Glossary of Literary Terms
Adage: A traditional or proverbial saying.
Allegory A story in which the characters and events extend beyond the confines of their story to represent an object lesson to readers.
Alliteration: The repetition of a consonant sound – “storm strewn sea.”
Anapaest: The anapaestic meter consists of a series of two unstressed sounds followed by a single stressed sound – “The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold” (Lord Byron).
Antagonist Character whose dramatic role is to oppose the protagonist (q.v.).
Archetype: Also known as universal symbol, an archetype may be a character (the intrepid hero, damsel in distress, party animal), a theme (the triumph of good over evil), a symbol, or even a setting. Many literary critics are of the opinion that archetypes, which have a common and recurring representation in a particular human culture or entire human race, shape the structure and function of a literary work.
Archetypal plot: A sequence of events forming a type of story that has recurred throughout the history of a civilization, and with which most people are familiar; for example, a battle between good and evil.
Assonance: The repetition of vowel sounds, as in “rapid rattle” (Wilfred Owen).
Aural Describes how a poem appeals to our sense of sound, hearing.
Ballad: A narrative poem, usually written in quatrains with abcb rhyme scheme (q.v.).
Blank verse: Unrhymed iambic pentameter (q.v.) poetry.
Blocking agents: In drama, characters who try to prevent other characters from achieving their goals.
Catharsis: The purging of audience emotion in tragedy, the release of emotion, and final feeling of relief.
Comedy: Form of drama characterized by some sense of optimism, fellowship, love, and good humour.
Conceit: A metaphor that is unusually ingenious or elaborate. Common feature in work of metaphysical poets, such as John Donne.
Contextual symbol: A symbol that has a non-literal meaning only within the context of the work of art in which it is found.
Dactyl: The dactylic meter is the opposite of the anaepestic. It consists of a series of single hard-stressed sounds followed by two soft-stressed sounds – “Just for a handful of silver he left us” (Robert Browning).
Deconstruction: An interpretive movement in literary theory that reached its apex in the 1970s. Deconstruction rejects absolute interpretations, stressing ambiguities and contradictions in literature. Deconstruction grew out of the linguistic principles of De Saussure who noted that many Indo-European languages create meaning by binary opposites. Verbal oppositions such as good/evil, light/dark, male/female, rise/fall, up/down, and high/low show a human tendency common transculturally to create vocabulary as pairs of opposites, with one of the two words arbitrarily given positive connotations and the other word arbitrarily given negative connotations.
Dramatic monologue: A poem which is “dramatic” because it is a speech presented to an audience (usually of only one person) and a “monologue” because no other character does any talking.
Dynamic character: Sometimes referred to as a round character, a dynamic character is one whose values, attitudes, and/or ideals change as a result of the experience the character undergoes throughout the story.
Elegy: A poem written to commemorate the death of a person who played a significant role in the poet’s life.
Epic: An epic in its most specific sense is a genre of classical poetry. It is a poem that is a long narrative about a serious subject, told in an elevated style of language, focused on the exploits of a hero or demi-god who represents the cultural values of a race, nation, or religious group, in which the hero’s success or failure will determine the fate of that people or nation. Usually, the epic has a vast setting and covers a wide geographic area, it contains superhuman feats of strength or military prowess, and gods or supernatural beings frequently take part in the action. The poem begins with the invocation of a muse to inspire the poet and, the narrative starts in medias res. The epic contains long catalogues of heroes or important characters, focusing on highborn kings and great warriors rather than peasants and commoners.
Epiphany A change, sudden insight or awareness revealed to the main character.
Eye rhyme: Words that look as if they should rhyme but do not – for example “good” and “mood.” Also known as sight rhyme.
Fable: A short and traditional story, involving archetypal characters and ending with a moral.
Feminism and literature: Feminist critics aim to examine how gender functions and how power is distributed.
Fiction: Prose text in the form of a story that is primarily a product of human imagination.
First-person major-character narrator: This type of narrator tells a story in which they are the main character, or main focus of attention.
First-person minor-character narrator : This narrator is typically a gossip. They observe the actions of another person, often a friend, and then tells what that friend did, when, and to whom.
Flashback: The technique of narrating an event that occurred before the point in the story to which the narrator has advanced.
Flat character: A character, also known as a static character, who is offered the chance for positive change but who, for one reason or another, fails to embrace it.
Free verse: Poetry without a set rhyme scheme or rhythm pattern.
Full rhyme: The use of words that rhyme completely, such as “good” and “wood.”
Genre: A major literary form, such as drama, poetry, and the novel.
Haiku: The Japanese haiku is a brief poem, consisting of a single image. The haiku consists of three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, respectively.
