formulas, such as the "loathly lady" who later becomes a beautiful princess, or the "femme fatale" whose attraction proves deadly; and character types, such as the despairing lover, conquering hero, or wicked stepmother. In a more narrow sense, "motif" is also used to describe recurring elements within particular works, such as phrases, descriptions, or patterns of imagery.
The atmosphere or feeling created by a literary work, partly by a description of the objects or by the style of the descriptions. A work may contain a mood of horror, mystery, holiness, or childlike simplicity, to name a few, depending on the author's treatment of the work.
Type of metaphor in which something closely associated with a subject is substituted for it. In this way, we speak of "the crown" to stand for the king, "the White House" to stand for the activities of the president.
A regular pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables in a line or lines of poetry. Below is an illustration of some commonly used metrical patterns:
A metaphor is a figure of speech that makes a comparison between two unlike things, without using the word "like" or "as". Example: when Macbeth asserts that life is a "brief candle." Metaphors can be subtle and powerful, and can transform people, places, objects, and ideas into whatever the writer imagines them to be. An implied metaphor is a more subtle comparison; the terms being compared are not so specifically explained. For example, to describe a stubborn man unwilling to leave, one could say that he was "a mule standing his ground." This is a fairly explicit metaphor; the man is being compared to a mule. But to say that the man "brayed his refusal to leave" is to create an implied metaphor, because the subject (the man) is never overtly identified as a mule. Braying is associated with the mule, a notoriously stubborn creature, and so the comparison between the stubborn man and the mule is sustained. An extended metaphor is a sustained comparison in which part or all of a poem consists of a series of related metaphors. Robert Francis's poem "Catch" relies on an extended metaphor that compares poetry to playing catch. A controlling metaphor runs through an entire work and determines the form or nature of that work. The controlling metaphor in Anne Bradstreet's poem "The Author to Her Book" likens her book to a child. See synecdoche.
A type of brief poem that expresses the personal emotions and thoughts of a single speaker. It is important to realize, however, that although the lyric is uttered in the first person, the speaker is not necessarily the poet. There are many varieties of lyric poetry, including the dramatic monologue, elegy, haiku, ode, and sonnet forms. Emily Dickinson's "I Heard a Fly Buzz-When I Died" is a lyric poem wherein the speaker, on a deathbed expecting death to appear in all its grandeur, encounters a common housefly instead.
A detailed setting forth of the characteristics of a particular locality, enabling the reader to "see" the setting.
Understatement, for intensification, by denying the contrary of the thing being affirmed.
Example: War is not healthy for children and other living things.
A literary device that uses contradictory statements or situations to reveal a reality different from what appears to be true. It is ironic for a firehouse to burn down, or for a police station to be burglarized. Irony takes many forms. Dramatic irony creates a discrepancy between what a character believes or says and what the reader or audience member knows to be true. Tragic irony is a form of dramatic irony found in tragedies such as Oedipus the King, in which Oedipus searches for the person responsible for the plague that ravishes his city and ironically ends up hunting himself. Situational irony exists when there is an incongruity between what is expected to happen and what actually happens due to forces beyond human comprehension or control. The suicide of the seemingly successful main character in Edwin Arlington Robinson's poem "Richard Cory" is an example of situational irony. Cosmic irony occurs when a writer uses God, destiny, or fate to dash the hopes and expectations of a character or of humankind in general. Stephen Crane's poem "A Man Said to the Universe" is a good example of cosmic irony, because the universe acknowledges no obligation to the man's assertion of his own existence. Verbal irony is a figure of speech that occurs when a person says one thing but means the opposite. A character may refer to a plan as brilliant, while actually meaning that (s)he thinks the plan is foolish. Sarcasm is a strong form of verbal irony that is calculated to hurt someone through, for example, false praise.
Speech or writing that abuses, denounces, or vituperates against. It can be directed against a person, cause, idea, or system. It employs a heavy use of negative emotive language.
Example: "I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth." --Swift
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