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A literary work in which nearly all of the characters, events, settings, and other literal elements of the story have a second, symbolic meaning. In most cases, allegories advance a very clear moral lesson.
George Orwell’s Animal Farm is an allegory in which the barnyard animals who overthrow the farmer and take over the farm represent the Russian Revolution and its aftermath.
The repetition of an initial consonant sound in words that are close together, such as within a single sentence or line of poetry.
The third stanza of Emily Dickinson’s “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” uses alliteration in both the second and third lines:
He likes a Boggy Acre -
A Floor too cool for Corn -
But when a Boy and Barefoot
I more than once at Noon
An indirect reference to something outside the text, usually a person, place, thing, or idea that is generally familiar to the intended audience. Allusions often refer to historical events or people, other works of literature, mythology, or popular culture.
The following lines from Romeo and Juliet contain an allusion to Aurora, the Roman goddess of the dawn.
But all so soon as the all-cheering sun
Should in the farthest east begin to draw
The shady curtain from Aurora’s bed . . . (1.1.124–126)
An historically inaccurate detail in a literary work, included by the author either unintentionally or deliberately.
In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the characters refer to a clock striking three. This is an anachronism because clocks had not been invented at the time Julius Caesar lived.
A word or phrase that can be spelled by rearranging the letters of another word or phrase.
You may know the fiction writer Ashwin Sanghi by his pen name, Shawn Haigins, which is an anagram of his real name.
A comparison that explains how two dissimilar things are similar in some ways, usually with the purpose of explaining complex ideas or making a persuasive argument.
The philosopher William Paley (1743–1805) used a famous analogy to argue for the existence of God. Paley compared the universe to a watch made up of many small parts all working together for a clear purpose. Like the watch, Paley argued, the universe must have been created by an intelligent designer because it was too complex to have come into existence by chance.
The repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a series of sentences or clauses, usually creating a rhythmic effect.
Martin Luther King, Jr. used anaphora frequently in his “I Have a Dream” speech:
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed . . .
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood . . .
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi . . . will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”
A character or force in a story that opposes, or works against, the goals of the protagonist (main character).
In Shakespeare’s Othello, the villainous Iago serves as the antagonist, abusing Othello’s trust in order to sabotage his happy marriage.
A protagonist (main character of a story) who lacks heroic qualities such as integrity, courage, and morality.
In J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, protagonist Holden Caulfield serves as an antihero, narrating his misguided and unsuccessful attempts to make meaningful personal connections in a society he largely despises.
A rhetorical technique that uses parallel grammatical structure to contrast two opposing ideas.
Many ancient proverbs use antithesis to promote one idea over another. Notice how the parallel sentence structure in the following proverb sets up a clear contrast between two ideas, leaving no doubt about which is better:
“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”
A brief, memorable statement that captures a broad, universal truth or idea.
Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack contains many well-known aphorisms. Two of the most famous are:
“Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”
“God helps them that help themselves.”
A rhetorical device in which a speaker addresses either an inanimate object or a person who is absent or dead.
In the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet, Juliet uses apostrophe when she asks, “O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art though Romeo?” (2.2.33). Although Romeo is hiding below in the garden, Juliet does not know that anyone is listening. Later in the play, Juliet uses apostrophe again when she speaks to Romeo’s dagger: “O happy dagger, / This is thy sheathe!” (5.3.183–184).
A literary element that is common in stories from many different cultures and times and has similar, universally recognizable attributes. Archetypes include common character types (e.g., heroes, villains, tricksters), symbols (fire, water, light, darkness), themes, plotlines, or other elements.
The hero archetype appears in stories from nearly every culture in human history. Archetypal heroes face certain universal challenges, such as unusual circumstances of birth, a traumatic event that initiates a dangerous quest, and a great trial that tests the hero’s character and results in a sort of rebirth.
Repetition of similar vowel sounds within words and phrases, commonly used for a lyrical effect in poetry and other literary forms.
