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abstract : as an adjective applied to writing or literary works, abstract refers to words or phrases that name things not knowable through the five senses. Examples of abstracts include the Cliffs Notes summaries of major literary works. Examples of abstract terms or concepts include “idea,” “guilt,” “honesty,” and “loyalty.”

aestheticism : a literary and artistic movement of the nineteenth century. Followers of the movement believed that art should not be mixed with social, political, or moral teaching. The statement “art for art's sake” is a good summary of aestheticism. The movement had its roots in France, but it gained widespread importance in England in the last half of the nineteenth century, where it helped change the Victorian practice of including moral lessons in literature.

Age of Johnson : the period in English literature between 1750 and 1798, named after the most prominent literary figure of the age, Samuel Johnson. Works written during this time are noted for their emphasis on “sensibility,” or emotional quality. These works formed a transition between the rational works of the Age of Reason, or Neoclassical period, and the emphasis on individual feelings and responses of the Romantic period. Significant writers during the Age of Johnson included the novelists Ann Radcliffe and Henry Mackenzie, dramatists Richard Sheridan and Oliver Goldsmith, and poets William Collins and Thomas Gray.

Age of Reason : see neoclassicism

Age of Sensibility : see Age of Johnson

agrarians : a group of Southern American writers of the 1930s and 1940s who fostered an economic and cultural program for the South based on agriculture, in opposition to the industrial society of the North. The term can refer to any group that promotes the value of farm life and agricultural society. Members of the original Agrarians included John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren.

allegory : a narrative technique in which characters representing things or abstract ideas are used to convey a message or teach a lesson. Allegory is typically used to teach moral, ethical, or religious lessons but is sometimes used for satiric or political purposes. Examples of allegorical works include Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene and John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress.

allusion : a reference to a familiar literary or historical person or event, used to make an idea more easily understood. For example, describing someone as a “Romeo” makes an allusion to William Shakespeare's famous young lover in Romeo and Juliet.

amerind literature : the writing and oral traditions of Native Americans. Native American literature was originally passed on by word of mouth, so it consisted largely of stories and events that were easily memorized. Amerind prose is often rhythmic like poetry because it was recited to the beat of a ceremonial drum. Examples of Amerind literature include the autobiographical Black Elk Speaks, the works of N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, and Craig Lee Strete, and the poetry of Luci Tapahonso.

analogy : a comparison of two things made to explain something unfamiliar through its similarities to something familiar, or to prove one point based on the acceptedness of another. Similes and metaphors are types of analogies. Analogies often take the form of an extended simile, as in William Blake's aphorism: “As the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys.”

angry young men : a group of British writers of the 1950s whose work expressed bitterness and disillusionment with society. Common to their work is an anti-hero who rebels against a corrupt social order and strives for personal integrity. The term has been used to describe Kingsley Amis, John Osborne, Colin Wilson, John Wain, and others.

antagonist : the major character in a narrative or drama who works against the hero or protagonist. An example of an evil antagonist is Richard Lovelace in Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, while a virtuous antagonist is Macduff in William Shakespeare's Macbeth.

anthropomorphism : the presentation of animals or objects in human shape or with human characteristics. The term is derived from the Greek word for “human form.” The fables of Aesop, the animated films of Walt Disney, and Richard Adams's Watership Down feature anthropomorphic characters.

anti-hero : a central character in a work of literature who lacks traditional heroic qualities such as courage, physical prowess, and fortitude. Anti-heros typically distrust conventional values and are unable to commit themselves to any ideals. They generally feel helpless in a world over which they have no control. Anti-heroes usually accept, and often celebrate, their positions as social outcasts. A well-known anti-hero is Yossarian in Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22.

anti-novel : a term coined by French critic Jean-Paul Sartre. It refers to any experimental work of fiction that avoids the familiar conventions of the novel. The anti-novel usually fragments and distorts the experience of its characters, forcing the reader to construct the reality of the story from a disordered narrative. The best-known anti-novelist is Alain Robbe-Grillet, author of Le voyeur.

antithesis : the antithesis of something is its direct opposite. In literature, the use of antithesis as a figure of speech results in two statements that show a contrast through the balancing of two opposite ideas. Technically, it is the second portion of the statement that is defined as the “antithesis”; the first portion is the “thesis.” An example of antithesis is found in the following portion of Abraham Lincoln's “Gettysburg Address”; notice the opposition between the verbs “remember” and “forget” and the phrases “what we say” and “what they did”: “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

apocrypha : writings tentatively attributed to an author but not proven or universally accepted to be their works. The term was originally applied to certain books of the Bible that were not considered inspired and so were not included in the “sacred canon.” Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Thomas Kyd, Thomas Middleton, and John Marston all have apocrypha. Apocryphal books of the Bible include the Old Testament's Book of Enoch and New Testament's Gospel of Peter.

apprenticeship novel : see bildungsroman

archetype : the word archetype is commonly used to describe an original pattern or model from which all other things of the same kind are made. This term was introduced to literary criticism from the psychology of Carl Jung. It expresses Jung's theory that behind every person's “unconscious,” or repressed memories of the past, lies the “collective unconscious” of the human race: memories of the countless typical experiences of our ancestors. These memories are said to prompt illogical associations that trigger powerful emotions in the reader. Often, the emotional process is primitive, even primordial. Archetypes are the literary images that grow out of the “collective unconscious.” They appear in literature as incidents and plots that repeat basic patterns of life. They may also appear as stereotyped characters. Examples of literary archetypes include themes such as birth and death and characters such as the Earth Mother.

argument : the argument of a work is the author's subject matter or principal idea. Examples of defined “argument” portions of works include John Milton's Arguments to each of the books of Paradise Lost and the “Argument” to Robert Herrick's Hesperides.

art for art's sake : see Aestheticism

audience : the people for whom a piece of literature is written. Authors usually write with a certain audience in mind, for example, children, members of a religious or ethnic group, or colleagues in a professional field. The term “audience” also applies to the people who gather to see or hear any performance, including plays, poetry readings, speeches, and concerts. Jane Austen's parody of the gothic novel, Northanger Abbey, was originally intended for (and also pokes fun at) an audience of young and avid female gothic novel readers.

autobiography : a connected narrative in which an individual tells his or her life story. Examples include Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography and Henry Adams's The Education of Henry Adams.

automatic writing : writing carried out without a preconceived plan in an effort to capture every random thought. Authors who engage in automatic writing typically do not revise their work, preferring instead to preserve the revealed truth and beauty of spontaneous expression. Automatic writing was employed by many of the Surrealist writers, notably the French poet Robert Desnos.

avant-garde : French term meaning “vanguard.” It is used in literary criticism to describe new writing that rejects traditional approaches to literature in favor of innovations in style or content. Twentieth-century examples of the literary avant-garde include the Black Mountain School of poets, the Bloomsbury Group, and the Beat Movement.


baroque : a term used in literary criticism to describe literature that is complex or ornate in style or diction. Baroque works typically express tension, anxiety, and violent emotion. The term “Baroque Age” designates a period in Western European literature beginning in the late sixteenth century and ending about one hundred years later. Works of this period often mirror the qualities of works more generally associated with the label “baroque” and sometimes feature elaborate conceits. Examples of Baroque works include John Lyly's Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit, Luis de Gongora's Soledads, and William Shakespeare's As You Like It.

baroque age : see baroque

baroque period : see baroque

beat generation : see beat movement

beat movement : a period featuring a group of American poets and novelists of the 1950s and 1960s—including Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, William S. Burroughs, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti—who rejected established social and literary values. Using such techniques as stream of consciousness writing and jazz-influenced free verse and focusing on unusual or abnormal states of mind—generated by religious ecstasy or the use of drugs—the Beat writers aimed to create works that were unconventional in both form and subject matter. Kerouac's On the Road is perhaps the best-known example of a Beat Generation novel, and Ginsberg's Howl is a famous collection of Beat poetry.

beats, the : see beat movement

belles-lettres : a French term meaning “fine letters” or “beautiful writing.” It is often used as a synonym for literature, typically referring to imaginative and artistic rather than scientific or expository writing. Current usage sometimes restricts the meaning to light or humorous writing and appreciative essays about literature. Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland epitomizes the realm of belles-lettres.

bildungsroman : a German word meaning “novel of development.” The bildungsroman is a study of the maturation of a youthful character, typically brought about through a series of social or sexual encounters that lead to self-awareness. Bildungsroman is used interchangeably with erziehungsroman, a novel of initiation and education. When a bildungsroman is concerned with the development of an artist (as in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), it is often termed a kunstlerroman. Well-known bildungsroman include J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, Robert Newton Peck's A Day No Pigs Would Die, and S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders.

biography : a connected narrative that tells a person's life story. Biographies typically aim to be objective and closely detailed. James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D is a famous example of the form.

black aesthetic movement : a period of artistic and literary development among African Americans in the 1960s and early 1970s. This was the first major African-American artistic movement since the Harlem Renaissance and was closely paralleled by the civil rights and black power movements. The black aesthetic writers attempted to produce works of art that would be meaningful to the black masses. Key figures in black aesthetics included one of its founders, poet and playwright Amiri Baraka, formerly known as LeRoi Jones; poet and essayist Haki R. Madhubuti, formerly Don L. Lee; poet and playwright Sonia Sanchez; and dramatist Ed Bullins. Works representative of the Black Aesthetic Movement include Amiri Baraka's play Dutchman, a 1964 Obie award-winner; Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, edited by Baraka and playwright Larry Neal and published in 1968; and Sonia Sanchez's poetry collection We a BaddDDD People, published in 1970.

black arts movement : see black aesthetic movement

black comedy : see black humor

black humor : writing that places grotesque elements side by side with humorous ones in an attempt to shock the reader, forcing him or her to laugh at the horrifying reality of a disordered world. Joseph Heller's novel Catch- 22 is considered a superb example of the use of black humor. Other well-known authors who use black humor include Kurt Vonnegut, Edward Albee, Eugene Ionesco, and Harold Pinter.

bloomsbury group : a group of English writers, artists, and intellectuals who held informal artistic and philosophical discussions in Bloomsbury, a district of London, from around 1907 to the early 1930s. The Bloomsbury Group held no uniform philosophical beliefs but did commonly express an aversion to moral prudery and a desire for greater social tolerance. At various times the circle included Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey, and John Maynard Keynes.

bon mot : a French term meaning “good word.” A bon mot is a witty remark or clever observation. Charles Lamb and Oscar Wilde are celebrated for their witty bon mots. Two examples by Oscar Wilde stand out: (1) “All women become their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his.” (2) “A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies.”

burlesque : any literary work that uses exaggeration to make its subject appear ridiculous, either by treating a trivial subject with profound seriousness or by treating a dignified subject frivolously. The word “burlesque” may also be used as an adjective, as in “burlesque show,” to mean “striptease act.” Examples of literary burlesque include the comedies of Aristophanes, Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote, Samuel Butler's poem “Hudibras,” and John Gay's play The Beggar's Opera.


