Literary Terms and Devices
Absurdism is a literary and philosophical movement that suggests that the human condition is inherently meaningless, and that attempts to find meaning or purpose in life are ultimately futile. Absurdist works often feature characters or situations that highlight the senselessness and absurdity of existence. One example of an absurdist work is Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," which features two characters waiting for someone who never arrives, and who may not even exist. Through their interactions, the play questions the nature of human relationships, the search for meaning, and the possibility of hope in a world that often seems absurd.
Allegory is a literary device in which a story, poem, or other work of art uses characters or events to represent abstract ideas or moral concepts. Allegories often have a deeper meaning beyond the surface level of the story, and are used to convey a message or lesson to the reader. An example of an allegory is George Orwell's "Animal Farm," in which a group of farm animals rebel against their human owner and create a new society, only to have it become corrupted and oppressive over time. The story is an allegory for the rise of Soviet communism and the dangers of political power.
Alliteration is a literary device in which a series of words in a sentence or phrase begin with the same sound or letter. Alliteration is often used for emphasis, to create a rhythm or pattern in language, or to draw attention to certain words or ideas. An example of alliteration is the phrase "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers," in which every word begins with the letter "p."
An allusion is a reference to a person, place, event, or work of art that is not explicitly mentioned in a text, but which the reader is expected to recognize and understand. Allusions are often used to convey deeper meaning or significance, or to make connections between different works of literature or art. For example, a reference to Shakespeare's "Hamlet" in a modern novel might be used to suggest themes of revenge, betrayal, or madness.
Ambiguity is a literary device in which a word, phrase, or sentence can be interpreted in more than one way, often leading to confusion or uncertainty. Ambiguity can be used to create tension or mystery in a story, or to allow for multiple interpretations of a work of art. An example of ambiguity is the phrase "I saw her duck," which could mean that the speaker saw a woman crouch down like a duck, or that the speaker saw a duck that belonged to the woman.
Assonance is a literary device in which a series of words in a sentence or phrase contain the same vowel sound, but different consonant sounds. Assonance is often used to create a musical or lyrical effect in language, or to draw attention to certain words or ideas. An example of assonance is the phrase "the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain," in which the vowel sound of "ai" is repeated throughout the sentence.
A ballad is a type of poem or song that tells a story, often about love, tragedy, or adventure. Ballads often have a simple structure, with a repeated chorus or refrain, and are often accompanied by music. One example of a ballad is "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which tells the story of a sailor who shoots an albatross and is cursed as a result.
A bildungsroman is a type of novel that focuses on the development and coming-of-age of a young protagonist, often in relation to society and culture. Bildungsromans often explore themes of identity, self-discovery, and personal growth, and the protagonist often undergoes a transformative experience that leads to a greater understanding of themselves and the world around them. An example of a bildungsroman is J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye," which follows the journey of a teenage boy named Holden Caulfield as he navigates the challenges of adolescence and tries to find his place in the world.
Characterization is the process by which a writer creates and develops a character in a work of fiction. This can include describing their physical appearance, personality traits, motivations, and relationships with other characters. Effective characterization can make a character feel more vivid and real to the reader, and can help to drive the plot and themes of a story. An example of strong characterization can be found in Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," in which the protagonist Scout Finch is a well-developed character with a distinct voice, personality, and worldview.
Conflict is a literary device that creates tension and drives the plot of a story by placing characters in opposition to one another or to external forces. Conflict can take many forms, including man vs. man, man vs. nature, and man vs. self, and can be used to explore themes of power, morality, and identity. An example of a story with strong conflict is William Golding's "Lord of the Flies," in which a group of boys stranded on a deserted island must navigate conflicts with one another as they struggle to survive and maintain order.