Emily Dickinson frequently used assonance in her poetry, as in the opening lines of her poem “Because I could not stop for Death”:
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –
Poetry or prose that does not rhyme but has a consistent meter, usually iambic pentameter.
In Shakespeare’s plays, high-born characters usually speak in blank verse, or unrhymed iambic pentameter. Each line consists of ten syllables, which alternate between unstressed and stressed (in bold).
But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she. (Romeo and Juliet, 2.1.2–6)
A pause in the middle of a line of poetry or verse, sometimes marked by punctuation.
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” contains caesuras, marked with two vertical bars below.
Who said—”Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . || Near them, || on the sand . . .
My name is Ozymandias, || King of Kings; ||
Look on my Works, || ye Mighty, || and despair!
Nothing beside remains. || Round the decay . . .
Any of the various techniques used by an author to reveal the traits of a character to the reader.
Although Satan is the antagonist in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, many readers feel that Milton’s characterization of Satan portrays him in a heroic light.
A figure of speech in which one phrase is followed by another that inverts its grammatical construction.
The following saying from Socrates employs chiasmus; the second clause is an inversion of the first:
“Bad men live that they may eat and drink; whereas good men eat and drink that they may live.”
In poetry, a five-line stanza or one of several established types of five-line poems.
Historically, many English poets structured their poems in cinquains, or five-line stanzas. Over time, poets developed several types of poems that have a single cinquain. A limerick, for example, is a humorous cinquain that follows a particular rhyme scheme and meter.
The point of highest tension in a story, in which the main conflict is faced and ultimately resolved.
In William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the climax occurs after Ralph and Piggy demand that Jack return Piggy’s stolen glasses. When Jack’s tribe kills Piggy and forces Ralph to flee into the jungle, it becomes clear that Jack has triumphed over Ralph in their struggle for supremacy on the island.
The central struggle that drives the plot of a story or, more generally, any struggle between opposing forces in a story. Literary scholars often classify conflicts as internal, in which a character struggles with some internal dilemma, or external, in which a character struggles against outside forces like nature, other characters, or supernatural forces.
In William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the main conflict pits the protagonist, Ralph, against the antagonist, Jack. Throughout the story, the two boys compete to become the dominant leader of the boys stranded on the island, with Ralph embodying the rules and order of civilization and Jack the opposing tendency toward terror and violence.
The repetition of one or more consonant sounds in words that are close together, such as within a single sentence or line of poetry; may include both initial consonant sounds (alliteration) or sounds within words.
The following famous tongue-twister comes precariously close to using consonance in every word.
Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers;
A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked;
If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,
Where's the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?
In poetry or verse, a pair of consecutive lines of poetry that form a complete thought, usually rhyming and having the same meter and sometimes placed in their own stanza.
A Shakespearian sonnet is a fourteen-line poem consisting of three quatrains (four-line stanzas) followed by a rhyming couplet that often concludes the poem with an unexpected twist. For example, the couplet below concludes a sonnet in which the speaker mostly laments the fact that age will someday degrade his lover’s beauty. “This” in the first line refers to having a child through whom one’s own lost beauty can live on.
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.
(from Sonnet 2: “When Forty Winters Shall Besiege Thy Brow,” by William Shakespeare)
The word choice of a writer or speaker; style of writing or speaking, as related to word choice.
In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, author Mark Twain uses informal, colloquial diction to develop the character of his narrator, a poor, uneducated boy from Missouri. Huck’s use of regional slang and incorrect grammar becomes an important part of his character, as is clear even from the novel’s opening lines:
You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another. . . (Chapter 1)
A figure of speech with two possible interpretations, one of which is usually ironic or lewd.
In Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio uses a double entendre to tell the Nurse that it is noon:
“’Tis no less, I tell you, for the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon.” (Romeo and Juliet 2.4.56)
The line literally means that the hand of the clock is pointing toward the prick (mark) of noon, but it can also be read as a reference to one’s hand being placed on a prick (penis).
A literary device in which one or more characters in a story remain unaware of plot developments that have already been revealed to the audience, giving rise to humor, suspense, or double meanings.
