Definitions of Literary Terms

Literary Terms

Absurdist tradition refers to twentieth-century works that depict the absurdity of the modern human condition, often with implicit reference to humanity’s loss or lack of religious, philosophical, or cutural roots. The term
may be applied to any work of literature that stress an existential outlook, that one depicting the lonely, confused, and often anguished individual in an utterly bewildering universe. Conventions such as plot and dialogue are routinely flouted–as in the idea that a work of literature should be unified and coherent (in a linear progression).

Allusion: A figure of speech making casual reference to a famous historic or literary figure or event or work of literature. There is an allusion to Lewis’s Narnia series and the fantasy world in Paterson’s Bridge to Teribithia.

Alterity: the condition of being radically different or unlike some other being, state or thing

Anaphora: A repetition device wherein the same expression (word or words) is repeated at the beginning of two or more lines, clauses, or sentences. "When Jamie saw him throw the baby, saw Van throw the little baby, saw Van throw his little sister Nin, then they moved" (7). E. B. White uses this rhetorical device in his chapter entitled "Escape" in which he enables the reader to develop a point of view of an inhabitant of the barn as he describes its smells.

Aporia: a gap in logic or consciousness or a point at which a text is most explicitly indeterminate (see indeterminacy) or self-contradictory, as in deconstruction. It is never completely solved or closed by the author or in the mind of the reader.

Archetype: A symbol, usually an image, which recurs often enough in literature to be recognizable as an element of one’s literary experience as a whole. Carl Jung used the term "archetype" to refer to the generalized patterns of images that form the world of human representations in recurrent motifs, passing through the history of all culture. Since archetypes are rooted in the collective unconscious, they may be conceived through the psychic activity of any individual, be it in the form of dreams, art works, the ancient monuments of religious activity, or the contemporary images of commercial advertising. Such archetypes as the "innocent babe," the "unheeded prophet," the "philosopher’s stone," and many others which also have their source in the primitive darkness of the unconscious, are repeated in numerous works of cultural creation.

Black comedy: Black comedy or black humour, not to be confused with comedy about blacks, etc. The use of the morbid the absurd for darkly comic purposes. This is a substantial component of the theatre of the absurd and the anti-novel. The notion of humor with a sadistic element might give further implications to this term.

Boydell was an illustrator "Boydell’s picture gallery" of Shakespearean drama. His pictures were famous and I was fortunate to be able to get a copy of Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare that had illustrations by Boyell in it. These illustrations were from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

Caldecott award: An annual award presented by the American Library Association’s Children’s Services Division to the illustrator of the most distinguished picture book published in the US the preceding year. Unless also the illustrator, the author is not recognized; the award is for illustrations, not text. The award is named after the British illustrator Randolph Caldecott, whose illustrations added narrative and detail to an previously ignored art form.

Chronotope: Mikhail Bakhtin describes this term as "the intrinisic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature"(Discourse in the Novel 84). This is from the Greek "chronos"–time and "topos"–place, meaning literary a new "reality of timespace." In Bakhtin’s theory, this term acquires a special meaning, namely, the indivisible unity of time and space. In fairy tales, time and space are beyond our experience while in fantasy the time/space relationship in that world create a contrast to reality. A typical example can be seen in Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, specifically in the chronotope of Narnia.

Community: A group of people who share common experiences, goals and myths and who provide a context for an individual’s identity. Jonas in The Giver works out his identity in opposition to his community. cf phalanx

Connotation: The atmosphere of a word-something about the word that goes beyond what the dictionary delivers. The connotations of a word may include one’s personal experiences with that word and other associations which cluster about the word.

Contract and Tutelage: According to Jacques Donzelot in The Policing of Families, the family develops in two registers: contract and tutelage. Contract indicates the autonomy the family enjoys when it observes the accepted norms of society. Tutelage, on the other hand, designates an external apparatus that infiltrates and intervenes in the family when the family breaks the contract. Tutelage consists of number of institutions, such as prisons, social work, discipline. Both contract and tutelage are ways for the society to exert control over the family: contract is the positive dimension of this control, tutelage the negative. (See Donzelot, The
Policing of Families
82-95 and D. A. Miller, The Novel and the Police 102-03).


Diachronic/Synchronic time

Dystopia: Polar opposite of utopia. A society in which social and/or technological trends have contributed to a corrupted or degraded state.

Empathy: The imaginative projection into another’s feelings, a state of total identification with another’s situation, condition, and thoughts. The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without explicitly articulating these feelings. Fern empathizes with Wilbur; Charlotte empathizes with Wilbur.

