List of literary terms and their definitions:
Allusion: a reference in a literary work to a person, place, or thing in history or another work of literature. Allusions are often indirect or brief references to well-known characters or events. Specific examples of allusions can be found throughout Dante’s Inferno. In a passage, Dante alludes to the Greek mythological figures, Phaethon and Icarus, to express his fear as he descends from the air into the eighth circle of hell. Allusions are often used to summarize broad, complex ideas or emotions in one quick, powerful image. For example, to communicate the idea of self-sacrifice one may refer to Jesus, as part of Jesus' story portrays him dying on the cross in order to save mankind. In addition, to express righteousness, one might allude to Noah who "had no faults and was the only good man of his time". Furthermore, the idea of fatherhood or patriarchal love can be well understood by alluding to Abraham, who was the ancestor of many nations. Finally, Cain is an excellent example to convey banishment, rejection, or evil, for he was cast out of his homeland by God. Thus, allusions serve an important function in writing in that they allow the reader to understand a difficult concept by relating to an already familiar story.
Antagonist: a character in a story or poem that deceives, frustrates, or works against the main character, or protagonist, in some way. The antagonist doesn’t necessarily have to be a person. It could be death, the devil, an illness, or any challenge that prevents the main character from living “happily ever after." In fact, the antagonist could be a character of virtue in a literary work where the protagonist represents evil. An antagonist in the story of Genesis is the serpent. He convinces Eve to disobey God, setting off a chain of events. That leads to Adam and Eve being banished from paradise. In the play Othello by William Shakespeare, the antagonist is Iago. Throughout the play, he instigates conflicts and sows distrust among the main characters, Othello and Desdemona, two lovers who have risked their livelihood in order to elope. Iago is determined to break up their marriage due to his suspicions that Othello has taken certain liberties with his wife.
Character: a person who is responsible for the thoughts and actions within a story, poem, or other literature. Characters are extremely important because they are the medium through which a reader interacts with a piece of literature. Every character has his or her own personality, which a creative author uses to assist in forming the plot of a story or creating a mood. The different attitudes, mannerisms, and even appearances of characters can greatly influence the other major elements in a literary work, such as theme, setting, and tone. With this understanding of the character, a reader can become more aware of other aspects of literature, such as symbolism, giving the reader a more complete understanding of the work. The character is one of the most important tools available to the author. In the ballad "Edward," for instance, the character himself sets the tone of the ballad within the first stanza. After reading the first few stanzas, one learns that Edward has murdered his father and is very distraught. His attitude changes to disgust and finally to despair when he realizes the consequences he must face for his actions. An example of the attitudes and personalities of characters determining the theme is also seen in the book of Genesis. The proud personality of Cain and the humble personality of Abel help create the conflict for this story. Cain and Abel were brothers, possibly twins, who displayed intense sibling rivalry. God was not pleased with Cain's offerings, but found pleasure in Abel's offerings. Provoked by God's displeasure with him, Cain murdered his own brother out of jealousy.
Flashback: an interruption of the chronological sequence (as of a film or literary work) of an event of earlier occurrence. A flashback is a narrative technique that allows a writer to present past events during current events, in order to provide background for the current narration. By giving material that occurred prior to the present event, the writer provides the reader with insight into a character's motivation and or background to a conflict. This is done by various methods, narration, dream sequences, and memories. For example, in the Book of Matthew, a flashback is used when Joseph is the governor of Egypt. Upon seeing his brothers after many years, Joseph “remembered his dreams” of his brothers and how they previously sold him into slavery. Another example would be the ballad of “The Cruel Mother.” Here, a mother is remembering her murdered child. As she is going to a church, she remembers her child born, grow, and die. Later she thinks back to further in her past to remember how her own mother was unkind to her. Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” uses flashback to relate Willy Loman’s memories of the past. At one point, Willy is talking with his dead brother while playing cards with Charley, reliving a past conversation in the present. This shows a character that is mentally living in the present with the memories and events of the past. By understanding flashbacks, the reader is able to receive more details about the current narration by filling in the details about the past.