Shakespeare uses dramatic irony to create tension and humor throughout Othello. Iago, the play’s villain, frequently reveals his diabolical schemes to the audience in monologues and asides, out of the hearing of Othello and his other unwitting victims, who for some reason seem to trust him absolutely.
A poem or song of lamentation written in honor of a deceased person.
The poem “In Memoriam A.H.H.” is an elegy written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in honor of his late friend Arthur Henry Hallam.
In literature, a device used to omit details from a narrative, usually for the purpose of allowing readers to draw their own conclusions about what is missing. Sometimes ellipsis is denoted by three dots (. . .) at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of a sentence, but in other cases ellipsis simply refers to the intentional omission of details from a story.
American novelist Ernest Hemingway made frequent use of ellipsis in his stories. He subscribed to what he called the Iceberg Theory, the notion that a writer should present only the most essential details in a story, leaving the reader to deduce the unspoken details lurking beneath the surface.
In poetry or verse, the technique of breaking a line of verse in the middle of a phrase so that the phrase continues on the next line without a natural pause between lines.
Wallace Stevens uses enjambment three times in this stanza from his poem “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” as shown by the underlined sections. The other lines in the stanza end with either a comma or a period, indicating a pause or a stop.
Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month's newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
A brief, witty, satirical statement that is generally memorable on account of being paradoxical, humorous, or poetic.
Irish writer Oscar Wilde coined numerous epigrams, like this one from The Picture of Dorian Gray:
“. . . for there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
A concluding section or speech at the end of a literary work, often used to provide closure.
Shakespeare’s plays often conclude with an epilogue in which one of the characters delivers a speech that neatly sums up the outcome of the play’s events. For example, at the conclusion of The Tempest, Prospero, the vengeful protagonist, delivers a speech in which he directly addresses the audience, asking them to pardon him for his faults and “release” him from the stage with their applause.
A descriptive phrase that accompanies or replaces the name of a character or thing.
Homer frequently uses epithets to refer to characters in The Iliad and The Odyssey, such as “swift-footed Achilles” and “the man of twists and turns.”
A figure of speech that softens an unpleasant or offensive idea by substituting a polite phrase instead.
In Neal Shusterman’s sci-fi novel Arc of a Scythe, people called scythes are professionally trained in the art of “gleaning,” a euphemism for selectively killing other people to keep human population growth in check.
The introduction of background information necessary for the reader or audience to make sense of a story.
In most cases, the exposition occurs near the beginning of a story, revealing basic details about the setting and characters who will drive the action.
The part of a story’s plot that immediately follows the climax (when the main conflict is resolved) and moves the story toward its resolution.
The falling action of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart occurs after the climax, when Okonkwo realizes that his killing of the District Commissioner’s messenger has failed to inspire his fellow tribesmen to unite against the white colonizers. Utterly defeated, Okonkwo hangs himself, bringing his tragic story to a close.
In poetry, the basic unit of meter consisting of some combination of two or more stressed and unstressed syllables. Different types of poetic feet include the iamb (unstressed, stressed), trochee (stressed, unstressed), dactyl (stressed, unstressed, unstressed), anapest (unstressed, unstressed, stressed), spondee (stressed, stressed), and pyrrhic (unstressed, unstressed).
Each of the lines below contains five feet, each of which can be classified as an iamb because it consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.
How do / I love / thee? Let / me count / the ways.
I love / thee to / the depth / and breadth / and height
My soul / can reach, / when feel/ -ing out / of sight.
(from “Sonnet 43” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning)
A character whose traits contrast with those of the protagonist or another main character, thereby highlighting some aspect of that character.
In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the noble, loyal Banquo acts as a foil to Macbeth, the treacherous, treasonous protagonist.
A detail in a literary work that hints at events that will occur later, often to create suspense or expectation.
From the very beginning of The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald uses foreshadowing to hint at Gatsby’s tragic downfall:
“No—Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.” (from Chapter 1 of The Great Gatsby)
A form of poetry that does not follow a specific meter, rhythm, or rhyme scheme.