Celtic renaissance : a period of Irish literary and cultural history at the end of the nineteenth century. Followers of the movement aimed to create a romantic vision of Celtic myth and legend. The most significant works of the Celtic Renaissance typically present a dreamy, unreal world, usually in reaction against the reality of contemporary problems. William Butler Yeats's The Wanderings of Oisin is among the most significant works of the Celtic Renaissance.

Celtic twilight : see Celtic renaissance

character : broadly speaking, a person in a literary work. The actions of characters are what constitute the plot of a story, novel, or poem. There are numerous types of characters, ranging from simple, stereotypical figures to intricate, multifaceted ones. In the techniques of anthropomorphism and personification, animals—and even places or things—can assume aspects of character. “Characterization” is the process by which an author creates vivid, believable characters in a work of art. This may be done in a variety of ways, including (1) direct description of the character by the narrator; (2) the direct presentation of the speech, thoughts, or actions of the character; and (3) the responses of other characters to the character. The term “character” also refers to a form originated by the ancient Greek writer Theophrastus that later became popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is a short essay or sketch of a person who prominently displays a specific attribute or quality, such as miserliness or ambition. Notable characters in literature include Oedipus Rex, Don Quixote de la Mancha, Macbeth, Candide, Hester Prynne, Ebenezer Scrooge, Huckleberry Finn, Jay Gatsby, Scarlett O'Hara, James Bond, and Kunta Kinte.

characterization : see character

chronicle : a record of events presented in chronological order. Although the scope and level of detail provided varies greatly among the chronicles surviving from ancient times, some, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, feature vivid descriptions and a lively recounting of events. During the Elizabethan Age, many dramas—appropriately called “chronicle plays”—were based on material from chronicles. Many of William Shakespeare's dramas of English history as well as Christopher Marlowe's Edward II are based in part on Raphael Holinshead's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland.

classical : in its strictest definition in literary criticism, classicism refers to works of ancient Greek or Roman literature. The termmay also be used to describe a literary work of recognized importance (a “classic”) from any time period or literature that exhibits the traits of classicism. Classical authors from ancient Greek and Roman times include Juvenal and Homer. Examples of later works and authors now described as classical include French literature of the seventeenth century, Western novels of the nineteenth century, and American fiction of the mid-nineteenth century such as that written by James Fenimore Cooper and Mark Twain.

classicism : a term used in literary criticism to describe critical doctrines that have their roots in ancient Greek and Roman literature, philosophy, and art. Works associated with classicism typically exhibit restraint on the part of the author, unity of design and purpose, clarity, simplicity, logical organization, and respect for tradition. Examples of literary classicism include Cicero's prose, the dramas of Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine, the poetry of John Dryden and Alexander Pope, and the writings of J. W. von Goethe, G. E. Lessing, and T. S. Eliot.

climax : the turning point in a narrative, the moment when the conflict is at its most intense. Typically, the structure of stories, novels, and plays is one of rising action, in which tension builds to the climax, followed by falling action, in which tension lessens as the story moves to its conclusion. The climax in James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans occurs when Magua and his captive Cora are pursued to the edge of a cliff by Uncas. Magua kills Uncas but is subsequently killed by Hawkeye.

colloquialism : a word, phrase, or form of pronunciation that is acceptable in casual conversation but not in formal, written communication. It is considered more acceptable than slang. An example of colloquialism can be found in Rudyard Kipling's Barrack-room Ballads: “When 'Omer smote 'is bloomin' lyre//He'd 'eard men sing by land and sea;//An' what he thought 'e might require//'E went an' took—the same as me!”

coming of age novel : see bildungsroman

concrete : concrete is the opposite of abstract, and refers to a thing that actually exists or a description that allows the reader to experience an object or concept with the senses. Henry David Thoreau's Walden contains much concrete description of nature and wildlife.

connotation : the impression that a word gives beyond its defined meaning. Connotations may be universally understood or may be significant only to a certain group. Both “horse” and “steed” denote the same animal, but “steed” has a different connotation, deriving from the chivalrous or romantic narratives in which the word was once often used.

convention : any widely accepted literary device, style, or form. A soliloquy, in which a character reveals to the audience his or her private thoughts, is an example of a dramatic convention.

crime literature : a genre of fiction that focuses on the environment, behavior, and psychology of criminals. Prominent writers of crime novels include John Wainwright, Colin Watson, Nicolas Freeling, Ruth Rendell, Jessica Mann, Mickey Spillane, and Patricia Highsmith.


dadaism : a protest movement in art and literature founded by Tristan Tzara in 1916. Followers of the movement expressed their outrage at the destruction brought about by World War I by revolting against numerous forms of social convention. The Dadaists presented works marked by calculated madness and flamboyant nonsense. They stressed total freedom of expression, commonly through primitive displays of emotion and illogical, often senseless, poetry. The movement ended shortly after the war, when it was replaced by surrealism. Proponents of Dadaism include Andre Breton, Louis Aragon, Philippe Soupault, and Paul Eluard.

decadent : see decadents

decadents : the followers of a nineteenth-century literary movement that had its beginnings in French aestheticism. Decadent literature displays a fascination with perverse and morbid states; a search for novelty and sensation—the “new thrill”; a preoccupation with mysticism; and a belief in the senselessness of human existence. The movement is closely associated with the doctrine Art for Art's Sake. The term “decadence” is sometimes used to denote a decline in the quality of art or literature following a period of greatness. Major French decadents are Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud. English decadents include Oscar Wilde, Ernest Dowson, and Frank Harris.

deduction : the process of reaching a conclusion through reasoning from general premises to a specific premise. An example of deduction is present in the following syllogism: Premise: All mammals are animals. Premise: All whales are mammals. Conclusion: Therefore, all whales are animals.

denotation : the definition of a word, apart from the impressions or feelings it creates in the reader. The word “apartheid” denotes a political and economic policy of segregation by race, but its connotations—oppression, slavery, inequality—are numerous.

denouement : a French word meaning “the unknotting.” In literary criticism, it denotes the resolution of conflict in fiction or drama. The denouement follows the climax and provides an outcome to the primary plot situation as well as an explanation of secondary plot complications. The denouement often involves a character's recognition of his or her state of mind ormoral condition. A well-known example of denouement is the last scene of the play As You Like It by William Shakespeare, in which couples are married, an evildoer repents, the identities of two disguised characters are revealed, and a ruler is restored to power.

description : descriptive writing is intended to allow a reader to picture the scene or setting in which the action of a story takes place. The form this description takes often evokes an intended emotional response—a dark, spooky graveyard will evoke fear, and a peaceful, sunny meadow will evoke calmness. An example of a descriptive story is Edgar Allan Poe's Landor's Cottage, which offers a detailed depiction of a New York country estate.

detective story : a narrative about the solution of a mystery or the identification of a criminal. The conventions of the detective story include the detective's scrupulous use of logic in solving the mystery; incompetent or ineffectual police; a suspect who appears guilty at first but is later proved innocent; and the detective's friend or confidant—often the narrator—whose slowness in interpreting clues emphasizes by contrast the detective's brilliance. Edgar Allan Poe's “Murders in the Rue Morgue” is commonly regarded as the earliest example of this type of story. With this work, Poe established many of the conventions of the detective story genre, which are still in practice. Other practitioners of this vast and extremely popular genre include Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, and Agatha Christie.

dialogue : in its widest sense, dialogue is simply conversation between people in a literary work; in its most restricted sense, it refers specifically to the speech of characters in a drama. As a specific literary genre, a “dialogue” is a composition in which characters debate an issue or idea. The Greek philosopher Plato frequently expounded his theories in the form of dialogues.

diary : a personal written record of daily events and thoughts. As private documents, diaries are supposedly not intended for an audience, but some, such as those of Samuel Pepys and Anais Nin, are known for their high literary quality. The Diary of Anne Frank is an example of a well-known diary discovered and published after the author's death. Many writers have used the diary form as a deliberate literary device, as in Nikolai Gogol's story “Diary of a Madman.”

diction : the selection and arrangement of words in a literary work. Either or both may vary depending on the desired effect. There are four general types of diction: “formal,” used in scholarly or lofty writing; “informal,” used in relaxed but educated conversation; “colloquial,” used in everyday speech; and “slang,” containing newly coined words and other terms not accepted in formal usage.

didactic : a term used to describe works of literature that aim to teach some moral, religious, political, or practical lesson. Although didactic elements are often found in artistically pleasing works, the term “didactic” usually refers to literature in which the message is more important than the form. The term may also be used to criticize a work that the critic finds “overly didactic,” that is, heavy-handed in its delivery of a lesson. Examples of didactic literature include John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism, Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile, and Elizabeth Inchbald's Simple Story.

doppelganger : a literary technique by which a character is duplicated (usually in the form of an alter ego, though sometimes as a ghostly counterpart) or divided into two distinct, usually opposite personalities. The use of this character device is widespread in nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature, and indicates a growing awareness among authors that the “self” is really a composite of many “selves.” A well-known story containing a doppelganger character is Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which dramatizes an internal struggle between good and evil.

double entendre : a corruption of a French phrase meaning “double meaning.” The term is used to indicate a word or phrase that is deliberately ambiguous, especially when one of the meanings is risque or improper. An example of a double entendre is the Elizabethan usage of the verb “die,” which refers both to death and to orgasm.

double, the : see doppelganger

draft : any preliminary version of a written work. An author may write dozens of drafts which are revised to form the final work, or he or she may write only one, with few or no revisions. Dorothy Parker's observation that “I can't write five words but that I change seven” humorously indicates the purpose of the draft.

dramatic irony : occurs when the audience of a play or the reader of a work of literature knows something that a character in the work itself does not know. The irony is in the contrast between the intended meaning of the statements or actions of a character and the additional information understood by the audience. A celebrated example of dramatic irony is in Act V of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, where two young lovers meet their end as a result of a tragic misunderstanding. Here, the audience has full knowledge that Juliet's apparent “death” is merely temporary; she will regain her senses when the mysterious “sleeping potion” she has taken wears off. ButRomeo, mistaking Juliet's drug-induced trance for true death, kills himself in grief. Upon awakening, Juliet discovers Romeo's corpse and, in despair, slays herself.

dramatis personae : the characters in a work of literature, particularly a drama. The list of characters printed before the main text of a play or in the program is the dramatis personae.

dream allegory : see dream vision

dream vision : a literary convention, chiefly of the Middle Ages. In a dream vision a story is presented as a literal dream of the narrator. This device was commonly used to teach moral and religious lessons. Important works of this type are The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, Piers Plowman by William Lang-land, and The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan.

dystopia : an imaginary place in a work of fiction where the characters lead dehumanized, fearful lives. Jack London's The Iron Heel, Yevgeny Zamyatin's My, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four, and Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale portray versions of dystopia.