Deconstruction is a critical approach to literature that challenges traditional assumptions about meaning and interpretation by examining the underlying structures and assumptions that shape a text. Deconstruction can involve questioning the authority of the author, the reliability of language, and the role of the reader in interpreting a work of literature. An example of deconstruction can be found in Jacques Derrida's critique of structuralism, in which he argued that the meaning of a text is always unstable and subject to multiple interpretations.
Diction is the choice and use of words in a work of literature. Diction can vary in tone, style, and level of formality, and can be used to create mood, convey meaning, and establish a sense of voice and perspective. An example of powerful diction can be found in Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, in which he uses vivid and evocative language to inspire and motivate his audience.
An epic is a long narrative poem that tells the story of a heroic journey or quest, often involving supernatural or divine elements. Epics typically feature a larger-than-life protagonist who faces trials and challenges along the way, and often explore themes of honor, loyalty, and fate. An example of an epic is Homer's "The Iliad," which tells the story of the Trojan War and the heroic deeds of the warrior Achilles.
Existentialism is a philosophical and literary movement that emphasizes individual freedom and choice in the face of an often meaningless and absurd world. Existentialist works often explore themes of isolation, alienation, and the search for meaning and purpose in life. An example of an existentialist work is Albert Camus' "The Stranger," in which the protagonist Meursault confronts the absurdity of his own existence in the face of his mother's death and subsequent trial for murder.
Feminism is a social and political movement that seeks to achieve gender equality and challenge patriarchal power structures. Feminist literature often explores themes of gender roles, identity, and the intersection of gender with other forms of oppression, such as race and class. An example of feminist literature is Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own," in which Woolf argues for the importance of women having access to education and the resources necessary to pursue their creative ambitions.
Foreshadowing is a literary device in which an author hints at events or developments that will occur later in a story. Foreshadowing can be used to create tension and anticipation, to suggest deeper meanings or themes, or to establish a sense of inevitability about the story's outcome. An example of foreshadowing can be found in William Shakespeare's "Macbeth," in which the witches' prophecy that Macbeth will become king sets in motion a series of events that ultimately lead to his downfall.
Free verse is a style of poetry that does not follow traditional rhyme or meter patterns, instead relying on the natural rhythms and patterns of everyday speech. Free verse can be used to create a sense of spontaneity and immediacy in poetry, and can allow for greater freedom of expression and experimentation with language. An example of free verse poetry is Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself," which celebrates the diversity and interconnectedness of humanity in a series of unrhymed, free-flowing stanzas.
Gothic literature is a genre characterized by its emphasis on darkness, horror, and the supernatural. Gothic works often feature haunted castles, mysterious creatures, and melodramatic plot twists, and explore themes of fear, death, and the uncanny. An example of a gothic novel is Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," in which a scientist creates a monster that ultimately turns on him, leading to tragic consequences.
Haiku is a traditional form of Japanese poetry that consists of three lines, with a total of 17 syllables arranged in a specific pattern (5-7-5). Haiku often focus on natural imagery and the seasons, and are intended to evoke a sense of simplicity and clarity in language. An example of a haiku is Matsuo Basho's "The old pond," which reads:
The old pond A frog jumps in— Splash!
Hyperbole is a literary device in which an author uses exaggerated or extravagant language to emphasize a point or create a humorous effect. Hyperbole can be used to create a sense of drama or urgency, to make a point more memorable, or to satirize a particular idea or trend. An example of hyperbole can be found in Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," in which he suggests that Irish babies could be used as a source of food for the wealthy.
Imagery is a literary device in which an author uses language to create vivid sensory experiences for the reader, often by evoking images of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures. Imagery can be used to create a sense of mood or atmosphere, to deepen characterization, or to convey deeper meanings and themes. An example of powerful imagery can be found in Langston Hughes' "Harlem," in which he asks:
What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore— And then run?
Irony is a literary device in which the opposite of what is expected or intended occurs, often for humorous or satirical effect. Irony can be used to highlight the absurdities or contradictions in human behavior, to critique social norms and conventions, or to underscore the limitations of language and communication. An example of irony can be found in Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," in which the characters' attempts to live double lives and deceive one another ultimately lead to a series of misunderstandings and comic misadventures.