Half rhyme: Describes words that almost rhyme such as “time” and “mine.”
Hamartia: A term from Greek tragedy that literally means “missing the mark.” Originally applied to an archer who misses the target, a hamartia came to signify a tragic flaw, especially a misperception, a lack of some important insight, or some blindness that ironically results from one’s own strengths and abilities.
Horatian satire: Named after the Roman poet, Horace, this is a fairly gentle type of satire used to poke fun at people and their failings or foibles.
Hyperbole: A metaphor that bases its comparison on the use of exaggeration, for example, “I’d walk a million miles for one of your smiles” (Al Jolson).
Iambic: The iambic rhythm pattern in poetry consists of one unstressed sound or beat, followed by one stressed sound or beat – “The cúrfew tólls the knéll of párting dáy” (Thomas Gray).
Iambic diameter: A line with two beats – “I can’t.”
Iambic pentameter: A line with five beats – “I have been one acquainted with the night” (Robert Frost).
Iambic tetrameter: A line with four beats – “I wandered lonely as a cloud” (William Wordsworth).
Iambic trimeter: A line with three beats – “The only news I know/Is bulletins all day” (Emily Dickinson).
Imagery: In literature, an image is a word picture. It can be a phrase, a sentence, or a line. It is used to enhance the reader’s appreciation of the figurative more than the literal meaning of a poem, story, or play – “The fog comes/on little cat feet” (Carl Sandberg).
Imagists: A group of poets whose aim between 1912 and 1917 was to write poetry that accented imagery (q.v.) or, their preferred term, “imagism” to communicate meaning.
In media res: Latin for “in the middle of the action,” the point at which an epic, such as “The Odyssey,” typically opens.
Irony: Cicero referred to irony as “saying one thing and meaning another.” Irony comes in many forms. Verbal irony is a trope in which a speaker makes a statement in which its actual meaning differs sharply from the meaning that the words ostensibly express. Dramatic irony involves a situation in a narrative in which the reader knows something about present or future circumstances that the character does not know. In that situation, the character acts in a way we recognize to be grossly inappropriate to the actual circumstances, or the character expects the opposite of what the reader knows that fate holds in store, or the character anticipates a particular outcome that unfolds itself in an unintentional way. Probably the most famous example of dramatic irony is the situation facing Oedipus in the play Oedipus Rex. Situational irony is a trope in which accidental events occur that seem oddly appropriate, such as the poetic justice of a pickpocket getting his own pocket picked.
Juvenalian satire: Named after the Roman poet Juvenal, this form of satire uses bitter sarcasm more than humour, and is often tinged with cruelty.
Limited omniscient narrator: A narrator who limits himself or herself to relaying to readers the thoughts and actions of the main character only.
Litotes: The deliberate use of understatement, usually to create an ironic or satiric effect – “I am not as young as I used to be.”
Malapropism: A blunder in diction, grotesquely substituting one word with a similar sound for the proper word. Mrs. Malaprop, (Fr. Mal à propos), a character in R. B. Sheridan’s comedy The Rivals, was famously guilty of such errors in diction: e.g., “As headstrong as an allegory [alligator] on the banks of the Nile”; Shakespeare’s Mistress Quickly in 2 Henry IV (Falstaff “is indicted to dinner”); and Capt. Jack Boyle in O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock (“The whole world’s in a state of chassis” [chaos]) are earlier and later characters given to malapropisms.
Marxist literary theory: Like feminist critics, Marxist critics examine the imbalance of power relationships among characters in literature, in terms of social class.
Metaphor: A comparison intended to clarify or intensify the more complex of the objects of the comparison.
Metonymy: A form of metaphor in which a phrase is understood to represent something more; for example, to use the phrase “sabre rattling” to mean “threatening war.”
Meter: A term used to describe the rhythm and measure of a line of poetry.
Narrative: The storyline in a literary work.
Non-sequential plot: One in which the author holds back an important incident that occurred before the chronological ending of the story, typically to create suspense.
Novel: A narrative work of fiction typically involving a range of characters and settings, linked together through plot and sub-plots.
Novella: A short work of fiction that falls in length somewhere between the novel and the short story.
Objective narrator: The objective narrator establishes setting in a precise but rather detached style, and then lets the conversation tell the story, using an objective point of view.
Octave: An eight-line stanza.
Ode: A long formal poem that typically presents a poet’s philosophical views about such subjects as nature, art, death, and human emotion.
Omniscient narrator: A narrator capable of telling readers the thoughts of all the characters and the actions of all the characters at any time. An omniscient narrator is like a god who can provide readers with all the information they could ever want.
