A Literary Lexicon

The following is a list of technical terms commonly used in the critical study of art and literature. The list is short, and the definitions are purposely brief. Students seeking a more complete listing--or a more detailed and comprehensive set of definitions and examples--should consult a good literary dictionary or encyclopedia (e.g, The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics). Supplemental online resources are also available.

Allegory--a universal symbol or personified abstraction. Example: Death portrayed as a cloaked "grim reaper" with scythe and hourglass, or Justice depicted as a blindfolded figure with a sword and balances. Also a literary work or genre (e.g., John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress) that makes widespread use of such devices.

Alliteration--the repetition of initial consonant sounds in a line or succeeding lines of verse. Example: Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet: "Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds/ Towards Phoebus' lodging!"

Allusion--an indirect or oblique reference within a text to another text or work. Hence a subtle artistic quotation or homage. For example, the opening sentence of Cat's Cradle--"Call me Jonah"--alludes to both an Old Testament prophet and the opening line of Melville's Moby Dick.

Apocalyptic literature--writings that aim to reveal the future history of the world and the ultimate destiny of the earth and its inhabitants. Examples: the prophetic books of the Old Testament; Revelations. From the sermons of Puritan ministers to the latest popular work of science fiction, American literature has always had a pronounced apocalyptic tendency.

Assonance--the repetition of similar vowel sounds within a line or succeeding lines of verse. Example: the short i and e sounds in Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra: "then is it sin/ To rush into the secret house of death/ Ere death dare come to us?"
Autobiography--An author's own life history or memoir. Example: The Education of Henry Adams. Thoreau's Walden is also an example of autobiography, and Whitman's Leaves of Grass, though it is not specifically an autobiography, contains numerous autobiographical elements.

Blank Verse--a verse form consisting of unrhymed lines of iambic pentameter. Shakespeare's plays are largely in blank verse.

Black humor--comedy mingled with horror or a sense of the macabre; extremely bitter, morbid, or shocking humor. Examples (increasingly common in post-WWII film and literature) include Kurt Vonnegut's novel Cat's Cradle and the recent films Pulp Fiction and Misery.

Catalogue--a traditional epic device consisting of a long rhetorical list or inventory.
Homer's catalogue of ships in the Iliad is probably the most famous example, though almost any poem by Whitman will supply a prize specimen or two.

Classicism, classical--referring to the art and culture of ancient Greece and Rome.

Comedy--film or dramatic work depicting the uphill struggle and eventual success of a sympathetic hero or heroine; usually about ordinary people in difficult but non-life-threatening predicaments. Examples: Shakespeare, As You Like It; Shaw, Pygmalion.

Consonance--repetition of the same or similar consonant sounds in a line or succeeding lines of verse. Example: the r and s repetitions in Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream: "Or, if there were a sympathy in choice/ War, death, or sickness did lay seige to it . . ."

Drama--a literary work designed for presentation by actors on a stage. Examples: Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice; Miller, Death of a Salesman.

Dramatic romance--play which adapts the themes, characters, and conventions of narrative romance for the stage. Example: Shakespeare's The Tempest.

Epic--a long narrative poem usually about gods, heroes, and legendary events; celebrates the history, culture, and character of a people. Examples: Homer's Iliad and Odyssey,
Milton's Paradise Lost.

Essay--literally a "trial," "test run," or "experiment" (from the French essayer, "to attempt"); hence a relatively short, informal piece of non-fiction prose that treats a topic of general interest in a seemingly casual, impressionistic, and lively way. Montaigne was the great originator of the form; Emerson was its most influential 19th-century American practitioner.

Fantasy fiction--modern adventure novels or tales that adapt many of the conventions and devices of medieval romance (e.g., imaginary worlds, creatures, heroes). Though often considered a sub-category of science fiction, fantasy literature usually doesn't involve the concern with modern science and technology that distinguishes true SF. Example: Tolkein's Lord of the Rings.

Farce--comedy that makes extensive use of improbable plot complications, zany characters, and slapstick humor. Examples: films by the Marx brothers and the Three Stooges; George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's You Can't Take It with You.

Form--metaphorically, the "container" or "mold" of a work of art, as opposed to its material or contents; hence any of the structural patterns or organizing principles that underlie and shape a work. Forms can be traditional and very rigid and specific--e.g., the sonnet in poetry, the sonata in classical music--or vague and flexible, as in most modern works.

Free Verse--poetry without any fixed pattern of meter, rhythm, or rhyme, but which instead exhibits its own natural rhythms, sound patterns, and seemingly arbitrary principles of form. Example: most of the poems in Leaves of Grass.