American poet Walt Whitman wrote most of his works in free verse. The form mirrors the poet's content, which often celebrates the concept of freedom, as in these opening lines from "Song of the Open Road":
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
A form of poetry consisting of three lines that follow a syllable pattern of 5-7-5 and usually focus on the natural world.
Although the haiku form originated in Japan, poets write haikus in many different languages, including English. A haiku translated into English from a different language may not exactly follow the 5-7-5 syllable pattern. Consider this haiku, translated by Harry Behn, from Matsuo Basho, a Japanese haiku master from the 17th century:
An old silent pond...
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.
The main character (protagonist) of a literary work, especially one who exhibits admirable traits such as courage and righteousness; in mythology, heroes/heroines also typically possess supernatural powers or other qualities.
Elizabeth Bennet is the heroine of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice. Harry is the hero of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
An extreme exaggeration used to make a point, often humorously.
In The Catcher in the Rye, narrator Holden Caulfield often uses hyperbole to exaggerate his circumstances.
"At Pencey, you either froze to death or died of the heat." (Chapter 3)
A commonly used meter in English verse in which each line consists of ten syllables arranged in five iambs (an iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable).
The lines below from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18” are written in iambic pentameter, as are all of his sonnets. The stressed syllables are in boldface.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date . . . (lines 1–4)
A commonly used figure of speech with a meaning that differs from its literal meaning. Many idioms are specific to one language or region.
Idioms are often difficult to translate into other languages because their literal meaning makes very little sense. For example, take the idiom “The world is your oyster,” which roughly means, “You can accomplish anything you want to.” This idiom traces its roots back to one of Shakespeare’s comedies, in which a character colorfully explains that he can get his way by using his sword.
Why, then the world's mine oyster,
Which I with sword will open. (Merry Wives of Windsor, II.ii.2-3)
Descriptive or figurative language that attempts to evoke mental images by appealing to the reader’s senses of sight, sound, smell, texture, or taste.
In these lines from Robert Frost’s poem "Birches," the speaker uses vivid imagery to help the reader imagine the sights, sounds, and feelings they might experience while surveying frozen birch trees after an ice storm.
Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
The placement of two very different ideas, characters, or actions close together in relation to each other, usually to draw attention to their contrasting traits.
In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen uses juxtaposition to contrast Elizabeth Bennet with the more proper and pretentious women in the novel. In Chapter 7, Elizabeth walks three miles in bad weather to visit her sick sister, “jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity. . .” When Elizabeth arrives soaked and muddy at Netherfield Park, she is met by Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst, two proper ladies who find the idea of a lady walking alone in such bad weather "incredible" and improper.
A type of poem, often humorous, made up of three long lines and two short lines that follow an aabba rhyme scheme.
Poet Edward Lear is famous for his humorous limericks such as "There was an Old Man with a Beard."
There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, "It is just as I feared!—
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!"
A figure of speech consisting of an ironic understatement in which a positive statement is made by negating the opposite.
Jonathan Swift uses litotes in the following line from his satirical essay “A Modest Proposal”:
I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.
When Swift says he hopes no one will object to his ideas, he really means that he hopes everyone agrees with him.
A misuse or mispronunciation of a word or phrase, often in the form of a word being replaced with a similar-sounding word; may be unintentional or intentional (usually for comic effect).
The word malapropism comes from Mrs. Malaprop, a character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals. Mrs. Malaprop often speaks in malapropisms, using phrases like "pineapple of politeness" in place of "pinnacle of politeness" and talking about scientific experiments done in the "lavatory" (instead of laboratory).
A figure of speech that features a comparison between two disparate things that are not literally the same. Unlike similes, metaphors do not use the words “like” or “as.”
Shakespeare’s plays make frequent use of metaphors, many of which have become famous. The lines below use a metaphor to compare the world to a theater in which people are the actors (players).
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts . . .” (As You Like It, II.vii.142–145)
The rhythmic structure of a line of verse, characterized by the number of syllables in the line, the pattern of the stressed and unstressed syllables, or a combination of both.