Irony: a literary term referring to how a person, situation, statement, or circumstance is not as it would actually seem. Many times it is the exact opposite of what it appears to be. There are many types of irony, the three most common being verbal irony, dramatic irony, and cosmic irony. Verbal irony occurs when either the speaker means something totally different than what he is saying or the audience realizes, because of their knowledge of the particular situation to which the speaker is referring, that the opposite of what a character is saying is true. Verbal irony also occurs when a character says something in jest that, in actuality, is true. In Julius Caesar, Marc Antony’s reference to Brutus being an honorable man is an example of verbal irony. Marc Antony notes all of the good deeds Julius Caesar did for his people while, more than once, he asks the rhetorical question, “Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?” Antony uses this rhetorical question to try to convince his audience that Caesar is not ambitious, presenting Brutus as a dishonorable man because of his claim that Caesar was ambitious. Dramatic irony occurs when facts are not known to the characters in a work of literature but are known by the audience. In The Gospel According to St. John, the Pharisees say of Jesus, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” This is dramatic irony for the reader already knows, according to the author, that Jesus is the Savior of the world and has already done much good for the people by forgiving their sins and healing the sick and oppressed. The Pharisees are too blinded to see what good actually has come out of Nazareth. Cosmic irony suggests that some unknown force brings about dire and dreadful events. Cosmic irony can be seen in Shakespeare’s Othello. Iago begs his wife to steal Desdemona’s handkerchief so he can use this as conclusive proof that Cassio is having an affair with Desdemona. At the end of the play, when Othello tells Iago’s wife about the handkerchief, she confesses that Iago put her up to stealing it. Iago winds up being at Cassio’s mercy. The very handkerchief Iago thought would allow him to become lieutenant and bring Cassio to ruins was the handkerchief that brought Iago to ruins and exalted Cassio even higher than his position of lieutenant. Irony spices up a literary work by adding unexpected twists and allowing the reader to become more involved with the characters and plot.
Metaphor: a type of figurative language in which a statement is made that says that one thing is something else but, literally, it is not. In connecting one object, event, or place, to another, a metaphor can uncover new and intriguing qualities of the original thing that we may not normally notice or even consider important. Metaphoric language is used in order to realize a new and different meaning. As an effect, a metaphor functions primarily to increase stylistic colorfulness and variety. Metaphor is a great contributor to poetry when the reader understands a likeness between two essentially different things. In his Poetics, Aristotle claims that for one to master the use of metaphor is “…a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars” . A metaphor may be found in a simple comparison or largely as the image of an entire poem. For example, Emily Dickinson’s poem “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun” makes use of a series of comparisons between the speaker and a gun. Dickinson opens the work with the following: “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun - / In corners – till a Day / The Owner passed – identified - / And carried me away”. Of course, the narrator is not really a gun. The metaphor carries with it all the qualities of a “Loaded Gun”. The speaker in the poem is making a series of comparisons between themselves and the qualities of a gun. The narrator had been waiting a long time before their love found them. The narrator loves her fellow so desperately that she feels as a protective gun that would kill anyone wishing to harm him. To this effect, Dickinson writes, "To foe of His – I’m deadly foe –." Dickinson’s poem ends up being one extended comparison through the use of metaphor between herself and a gun with “…but the power to kill.”
Narrator: one who tells a story, the speaker or the “voice” of an oral or written work. Although it can be, the narrator is not usually the same person as the author. The narrator is one of three types of characters in a given work, (1) participant (protagonist or participant in any action that may take place in the story), (2) observer (someone who is indirectly involved in the action of a story), or (3) non participant (one who is not at all involved in any action of the story). The narrator is the direct window into a piece of work. Depending on the part of the character of the narrator plays in the story, the narrator may demonstrate bias when presenting a piece of work. In the Book of Matthew, the narrator Matthew, probably presented some bias when giving his accounts of the events that took place during that time.
Unreliable narrator: one who gives his or her own understanding of a story, instead of the explanation and interpretation the author wishes the audience to obtain. This type of action tends to alter the audience’s opinion of the conclusion. An author quite famous for using unreliable narrators is Henry James. James is said to make himself an inconsistent and distorting “center of consciousness” in his work, because of his frequent usage of deluding or deranged narrators. They are very noticeable in his novella The Turn of the Screw, and also in his short story, “The Aspern Papers.” The Turn of the Screw is a story based solely on the consistency of the Governess’s description of the events that happen. Being aware of unreliable narrators are essential, especially when you have to describe the characters and their actions to others, since the narrator, unreliable as they are, abandons you without the important guidance to make trustworthy judgments.