Existential idea of Freedom: This concept of freedom is related to Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of existentialsim, in which the basic tenent is that "man is what he does." The burden of decision to act, the loneliness, and angst, the alienation, and often even the terror that an individual confronts in this world view, explains a character’s conflicting emotions regarding what it means to be free. Wilbur leaves his pen before he can fully accept the complete responsibility he finds he must take on for his survival, and so he returns to the barn, happy in the reassurance that some of his needs will be met for him.

Explication: An explication is not a paraphrase, nor a summary, nor a rewording (though it may include succinct paraphrase), but a commentary revealing the meaning of the work. To this end it calls attention, as it proceeds, to the connotations of words, the function of rhymes, the shifts in point of view, the development of contrasts/polarities, and any other contributions to the meaning. cf close reading or explication de texte

Free Indirect Discourse: Moments in the narration where it is not clear whether the thoughts come from a character, the narrator or a combination of the two. In What Jamie Saw, "That very night-or was it early morning?– some time of day or night that felt like it had no hour at all" (7). Free indirect discourse should not be confused with direct discourse or with indirect discourse.

Illusion: A perception, as of visual stimuli, that represents what is perceived in a way different from the way it is in reality. Elizabeth has the illusion that Zeely is a Watutsi queen. See the excerpts from Hamilton’s article on "Illusion and Reality."

Imagination: Coleridge calls it "the shaping and modifying power" which enables a new reality to come into being. Shakespeare writes, "As imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown, the poets’ pen / Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name." Consider imagination in relation to Elizabeth in Zeely, Lucy in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Jonas in The Giver, among other of our texts.

Intertext: the text within a text. Myth is often used as an intertext in children’s and young adult literature. These do not have to be concrete myth sources, but can consist of mythical thinking, manifested in a myth-like organization of time-space relations, or the use of narrative components of myths. See Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising and Virginia Hamilton’s works in general.

Irony: One needs to distinguish between three kinds of irony. Dramatic irony, found only in dramatic narratives, is not a figure but a kind of strategy; it established some important disparity betwen what the audience knows and what one or more characters in the narrative know. The classic example here is Oedipus in Oedipus Rex. It raises the question about the disparity between appearance and reality. Socratic irony, is also a strategy, but between a person’s real and assumed character. Swift uses it in Tale of the Tub, but for Socrates, it is an argumentative strategy. Verbal irony is a figure; its essence is a disparity between what is said, and what is intended, or really thought. The essence of verbal irony is ambiguity. When one is ironic about a subject, one refuses to assent to the usual view of it, and at the same time one does not flatly condemn the usual view. We do not know, exactly, where the ironist stands.

Karass: a term for a disparate group of people linked together without their knowledge. Your family and friends would not be part of your karass. You wouldn’t choose its membership, and you may never know who is in it or what its purpose is. (see Paul Fkeischman’s Whirligig)

Kenotype: formed from the ancient Greek words kainos, meaning "new," and typos, meaning "form" or "imprint." "Kenotype," then, is literally a "new form," and in the system of culturological concepts it should stand beside "archetype," to which it offers a specific contrastive meaning. An example of a kenotype is the subway (see the link to the archetype of the underworld?), the bicycle or the computer or the television. Parrot in the Oven has many similies that use kenotypes are part of the comparison.

Litotes: this is when you understate an idea in order to convey the opposite idea. This is normally done through the use of a negative negative before one of the words in order to express a strong affirmative. This style is evident in Karen Hess’s Out of the Dust.

Magic: Magic is referred to in The Secret Garden as a natural part of life’s growth, that energy which cannot be touched or seen. In Harry Potter books, magic becomes an imaginative tool by which he and others confront the dark powers, magic is sometimes not understood. Magic is another kind of illusion. Magic as a continuum of imagination and infinite possibility is also used in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series.

Magical-realism: Fiction that maintains a discourse appropriate to an objective and realistic narrative, while recounting fantastic or supernatural events alongside commonplace happenings. Magic realism provides much of the power in a number of South American writers, notably Gabriel Garcia Marquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1967), but the technique has been used by Milan Kundera, Salman Rushdie, Robert Kroetsch, Jack Hodgins and Peter Carey, among others.

Meontic and Mimetic Modes: Art is involved with "experienced reality. –or to adopt Auerbach’s rubric, wth the ‘representation of reality’–the way it is involved idivded into two contrasted relationships. In the first, artic imitates what is there in reality; in the second, it imitates what is not there. [. . .] ( Thomas McFarland, Romanticism and the Forms of Ruin 383-85. The mimetic mirror reproduces and focuses on experienced reality; the meontic mode attempts to reproduce "what is not there" or what is imagined. The mimetic and meontic modes, though offering contrasting ways of depicting reality, should be viewed in terms of a continuum, rather than absolute opposition, to illuminate things of the spirit rather than material phenomena.