Edwardian : describes cultural conventions identified with the period of the reign of Edward VII of England (1901–1910). Writers of the Edwardian Age typically displayed a strong reaction against the propriety and conservatism of the Victorian Age. Their work often exhibits distrust of authority in religion, politics, and art and expresses strong doubts about the soundness of conventional values. Writers of this era include George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, and Joseph Conrad.

Edwardian age : see Edwardian

electra complex : a daughter's amorous obsession with her father. The term Electra complex comes from the plays of Euripides and Sophocles entitled Electra, in which the character Electra drives her brother Orestes to kill their mother and her lover in revenge for the murder of their father.

Elizabethan age : a period of great economic growth, religious controversy, and nationalism closely associated with the reign of Elizabeth I of England (1558–1603). The Elizabethan Age is considered a part of the general renaissance—that is, the flowering of arts and literature—that took place in Europe during the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries. The era is considered the golden age of English literature. The most important dramas in English and a great deal of lyric poetry were produced during this period, and modern English criticism began around this time. The notable authors of the period—Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Francis Bacon, and John Donne—are among the best in all of English literature.

empathy : a sense of shared experience, including emotional and physical feelings, with someone or something other than oneself. Empathy is often used to describe the response of a reader to a literary character. An example of an empathic passage is William Shakespeare's description in his narrative poem Venus and Adonis of: “the snail, whose tender horns being hit, Shrinks backward in his shelly cave with pain.” Readers of Gerard Manley Hopkins's The Windhover may experience some of the physical sensations evoked in the description of the movement of the falcon.

enlightenment, the : an eighteenth-century philosophical movement. It began in France but had a wide impact throughout Europe and America. Thinkers of the Enlightenment valued reason and believed that both the individual and society could achieve a state of perfection. Corresponding to this essentially humanist vision was a resistance to religious authority. Important figures of the Enlightenment were Denis Diderot and Voltaire in France, Edward Gibbon and David Hume in England, and Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson in the United States.

epigram : a saying that makes the speaker's point quickly and concisely. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote an epigram that neatly sums up the form: “What is an Epigram? A Dwarfish whole,//Its body brevity, and wit its soul.”

epilogue : a concluding statement or section of a literary work. In dramas, particularly those of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the epilogue is a closing speech, often in verse, delivered by an actor at the end of a play and spoken directly to the audience. A famous epilogue is Puck's speech at the end of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

epiphany : a sudden revelation of truth inspired by a seemingly trivial incident. The term was widely used by James Joyce in his critical writings, and the stories in Joyce's Dubliners are commonly called “epiphanies.”

episode : an incident that forms part of a story and is significantly related to it. Episodes may be either self-contained narratives or events that depend on a larger context for their sense and importance. Examples of episodes include the founding of Wilmington, Delaware in Charles Reade's The Disinherited Heir and the individual events comprising the picaresque novels and medieval romances.

episodic plot : see plot

epistolary novel : a novel in the form of letters. The form was particularly popular in the eighteenth century. Samuel Richardson's Pamela is considered the first fully developed English epistolary novel.

epitaph : an inscription on a tomb or tombstone, or a verse written on the occasion of a person's death. Epitaphs may be serious or humorous. Dorothy Parker's epitaph reads, “I told you I was sick.”

epithet : a word or phrase, often disparaging or abusive, that expresses a character trait of someone or something. “The Napoleon of crime” is an epithet applied to Professor Moriarty, archrival of Sherlock Holmes in Arthur Conan Doyle's series of detective stories.

erziehungsroman : see bildungsroman

essay : a prose composition with a focused subject of discussion. The term was coined by Michel de Montaigne to describe his 1580 collection of brief, informal reflections on himself and on various topics relating to human nature. An essay can also be a long, systematic discourse. An example of a longer essay is John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

exempla : see exemplum

exemplum : a tale with a moral message. This form of literary sermonizing flourished during the Middle Ages, when exempla appeared in collections known as “example-books.” The works of Geoffrey Chaucer are full of exempla.existentialism : a predominantly twentieth-century philosophy concerned with the nature and perception of human existence. There are two major strains of existentialist thought: atheistic and Christian. Followers of atheistic existentialism believe that the individual is alone in a godless universe and that the basic human condition is one of suffering and loneliness. Nevertheless, because there are no fixed values, individuals can create their own characters—indeed, they can shape themselves—through the exercise of free will. The atheistic strain culminates in and is popularly associated with the works of Jean-Paul Sartre. The Christian existentialists, on the other hand, believe that only in God may people find freedom from life's anguish. The two strains hold certain beliefs in common: that existence cannot be fully understood or described through empirical effort; that anguish is a universal element of life; that individuals must bear responsibility for their actions; and that there is no common standard of behavior or perception for religious and ethical matters. Existentialist thought figures prominently in the works of such authors as Eugene Ionesco, Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Simone de Beauvoir, Samuel Beckett, and Albert Camus.

expatriates : see expatriatism

expatriatism : the practice of leaving one's country to live for an extended period in another country. Literary expatriates include English poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats in Italy, Polish novelist Joseph Conrad in England, American writers Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest Hemingway in France, and Trinidadian author Neil Bissondath in Canada.

exposition : writing intended to explain the nature of an idea, thing, or theme. Expository writing is often combined with description, narration, or argument. In dramatic writing, the exposition is the introductory material which presents the characters, setting, and tone of the play. An example of dramatic exposition occurs in many nineteenth-century drawing-room comedies in which the butler and the maid open the play with relevant talk about their master and mistress; in composition, exposition relays factual information, as in encyclopedia entries.

expressionism : an indistinct literary term, originally used to describe an early twentieth-century school of German painting. The term applies to almost any mode of unconventional, highly subjective writing that distorts reality in some way. Advocates of Expressionism include dramatists George Kaiser, Ernst Toller, Luigi Pirandello, Federico Garcia Lorca, Eugene O'Neill, and Elmer Rice; poets George Heym, Ernst Stadler, August Stramm, Gottfried Benn, and Georg Trakl; and novelists Franz Kafka and James Joyce.


fable : a prose or verse narrative intended to convey a moral. Animals or inanimate objects with human characteristics often serve as characters in fables. A famous fable is Aesop's “The Tortoise and the Hare.”

fairy tales : short narratives featuring mythical beings such as fairies, elves, and sprites. These tales originally belonged to the folklore of a particular nation or region, such as those collected in Germany by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Two other celebrated writers of fairy tales are Hans Christian Andersen and Rudyard Kipling.

falling action : see denouement

fantasy : a literary form related to mythology and folklore. Fantasy literature is typically set in non-existent realms and features supernatural beings. Notable examples of fantasy literature are The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien and the Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake.

farce : a type of comedy characterized by broad humor, outlandish incidents, and often vulgar subject matter. Much of the “comedy” in film and television could more accurately be described as farce.

femme fatale : a French phrase with the literal translation “fatal woman.” A femme fatale is a sensuous, alluring woman who often leads men into danger or trouble. A classic example of the femme fatale is the nameless character in Billy Wilder's The Seven Year Itch, portrayed by Marilyn Monroe in the film adaptation.

festschrift : a collection of essays written in honor of a distinguished scholar and presented to him or her to mark some special occasion. Examples of festschriften are Worlds of Jewish Prayer: A Festschrift in Honour of Rabbi Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi and The Organist as Scholar: Essays in Memory of Russell Saunders.

fiction : any story that is the product of imagination rather than a documentation of fact. characters and events in such narratives may be based in real life but their ultimate form and configuration is a creation of the author. Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, and Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind are examples of fiction.

figurative language : a technique in writing in which the author temporarily interrupts the order, construction, or meaning of the writing for a particular effect. This interruption takes the form of one or more figures of speech such as hyperbole, irony, or simile. Figurative language is the opposite of literal language, in which every word is truthful, accurate, and free of exaggeration or embellishment. Examples of figurative language are tropes such as metaphor and rhetorical figures such as apostrophe.

figures of speech : writing that differs from customary conventions for construction, meaning, order, or significance for the purpose of a special meaning or effect. There are two major types of figures of speech: rhetorical figures, which do not make changes in the meaning of the words, and tropes, which do. Types of figures of speech include simile, hyperbole, alliteration, and pun, among many others.

fin de siecle : a French term meaning “end of the century.” The term is used to denote the last decade of the nineteenth century, a transition period when writers and other artists abandoned old conventions and looked for new techniques and objectives. Two writers commonly associated with the fin de siecle mindset are Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw.

first person : see point of view

flashback : a device used in literature to present action that occurred before the beginning of the story. Flashbacks are often introduced as the dreams or recollections of one or more characters. Flashback techniques are often used in films, where they are typically set off by a gradual changing of one picture to another.

foil : a character in a work of literature whose physical or psychological qualities contrast strongly with, and therefore highlight, the corresponding qualities of another character. In his Sherlock Holmes stories, Arthur Conan Doyle portrayed Dr. Watson as a man of normal habits and intelligence, making him a foil for the eccentric and wonderfully perceptive Sherlock Holmes.

folklore : traditions and myths preserved in a culture or group of people. Typically, these are passed on by word of mouth in various forms—such as legends, songs, and proverbs—or preserved in customs and ceremonies. This term was first used by W. J. Thoms in 1846. Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough is the record of English folklore; myths about the frontier and the Old South exemplify American folklore.

folktale : a story originating in oral tradition. Folk-tales fall into a variety of categories, including legends, ghost stories, fairy tales, fables, and anecdotes based on historical figures and events. Examples of folktales include Giambattista Basile's The Pentamerone, which contains the tales of Puss in Boots, Rapunzel, Cinderella, and Beauty and the Beast, and Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus stories, which represent transplanted African folktales and American tales about the characters Mike Fink, Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, and Pecos Bill.

foreshadowing : a device used in literature to create expectation or to set up an explanation of later developments. In Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, the graveyard encounter at the beginning of the novel between Pip and the escaped convict Magwitch foreshadows the baleful atmosphere and events that comprise much of the narrative.

form : the pattern or construction of a work which identifies its genre and distinguishes it from other genres. Examples of forms include the different genres, such as the lyric form or the short story form, and various patterns for poetry, such as the verse form or the stanza form.

futurism : a flamboyant literary and artistic movement that developed in France, Italy, and Russia from 1908 through the 1920s. Futurist theater and poetry abandoned traditional literary forms. In their place, followers of the movement attempted to achieve total freedom of expression through bizarre imagery and deformed or newly invented words. The Futurists were self-consciously modern artists who attempted to incorporate the appearances and sounds of modern life into their work. Futurist writers include Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Wyndham Lewis, Guillaume Apollinaire, Velimir Khlebnikov, and Vladimir Mayakovsky.


genre : a category of literary work. In critical theory, genre may refer to both the content of a given work—tragedy, comedy, pastoral—and to its form, such as poetry, novel, or drama. This term also refers to types of popular literature, as in the genres of science fiction or the detective story.

genteel tradition : a term coined by critic George Santayana to describe the literary practice of certain late nineteenth-century American writers, especially New Englanders. Followers of the Genteel Tradition emphasized conventionality in social, religious, moral, and literary standards. Some of the best-known writers of the Genteel Tradition are R. H. Stoddard and Bayard Taylor.

gilded age : a period in American history during the 1870s characterized by political corruption and materialism. A number of important novels of social and political criticism were written during this time. Examples of Gilded Age literature include Henry Adams's Democracy and F. Marion Crawford's An American Politician.

gothic : see gothicism

gothicism : in literary criticism, works characterized by a taste for the medieval or morbidly attractive.