Point of view: a way the events of a story are conveyed to the reader, it is the “vantage point” from which the narrative is passed from author to the reader. The point of view can vary from work to work. For example, in the Book of Genesis the objective third person point of view is presented, where a “nonparticipant” serves as the narrator and has no insight into the characters' minds. The narrator presents the events using the pronouns he, it, they, and reveals no inner thoughts of the characters. In Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Cask of Amontillado” the first person point of view is exhibited. In this instance the main character conveys the incidents he encounters, as well as giving the reader insight into himself as he reveals his thoughts, feelings, and intentions. Many other points of view exist, such as omniscient (or “all knowing”) in which the narrator “moves from one character to another as necessary” to provide those character’s respective motivations and emotions. Understanding the point of view used in a work is critical to understanding literature; it serves as the instrument to relay the events of a story, and in some instances the feelings and motives of the character(s).
Protagonist: A protagonist is considered to be the main character or lead figure in a novel, play, story, or poem. It may also be referred to as the "hero" of a work. Over a period of time the meaning of the term protagonist has changed. The word protagonist originated in ancient Greek drama and referred to the leader of a chorus. Soon the definition was changed to represent the first actor onstage. In some literature today it may be difficult to decide who is playing the role of the protagonist. For instance, in Othello,we could say that Iago is the protagonist because he was at the center of all of the play's controversy. But even if he was a main character, was he the lead character? This ambiguity can lead to multiple interpretations of the same work and different ways of appreciating a single piece of literature.
Setting: the time, place, physical details, and circumstances in which a situation occurs. Settings include the background, atmosphere or environment in which characters live and move, and usually include physical characteristics of the surroundings. Settings enables the reader to better envision how a story unfolds by relating necessary physical details of a piece of literature. A setting may be simple or elaborate, used to create ambiance, lend credibility or realism, emphasize or accentuate, organize, or even distract the reader. Settings in the Bible are simplistic. In the book of Genesis, we read about the creation of the universe and the lives of the descendants of Adam. Great detail is taken in documenting the lineage, actions, and ages of the characters at milestones in their lives, yet remarkably little detail is given about physical characteristics of the landscape and surroundings in which events occurred. In Genesis 20, we learn that because of her beauty, Sarah’s identity is concealed to prevent the death of her husband, Abraham. Yet, we have no description of Sarah or Abraham’s hair, eye or skin color, height, weight, physical appearance, or surroundings. Detailed settings that were infrequent in some ancient writings like the Bible are common in today’s literature. In recent literature, settings are often described in elaborate detail, enabling the reader to vividly envision even imaginary characters and actions like the travels of Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. Settings have a way of drawing the reader into a piece of literature while facilitating understanding of the characters and their actions. Understanding the setting is useful because it enables us to see how an author captures the attention of the reader by painting a mental picture using words.
Simile: a simile is a type of figurative language, language that does not mean exactly what it says, that makes a comparison between two otherwise unalike objects or ideas by connecting them with the words "like" or "as." The reader can see a similar connection with the verbs resemble, compare and liken. Similes allow an author to emphasize a certain characteristic of an object by comparing that object to an unrelated object that is an example of that characteristic. An example of a simile can be seen in the poem “Robin Hood and Allin a Dale”. In this poem, the lass did not literally glisten like gold, but by comparing the lass to the gold the author emphasizes her beauty, radiance and purity, all things associated with gold. Similarly, in N. Scott Momaday’s simple poem, “Simile.” he says that the two characters in the poem are like deer who walk in a single line with their heads high with their ears forward and their eyes watchful. By comparing the walkers to the nervous deer, Momaday emphasizes their care and caution.
Theme: a common thread or repeated idea that is incorporated throughout a literary work. A theme is a thought or idea the author presents to the reader that may be deep, difficult to understand, or even moralistic. Generally, a theme has to be extracted as the reader explores the passages of a work. The author utilizes the characters, plot, and other literary devices to assist the reader in this endeavor. One theme that may be extracted by the reader of Mark Musa’s interpretation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy Volume I: Inferno is the need to take account of one’s own behavior now, for it affects one's condition in the afterlife. One example of this theme can be found in Canto V - “...when the evil soul appears before him, it confesses all, and he [Minos], who is the expert judge of sins, knows to what place in Hell the soul belongs: the times he wraps his tail around himself tells just how far the sinner must go down” (7-12). In addition, Dante’s use of literary techniques, such as imagery, further accentuates the theme for the consequences of not living right, for he describes “the cries and shrieks of lamentation” (III:22), “…the banks were coated with a slimy mold that stuck to them like glue, disgusting to behold and worse to smell” (XVIII:106-108) and many other terrifying examples of Hell. In truly great works of literature, the author intertwines the theme throughout the work and the full impact is slowly realized as the reader processes the text. The ability to recognize a theme is important because it allows the reader to understand part of the author’s purpose in writing the book.