Meta-critical: A critical aspect that draws attention to its own critical apparatus. Meta means more comprehensive, transcending, offers an overarching view of various critical aspects. Meta means above or beyond..

Meta-fiction: Also called "sur-fiction," this is a type of fiction that draws attention to itself as such, severing the traditional mirror-like connections between art and life. Postmodern).
– in the terminology of postmodernism, the term ‘narrative’ or ‘story’ is used for what we might ordinarily call a ‘theory’ about the way the world operates. Many such ‘theories’ are ordinarily taken to be the objective ‘truth’. We know, however, that there have been a variety of truths about the way things are. For example, the ‘narrative’ of pre-Newtonian physics was overturned by Newton and the ‘narrative’ of Newtonian physics was replaced by the ‘narratives’ of relativity and quantum mechanics. We may consider that each of these steps represents a step closer to the ‘truth’, but that view would be rejected by postmodernists who see such narratives as temporary until another one comes along. Sometimes metanarrative can be used to mean the way in which we do a certain task, such as read.

Metaphor:: A trope consisting of a comparison without using the words "like" or "as," as in "a mighty fortress is our God" or "my love is a rose." Generally, a metaphor poetically conveys an impression about something relatively unfamiliar by drawing an analogy between it and something familiar. The familiar thing is sometimes called the vehicle (i.e., the means by which the new impressions are conveyed), while the unfamiliar idea being expressed is sometimes called the tenor (sense 2). Conservative analysis of metaphor used to lead to conclusions about determinate meaning, but Jacques Derrida maintained that "metaphor is never innocent," implying that unforeseen meanings accrue, leaving the meaning indeterminant.

Metonymy: Like synecdoche, this term refers to figurative language that uses particular words to represent something else with which they are associated. Metonymy is when one term is substituted for another term with which it is closely associated ("crown" or "sceptre" stands duty for "monarch").

Mise-en-abyme: Literally, "placement en abyme," where "en abîme" itself refers to the habit of representing a small shield inside a larger one in traditional heralds and coats-of-arms. This device is often part of the text’s self-reflexifivity. By extension, most any "story-within-a-story" situations can be called an example of mise-en-abyme. The device is especially common in modern literature, television and films, but it occasionally appears in art. See some examples in The View from Saturday.

Multistable Image: A symbol which evokes multiple meanings, and which can be viewed from a number of valid perceptions without the image itself altering its basic characteristics. Usually we employ this term in the attempt of avoiding a singular and rigid interpretation of a symbol. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The narrator describes the room containing the wardrobe; one of the details is "a dead blue-bottle on the window-sill" (5). The image could signify a type of fly, an actual bottle that is blue, an old sentry-soldier, and the name for a flower. A more accurate example can be found in Lawrence Yep’s Dragonwings, in his depiction of the stained glass window. In Tuck Everlasting the ferris wheel as circle with a center is a multistable image. Related to the microscopic investigation of crystal in the field of science.

Narrator: One who communicates a story. There are many varieties of narrators and categories of narration. The narrator inThe Lion often interrupts his own story to give his viewpoints and comments to the reader. The narrator should not be confused with the author.

Palimpsest: A parchment or other writing-material written upon twice, the original writing having been erased or rubbed out to make place for the second; a manuscript in which a later writing is written over an effaced earlier writing. Thomas DeQuincey uses this phrase as in What else than a natural and mighty palimpsest is the human brain?

paraleipsis–pretended omission for rhetorical effect. (

Paradigm: an example, a particular mental set of particulars.In science it refers to a set of tacit assumptions and beliefs within which research goes on. An dynamic working example.

Paradox: A paradox is a statement which contains apparently opposing or incongrous elements which, when read together, turn out to make sense. Emily Dickinson’s poem "My Life Closed Twice Before its Close" contains a paradox in both the title and the first line. She says:

My life closed twice before its close
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me. . .

This statement is paradoxical in that there are separate meanings for the words closed" and "close"–Dickinson has had experiences in her life which she feels to be equivalent to life’s true closing, death itself.

Patten’s magic P’s: perception, paradigm, polarity, problems, puzzles, patterns, paradox

Perception: Immediate or intuitive cognition or comprehension; a capacity to "see" in light of experience. Our perception including moral, psychological, and/or aesthetic qualities alters of our world according to our understanding, insight, and experience. In The Giver Jonas’s perceptions of his family members and his community change.