Magical realism is a genre that combines elements of realism with magical or supernatural elements, often creating a sense of ambiguity or mystery in a story. Magical realism can be used to explore themes of cultural identity, spirituality, and the boundaries between reality and fantasy. An example of magical realism is Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude," in which a family in a remote South American village experiences a series of surreal and fantastical events over the course of several generations.
Marxism is a social and political theory that emphasizes the struggle between economic classes and the importance of collective action and social justice. Marxist literature often explores themes of inequality, oppression, and resistance, and critiques capitalism and other systems of power. An example of Marxist literature is Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle," in which the harsh working conditions and exploitation faced by immigrant laborers in the meatpacking industry are exposed.
Metaphor is a literary device in which a comparison is made between two things that are not literally alike, often using language that is evocative and imaginative. Metaphors can be used to create vivid and memorable descriptions, to deepen characterization, or to convey deeper meanings and themes. An example of a metaphor can be found in Emily Dickinson's poem "Hope is the thing with feathers," in which hope is compared to a bird that sings in the soul.
Meter is a formal aspect of poetry that refers to the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line of verse. Meter can be used to create a sense of rhythm and musicality in poetry, and to emphasize certain words or ideas. An example of meter can be found in William Shakespeare's sonnet 18, which reads:
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Modernism is a literary and artistic movement that emerged in the early 20th century and challenged traditional forms and conventions. Modernist works often feature experimentation with form, language, and perspective, and can be characterized by themes of alienation, fragmentation, and uncertainty. An example of modernist literature is T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," in which a fragmented and chaotic series of images and voices are used to explore themes of disillusionment and despair in the aftermath of World War I.
Mood is the emotional atmosphere created by a work of literature, often through the use of language, imagery, and other literary devices. Mood can be used to create a sense of tension, anticipation, or foreboding, and can influence the reader's emotional response to a story. An example of a story with a powerful mood is Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher," in which the eerie and unsettling atmosphere of the decaying mansion sets the tone for the story's dark and ominous events.
New Criticism is a critical approach to literature that emphasizes close reading and analysis of the text itself, rather than the author's intentions or historical context. New Criticism can be used to reveal deeper meanings and themes in a work of literature, and to explore the use of literary devices such as imagery, symbolism, and metaphor. An example of New Criticism can be found in Cleanth Brooks' analysis of Robert Frost's poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," in which he examines the poem's use of repetition and imagery to create a sense of tension and ambiguity.
Onomatopoeia is a literary device in which a word sounds like the noise or action it describes, such as "buzz" or "whisper." Onomatopoeia can be used to create a sense of vividness and immediacy in language, and can be particularly effective in poetry and children's literature. An example of onomatopoeia can be found in Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky," in which nonsense words that sound like they could be real words are used to create a sense of playful and imaginative language.
A paradox is a statement or situation that appears to contradict itself, but upon closer examination, reveals a deeper truth or complexity. Paradox can be used to explore the limitations of language and logic, to critique social norms and conventions, or to underscore the contradictions inherent in human behavior. An example of a paradox can be found in the saying "less is more," which suggests that simplicity and minimalism can be more effective and powerful than excess and complexity.
Personification is a literary device in which an author gives human qualities or characteristics to non-human entities, such as animals, objects, or ideas. Personification can be used to create a sense of empathy or connection with the reader, to create vivid and memorable descriptions, or to explore deeper meanings and themes. An example of personification can be found in William Blake's poem "The Tyger," in which the tiger is described as "burning bright" and "fearful symmetry," suggesting a sense of awe and wonder at the natural world.
Plot is the sequence of events that make up the narrative of a story. Plot can be used to create tension, suspense, and conflict, and can be structured in a variety of ways, such as a linear or non-linear timeline, a series of flashbacks or flash-forwards, or multiple storylines. An example of a well-structured plot can be found in Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express," in which a detective must solve a complex and twisting mystery on a train traveling through Europe.