A gothic novel prominently features elements of horror, the supernatural, gloom, and violence: clanking chains, terror, charnel houses, ghosts, medieval castles, and mysteriously slamming doors. The term “gothic novel” is also applied to novels that lack elements of the traditional Gothic setting but that create a similar atmosphere of terror or dread. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is perhaps the best-known English work of this kind.

gothic novel : see gothicism

great chain of being : the belief that all things and creatures in nature are organized in a hierarchy from inanimate objects at the bottom to God at the top. This system of belief was popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A summary of the concept of the great chain of being can be found in the first epistle of Alexander Pope's An Essay on Man, and more recently in Arthur O. Love-joy's The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea.

grotesque : in literary criticism, the subject matter of a work or a style of expression characterized by exaggeration, deformity, freakishness, and disorder. The grotesque often includes an element of comic absurdity. Early examples of literary grotesque include François Rabelais's Pantagruel and Gargantua and Thomas Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller, while more recent examples can be found in the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Evelyn Waugh, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Eugene Ionesco, Gunter Grass, Thomas Mann, Mervyn Peake, and Joseph Heller, among many others.


hamartia : in tragedy, the event or act that leads to the hero's or heroine's downfall. This term is often incorrectly used as a synonym for tragic flaw. In Richard Wright's Native Son, the act that seals Bigger Thomas's fate is his first impulsive murder.

Harlem renaissance : the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s is generally considered the first significant movement of black writers and artists in the United States. During this period, new and established black writers published more fiction and poetry than ever before, the first influential black literary journals were established, and black authors and artists received their first widespread recognition and serious critical appraisal. Among the major writers associated with this period are Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, Nella Larsen, and Zora Neale Hurston. Works representative of the Harlem Renaissance include Arna Bontemps's poems “The Return” and “Golgotha Is a Mountain,” Claude McKay's novel Home to Harlem, Nella Larsen's novel Passing, Langston Hughes's poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” and the journals Crisis and Opportunity, both founded during this period.

Hellenism : imitation of ancient Greek thought or styles. Also, an approach to life that focuses on the growth and development of the intellect. “Hellenism” is sometimes used to refer to the belief that reason can be applied to examine all human experience. A cogent discussion of Hellenism can be found in Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy.

hero/heroine : the principal sympathetic character (male or female) in a literary work. Heroes and heroines typically exhibit admirable traits: idealism, courage, and integrity, for example. Famous heroes and heroines include Pip in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, the anonymous narrator in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, and Sethe in Toni Morrison's Beloved.

heroine : see hero/heroine

historical criticism : the study of a work based on its impact on the world of the time period in which it was written. Examples of postmodern historical criticism can be found in the work of Michel Foucault, Hayden White, Stephen Greenblatt, and Jonathan Goldberg.

holocaust : see holocaust literature

holocaust literature : literature influenced by or written about the Holocaust of World War II. Such literature includes true stories of survival in concentration camps, escape, and life after the war, as well as fictional works and poetry. Representative works of Holocaust literature include Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet, Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl, Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird, Arthur Miller's Incident at Vichy, Czeslaw Milosz's Collected Poems, William Styron's Sophie's Choice, and Art Spiegelman's Maus.

horatian satire : see satire

humanism : a philosophy that places faith in the dignity of humankind and rejects the medieval perception of the individual as a weak, fallen creature. “Humanists” typically believe in the perfectibility of human nature and view reason and education as the means to that end. Humanist thought is represented in the works of Marsilio Ficino, Ludovico Castelvetro, Edmund Spenser, John Milton, Dean John Colet, Desiderius Erasmus, John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Matthew Arnold, and Irving Babbitt.

humors : mentions of the humors refer to the ancient Greek theory that a person's health and personality were determined by the balance of four basic fluids in the body: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. A dominance of any fluid would cause extremes in behavior. An excess of blood created a sanguine person who was joyful, aggressive, and passionate; a phlegmatic person was shy, fearful, and sluggish; too much yellow bile led to a choleric temperament characterized by impatience, anger, bitterness, and stubbornness; and excessive black bile created melancholy, a state of laziness, gluttony, and lack of motivation. Literary treatment of the humors is exemplified by several characters in Ben Jonson's plays Every Man in His Humour and Every Man out of His Humour.

humours : see humors

hyperbole : in literary criticism, deliberate exaggeration used to achieve an effect. In William Shakespeare's Macbeth, Lady Macbeth hyperbolizes when she says, “All the perfumes of Arabia could not sweeten this little hand.”


idiom : a word construction or verbal expression closely associated with a given language. For example, in colloquial English the construction “how come” can be used instead of “why” to introduce a question. Similarly, “a piece of cake” is sometimes used to describe a task that is easily done.

image : a concrete representation of an object or sensory experience. Typically, such a representation helps evoke the feelings associated with the object or experience itself. Images are either “literal” or “figurative.” Literal images are especially concrete and involve little or no extension of the obvious meaning of the words used to express them. Figurative images do not follow the literal meaning of the words exactly. Images in literature are usually visual, but the term “image” can also refer to the representation of any sensory experience. In his poem “The Shepherd's Hour,” Paul Verlaine presents the following image: “The Moon is red through horizon's fog;/ In a dancing mist the hazy meadow sleeps.” The first line is broadly literal, while the second line involves turns of meaning associated with dancing and sleeping.

imagery : the array of images in a literary work. Also, figurative language. William Butler Yeats's “The Second Coming” offers a powerful image of encroaching anarchy: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart….”

in medias res : a Latin term meaning “in the middle of things.” It refers to the technique of beginning a story at its midpoint and then using various flashback devices to reveal previous action. This technique originated in such epics as Virgil's Aeneid.

induction : the process of reaching a conclusion by reasoning from specific premises to form a general premise. Also, an introductory portion of a work of literature, especially a play. Geoffrey Chaucer's “Prologue” to the Canterbury Tales, Thomas Sackville's “Induction” to The Mirror of Magistrates, and the opening scene in William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew are examples of inductions to literary works.

intentional fallacy : the belief that judgments of a literary work based solely on an author's stated or implied intentions are false and misleading. Critics who believe in the concept of the intentional fallacy typically argue that the work itself is sufficient matter for interpretation, even though they may concede that an author's statement of purpose can be useful. Analysis of William Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads based on the observations about poetry he makes in his “Preface” to the second edition of that work is an example of the intentional fallacy.

interior monologue : a narrative technique in which characters' thoughts are revealed in a way that appears to be uncontrolled by the author. The interior monologue typically aims to reveal the inner self of a character. It portrays emotional experiences as they occur at both a conscious and unconscious level. images are often used to represent sensations or emotions. One of the best-known interior monologues in English is the Molly Bloom section at the close of James Joyce's Ulysses. The interior monologue is also common in the works of Virginia Woolf.

Irish literary renaissance : a late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century movement in Irish literature. Members of the movement aimed to reduce the influence of British culture in Ireland and create an Irish national literature. William Butler Yeats, George Moore, and Sean O'Casey are three of the best-known figures of the movement.

irony : in literary criticism, the effect of language in which the intended meaning is the opposite of what is stated. The title of Jonathan Swift's “A Modest Proposal” is ironic because what Swift proposes in this essay is cannibalism—hardly “modest.”


Jacobean age : the period of the reign of James I of England (1603–1625). The early literature of this period reflected the worldview of the Elizabethan Age, but a darker, more cynical attitude steadily grew in the art and literature of the Jacobean Age. This was an important time for English drama and poetry. Milestones include William Shakespeare's tragedies, tragi-comedies, and sonnets; Ben Jonson's various dramas; and John Donne's metaphysical poetry.

jargon : language that is used or understood only by a select group of people. Jargon may refer to terminology used in a certain profession, such as computer jargon, or it may refer to any nonsensical language that is not understood by most people. Literary examples of jargon are François Villon's Ballades en jargon, which is composed in the secret language of the coquillards, and Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, narrated in the fictional characters' language of “Nadsat.”

journalism : writing intended for publication in a newspaper or magazine, or for broadcast on a radio or television program featuring news, sports, entertainment, or other timely material. The essays and reviews written by H. L. Mencken for the Baltimore Morning Herald and collected in his Prejudices are an example of journalism.

juvenalian satire : see satire


knickerbocker group : a somewhat indistinct group of New York writers of the first half of the nineteenth century. Members of the group were linked only by location and a common theme: New York life. Two famous members of the Knickerbocker Group were Washington Irving and William Cullen Bryant. The group's name derives from Irving's Knickerbocker's History of New York.

kunstlerroman : see bildungsroman


leitmotiv : see motif

literal language : an author uses literal language when he or she writes without exaggerating or embellishing the subject matter and without any tools of figurative language. To say “He ran very quickly down the street” is to use literal language, whereas to say “He ran like a hare down the street” would be using figurative language.

literature : literature is broadly defined as any written or spoken material, but the term most often refers to creative works. Literature includes poetry, drama, fiction, and many kinds of nonfiction writing, as well as oral, dramatic, and broadcast compositions not necessarily preserved in a written format, such as films and television programs.

lost generation : a term first used by Gertrude Stein to describe the post-World War I generation of American writers: men and women haunted by a sense of betrayal and emptiness brought about by the destructiveness of the war. The term is commonly applied to Hart Crane, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and others.