Onomatopoeia: A word or phrase usually found in a poem the sound of which suggests its meaning – “bang,” “thwack.”
Oral: Describes a spoken as opposed to written literary tradition.
Paradox: A phrase which seems self-contradictory but, in fact, makes powerful sense despite its lack of logic – “I must be cruel only to be kind” (Shakespeare).
Pastoral: Relating to the countryside, especially in an idealized form.
Pastoral elegy: A form of elegy that typically contrasts the serenity of the simple life of a shepherd with the cruel world which hastened the death of the poet’s friend.
Personification: A form of metaphor that compares something non-human with something that is human – “Two Sunflowers/Move in the Yellow Room” (William Blake).
Petrarchan sonnet: A sonnet with a rhyme scheme: abbaabbacdecde.
Plot: In a literary fiction work, “plot” refers to the events, the order in which they occur, and the relationship of the events to each other.
Poetry: One of the major literary genres, usually written in a series of discrete lines which highlight the artistic use of language.
Point of view: The stance from which the storyteller or narrator tells the story.
Prose: The written text of fiction and non-fiction, as distinct from poetry.
Protagonist: The main character in a literary work. See also antagonist.
Quatrain: A four-line stanza.
Reader response theory: A theory of literature that asserts that the reader creates meaning and that, because all people are different, all readings will be different.
Regular verse: A literary work written in lines that have the same rhythm pattern and a regular rhyme scheme.
Rhyme scheme: The rhyming pattern of a regular-verse poem.
Rhyming couplet: A two-line stanza in which the last words in each line rhyme.
Satire: A literary form in which a writer pokes fun at those aspects of his society, especially those people and those social institutions that the author thinks are corrupt and in need of change.
Scapegoat: A person who is banished or sacrificed in the interests of his or her community. The term is often applied to a tragic hero.
Sequential plot: One in which the events are narrated in the order in which they occurred in time.
Sestet: A six-line stanza.
Shakespearean sonnet: A sonnet with a rhyme scheme: ababcdcdefefgg.
Short story: A prose fiction narrative that usually occurs in a single setting and concerns a single main character.
Sight rhyme: Words that look as if they should rhyme but do not – for example “mood” and “good.” Also known as eye rhyme.
Simile: A type of metaphor that makes the comparison explicit by using either the word “like” or the word “as” – “Elderly American ladies leaning on their canes listed toward me like towers of Pisa” (Nabokov).
Sonnet: A 14-line regular-verse poem, usually written in iambic pentameter.
Spondee: A double-hard-stressed phrase such as “shook foil” (Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur”).
Static character: A static character, also known as a flat character, is one who is offered the chance for positive change but who, for one reason or another, fails to embrace it.
Stereotype: A recognizable type of person rather than a fully developed character. A stereotypical character is one who can be identified by a single dominant trait; for example, the braggart soldier, the country bumpkin.
Symbolism: The use within a literary work of an element that has more than a literal meaning – “All the world’s a stage” (Shakespeare).
Synecdoche: The use of a part to represent a whole, as in the expression “lend me a hand.”
Tercet: A three-line stanza.
Theatre of the absurd: A phrase used to describe a group of plays written during and after the 1950s. The term “absurd” is used because the plots and the characters (though not the themes) are unconventional when examined in the context of conventional tragedy and comedy.
Theme: The message or insight into human experience that an author offers to his or her readers. Broad themes might include family, love, war, nature, death, faith, time, or some aspects of these.
Tone: The attitude or personality that a literary work projects; for example, serious and solemn, or lighthearted and amusing.
Tragedy: A play that tells the story of a significant event or series of events in the life of a significant person.
Tragic hero: The main character in a Greek or Roman tragedy. In contrast with the epic hero (who embodies the values of his culture and appears in an epic poem), the tragic hero is typically an admirable character who appears as the focus in a tragic play, but one who is undone by a hamartia—a tragic mistake, misconception, or flaw. That hamartia leads to the downfall of the main character.
Trochaic: The opposite of iambic. The rhythm of the lines of a trochaic poem consist not of a series of soft-stressed-hard-stressed sounds, but a series of hard-stressed-soft-stressed sounds – “There they are my fifty men and women” (Robert Browning).
Valediction: Bidding farewell to someone or something.
Verse: A unit of a varying number of lines with which a poem is divided. Also called a stanza.
Villanelle: A 19-line poem divided into five tercets and one quatrain. Probably the most famous English villanelle is Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.”
- This chapter is from “Glossary of Literary Terms” in English Literature: Victorians and Moderns by James Sexton. CC BY.