The most familiar syllabic meter is the Japanese haiku, which consists of seventeen syllables in three lines, following a 5-7-5 pattern. Iambic pentameter, which follows a pattern of five pairs of stressed, then unstressed syllables per line, is the most common meter in English verse.
A figure of speech in which the name of one object or concept is substituted for the name of something else that is closely related to it.
The following sentence employs metonymy by substituting the place where Congress meets (Capitol Hill) for Congress itself and the place where the President lives (the White House) for the President’s administration.
No legislation has passed on Capitol Hill without the support of the White House for several years.
An extended speech given by one speaker or character, either to themselves, or to others without interruption.
In Tom’s monologues throughout The Glass Menagerie, he often speaks directly to the audience, providing stage directions, exposition, or reflection.
The emotional atmosphere of a work of literature, as evoked by setting, imagery, word choice, style, and tone. The mood may expand, deepen, or shift over the course of a work.
The opening sentence of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities perfectly sets the mood for the complex story he is about to tell, eliciting confusion and mixed feelings:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
The technique of using repetition of an idea, event, image, phrase, or symbol throughout a literary work to illuminate and expand the major themes.
In William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the narrator frequently describes the oppressive heat of the island at various points throughout the story. This motif establishes a connection between the island’s hostile environment and the physical and psychological oppression of the boys stranded there.
The speaker telling the story in a narrative work of literature.
In Marie Semple’s novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, the narrator is the abandoned fifteen-year-old daughter of Bernadette. All of the action is filtered through the lens of her experience.
A formal poem that celebrates and praises a person, place, thing, or idea.
Nineteenth-century English poets often wrote odes celebrating objects of natural or artistic beauty, as in John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” By the twentieth century, poets had begun writing odes in praise of the mundane, such as Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to My Socks.”
A word that nearly imitates the actual sound it describes.
Examples of onomatopoeia are common in spoken language, from the “zip” of a zipper to the “baa” of a sheep or “vroom” of a motorcycle.
A figure of speech linking two opposite or contradictory words or ideas together to form a neat paradox. Oxymorons may be employed to reveal contradictions, give the reader pause, or for comic effect.
Many oxymorons have become part of our common vernacular. For example, the adjective “passive-aggressive” combines two words with opposite meanings, but it is frequently used to describe those who disguise aggression or resentment with outwardly polite or passive behavior.
A short story devised to provide a moral or spiritual lesson, often using metaphor, simile, or symbolism to make the moral more accessible to the audience.
Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan in the Bible explores the meaning of one of the Ten Commandments, to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” In the story, a traveler is beaten, robbed, and left for dead by the roadside. Several other travelers pass by afterward, but only a foreigner stops to help the man. The moral of the parable is that we should love all people as our “neighbors,” not just our literal neighbors.
A provocative statement that contradicts itself yet is typically true in some sense.
In George Orwell’s 1984, two of the official slogans of the Party serve as stark examples of paradox: “WAR IS PEACE” and “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY.” Although these statements appear to be patently false, they embody two of the twisted, elemental truths propagated by the Party.
The repetition of similar grammatical structures within a sentence or passage, often for emphasis or to draw connections between objects.
Great orators often employ parallelism to make their ideas memorable. Consider the underlined phrases in this line from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which uses parallel structure to highlight King’s dream of racial equality.
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. . . “
In literature, an imitation of another literary work that mocks, critiques, or makes light of the original.
“For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls,” by Christopher Durang, is a one-act parody of The Glass Menagerie, caricaturing the overbearing Southern mother and exaggerating the idiosyncrasies of the other three characters.
A type of metaphor in which human attributes are assigned to inanimate objects or abstract ideas.
Zora Neale Hurston uses personification throughout Their Eyes Were Watching God to powerful effect, such as here, near the end of the novel, once Janie is home again and after Pheoby has left her:
“The day of the gun, and the bloody body, and the courthouse came and commenced to sing a sobbing sigh out of every corner in the room; out of each and every chair and thing. Commenced to sing, commenced to sob and sigh, singing and sobbing.” (Chapter 20)
The sequence of major events of a narrative or dramatic work, usually consisting of five basic elements: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.