mannerism : exaggerated, artificial adherence to a literary manner or style. Also, a popular style of the visual arts of late sixteenth-century Europe that was marked by elongation of the human form and by intentional spatial distortion. Literary works that are self-consciously high-toned and artistic are often said to be “mannered.” Authors of such works include Henry James and Gertrude Stein.

memoirs : an autobiographical form of writing in which the author gives his or her personal impressions of significant figures or events. This form is different from the autobiography because it does not center around the author's own life and experiences. Early examples of memoirs include the Viscount de Chateaubriand's The Memoirs of Chateaubriand and Giacomo Casanova's History of My Life, while modern memoirs include reminiscences of World War II by Dwight Eisenhower, Viscount Montgomery, and Charles de Gaulle.

metaphor : a figure of speech that expresses an idea through the image of another object. Metaphors suggest the essence of the first object by identifying it with certain qualities of the second object. An example is “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? /It is the east, and Juliet is the sun” in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Here, Juliet, the first object, is identified with qualities of the second object, the sun.

modernism : modern literary practices. Also, the principles of a literary school that lasted from roughly the beginning of the twentieth century until the end of World War II. Modernism is defined by its rejection of the literary conventions of the nineteenth century and by its opposition to conventional morality, taste, traditions, and economic values. Many writers are associated with the concepts of Modernism, including Albert Camus, Marcel Proust, D. H. Lawrence, W. H. Auden, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, William Butler Yeats, Thomas Mann, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, and James Joyce.

mood : the prevailing emotions of a work or of the author in his or her creation of the work. The mood of a work is not always what might be expected based on its subject matter. The poem “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold offers examples of two different moods originating from the same experience: watching the ocean at night. The mood of the first three lines—“The sea is calm tonight//The tide is full, the moon lies fair//Upon the straights….” is in sharp contrast to the mood of the last three lines—“And we are here as on a darkling plain//Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,//Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

motif : a theme, character type, image, metaphor, or other verbal element that recurs throughout a single work of literature or occurs in a number of different works over a period of time. For example, the various manifestations of the color white in Herman Melville's Moby Dick is a “specific” motif, while the trials of star-crossed lovers is a “conventional” motif from the literature of all periods.

motiv : see Motif

muckrakers : an early twentieth-century group of American writers. Typically, their works exposed the wrongdoings of big business and government in the United States. Upton Sinclair's The Jungle exemplifies the muckraking novel.

muses : nine Greek mythological goddesses, the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (Memory). Each muse patronized a specific area of the liberal arts and sciences. Calliope presided over epic poetry, Clio over history, Erato over love poetry, Euterpe over music or lyric poetry, Melpomene over tragedy, Polyhymnia over hymns to the gods, Terpsichore over dance, Thalia over comedy, and Urania over astronomy. Poets and writers traditionally made appeals to the Muses for inspiration in their work. John Milton invokes the aid of a muse at the beginning of the first book of his Paradise Lost: “Of Man's First disobedience, and the Fruit of the Forbidden Tree,//whose mortal taste Brought Death into the World, and all our woe, With loss of Eden, till one greater Man//Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,//Sing Heav'nly Muse, that on the secret top of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire//That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,//In the Beginning how the Heav'ns and Earth//Rose out of Chaos….”

mystery : see suspense

myth : an anonymous tale emerging from the traditional beliefs of a culture or social unit. Myths use supernatural explanations for natural phenomena. They may also explain cosmic issues like creation and death. Collections of myths, known as mythologies, are common to all cultures and nations, but the best-known myths belong to the Norse, Roman, and Greek mythologies. A famous myth is the story of Arachne, an arrogant young girl who challenged a goddess, Athena, to a weaving contest; when the girl won, Athena was enraged and turned Arachne into a spider, thus explaining the existence of spiders.


narration : the telling of a series of events, real or invented. A narration may be either a simple narrative, in which the events are recounted chronologically, or a narrative with a plot, in which the account is given in a style reflecting the author's artistic concept of the story. Narration is sometimes used as a synonym for “storyline.” The recounting of scary stories around a campfire is a form of narration.

narrative : a verse or prose accounting of an event or sequence of events, real or invented. The term is also used as an adjective in the sense “method of narration.” For example, in literary criticism, the expression “narrative technique” usually refers to the way the author structures and presents his or her story. Narratives range from the shortest accounts of events, as in Julius Caesar's remark, “I came, I saw, I conquered,” to the longest historical or biographical works, as in Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, as well as diaries, travelogues, novels, ballads, epics, short stories, and other fictional forms.

narrator : the teller of a story. The narrator may be the author or a character in the story through whom the author speaks. Huckleberry Finn is the narrator of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

naturalism : a literary movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The movement's major theorist, French novelist Emile Zola, envisioned a type of fiction that would examine human life with the objectivity of scientific inquiry. The Naturalists typically viewed human beings as either the products of “biological determinism,” ruled by hereditary instincts and engaged in an endless struggle for survival, or as the products of “socioeconomic determinism,” ruled by social and economic forces beyond their control. In their works, the Naturalists generally ignored the highest levels of society and focused on degradation: poverty, alcoholism, prostitution, insanity, and disease. Naturalism influenced authors throughout the world, including Henrik Ibsen and Thomas Hardy. In the United States, in particular, Naturalism had a profound impact. Among the authors who embraced its principles are Theodore Dreiser, Eugene O'Neill, Stephen Crane, Jack London, and Frank Norris.

negritude : a literary movement based on the concept of a shared cultural bond on the part of black Africans, wherever they may be in the world. It traces its origins to the former French colonies of Africa and the Caribbean. Negritude poets, novelists, and essayists generally stress four points in their writings: One, black alienation from traditional African culture can lead to feelings of inferiority. Two, European colonialism and Western education should be resisted. Three, black Africans should seek to affirm and define their own identity. Four, African culture can and should be reclaimed. Many Negritude writers also claim that blacks can make unique contributions to the world, based on a heightened appreciation of nature, rhythm, and human emotions—aspects of life they say are not so highly valued in the materialistic and rationalistic West. Examples of Negritude literature include the poetry of both Senegalese Leopold Senghor in Hosties noires and Martiniquais Aime-Fernand Cesaire in Return to My Native Land.

negro renaissance : see Harlem renaissance

neoclassical period : see neoclassicism

neoclassicism : in literary criticism, this term refers to the revival of the attitudes and styles of expression of classical literature. It is generally used to describe a period in European history beginning in the late seventeenth century and lasting until about 1800. In its purest form, Neoclassicism marked a return to order, proportion, restraint, logic, accuracy, and decorum. In England, where Neoclassicism perhaps was most popular, it reflected the influence of seventeenth-century French writers, especially dramatists. Neoclassical writers typically reacted against the intensity and enthusiasm of the Renaissance period. They wrote works that appealed to the intellect, using elevated language and classical literary forms such as satire and the ode. Neoclassical works were often governed by the classical goal of instruction. English neoclassicists included Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison, Sir Richard Steele, John Gay, and Matthew Prior; French neoclassicists included Pierre Corneille and Jean-Baptiste Moliere.

neoclassicists : see Neoclassicism

new criticism : a movement in literary criticism, dating from the late 1920s, that stressed close textual analysis in the interpretation of works of literature. The New Critics saw little merit in historical and biographical analysis. Rather, they aimed to examine the text alone, free from the question of how external events—biographical or otherwise—may have helped shape it. This predominantly American school was named “New Criticism” by one of its practitioners, John Crowe Ransom. Other important New Critics included Allen Tate, R. P. Blackmur, Robert Penn Warren, and Cleanth Brooks.

new journalism : a type of writing in which the journalist presents factual information in a form usually used in fiction. New journalism emphasizes description, narration, and character development to bring readers closer to the human element of the story, and is often used in personality profiles and in-depth feature articles. It is not compatible with “straight” or “hard” newswriting, which is generally composed in a brief, fact-based style. Hunter S. Thompson, Gay Talese, Thomas Wolfe, Joan Didion, and John McPhee are well-known New Journalists.

new journalists : see new journalism

new negro movement : see Harlem renaissance

noble savage : the idea that primitive man is noble and good but becomes evil and corrupted as he becomes civilized. The concept of the noble savage originated in the Renaissance period but is more closely identified with such later writers as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Aphra Behn. First described in John Dryden's play The Conquest of Granada, the noble savage is portrayed by the various Native Americans in James Fenimore Cooper's “Leatherstocking Tales,” by Queequeg, Daggoo, and Tashtego in Herman Melville's Moby Dick, and by John the Savage in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

novel : a long fictional narrative written in prose, which developed from the novella and other early forms of narrative. A novel is usually organized under a plot or theme with a focus on character development and action. The novel emerged as a fully evolved literary form in the mid-eighteenth century in Samuel Richardson's Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded.

novella : an Italian term meaning “story.” This term has been especially used to describe fourteenth-century Italian tales, but it also refers to modern short novels. The tales comprising Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron are examples of the novella. Modern novellas include Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilich, Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and Henry James's “The Aspern Papers.”

novel of ideas : a novel in which the examination of intellectual issues and concepts takes precedence over characterization or a traditional storyline. Examples of novels of ideas include Aldous Huxley's Crome Yellow, Point Counter Point, and After Many a Summer.

novel of manners : a novel that examines the customs and mores of a cultural group. The novels of Jane Austen and Edith Wharton are widely considered novels of manners.


objective correlative : an outward set of objects, a situation, or a chain of events corresponding to an inward experience and evoking this experience in the reader. The term frequently appears in modern criticism in discussions of authors' intended effects on the emotional responses of readers. This term was originally used by T. S. Eliot in his 1919 essay “Hamlet.”

objectivity : a quality in writing characterized by the absence of the author's opinion or feeling about the subject matter. Objectivity is an important factor in criticism. The novels of Henry James and, to a certain extent, the poems of John Larkin demonstrate objectivity, and it is central to John Keats's concept of “negative capability.” Critical and journalistic writing usually are or attempt to be objective.