Genre--a collective grouping or general category of literary works; a large class or group that consists of individual works of literature that share common attributes (e.g., similar themes, characters, plots, or styles). Examples: drama, epic, lyric poem, novel, etc.

Iambic pentameter--popular English verse form consisting of five metrical feet--with each foot consisting of an iamb (i.e., an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable: daDUM). Rhymed pairs of iambic pentameter are called heroic couplets (a form associated with Chaucer and Pope). Unrhymed iambic pentameter is called blank verse (a form associated with Shakespeare and Milton).

Image--a word or phrase in a literary text that appeals directly to the reader's taste, touch, hearing, sight, or smell. An image is thus any vivid or picturesque phrase that evokes a particular sensation in the reader's mind. Example: Whitman's "vapor-pennants" and evocations of "golden brass" and "silvery steel" in "To a Locomotive in Winter"; Bryant's  "lone lakes" and "autumn blaze" in "To an American Painter. . . ."

Irony--originally a deceptive form of understatement (from the Greek eiron, a stock comic character who typically equivocated, misled his listeners, or concealed complex meanings behind seemingly simple words); hence an attribute of statements in which the meaning is different--or more complicated--than it seems. A subtle form of sarcasm, verbal irony is a rhetorical device in which the speaker either severely understates his point or means the opposite of what he says (as when a guest politely describes a host's unimpressive wine as "nicely chilled" or a conspicuously dull person is described as "not a likely Mensa candidate." Dramatic irony arises in situations where two or more individuals have different levels of understanding or different points of view. More specifically, it occurs when the audience or certain characters in a play know something that another character does not--as when Oedipus, ignorant that he himself is the person he seeks, vows to track down Laius's killer.

Lyric--a short, highly formal, song-like poem, usually passionate and confessional, often about love; a song expressing a private mood or an intense personal feeling. The sonnet and the ode are two specific types of lyric.

Melodrama--a film or literary work marked by "good guys" vs. "bad guys," unexpected plot twists, surprise endings, action and suspense. Examples: Most horror movies and detective thrillers.

Meter--the expected pattern or theoretical number and distribution of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line of verse of a given type. For example, in iambic pentameter the prescribed pattern is da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM--five iambs.(See Rhythm.)

Mock epic--a long narrative poem that lightly parodies or mimics the conventions of classical epic. Whitman's elaborate "invocation" of a muse in "Song of the Exposition" is a mock-epic device.

Modernism--European and American literary and artistic movement that arose and flourished during the first half of the twentieth century. Modernism can be understood as in large part an avant-garde reaction to mass culture and to middle-class Victorian values and tastes. Its techniques and aesthetic principles are illustrated in the works of Picasso, Stravinsky, Klee, Proust, Joyce, Eliot, Faulkner, and others.

Neo-classicism--eighteenth-century literary and artistic movement dedicated to the recovery and imitation of classical (i.e., Greek and Roman) styles and models. Neo-classical architectural principles are evident in most of the federal government buildings in Washington, D.C. Joel Barlow's Columbiad (1807--a fulsome poetical extravagance widely admired in its time but seldom read or even mentioned today) is an example of neo-classical epic.

Novel--a long fictional narrative in  prose, usually about the experiences of a central character. Examples, Dickens's David Copperfield, Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.

Ode--a classical lyric form, typically of medium length with complex stanzas and ornate prosodic effects. Ancient odes were usually written to commemorate ceremonial occasions such as anniversaries or funerals. The Romantic poets wrote odes in celebration of art, nature, or exalted states of mind.

Onomatopeia--literally "name poetry"; in verse, the use of words (e.g., clank, buzz, hiss, etc.) that imitate natural sounds. Example, Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew: "Have I not in a pitched battle heard/ Loud 'larums, neighing steeds, and trumpets' clang?"

Parody--a literary or artistic work that mimics in an absurd of ridiculous way the conventions and style of another work. Also known as travesty, lampoon, or burlesque. Twain's Connecticut Yankee is in part a parody of Mallory's Morte d'Arthur. Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle parodies everything from calypso lyrics and commercial advertising to detective fiction and Moby Dick.

Pastoralism--A cultural outlook that values (or at least sympathizes with) the disciplines and routines of rural living over those of urban life. In pastoral literature the author typically adopts the perspective of a country dweller in order to expose the numerous shams, absurdities, and nuisances of life in the city or the court. Examples of traditional pastoral include Virgil's Eclogues and Spenser's The Shepherde's Calendar. Pastoral elements can also be found in Walden and "Leaves of Grass."

