Literary Devices Glossary
Alliteration- According to The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, alliteration is the repetition of sounds in a sequence of words used for emphasis, such as "bad boy." Alliteration generally refers to repeated consonant sounds or those at the beginning of stressed syllables, but has also been used by some critics to refer to repeated vowel sounds.
In “Harlem,” Langston Hughes uses imperfect alliteration in his first line: “What happens to a dream deferred?” In using alliteration within the first line, Hughes is really drawing attention to the importance of those two words. One reason Hughes may have wanted to emphasize that phrase is because it is the first (and last) time the literal topic of the poem is mentioned, so it helps it to stick in your head; additionally, the alliteration highlights the topic of the poem--everything else in the poem is figurative language being compared to this "dream deferred." To write about alliteration, you would need to look at the words and try to figure out why the author would want to emphasize those specific words. In addition, you need to make sure you are connecting the significance of the words and phrases to the theme of your paper.
Allusion- According to The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, an allusion is a reference, within a literary work, regarding a film, a piece of art, a historical event, or mythology. An allusion serves as a kind of shorthand, drawing on this outside work to provide greater context or meaning to the situation being written about.
One can use allusion to achieve a more well-rounded feel to their essay. You can reference a multitude of other works to give your essay a more complex meaning. Making connections to other things such as art or mythology can strengthen the point you are trying to get across. Also, using allusion may also provoke your reader to do research on the reference you are making, thus giving your essay more depth.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout tells her teacher, "He (Jem) read in a book where I was a Bullfinch instead of a Finch." Scout's brother believes that she was born with the ability to read, so Jem refers to her as Jean Louise Bullfinch instead of Finch. Thomas Bullfinch was the author of 'Bullfinch's Mythology', which is a collection of stories in Greek mythology about the varied Gods and heroes. This allusion is meant to portray that Scout is an excellent reader and story teller. Instead of just saying that Scout is really smart, he compares her to a very successful author to illustrate his opinion more effectively. Harper Lee included this allusion to make a simple statement strong. When writing about allusion in a literary analysis, remember to pose the question "how does the author's use of allusion support my theme?"
In "The Story of an Hour," the narrator says, “She (Mrs. Mallard) carried herself unwittingly like a goddess of Victory.” By referring to Greek mythology, the narrator compares Mrs. Mallard to the goddess Nike. She is the goddess of victory, and she also symbolizes strength. This allusion’s purpose serves to compare Mrs. Mallard’s new-found strength to that of a goddess. By incorporating a mythological reference, Chopin illustrates the strength of Mrs. Mallard as compared to when she felt bound by marriage.
Ambiguity- As defined in The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, ambiguity is “lack of clarity or uncertainty in meaning.” In a literary sense, it refers to when some use of language (a passage, statement, etc.) is used with no clear indication of its precise meaning, allowing for people to interpret it in different ways. The author does this for a variety of reasons, such as allowing readers to interpret their own ending, or to make readers re-consider the point of the literary work.
For example, in "Harlem," Hughes ends the poem with the phrase, "Or does it explode?" With his last line, Hughes ends the poem with a question instead of giving a clear-cut answer. By ending the poem in an ambiguous fashion, he provides several answers to the question of what happens when a dream is deferred and the poem is more thought-provoking and open to a variety of interpretations.
Another example is in Glaspell's "Trifles," specifically the last line, "Mrs. Hale: We call it – knot it, Mr. Henderson." On the surface, Mrs. Hale refers to how Mrs. Writght was cronstructing the quilt, but Glaspell also uses language to end the play with ambiguity. Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale do not reveal the evidence that would prove that Mrs. Wright had motive. However, Glaspell chooses not to show whether or not Mrs. Wright is found guilty for murder, and leaves the ending ambiguous to shift readers' focus from the question of Mrs. Wright's guilt to the significance of the play's content, justice.
Characterization- The term characterization refers to the various means by which an author describes and develops the characters in a literary work. Direct characterization is the author’s or a character’s explicit presentation or commentary on characters’ physical qualities, behaviors, virtues, and vices. Indirect characterization defines characters through less obvious representations of their actions, statements, thoughts, and feelings.