Point of view
Point of view is the perspective from which a story is told, such as first person, third person, or omniscient. Point of view can be used to create a sense of intimacy or distance between the reader and the characters, and can influence the reader's understanding of the story and its themes. An example of an effective use of point of view can be found in Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," in which the story is told from the perspective of a young girl, Scout Finch, who provides a unique and innocent perspective on the racial tensions of the time.
Postcolonialism is a critical approach to literature that examines the impact of colonialism and imperialism on culture, politics, and society. Postcolonial literature often explores themes of identity, power, and resistance, and critiques the ways in which Western culture has dominated and marginalized other cultures. An example of postcolonial literature is Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart," in which the effects of colonialism on a Nigerian tribe are explored through the character of Okonkwo.
Postmodernism is a literary and artistic movement that emerged in the mid-20th century and challenged the assumptions and conventions of modernism. Postmodern works often feature fragmentation, pastiche, and self-referentiality, and can be characterized by themes of irony, skepticism, and relativism. An example of postmodern literature is Thomas Pynchon's "The Crying of Lot 49," in which the protagonist Oedipa Maas becomes embroiled in a complex and conspiratorial mystery that questions the very nature of reality.
Reader-Response Criticism is a critical approach to literature that emphasizes the role of the reader in interpreting and creating meaning from a text. Reader-Response Criticism suggests that the meaning of a text is not fixed or objective, but rather emerges from the interaction between the reader and the text. An example of Reader-Response Criticism can be found in Wolfgang Iser's "The Act of Reading," in which he argues that the reader's personal experiences and expectations play a crucial role in shaping their interpretation of a text.
Realism is a literary movement that emerged in the 19th century and emphasized the depiction of ordinary life and everyday people, often with a focus on social and political issues. Realist works often aim to accurately represent the world as it is, without idealizing or romanticizing it. An example of a realist novel is Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist," which exposes the harsh realities of poverty and class inequality in Victorian England.
Rhyme is a formal aspect of poetry that refers to the repetition of similar sounds at the end of two or more words. Rhyme can be used to create a sense of musicality and rhythm in poetry, and can help to emphasize certain words or ideas. An example of a rhyming poem is Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," which features the repeated end sounds of "day," "way," and "stay."
Satire is a literary device in which an author uses humor, irony, or exaggeration to critique or expose the flaws and follies of society or individuals. Satire can be used to highlight social injustices, to expose hypocrisy and corruption, or to provoke critical thinking and reflection. An example of satire can be found in Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," in which he suggests that the Irish should sell their babies as food to the wealthy, in order to solve the problem of poverty.
Setting is the time and place in which a story takes place. Setting can be used to create a sense of atmosphere and mood, to establish the cultural and historical context of a story, or to reflect the inner states of the characters. An example of an effective use of setting can be found in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "Love in the Time of Cholera," in which the exotic and tropical setting of a South American port town creates a sense of romance, passion, and exoticism.
Simile is a literary device in which a comparison is made between two things using "like" or "as," such as "Her hair was like a golden river." Simile can be used to create vivid and memorable descriptions, to deepen characterization, or to convey deeper meanings and themes. An example of a simile can be found in Langston Hughes' poem "Harlem," in which he asks:
What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore— And then run?
A sonnet is a formal type of poetry consisting of 14 lines, often with a set rhyme scheme and meter. Sonnets can be used to explore a variety of themes and emotions, from love and beauty to mortality and loss. An example of a sonnet is William Shakespeare's "Sonnet 18," which begins:
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
A stanza is a unit of poetry consisting of a group of lines, often with a set pattern of rhyme and meter. Stanzas can be used to create a sense of rhythm and structure in poetry, and to organize and emphasize the themes and ideas of a poem. An example of a poem with a well-structured stanzaic form can be found in Dylan Thomas' "Do not go gentle into that good night," which features six stanzas, each with a similar structure and rhyme scheme.