The plot of most romantic comedies can be succinctly described as: two people meet, they fall in love, they experience some challenge and break up, they cross paths again, they resolve their problem and reunite.
The perspective from which the events of a story are reported to the reader or audience. Point of view can limit or expand the reader’s access to information about the action of the story, as well as the internal lives of the characters.
In novels, there are three basic types of point of view: first-person, third-person, and less commonly, second-person. In first-person, the narrator is a witness, participant, and chronicler of the action. In third-person, the narrator observes and reports on the actions of the characters, but is not herself a character. This narrator can be omniscient, where they have full knowledge of all characters and situations, or limited, where they only have knowledge of one character’s perspective. In second-person, the narrator addresses the reader as “you,” effectively drawing the reader into the action of the story.
The repetition of conjunctions (and, but, for, etc.) to connect a series of words, clauses, or sentences. Polysyndeton may emphasize the relationships between the items in the series as well as add rhythm to a list when reciting.
One of the most familiar examples of polysyndeton is the motto of the United States Postal Service.
“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
An introductory section of a piece of literature, especially of plays, that precedes the inciting action of the story. The prologue is often designed to explain background or reveal context to the audience so they better understand the story that follows.
In the prologue of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, Tom Wingfield, the protagonist, addresses the audience directly and explains his role in the play:
[TOM:] I am the narrator of the play, and also a character in it. The other characters are my mother, Amanda, my sister, Laura, and a gentleman caller who appears in the final scenes.
Any form of writing that does not observe the limiting features of verse, particularly line breaks. Prose is the most dominant form of both fiction (novels, short stories, plays) and nonfiction (essays, articles, speeches, emails).
Keen readers of Shakespeare will notice that “low-born” characters nearly always speak in prose, while their high-born counterparts generally speak in verse.
A play on words that depends on substituting homophones (words that sound alike with different meanings, for example, “tail” and “tale”) or words that sound enough alike that using them interchangeably results in a humorous or provocative effect.
The most enjoyable puns are those that surprise the reader or listener, as when a child complained about a loud car alarm (“That sound is irritating!”) and then discovered her own pun (“Get it? Ear-itating!”)
The main character in a narrative. The central plot of the story focuses on this character.
Sometimes a work’s title contains the name of the protagonist, as in The Odyssey (Odysseus) The Aeneid (Aeneas) Jane Eyre (Jane Eyre), and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Harry Potter). But this is not always the case.
In verse, a stanza consisting of four lines, which usually conforms to a particular rhyme scheme.
While Emily Dickinson did not write exclusively in quatrains, they were her preferred style. The first stanza in “Because I could not stop for Death” is a quatrain with a rhyme scheme of abab.
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
Deliberately repeating a word or phrase two or more times in a text to add emphasis or bring clarity to a subject or event.
Walt Whitman favored repetition as a means of layering meaning and complexity into his poetry, as in this couplet from the third section in “I Sing the Body Electric”:
I knew a man, a common farmer, the father of five sons,
And in them the fathers of sons, and in them the fathers of sons.
The final action in a play or story, sometimes called the dénouement, which generally resolves any outstanding conflicts and brings the plot to its conclusion.
In Hamlet, the resolution is marked by Fortinbras arriving on the scene to lay his claim to Denmark, only to discover that the entire Danish royal family is already dead. Horatio dutifully reports the tragic tale of their downfall, and Fortinbras orders that Hamlet’s body be removed and buried, bringing the story to a close.
Any form of discourse designed to persuade, typically by appealing to ethics, logic, or emotion.
Jonathan Swift satirizes the tools of rhetoric in his essay “A Modest Proposal,” in which he methodically (and ironically) argues that the most rational and moral way to eliminate the burden of child poverty on society is to feed poor children to the wealthy.
A question asked by the speaker for effect, rather than because a response is needed or expected.
