31 August 2011

Literary Terms (Stolen from Denise L. Despres)

ENG202 Intro to Poetry
(Adapted from The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, ed. R. Murfin and S.M. Ray (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003).

Please bring this glossary to every class meeting. Students are responsible for knowing these terms. I also encourage students to use the Literary Vocabulary website in preparation for class discussion and in-class essay exams: http://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/lit_terms.html

Aesthetics: The study of beauty and nature in the arts. Aesthetics concerns the nature and definition of beauty, as well as the relationship between beauty and truth. Aesthetics also involves inquiry into the nature of artistic creation and audience appreciation.

Allegory: The presentation of an abstract idea through an extended metaphor (an image or figure of speech).

Allusion: An indirect reference to a person, event, statement, or theme in the arts. Authors who use this device presuppose that select readers will recognize the allusion and thus have access to a richer interpretation than uninformed readers.

Ambiguity: In literary works, in contrast to direct speech, authors create multiple meanings or interpretive possibilities through the use of words with several connotations (associations evoked by a word beyond its denotations, or literal meaning). Deliberate ambiguity contributes to the richness and complexity of literature.

Anachrony: The literary technique of presenting material out of chronological order. Analepsis is the insertion of a past scene into the present time; prolepsis is the insertion of scenes the preview future events or developments; ellipsis is a chronological gap. We are familiar with anachrony in film as flashbacks or flashforwards.

Anagnorisis: A term from Aristotle’s Poetics (c. 330 B.C.) referring to the moment in drama when the protagonist discovers or gains crucial knowledge the leads to or explains a reversal in fortune.

Antagonist: The character pitted against the protagonist—the main character. The antagonist may be, but need not be, a villain.

Antihero: A protagonist in a modern work who does not display the characteristics of a traditional hero.

Apocalypse: The term apocalyptic stems from the word apocalypse, of Greek origins, meaning, “to uncover.” Literature is apocalyptic when it purports to uncover, reveal, or prophesy the future. The Biblical Apocalypse is the book of Revelation, whose complex symbolism depicts the catastrophic end of the world and subsequent Day of Judgment.

Close Reading: The thorough and nuanced analysis of a literary text, with close attention to the author’s use of allusion, imagery, plot, setting, characterization, etc.

Closure: The process by which a literary work is brought to a coherent conclusion, providing a sense of wholeness, integrity, and finality to the narrative.

Convention: A literary device, usage, style, situation or form so widely employed that readers and audiences expect it. For example, a central convention of chivalric romance is the knight’s quest.

Figurative language, Figure of speech: A literary device involving unusual use of language to create an image in the reader’s mind. Although figurative language can be used for decorative or purely aesthetic purposes, it is used primarily to attain some specific effect on the reader.

Foil: a character that, by his/her contrast with the main character accentuates the protagonist’s distinctive qualities.

Genre: From the French genre, meaning “kind” or “type,” the classification of literary works on the basis of their content, form, or technique (e.g. prose, poem, fiction, drama, novel, short story). The traditional classical divisions are: comedy, tragedy, lyric, pastoral, epic and satire.

Grotesque: Artistic representations involving bizarre or unnatural combinations of characteristics or images. The grotesque is an aesthetic category that evokes both fear and laughter.

Hermeneutics: A theory of interpretation or strategy to determine textual meaning.

Imagery: Imagery is the central element of all imaginative literature. Imagery is the language a writer employs to convey a visual picture, either literal or figurative (figurative language calls to mind an abstract idea through tangible elements). Artists create symbols through image patterns that work together to convey major themes or arguments in literature. A symbol cannot be an isolated object or image but must be part of pattern integral to meaning.

Intertextuality: The condition of interconnectedness among texts due to influence, allusion, quotation, genre, or style.

Metafiction: Literary works that self-consciously examine the nature and status of fiction, posing questions about the relationship between art and reality.

Metaphor: A figure of speech that associates two distinct things; an image used to create a nuanced representation, e.g. “That child is quiet as a mouse.”


Medieval Romance (Chivalric Romance): An episodic narrative, written in prose or verse, concerned with adventure, courtly love, and chivalry. Medieval romances reflect the religious and chivalric ideals of their noble audiences, such as courage, gentility, piety, loyalty, magnanimity, and fidelity (rather than social or historical realities). The symbols of medieval romance are rooted in courtly and religious culture. The chief motive of the knightly protagonist is self-discovery and maturation, thus the integration of the public persona with private desire. The storyline is typically a quest that tests the knight’s integrity, the events taking place in psychological landscape.


Novel: A lengthy fictional prose narrative; the length permits the author to develop characters with complex motivation and to construct an intricate plot. Novels developed from ancient epics and medieval romances. Literary historians tend to distinguish the realistic novel from the romance novel. Realistic novels seek to attain verisimilitude in their depictions of ordinary characters, situations, and settings; romance novelists, in contrast, focus on adventure and often feature improbable developments that draw attention to the power of the imagination and fictionality.

Setting: The combination of place, historical time, and social milieu that provides the general background for the characters and plot of a literary work. Setting often plays a crucial role in determining the atmosphere of a work.

Short Story: A brief fictional prose narrative distinguished by its meticulous and deliberate craftsmanship, specifically of plot, character, and point of view. Unlike novels, the short story usually has a single focus and produces a specific dramatic revelation or effect (often the result of opposing motivations or forces) toward which the story builds and to which everything else in the story is subordinate.

Style: The devices an author uses to convey a work’s subject matter, including diction, syntax, and figurative language. Through these formal elements, authors present the content of work in ways that affect its aesthetic quality and influence the reader’s emotional response.

Theme: Not simply the subject of a literary work, but rather a statement that the text seems to be making about that subject. A motif usually refers to a unifying element in an artistic work, such as a recurrent image, symbol, character type, or narrative detail that supports a theme.

Tone: The attitude of the author toward the reader or the subject matter of a literary work. Tone functions with mood to create in the reader a general feeling.

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