Oedipus complex : a son's amorous obsession with his mother. The phrase is derived from the story of the ancient Theban hero Oedipus, who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother. Literary occurrences of the Oedipus complex include Andre Gide's Oedipe and Jean Cocteau's La Machine infernale, as well as the most famous, Sophocles' Oedipus Rex.

omniscience : see point of view

onomatopoeia : the use of words whose sounds express or suggest their meaning. In its simplest sense, onomatopoeia may be represented by words that mimic the sounds they denote such as “hiss” or “meow.” At a more subtle level, the pattern and rhythm of sounds and rhymes of a line or poem may be onomatopoeic. A celebrated example of onomatopoeia is the repetition of the word “bells” in Edgar Allan Poe's poem “The Bells.”

oxymoron : a phrase combining two contradictory terms. Oxymorons may be intentional or unintentional. The following speech from William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet uses several oxymorons: “Why, then, O brawling love! Oloving hate!//Oanything, of nothing first create!//O heavy lightness! serious vanity!//Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!//Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!//This love feel I, that feel no love in//this.”


pantheism : the idea that all things are both a manifestation or revelation of God and a part of God at the same time. Pantheism was a common attitude in the early societies of Egypt, India, and Greece—the term derives from the Greek pan meaning “all” and theos meaning “deity.” It later became a significant part of the Christian faith. William Wordsworth and Ralph Waldo Emerson are among the many writers who have expressed the pantheistic attitude in their works.

parable : a story intended to teach a moral lesson or answer an ethical question. In the West, the best examples of parables are those of Jesus Christ in the New Testament, notably “The Prodigal Son,” but parables also are used in Sufism, rabbinic literature, Hasidism, and Zen Buddhism.

paradox : a statement that appears illogical or contradictory at first, but may actually point to an underlying truth. “Less is more” is an example of a paradox. Literary examples include Francis Bacon's statement, “The most corrected copies are commonly the least correct,” and “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” from George Orwell's Animal Farm.

parallelism : a method of comparison of two ideas in which each is developed in the same grammatical structure. Ralph Waldo Emerson's “Civilization” contains this example of parallelism: “Raphael paints wisdom; Handel sings it, Phidias carves it, Shakespeare writes it, Wren builds it, Columbus sails it, Luther preaches it, Washington arms it, Watt mechanizes it.”

parnassianism : a mid nineteenth-century movement in French literature. Followers of the movement stressed adherence to well-defined artistic forms as a reaction against the often chaotic expression of the artist's ego that dominated the work of the Romantics.

The Parnassians also rejected the moral, ethical, and social themes exhibited in the works of French Romantics such as Victor Hugo. The aesthetic doctrines of the Parnassians strongly influenced the later symbolist and decadent movements. Members of the Parnassian school include Leconte de Lisle, Sully Prudhomme, Albert Glatigny, François Coppee, and Theodore de Banville.

parody : in literary criticism, this term refers to an imitation of a serious literary work or the signature style of a particular author in a ridiculous manner. A typical parody adopts the style of the original and applies it to an inappropriate subject for humorous effect. Parody is a form of satire and could be considered the literary equivalent of a caricature or cartoon. Henry Fielding's Shamela is a parody of Samuel Richardson's Pamela.

pastoral : a term derived from the Latin word “pastor,” meaning shepherd. A pastoral is a literary composition on a rural theme. The conventions of the pastoral were originated by the third-century Greek poet Theocritus, who wrote about the experiences, love affairs, and pastimes of Sicilian shepherds. In a pastoral, characters and language of a courtly nature are often placed in a simple setting. The term pastoral is also used to classify dramas, elegies, and lyrics that exhibit the use of country settings and shepherd characters. Percy Bysshe Shelley's “Adonais” and John Milton's “Lycidas” are two famous examples of pastorals.

pelado : literally the “skinned one” or shirtless one, he was the stock underdog, sharp-witted picaresque character of Mexican vaudeville and tent shows. The pelado is found in such works as Don Catarino's Los effectos de la crisis and Regreso a mi tierra.

pen name : see pseudonym

persona : a Latin term meaning “mask.” Personae are the characters in a fictional work of literature. The persona generally functions as a mask through which the author tells a story in a voice other than his or her own. A persona is usually either a character in a story who acts as a narrator or an “implied author,” a voice created by the author to act as the narrator for himself or herself. Personae include the narrator of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Marlow in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

personae : see persona

personal point of view : see point of view

personification : a figure of speech that gives human qualities to abstract ideas, animals, and inanimate objects. William Shakespeare used personification in Romeo and Juliet in the lines “Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon, /Who is already sick and pale with grief.” Here, the moon is portrayed as being envious, sick, and pale with grief—all markedly human qualities.

phenomenology : a method of literary criticism based on the belief that things have no existence outside of human consciousness or awareness. Proponents of this theory believe that art is a process that takes place in the mind of the observer as he or she contemplates an object rather than a quality of the object itself. Among phenomenological critics are Edmund Husserl, George Poulet, Marcel Raymond, and Roman Ingarden.

picaresque novel : episodic fiction depicting the adventures of a roguish central character (“picaro” is Spanish for “rogue”). The picaresque hero is commonly a low-born but clever individual who wanders into and out of various affairs of love, danger, and farcical intrigue. These involvements may take place at all social levels and typically present a humorous and wide-ranging satire of a given society. Prominent examples of the picaresque novel are Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, and Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe.

plagiarism : claiming another person's written material as one's own. Plagiarism can take the form of direct, word-for- word copying or the theft of the substance or idea of the work. A student who copies an encyclopedia entry and turns it in as a report for school is guilty of plagiarism.

Platonic criticism : a form of criticism that stresses an artistic work's usefulness as an agent of social engineering rather than any quality or value of the work itself. Platonic criticism takes as its starting point the ancient Greek philosopher Plato's comments on art in his Republic.

Platonism : the embracing of the doctrines of the philosopher Plato, popular among the poets of the Renaissance and the Romantic period. Platonism is more flexible than Aristotelian Criticism and places more emphasis on the supernatural and unknown aspects of life. Platonism is expressed in the love poetry of the Renaissance, the fourth book of Baldassare Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier, and the poetry of William Blake, William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Friedrich Holderlin, William Butler Yeats, and Wallace Stevens.

plot : in literary criticism, this term refers to the pattern of events in a narrative or drama. In its simplest sense, the plot guides the author in composing the work and helps the reader follow the work. Typically, plots exhibit causality and unity and have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Sometimes, however, a plot may consist of a series of disconnected events, in which case it is known as an “episodic plot.” In his Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster distinguishes between a story, defined as a “narrative of events arranged in their time- sequence,” and plot, which organizes the events to a “sense of causality.” This definition closely mirrors Aristotle's discussion of plot in his Poetics.

poetic justice : an outcome in a literary work, not necessarily a poem, in which the good are rewarded and the evil are punished, especially in ways that particularly fit their virtues or crimes. For example, a murderer may himself be murdered, or a thief will find himself penniless.

poetic license : distortions of fact and literary convention made by a writer—not always a poet—for the sake of the effect gained. Poetic license is closely related to the concept of “artistic freedom.” An author exercises poetic license by saying that a pile of money “reaches as high as a mountain” when the pile is actually only a foot or two high.

poetics : this term has two closely related meanings. It denotes (1) an aesthetic theory in literary criticism about the essence of poetry or (2) rules prescribing the proper methods, content, style, or diction of poetry. The term poetics may also refer to theories about literature in general, not just poetry.

point of view : the narrative perspective from which a literary work is presented to the reader. There are four traditional points of view. The “third person omniscient” gives the reader a “godlike” perspective, unrestricted by time or place, from which to see actions and look into the minds of characters. This allows the author to comment openly on characters and events in the work. The “third person” point of view presents the events of the story from outside of any single character's perception, much like the omniscient point of view, but the reader must understand the action as it takes place and without any special insight into characters' minds or motivations. The “first person” or “personal” point of view relates events as they are perceived by a single character. The main character “tells” the story and may offer opinions about the action and characters which differ from those of the author. Much less common than omniscient, third person, and first person is the “second person” point of view, wherein the author tells the story as if it is happening to the reader. James Thurber employs the omniscient point of view in his short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Ernest Hemingway's “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is a short story told from the third person point of view. Mark Twain's novel Huck Finn is presented from the first person viewpoint. Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City is an example of a novel which uses the second person point of view.

polemic : a work in which the author takes a stand on a controversial subject, such as abortion or religion. Such works are often extremely argumentative or provocative. Classic examples of polemics include John Milton's Aeropagitica and Thomas Paine's The American Crisis.

pornography : writing intended to provoke feelings of lust in the reader. Such works are often condemned by critics and teachers, but those which can be shown to have literary value are viewed less harshly. Literary works that have been described as pornographic include Ovid's The Art of Love, Margaret of Angouleme's Heptameron, John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure; or, the Life of Fanny Hill, the anonymous My Secret Life, D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita.

post-aesthetic movement : anartistic response made by African Americans to the black aesthetic movement of the 1960s and early '70s. Writers since that time have adopted a somewhat different tone in their work, with less emphasis placed on the disparity between black and white in the United States. In the words of post-aesthetic authors such as Toni Morrison, John Edgar Wideman, and Kristin Hunter, African Americans are portrayed as looking inward for answers to their own questions, rather than always looking to the outside world. Two well-known examples of works produced as part of the post-aesthetic movement are the Pulitzer Prize-winning novels The Color Purple by Alice Walker and Beloved by Toni Morrison.

postmodernism : writing from the 1960s forward characterized by experimentation and continuing to apply some of the fundamentals of modernism, which included existentialism and alienation. Postmodernists have gone a step further in the rejection of tradition begun with the modernists by also rejecting traditional forms, preferring the anti-novel over the novel and the anti-hero over the hero. Postmodern writers include Alain Robbe-Grillet, Thomas Pynchon, Margaret Drabble, John Fowles, Adolfo Bioy-Casares, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

pre-Raphaelites : a circle of writers and artists in mid nineteenth-century England. Valuing the pre-Renaissance artistic qualities of religious symbolism, lavish pictorialism, and natural sensuousness, the Pre-Raphaelites cultivated a sense of mystery and melancholy that influenced later writers associated with the Symbolist and Decadent movements. The major members of the group include Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, Algernon Swinburne, and Walter Pater.

primitivism : the belief that primitive peoples were nobler and less flawed than civilized peoples because they had not been subjected to the tainting influence of society. Examples of literature espousing primitivism include Aphra Behn's Oroonoko: Or, The History of the Royal Slave, Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Julie ou la Nouvelle Heloise, Oliver Goldsmith's TheDeserted Village, the poems of Robert Burns, Herman Melville's stories Typee, Omoo, and Mardi, many poems of William Butler Yeats and Robert Frost, and William Golding's novel Lord of the Flies.

prologue : an introductory section of a literary work. It often contains information establishing the situation of the characters or presents information about the setting, time period, or action. In drama, the prologue is spoken by a chorus or by one of the principal characters. In the “General Prologue” of The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer describes the main characters and establishes the setting and purpose of the work.

prose : a literary medium that attempts to mirror the language of everyday speech. It is distinguished from poetry by its use of unmetered, unrhymed language consisting of logically related sentences. Prose is usually grouped into paragraphs that form a cohesive whole such as an essay or a novel. Recognized masters of English prose writing include Sir Thomas Malory, William Caxton, Raphael Holinshed, Joseph Addison, Mark Twain, and Ernest Hemingway.