Stream of consciousness
Stream of consciousness is a narrative technique in which an author presents the thoughts and feelings of a character as they occur in a continuous and uninterrupted flow Stream of consciousness can be used to explore the inner workings of the human mind, to reveal the complexities of human experience, or to create a sense of intimacy and immediacy with the reader. An example of stream of consciousness can be found in James Joyce's "Ulysses," in which the thoughts and experiences of the protagonist Leopold Bloom are presented in a continuous and fragmented flow.
Structuralism is a critical approach to literature that emphasizes the study of language and the underlying structures and systems that shape meaning. Structuralist critics analyze the formal aspects of a text, such as its syntax, grammar, and patterns of repetition, in order to uncover deeper meanings and themes. An example of structuralist analysis can be found in Roland Barthes' essay "The Death of the Author," in which he argues that the meaning of a text is not determined by the author's intentions or biography, but rather by the structures and systems of language and culture.
Symbolism is a literary device in which an object, action, or image is used to represent or suggest a deeper meaning or idea. Symbolism can be used to create a sense of resonance and depth in a work of literature, and to explore themes of identity, spirituality, and cultural values. An example of symbolism can be found in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter," in which the letter "A" worn by the protagonist Hester Prynne represents her shame and sin, but also her strength and defiance.
Syntax refers to the structure and organization of language, including the arrangement of words, phrases, and clauses to create meaning. Syntax can be used to create a sense of rhythm and musicality in language, to emphasize certain words or ideas, or to reflect the inner states of the characters. An example of a well-crafted sentence with effective syntax can be found in F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," in which he writes:
"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
Theme is the underlying message or idea that a work of literature explores, often in relation to universal human experiences and values. Theme can be used to create a sense of unity and coherence in a story, and to provide insight into the human condition. An example of a powerful theme can be found in Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," in which the theme of justice and morality is explored through the character of Atticus Finch and his defense of a black man accused of rape.
Tone is the author's attitude or emotional state conveyed through the language and style of a work of literature. Tone can be used to create a sense of mood and atmosphere, to reveal the author's perspective or values, or to influence the reader's emotional response to the story. An example of a story with a distinctive and effective tone can be found in Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea," in which the spare and understated language creates a sense of dignity and courage in the face of hardship and defeat.
Tragicomedy is a genre of literature that combines elements of tragedy and comedy, often in unexpected and unconventional ways. Tragicomedy can be used to explore complex and contradictory human experiences and emotions, and to challenge traditional genre conventions. An example of tragicomedy can be found in Shakespeare's play "The Tempest," which features elements of romance, magic, humor, and tragedy.
Understatement is a literary device in which an author deliberately downplays or minimizes the significance of a situation or event, often for humorous or ironic effect. Understatement can be used to create a sense of understated humor, to convey a sense of ironic detachment, or to reveal deeper emotional currents beneath the surface. An example of understatement can be found in Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," in which the character of Elizabeth Bennet declares of her love for Mr. Darcy: "I love him. Indeed he has no improper pride."
Verse is a formal aspect of poetry that refers to a single line of poetry, often with a set pattern of rhyme and meter. Verse can be used to create a sense of rhythm and musicality in poetry, and to emphasize certain words or ideas. An example of a powerful use of verse can be found in Maya Angelou's poem "Still I Rise," in which the repeating refrain "I rise" creates a sense of resilience and determination in the face of adversity.
Zeugma is a literary device in which a single word is used to link together two or more different parts of a sentence, often in unexpected and surprising ways. Zeugma can be used to create a sense of wit and humor, to emphasize contrasts or similarities between different parts of a sentence, or to reveal deeper meanings and themes. An example of zeugma can be found in Charles Dickens' novel "David Copperfield," in which the character Mr. Micawber declares: "I have been knocked about since I left London, but I have been knocked about by one person only."