Plot--in narrative or dramatic works the sequence of events or episodes that link up to provide a sense of unified action.

Post-modernism--catch-phrase or jargon term used extensively in film and literary studies to identify certain trends in contemporary media and fiction. Post-modernist works tend to be highly self-referential and are typically saturated with irony and allusion. Such works also tend to subvert traditional models of unity and coherence and instead try to capture the sense of discontinuity and apparent chaos characteristic of the electronic age. Post-modernism is typically associated with writers like William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, and John Barth, with film-makers like David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino, and with so-called deconstructionist forms of criticism.

Prosody--the technical analysis of all the sound elements (e.g., rhythm, alliteration, rhyme) in poetry or speech.

Rhyme--the use of the same or similar sounds either internally or at the ends of lines in order to produce an audible echo effect; when this effect is regularly repeated over the course of a poem or stanza and obeys a precise and predictable formal pattern, it is called a rhyme scheme. To avoid rhyming notes that are too blatant or insistent, modern poets sometimes use near rhyme (e.g., bald, cold; brim, stream), which produces a subtler musical effect.

Rhythm--in prosody, the actual number and distribution of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line of verse of a given type when it is naturally spoken. (As opposed to the ideal or theoretical number and distribution as specified by the metrical form.) (See Meter.)

Romance--a literary genre typically involving fantastic or perilous adventures. Medieval verse romances were usually about knights and ladies, sorcerers and dragons, daring deeds, and secret love. Example: the tales of King Arthur and his knights.

Romanticism--an intellectual and artistic movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Originating in Europe, where it was associated with  Rousseau, Wordsworth, Goethe, and other artists and philosophers, the influence of Romanticism eventually spread to America, where it found adherents in figures like Bryant, Emerson, and Thoreau. Valuing imagination over intellect, passion over reason, and artistic self-expression over reverence for tradition, the Romantics reacted to what they viewed as the excessive rationalism and classicism of the European Enlightenment.

Satire--a genre or mode that exposes and ridicules human vice and folly. Its characters are usually braggarts, bullies, shady tricksters, and scalawags--often detestible and seldom commendable or sympathetic. Examples: Swift's Gulliver's Travels; Orwell's Animal Farm.

Science fiction--prose fiction usually set in the future or in some remote region of the universe; often adapts the characters of conventions of ancient myth or medieval romance to the modern age of science and technology. Example: Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues Beneath the Sea; H.G. Wells, The Time Machine.

Sonnet--a lyric form consisting of fourteen lines of iambic pentameter (usually divided into an eight-line octave and a six-line sestet) and exhibiting a regular rhyme scheme. Example: Bryant's "Sonnet--To an American Painter Departing for Europe."

Symbol--an object, sign, or image that is used to stand for something else, as a flag may be used to symbolize a nation. Whitman uses the hermit-thrush as a symbol of American poetry; Henry Adams uses the dynamo as a symbol of vast, inhuman power.

Symbolism--the systematic use of recurrent symbols or images in a work to create an added level of meaning. Example: most of the characters and incidents in Melville's Moby Dick can be interpreted symbolically. Similarly, the raft, the river, the towns, and "the territory" combine to provide a pattern of symbolic meaning in Twain's Huckleberry Finn.

Theme--a controlling idea or a subject for philosophical reflection in a literary work. Themes can be mythical and archetypal (e.g., the fall of man, symbolic death and rebirth, a quest for knowledge) or moral and psychological (passion vs. reason, the futility of anger, the vanity of selfishness, the need for love, etc.). Thus the same themes can be found in works by different authors in different eras in a variety of genres and styles.

Tragedy--drama or film portraying the doomed struggle and eventual downfall of an admirable but flawed hero. Usually about powerful leaders or extraordinary individuals torn between opposing goals or difficult choices. Examples: Sophocles, Oedipus the King; Shakespeare, Hamlet.

Tragicomedy--drama or film in which the serious actions, harsh truths, and threatening situations of tragedy are combined with the lighter tone and generally happy conclusions of comedy. Example: Shakespeare, Measure for Measure; M. Nichols, Carnal Knowledge.

Utopian literature--prose fiction which aims at a richly detailed and generally realistic depiction of an ideal society or alternative world. Strictly speaking, utopian literature depicts attractive alternatives; whereas dystopian literature presents nightmarish or hellish visions of the future. Examples: Huxley, Brave New World; Orwell, 1984.