In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Caesar delivers one of literature’s most famous rhetorical questions as he is assassinated by a group that includes Brutus, one of his most loyal supporters. Even today, the Latin phrase “Et tu, Brute?” (And you too, Brutus?) is commonly used to express a profound sense of betrayal to a friend.
Sounds that are repeated in the final syllables of words. In poetry or song, these repeated sounds can occur at the ends of lines (end rhyme) or within lines (internal rhyme).
The Witches’ spell in Act IV of Shakespeare’s Macbeth features both internal and end rhyme:
Double, double toil and trouble,
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble. (IV.1.20-21)
The section of a story between the exposition and the climax, generally characterized by a series of events that build tension and develop the main conflict.
In the classic folktale The Three Little Pigs, the rising action includes the events leading up to the final face-off with the Big Bad Wolf, such as the pigs’ building of their homes and the wolf’s blowing down of the first two houses.
A literary style that ridicules human vice or folly, often through humor, irony, and sarcasm.
In her short story “A Telephone Call,” Dorothy Parker uses biting satire to mock the folly of romantic love, amplifying the pathetic desperation of her poor heroine as she waits for a phone call from a potential suitor:
I must stop this. I mustn't be this way. Look. Suppose a young man says he'll call a girl up, and then something happens, and he doesn't. That isn't so terrible, is it? Why, it's going on all over the world, right this minute. Oh, what do I care what's going on all over the world? Why can't that telephone ring? Why can't it, why can't it? Couldn't you ring? Ah, please, couldn't you? You damned, ugly, shiny thing. It would hurt you to ring, wouldn't it? Oh, that would hurt you. Damn you, I'll pull your filthy roots out of the wall, I'll smash your smug black face in little bits. Damn you to hell.
The time and place in which a story unfolds.
The setting of The Crucible by Arthur Miller is the small town of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692.
A figure of speech in which two objects are directly compared, usually including either “like” or “as” in the comparison.
The Romantic poets were especially fond of similes, as in the title of William Wordsworth’s poem, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.”
The humorous or surprising effect of a situation in which the outcomes diverge widely from expectations.
O. Henry was the master of situational irony, expertly captured in his short story, “The Gift of the Magi.” A husband and wife each secretly sell their most prized possession in order to buy each other gifts that complement the very possessions they’ve sold.
A monologue given by a character in a play at a time when the character is alone or believes no other characters are present.
Like many playwrights, Shakespeare typically uses soliloquy to reveal a character’s internal dilemmas. Hamlet’s speech that begins “To be or not to be? That is the question—" is perhaps the most famous soliloquy in English literature.
A formal poem consisting of fourteen lines and following a standard rhyme scheme. Petrarchan sonnets consist of an eight-line stanza followed by a six-line stanza, while Shakespearean sonnets comprise three quatrains followed by a rhyming couplet.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee? (Sonnet 43)” follows the Petrarchan structure, with a rhyme scheme of abba abba cdcdcd.
A group of lines in a poem that is separated from other lines, similar to a paragraph in prose.
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge contains 143 stanzas of varying length.
Describes all the elements that contribute to a particular piece or type of writing, sometimes of a specific writer, such as diction, sentence structure, point of view, use of literary devices, etc.
William Faulkner’s stream-of-consciousness style features long, complex sentences made of many subordinate clauses, without the expected punctuation to guide the reader.
A sequence of events that is secondary to the main plot in a narrative or drama, usually featuring supporting characters.
Musical theater is especially fond of subplots. In Oklahoma!, the comical longstanding romance of Ado Annie and Will Parker acts as a foil to Laurey and Curly’s much more hesitant, tender romance.
Anything that is meant to represent or evoke something else, especially a concrete object meant to represent an intangible idea.
Throughout the Bible, the dove is a symbol for the Holy Spirit. In pop culture, the dove often symbolizes peace.
A specific type of metonymy in which a part of something is meant to signify the whole, or the whole is meant to stand for an individual part.
Sportscasters routinely use synecdoche when they use the name of a city to refer to a sports team. In the sentence below, “Green Bay” (a whole city) refers only to the city’s football team.
Green Bay needs to close that defensive hole.