prosopopoeia : see personification

protagonist : the central character of a story who serves as a focus for its themes and incidents and as the principal rationale for its development. The protagonist is sometimes referred to in discussions of modern literature as the hero or anti-hero. Well-known protagonists are Hamlet in William Shakespeare's Hamlet and Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.

protest fiction : protest fiction has as its primary purpose the protesting of some social injustice, such as racism or discrimination. One example of protest fiction is a series of five novels by Chester Himes, beginning in 1945 with If He Hollers Let Him Go and ending in 1955 with The Primitive. These works depict the destructive effects of race and gender stereotyping in the context of interracial relationships. Another African American author whose works often revolve around themes of social protest is John Oliver Killens. James Baldwin's essay “Everybody's Protest Novel” generated controversy by attacking the authors of protest fiction.

proverb : a brief, sage saying that expresses a truth about life in a striking manner. “They are not all cooks who carry long knives” is an example of a proverb.

pseudonym : a name assumed by a writer, most often intended to prevent his or her identification as the author of a work. Two or more authors may work together under one pseudonym, or an author may use a different name for each genre he or she publishes in. Some publishing companies maintain “house pseudonyms,” under which any number of authors may write installations in a series. Some authors also choose a pseudonym over their real names the way an actor may use a stage name. Examples of pseudonyms (with the author's real name in parentheses) include Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet), Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg), Currer Bell (Charlotte Bronte), Ellis Bell (Emily Bronte), George Eliot (Maryann Evans), Honorio Bustos Donmecq (Adolfo Bioy-Casares and Jorge Luis Borges), and Richard Bachman (Stephen King).

pun : a play on words that have similar sounds but different meanings. A serious example of the pun is from John Donne's “A Hymne to God the Father”: “Sweare by thyself, that at my death thy sonne//Shall shine as he shines now, and hereto fore;//And, having done that, Thou haste done;//I fear no more.”


realism : a nineteenth-century European literary movement that sought to portray familiar characters, situations, and settings in a realistic manner. This was done primarily by using an objective narrative point of view and through the buildup of accurate detail. The standard for success of any realistic work depends on how faithfully it transfers common experience into fictional forms. The realistic method may be altered or extended, as in stream of consciousness writing, to record highly subjective experience. Seminal authors in the tradition of Realism include Honore de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, and Henry James.

renaissance : the period in European history that marked the end of the Middle Ages. It began in Italy in the late fourteenth century. In broad terms, it is usually seen as spanning the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, although it did not reach Great Britain, for example, until the 1480s or so. The Renaissance saw an awakening in almost every sphere of human activity, especially science, philosophy, and the arts. The period is best defined by the emergence of a general philosophy that emphasized the importance of the intellect, the individual, and world affairs. It contrasts strongly with the medieval worldview, characterized by the dominant concerns of faith, the social collective, and spiritual salvation. Prominent writers during the Renaissance include Niccolo Machiavelli and Baldassare Castiglione in Italy, Miguel de Cervantes and Lope de Vega in Spain, Jean Froissart and François Rabelais in France, Sir Thomas More and Sir Philip Sidney in England, and Desiderius Erasmus in Holland.

repartee : conversation featuring snappy retorts and witticisms. Masters of repartee include Sydney Smith, Charles Lamb, and Oscar Wilde. An example is recorded in the meeting of “Beau” Nash and John Wesley: Nash said, “I never make way for a fool,” to which Wesley responded, “Don't you? I always do,” and stepped aside.

resolution : the portion of a story following the climax, in which the conflict is resolved. The resolution of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey is neatly summed up in the following sentence:“Henry and Catherine were married, the bells rang and every body smiled.”

restoration : see restoration agerestoration age : a period in English literature beginning with the crowning of Charles II in 1660 and running to about 1700. The era, which was characterized by a reaction against Puritanism, was the first great age of the comedy of manners. The finest literature of the era is typically witty and urbane, and often lewd. Prominent Restoration Age writers include William Congreve, Samuel Pepys, John Dryden, and John Milton.

rhetoric : in literary criticism, this term denotes the art of ethical persuasion. In its strictest sense, rhetoric adheres to various principles developed since classical times for arranging facts and ideas in a clear, persuasive, appealing manner. The term is also used to refer to effective prose in general and theories of or methods for composing effective prose. Classical examples of rhetorics include The Rhetoric of Aristotle, Quintillian's Institutio Oratoria, and Cicero's Ad Herennium.

rhetorical question : a question intended to provoke thought, but not an expressed answer, in the reader. It is most commonly used in oratory and other persuasive genres. The following lines from Thomas Gray's “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” ask rhetorical questions: “Can storied urn or animated bust//Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?//Can Honour's voice provoke the silent dust,//Or Flattery soothe the dull cold ear of//Death?”

rising action : the part of a drama where the plot becomes increasingly complicated. Rising action leads up to the climax, or turning point, of a drama. The final “chase scene” of an action film is generally the rising action which culminates in the film's climax.

rococo : a style of European architecture that flourished in the eighteenth century, especially in France. The most notable features of rococo are its extensive use of ornamentation and its themes of lightness, gaiety, and intimacy. In literary criticism, the term is often used disparagingly to refer to a decadent or over-ornamental style. Alexander Pope's “The Rape of the Lock” is an example of literary rococo.

Roman a clef : a French phrase meaning “novel with a key.” It refers to a narrative in which real persons are portrayed under fictitious names. Jack Kerouac, for example, portrayed various real-life beat generation figures under fictitious names in his On the Road.

romance : a broad term, usually denoting a narrative with exotic, exaggerated, often idealized characters, scenes, and themes. Nathaniel Hawthorne called his The House of the Seven Gables and The Marble Faun romances in order to distinguish them from clearly realistic works.

romantic age : see romanticism

romanticism : this term has two widely accepted meanings. In historical criticism, it refers to a European intellectual and artistic movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that sought greater freedom of personal expression than that allowed by the strict rules of literary form and logic of the eighteenth-century neoclassicists. The Romantics preferred emotional and imaginative expression to rational analysis. They considered the individual to be at the center of all experience and so placed him or her at the center of their art. The Romantics believed that the creative imagination reveals nobler truths—unique feelings and attitudes—than those that could be discovered by logic or by scientific examination. Both the natural world and the state of childhood were important sources for revelations of “eternal truths.” “Romanticism” is also used as a general term to refer to a type of sensibility found in all periods of literary history and usually considered to be in opposition to the principles of classicism. In this sense, Romanticism signifies any work or philosophy in which the exotic or dreamlike figure strongly, or that is devoted to individualistic expression, self-analysis, or a pursuit of a higher realm of knowledge than can be discovered by human reason. Prominent Romantics include Jean-Jacques Rousseau, William Wordsworth, John Keats, Lord Byron, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

romantics : see romanticism

Russian symbolism : a Russian poetic movement, derived from French symbolism, that flourished between 1894 and 1910. While some Russian Symbolists continued in the French tradition, stressing aestheticism and the importance of suggestion above didactic intent, others saw their craft as a form of mystical worship, and themselves as mediators between the supernatural and the mundane. Russian symbolists include Aleksandr Blok, Vyacheslav Ivanovich Ivanov, Fyodor Sologub, Andrey Bely, Nikolay Gumilyov, and Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov.


satire : a work that uses ridicule, humor, and wit to criticize and provoke change in human nature and institutions. There are two major types of satire: “formal” or “direct” satire speaks directly to the reader or to a character in the work; “indirect” satire relies upon the ridiculous behavior of its characters to make its point. Formal satire is further divided into two manners: the “Horatian,” which ridicules gently, and the “Juvenalian,” which derides its subjects harshly and bitterly. Voltaire's novella Candide is an indirect satire. Jonathan Swift's essay “A Modest Proposal” is a Juvenalian satire.

science fiction : a type of narrative about or based upon real or imagined scientific theories and technology. Science fiction is often peopled with alien creatures and set on other planets or in different dimensions. Karel Capek's R.U.R. is a major work of science fiction.

second person : see point of view

semiotics : the study of how literary forms and conventions affect the meaning of language. Semioticians include Ferdinand de Saussure, Charles Sanders Pierce, Claude Levi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, and Julia Kristeva.

setting : the time, place, and culture in which the action of a narrative takes place. The elements of setting may include geographic location, characters' physical and mental environments, prevailing cultural attitudes, or the historical time in which the action takes place. Examples of settings include the romanticized Scotland in Sir Walter Scott's “Waverley” novels, the French provincial setting in Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, the fictional Wessex country of Thomas Hardy's novels, and the small towns of southern Ontario in Alice Munro's short stories.

short story : a fictional prose narrative shorter and more focused than a novella. The short story usually deals with a single episode and often a single character. The “tone,” the author's attitude toward his or her subject and audience, is uniform throughout. The short story frequently also lacks denouement, ending instead at its climax. Well-known short stories include Ernest Hemingway's “Hills Like White Elephants,” Katherine Mansfield's “The Fly,” Jorge Luis Borge's “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” Eudora Welty's “Death of a Travelling Salesman,” Yukio Mishima's “Three Million Men,” and Milan Kundera's “The Hitchhiking Game.”

signifying monkey : a popular trickster figure in black folklore, with hundreds of tales about this character documented since the 19th century. Henry Louis Gates Jr. examines the history of the signifying monkey in The Signifying Monkey: Towards a Theory ofAfro-American Literary Criticism, published in 1988.

simile : a comparison, usually using “like” or “as”, of two essentially dissimilar things, as in “coffee as cold as ice” or “He sounded like a broken record.” The title of Ernest Hemingway's “Hills Like White Elephants” contains a simile.

slang : a type of informal verbal communication that is generally unacceptable for formal writing. Slang words and phrases are often colorful exaggerations used to emphasize the speaker's point; they may also be shortened versions of an often-used word or phrase. Examples of American slang from the 1990s include “yuppie” (an acronym for Young Urban Professional), “awesome” (for “excellent”), wired (for “nervous” or “excited”), and “chill out” (for relax).

slave narrative : autobiographical accounts of American slave life as told by escaped slaves. These works first appeared during the abolition movement of the 1830s through the 1850s. Olaudah Equiano's The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African and Harriet Ann Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl are examples of the slave narrative.

social realism : see socialist realism

socialist realism : the Socialist Realism school of literary theory was proposed by Maxim Gorky and established as a dogma by the first Soviet Congress of Writers. It demanded adherence to a communist worldview in works of literature. Its doctrines required an objective viewpoint comprehensible to the working classes and themes of social struggle featuring strong proletarian heroes. A successful work of socialist realism is Nikolay Ostrovsky's Kak zakalyalas stal (How the Steel Was Tempered).