Phalanx: a group or community to which one belongs but which one may not necessarily know personally.

Poetic faith: Samuel Taylor Coleridge defined this as "the willing suspension of disbelief for the moment." We suspend our comparing power to our comprehension of reality while we engage our imagination in the appreciation of a work of art.

Polysemous text: Roland Barthes (1974) alerted us to the notion that texts operated a plurality of codes that them open to a plurality of readings, and Umberto Eco (1981) offers the most extensive analysis of that plurality. Readers, he argues, have three options: 1) they can assume the ideology of the text and subsume it into their own reading; 2) they can miss or ignore the ideology of the text and import their own, thus producing "aberrant" readings–where "aberrant" means only different from the ones envisaged by the sender; or 3) they can question the text in order to reveal the underlying ideology.

Post-Modern narrative: see Metanarrative novelists who write specifically to reinvigorate the powers of language by dislodging it from conventional constraints. Such writers see this work as crucial to the fundamental work of making and renewing social codes. Postmodern can also be seen as the primary emblem for our fractured current existence, especially when viewed against our parents’ "modern" world where meaning seemed consistent and ordered. Post-modernism reconceptualizes previously held notions of reality. see also Post Modern literature

Pretense: To cloak, to give a feigned appearance to, to pretend, profess, allege, esp. falsely. Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe behaves according a to pattern of pretense before his transformation at the climax of the story: "Edmund (who was the next youngest) wanted to laugh and had to keep on pretending he was blowing his nose to hide it" (2).

Pragmatographic: vivid description of an action or event

Prosopographia: description of imaginary persons or bodies.

Reader Supplementation: Instances in the text wherein the reader supplements information/emotion/attitude to what the author provides. An illustrative example of this strategy is in Lowry’s The Giver, "It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to feel frightened" (1). The reader supplements his or her own associations involving December to what the author offers. Authors are aware of this tendency and exploit it to make their work more subtly powerful. Futhermore, Lowry depends on our supplementation in Jonas’s perception of the apple. We know that it is red, but he does not yet know how to distinguish red from other colors. It isn’t until Jonas mentions that he now can see the color red that we realize we have been supplementing information from our world. That is, we discover that the world in The Giver is a totally colorless world.

symbol: Symbol (Greek, `to throw together’):
something in the world of the senses, including an action, that manifests (reveals) or signifies (is a sign for or a pointer to) something abstract, otherworldly, or numinous. Samuel Johnson (1755) termed it "A type; that which comprehends in its figure a representation of something else." A word denotes, refers to, or labels something in the world, but a symbol, as a thing in the world (to which a word, of course, may point), has a concreteness not shared by language and points to something transcending ordinary experience. Any tree, for example, arguably symbolizes tree-ness, a Platonic form. Any image or action termed a Jungian archetype is also symbolic in that it manifests something in the collective unconscious of human beings. Writers use symbols normally when they believe in a transcendental reality. A metaphor compares two or more things that are no more and no less real than anything else in the world. For a metaphor to be symbolic, one of its pair of elements must manifest or reveal yet something else transcendental. Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren in Understanding Poetry (3rd edn., 1960) say that "The symbol may be regarded as a metaphor from which the first term has been omitted" (556). Taken from // Glossary of Poetic Terms. See also Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s own definition:

Synaesthesia: The term is applied in literature to the description of one kind of sensation in terms of another. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Peter’s voice upon entering the Beavers’ hiding place is described as being "tired and pale in the darkness" (99). "Pale" is a sight adjective used to describe a sound, "Peter’s voice."

Synecdoche: a part is used to signify the whole, as when a ship’s captain calls out, "All hands on deck!" (in which "hand" signifies the whole person of each sailor.). P. B. Shelley’s poem, "Ozymandias" is built upon the trope of synecdoche.

Tableau Vivant: A freeze-frame moment or living portrait in the story. The action appears to stop momentarily in the story. A visual image is presented with clarity. In Virginia Hamilton’s Zeely, Elizabeth has several moments of this type of perception when she beholds Zeely.

Trope: Any of several types of diversion from the literal to the figurative. The so-called "four master tropes" are irony, metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche) A few new ones have recently been invented: see aegis, catachresis, kenosis, perruque. cf figures of speech.

Utopia: An ideal place or state. Any vision of a socially and politically perfect society. From Greek roots, it derives its meaning from the words outopia, meaning "no place" and eutopia, meaning " a place where everything is right." In a sense, a utopian land in fiction becomes both a place that never quite existed as it is portrayed and a place where everything seems perfect. It is an imagined world.