The way in which words are arranged in order to create meaning.
In English, sentences typically follow a basic syntax of subject + verb + object. Adding other elements (like a complement or indirect object) or inverting the word order can create nuance or change the meaning. In the Star Wars films, for example, Yoda’s syntax often follows an inverted structure: object + subject + verb.
“Powerful you have become; the dark side I sense in you.”
A unit of poetry consisting of three lines. Lines in a tercet may or may not rhyme with each other or with lines of an adjacent tercet.
A Haiku consists of a single tercet that typically does not rhyme but follows a syllable count of 5-7-5.
A poetic form in which multiple tercets are arranged in a particular rhyme scheme and, usually, a particular meter. The second line of each tercet rhymes with the first and third of the next, creating an aba bcb cdc ded rhyme scheme.
“Ode to the West Wind,” by Percy Bysshe Shelley, is a five-part poem. Each part consists of four stanzas written in terza rima followed by a final stanza that is a rhyming couplet. The two stanzas below illustrate the terza rima rhyme scheme.
O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being, a
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead b
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing, a
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red, b
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou, c
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed b
An underlying or emerging abstract idea or concept explored in a literary work. One work may explore multiple themes.
The dystopian novels 1984, Brave New World, and The Handmaid’s Tale all explore the theme of subjugation of the individual for the benefit of society.
In literature, the attitude of a writer, narrator, or speaker toward the subject matter, as expressed by style, word choice, or demeanor.
Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 tells the story of a U.S. Air Force squadron forced to fly dangerous bombing missions during World War II. Despite the serious subject matter, the narrator’s humorous, ironic tone reveals Heller’s disdain for the absurdity of war.
In poetry, a two-syllable foot in which the first syllable is stressed and the second unstressed.
Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” is that rare example of a poem that extensively uses trochees, as seen in these lines from first stanza. The bold-faced syllables are stressed.
Once up / on a / midnight / dreary, / while I / pondered, / weak and / weary,/
Over / many / a quaint and / curious / volume / of for- / gotten / lore—
While I / nodded, / nearly / napping, / sudden / ly there / came a / tapping,/
As of / some one / gently / rapping, / rapping / at my / chamber / door.
When a writer downplays an event or idea to make it seem less important or serious than it is, usually for rhetorical effect.
Holden Caulfield’s description of an upcoming procedure in The Catcher in the Rye is an understatement: “I have to have this operation. It isn’t very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain.”
The use of a statement to express an idea other than (or opposite to) the literal meaning of the statement.
In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the novel’s genteel characters often employ verbal irony with a politeness that borders on passive aggression. When Mary Bennet attempts to entertain a dinner party by singing, her father intercedes on behalf of the other guests, who can scarcely endure her painfully bad performance:
“. . . when Mary had finished her second song, he said aloud, ‘That will do extremely well, child. You have delighted us long enough. Let the other young ladies have time to exhibit.’” (Chapter 18)
A short, descriptive passage or scene within a larger story or work; generally serves to establish mood, setting, or character rather than advance the plot.
The first several sections of The House on Mango Street consist of a series of loosely related vignettes. These fragmented scenes give the reader short glimpses into the world of the young narrator, Esperanza.
A formal poem consisting of nineteen lines arranged into five tercets followed by a concluding quatrain that ends with a rhyming couplet; it also has a complex rhyme and repetition scheme, in which the entire first and third lines of the first tercet are alternately repeated as the third lines of each subsequent tercet, until they appear as the final rhyming couplet.
The villanelle form originated in French poetry. One of the most well-known English villanelles is “Do not go gentle into that good night,” by Dylan Thomas.
The distinctive style of expression of an author, narrator, speaker, or character, which is established by diction, point of view, tone, and other literary devices.
Each writer makes countless choices, both conscious and unconscious, that contribute to their unique voice. Consider just a few of the many ways to say “goodbye,” and how each option shapes the voice of the speaker:
Until we meet again.
May God go with you!
See you on the flip side.
Parting is such sweet sorrow.
Smell ya later.