stereotype : a stereotype was originally the name for a duplication made during the printing process; this led to its modern definition as a person or thing that is (or is assumed to be) the same as all others of its type. Common stereotypical characters include the absentminded professor, the nagging wife, the troublemaking teenager, and the kindhearted grandmother.

stream of consciousness : a narrative technique for rendering the inward experience of a character. This technique is designed to give the impression of an ever-changing series of thoughts, emotions, images, and memories in the spontaneous and seemingly illogical order that they occur in life. The textbook example of stream of consciousness is the last section of James Joyce's Ulysses.

structuralism : a twentieth-century movement in literary criticism that examines how literary texts arrive at their meanings, rather than the meanings themselves. There are two major types of structuralist analysis: one examines the way patterns of linguistic structures unify a specific text and emphasize certain elements of that text, and the other interprets the way literary forms and conventions affect the meaning of language itself. Prominent structuralists include Michel Foucault, Roman Jakobson, and Roland Barthes.

structure : the form taken by a piece of literature. The structure may be made obvious for ease of understanding, as in nonfiction works, or may obscured for artistic purposes, as in some poetry or seemingly “unstructured” prose. Examples of common literary structures include the plot of a narrative, the acts and scenes of a drama, and such poetic forms as the Shakespearean sonnet and the Pindaric ode.

sturm und drang : a German term meaning “storm and stress.” It refers to a German literary movement of the 1770s and 1780s that reacted against the order and rationalism of the enlightenment, focusing instead on the intense experience of extraordinary individuals. Highly romantic, works of this movement, such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Gotz von Berlichingen, are typified by realism, rebelliousness, and intense emotionalism.

style : a writer's distinctive manner of arranging words to suit his or her ideas and purpose in writing. The unique imprint of the author's personality upon his or her writing, style is the product of an author's way of arranging ideas and his or her use of diction, different sentence structures, rhythm, figures of speech, rhetorical principles, and other elements of composition. Styles may be classified according to period (Metaphysical, Augustan, Georgian), individual authors (Chaucerian, Miltonic, Jamesian), level (grand, middle, low, plain), or language (scientific, expository, poetic, journalistic).

subject : the person, event, or theme at the center of a work of literature. A work may have one or more subjects of each type, with shorter works tending to have fewer and longer works tending to have more. The subjects of James Baldwin's novel Go Tell It on the Mountain include the themes of father-son relationships, religious conversion, black life, and sexuality. The subjects of Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl include Anne and her family members as well as World War II, the Holocaust, and the themes of war, isolation, injustice, and racism.

subjectivity : writing that expresses the author's personal feelings about his subject, and which may or may not include factual information about the subject. Subjectivity is demonstrated in James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh, and Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel.

subplot : a secondary story in a narrative. A subplot may serve as a motivating or complicating force for the main plot of the work, or it may provide emphasis for, or relief from, the main plot. The conflict between the Capulets and the Montagues in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is an example of a subplot.

surrealism : a term introduced to criticism by Guillaume A pollinaire and later adopted by Andre Breton. It refers to a French literary and artistic movement founded in the 1920s. The Surrealists sought to express unconscious thoughts and feelings in their works. The best-known technique used for achieving this aim was automatic writing—transcriptions of spontaneous outpourings from the unconscious. The Surrealists proposed to unify the contrary levels of conscious and unconscious, dream and reality, objectivity and subjectivity into a new level of “super-realism.” Surrealism can be found in the poetry of Paul Eluard, Pierre Reverdy, and Louis Aragon, among others.

suspense : a literary device in which the author maintains the audience's attention through the buildup of events, the outcome of which will soon be revealed. Suspense in William Shakespeare's Hamlet is sustained throughout by the question of whether or not the Prince will achieve what he has been instructed to do and of what he intends to do.

syllogism : a method of presenting a logical argument. In its most basic form, the syllogism consists of a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion. An example of a syllogism is: Major premise: When it snows, the streets get wet. Minor premise: It is snowing. Conclusion: The streets are wet.

symbol : something that suggests or stands for something else without losing its original identity. In literature, symbols combine their literal meaning with the suggestion of an abstract concept. Literary symbols are of two types: those that carry complex associations of meaning no matter what their contexts, and those that derive their suggestive meaning from their functions in specific literary works. Examples of symbols are sunshine suggesting happiness, rain suggesting sorrow, and storm clouds suggesting despair.

symbolism : this term has two widely accepted meanings. In historical criticism, it denotes an early modernist literary movement initiated in France during the nineteenth century that reacted against the prevailing standards of realism. Writers in this movement aimed to evoke, indirectly and symbolically, an order of being beyond the material world of the five senses. Poetic expression of personal emotion figured strongly in the movement, typically by means of a private set of symbols uniquely identifiable with the individual poet. The principal aim of the Symbolists was to express in words the highly complex feelings that grew out of everyday contact with the world. In a broader sense, the term “symbolism” refers to the use of one object to represent another. Early members of the Symbolist movement included the French authors Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud; William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, and T. S. Eliot were influenced as the movement moved to Ireland, England, and the United States. Examples of the concept of symbolism include a flag that stands for a nation or movement, or an empty cupboard used to suggest hopelessness, poverty, and despair.

symbolist : see symbolism

symbolist movement : see symbolism


tale : a story told by a narrator with a simple plot and little character development. Tales are usually relatively short and often carry a simple message. Examples of tales can be found in the work of Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham, Saki, Anton Chekhov, Guy de Maupassant, and Armistead Maupin.

tall tale : a humorous tale told in a straightforward, credible tone but relating absolutely impossible events or feats of the characters. Such tales were commonly told of frontier adventures during the settlement of the west in the United States. Tall tales have been spun around such legendary heroes as Mike Fink, Paul Bunyan, Davy Crockett, Johnny Appleseed, and Captain Stormalong as well as the real-life William F. Cody and Annie Oakley. Literary use of tall tales can be found in Washington Irving's History of New York, Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, and in the German R. F. Raspe's Baron Munchausen's Narratives of His Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia.

textual criticism : a branch of literary criticism that seeks to establish the authoritative text of a literary work. Textual critics typically compare all known manuscripts or printings of a single work in order to assess the meanings of differences and revisions. This procedure allows them to arrive at a definitive version that (supposedly) corresponds to the author's original intention. Textual criticism was applied during the Renaissance to salvage the classical texts of Greece and Rome, and modern works have been studied, for instance, to undo deliberate correction or censorship, as in the case of novels by Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser.

theme : the main point of a work of literature. The term is used interchangeably with thesis. The theme of William Shakespeare's Othello—jealousy—is a common one.

thesis : a thesis is both an essay and the point argued in the essay. Thesis novels and thesis plays share the quality of containing a thesis which is supported through the action of the story. A master's thesis and a doctoral dissertation are two theses required of graduate students.

thesis novel : see thesis

third person : see point of view

tone : the author's attitude toward his or her audience may be deduced from the tone of the work. A formal tone may create distance or convey politeness, while an informal tone may encourage a friendly, intimate, or intrusive feeling in the reader. The author's attitude toward his or her subject matter may also be deduced from the tone of the words he or she uses in discussing it. The tone of John F. Kennedy's speech which included the appeal to “ask not what your country can do for you” was intended to instill feelings of camaraderie and national pride in listeners.

transcendentalism : an American philosophical and religious movement, based in New England from around 1835 until the Civil War. Transcendentalism was a form of American romanticism that had its roots abroad in the works of Thomas Carlyle, Samuel Coleridge, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The Transcendentalists stressed the importance of intuition and subjective experience in communication with God. They rejected religious dogma and texts in favor of mysticism and scientific naturalism. They pursued truths that lie beyond the “colorless” realms perceived by reason and the senses and were active social reformers in public education, women's rights, and the abolition of slavery. Prominent members of the group include Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

trickster : a character or figure common in Native American and African literature who uses his ingenuity to defeat enemies and escape difficult situations. Tricksters are most often animals, such as the spider, hare, or coyote, although they may take the form of humans as well. Examples of trickster tales include Thomas King's A Coyote Columbus Story, Ashley F. Bryan's The Dancing Granny and Ishmael Reed's The Last Days of Louisiana Red.


understatement : see irony

urban realism : a branch of realist writing that attempts to accurately reflect the often harsh facts of modern urban existence. Some works by Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Emile Zola, Abraham Cahan, and Henry Fuller feature urban realism. Modern examples include Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land and Ron Milner's What the Wine Sellers Buy.

utopia : a fictional perfect place, such as “paradise” or “heaven.” Early literary utopias were included in Plato's Republic and Sir Thomas More's Utopia, while more modern utopias can be found in Samuel Butler's Erewhon, Theodor Herzka's A Visit to Free-land, and H. G. Wells' A Modern Utopia.

utopian : see utopia

utopianism : see utopia


verisimilitude : literally, the appearance of truth. In literary criticism, the term refers to aspects of a work of literature that seem true to the reader. Verisimilitude is achieved in the work of Honore de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, and Henry James, among other late nineteenth-century realist writers.

Victorian : refers broadly to the reign of Queen Victoria of England (1837–1901) and to anything with qualities typical of that era. For example, the qualities of smug narrow-mindedness, bourgeois materialism, faith in social progress, and priggish morality are often considered Victorian. This stereotype is contradicted by such dramatic intellectual developments as the theories of Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud (which stirred strong debates in England) and the critical attitudes of serious Victorian writers like Charles Dickens and George Eliot. In literature, the Victorian Period was the great age of the English novel, and the latter part of the era saw the rise of movements such as decadence and symbolism. Works of Victorian literature include the poetry of Robert Browning and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the criticism of Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin, and the novels of Emily Bronte, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Thomas Hardy.

Victorian age : see Victorian

Victorian period : see Victorian


weltanschauung : a German term referring to a person's worldview or philosophy. Examples of weltanschauung include Thomas Hardy's view of the human being as the victim of fate, destiny, or impersonal forces and circumstances, and the disillusioned and laconic cynicism expressed by such poets of the 1930s as W. H. Auden, Sir Stephen Spender, and Sir William Empson.

weltschmerz : a German term meaning “world pain.” It describes a sense of anguish about the nature of existence, usually associated with a melancholy, pessimistic attitude. Weltschmerz was expressed in England by George Gordon, Lord Byron in his Manfred and Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, in France by Viscount de Chateaubriand, Alfred de Vigny, and Alfred de Musset, in Russia by Aleksandr Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov, in Poland by Juliusz Slowacki, and in America by Nathaniel Hawthorne.


zeitgeist : a German term meaning “spirit of the time.” It refers to the moral and intellectual trends of a given era. Examples of zeitgeist include the preoccupation with the more morbid aspects of dying and death in some Jacobean literature, especially in the works of dramatists Cyril Tourneur and John Webster, and the decadence of the French Symbolists.