Literary Terms and Definitions

Allegory – a story that represents abstract ideas or moral qualities. An allegory has both a literal and a symbolic level of meaning. Example: Gulliver’s Travels.

Alliteration – the repetition of sounds at the beginning of words. Example: More Mischief and Merriment.

Allusion – a reference to a person, place, poem, book, event, etc., which is not part of the story, that the author expects the reader will recognize. Example: In The Glass Menagerie, Tom speaks of “Chamberlain’s umbrella,” a reference to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.

Climax – the point of greatest dramatic tension or excitement in a story. Examples: Othello’s murder of Desdemona. In To Kill a Mockingbird, the person chasing Scout is killed.

Coming of Age – a novel or other work of literature in which the main character or characters grow, mature, or understand the world in adult terms. Examples: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; The Cay.

Denouement – the portion of a literary work that follows the climax and resolves the plot’s loose ends. Example: After Sherlock Holmes solves the crime (the climax), the last few pages are left for him to explain how he did it and to clear up any remaining mysteries.

Dialect – a particular kind of speech used by members of one specific group because of its geographical location or class. Example: Jim, in Huckleberry Finn says, “Shet de do.’’ (“Shut the door”).

Episodic Novel – a novel made up of a succession of loosely connected incidents, rather than through an integrated, chronological plot. Example: The House on Mango Street.

Exposition – the background information that the reader has to know and/or understand before reading the play or novel. The information is usually dealt with at the beginning of the book. Sometimes, exposition reveals things that occurred before the actual plot begins. Example: The chorus in Romeo and Juliet explains the setting, the feud between the fami- lies, and the future deaths of the main characters in fourteen lines of poetry.

Falling Action – additional action that follows the climax. Example: After the deaths near the end of Hamlet, the Prince of Norway enters, and Horatio explains what happened.

Flashback – a scene that interrupts the ongoing action in a story to show an event that happened earlier. Example: The movie, Citizen Kane, tells its story almost exclusively through the memories of its characters, who all knew Kane before his death.

Flat or Static Character – a one-dimensional character who lacks diversity and complexity; a character who is either all good or all bad and does not change. Because the character be- haves in just one way, he or she is easy to comprehend. Example: Sherlock Holmes seems to be calm, deliberative, and in complete charge, regardless of the situation.

Inference – the act of drawing a conclusion that is not actually stated by the author. Example: In The Pigman, John and Lorraine are writing a “memorial epic” about Mr. Pignati. Therefore, the reader may logically assume that Mr. Pignati dies in the book.

Irony – a perception of inconsistency, sometimes humorous, in which the significance and understanding of a statement or event is changed by its context. Example: The firehouse burned down.

  • Dramatic Irony – the audience or reader knows more about a character’s situation than the character does and knows that the character’s understanding is incorrect. Example: In Medea, Creon asks, “What atrocities could she commit in one day?” The reader, how- ever, knows Medea will destroy her family and Creon’s by day’s end.
  • Structural Irony – the use of a naïve hero, whose incorrect perceptions differ from the reader’s correct ones. Example: Huck Finn.
  • Verbal Irony – a discrepancy between what is said and what is really meant; sarcasm. Example: A large man whose nickname is “Tiny.”

Metaphor – a comparison of two things that are basically dissimilar in which one is described in terms of the other. Example: The moon, a haunting lantern, shone through the clouds.

Paradox – a statement that is self-contradictory on its surface, yet makes a point through the juxtaposition of the ideas and words within the paradox. Examples: “Noon finally dawned for the remaining, weary soldiers”; “He that hath no money; come ye, buy and eat…” – Isaiah 55:1

Personification – a figure of speech in which an object, abstract idea, or animal is given human characteristics. Examples: The wall did its best to keep out the invaders. “Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me.” –Emily Dickinson

Plot – the pattern of events in a literary work; what happens.

Rising Action – the part of the story’s plot that adds complications to the problems and increases the reader’s interest.

Sensory Images – the use of details from any, some, or all of the five senses. Example: He reached behind him, felt the wall, and was more secure.

Simile – a comparison between two different things using either like or as. Examples: I am as hungry as a horse. The huge trees broke like twigs during the hurricane.

Stereotyping – the act of putting people into groups based on race, religion, nationality, physical appearance, social class, or some other easily identifiable characteristic. Example: In The Last of the Mohicans, Magua and Uncas are the stereotypical ideals of evil and good Indians, respectively.

Superstition – any belief or attitude based on fear or ignorance that is inconsistent with the known laws of science. Example: Breaking a mirror brings seven years bad luck.

Symbol – an object, person, or place that has a meaning in itself and that also stands for something larger than itself, usually an idea or concept; some concrete thing which represents an abstraction. Example: The sea could be symbolic for “the unknown.” Since the sea is something that is physical and can be seen by the reader, and also has elements that cannot be understood, it can be used symbolically to stand for the abstraction of “mystery,” “obscurity,” or “the unknown.”

Theme – the central or dominant idea behind the story; the most important aspect that emerges from how the book treats its subject. Sometimes theme is easy to see, but, at other times, it may be more difficult. Theme is usually expressed indirectly, as an element the reader must figure out. It is a universal statement about humanity, rather than a simple statement dealing with plot or characters in the story. Themes are generally hinted at through different methods: a phrase or quotation that introduces the novel, a recurring element in the book, or an observation made that is reinforced through plot, dialogue, or characters. It must be emphasized that not all works of literature have themes in them. Example: In a story about a man who is diagnosed with cancer and, through medicine and willpower, returns to his former occupation, the theme might be: “Real courage is demonstrated through internal bravery and perseverance.” In a poem about a flower that grows, blooms, and dies, the theme might be: “Youth fades, and death comes to all.”