One can use the device of characterization (direct or indirect) to discuss the way a
character's traits and developments contribute to the theme of the work. If you chose to write about characterization you would need to select at least two defining qualities of a
character and passages that provide clear evidence of the character's traits. After you have sufficient textual evidence and descriptive passages, you will want to determine how those qualities are linked to a central message of the story. Do the character's qualities and transformations demonstrate defiance or affirmation of that message? How so?Why? These are the kinds of questions you will want to ask if you decide to write about
For example, in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is directly characterized by Judge Taylor, when the judge says, “‘…Mr. Finch is always courteous to everybody’”(168). Here Lee shows the audience that Atticus possess the qualities of a charitable and empathetic man. He recognizes that all people are worthy of consideration. His courteous attitude emphasizes one of the central messages of the novel: the importance of treating everyone equally benefits everybody.
In another example from To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch demonstrates his compassionate nature in an indirect way. For example, when the racist Mrs. Dubose dies, he speaks of her with empathy and kindness, saying,“‘You know, she was a great lady…According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew’”(105). Here Atticus demonstrates how he is actively compassionate to a woman who was verbally abusive to both himself and his family, once again reinforcing that everyone should be treated with equality and empathy.
Novels, short stories, and even poems also include dynamic (or round) characters and static (or flat) characters. The central characters in a literary work are often dynamic characters, which explains why readers connect with and become attached to them. A dynamic character is one whom the author has fully developed, who experiences conflict, and who undergoes a significant change by the end of the story. A static character can also be central to the story, but the author does not develop the character, who remains virtually unchanged.
The correspondent is an example of a dynamic character in "The Open Boat." His own near-death experience causes the correspondent to develop compassion for a soldier who lay dying in Algiers. Prior to being stranded at sea in the open boat, the correspondent had been "perfectly indifferent" to the fate of the soldier (150). But faced with his own mortality, the correspondent reconsiders the soldier's story and "it came to him as a human, living thing" (150). Recognizing that he, too, may soon lose his life, the correspondent "was moved" and "sorry for the soldier...who lay dying in Algiers" (150).
Connotation- Connotation refers to the associations evoked by words beyond their literal or dictionary meanings. Pop culture references and slang frequently affect the definitions of words, lending them alternate meanings that commonly suggest an emotional response. (Nowadays, words such as sick or wicked are adjectives connoting impressiveness when they once inferred illness and malevolence.)
Connotation is mostly addressed in essay's analyzing poetry because the amount of language to explore is limited while interpretations concerning the use and meanings of
that language are endless. A discussion of connotation would require you to explore the multiple meanings and associations of some of those words. How do the implications work together to express a work's central message(s)? You should have a dictionary at the ready and brainstorming journal entries about the significance of a work’s connotations before you begin planning and drafting your essay.
In Langston Hughes’s “Harlem,” the phrase “in the sun” connotes being “in the public eye.” The phrase is figurative, conjuring an image of public exposure and emphasizes one of the poem’s themes: how the criticism or acceptance received through public exposure may either destroy or fuel a “dream deferred.”
Denotation- According to The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, denotation is a word’s true, basic, or “literal” meanings. Unlike connotation, denotation refers to the actual definitions of a word or phrase instead of its implications. Denotation, like connotation, is mostly addressed in essay's analyzing works of poetry. A successful literary analysis essay compares and contrasts the uses of denotation and connotation within a work.
If you elect to take this approach to your essay, make sure you fully examine the relationship between the denotations and connotations of the work's words and phrases. How are they different or similar? What do those differences and similarities say about the work's overall meaning(s)? When you write about connotation, you might also want to focus on parts of speech. Can the word(s) be used as both a verb and a noun in the context of the work? Writing an essay about denotation alone will not yield rewarding results, so remember to discuss both connotation and denotation alongside other devices such as metaphor and simile and the way in which they help communicate a theme in order to achieve an excellent essay.
In Langston Hughes’s “Harlem” the phrase “in the sun” may literally mean, exposed
or in view of the sun. The sun is made up of heat and light, and in the literal context of the poem it is what transforms a grape into a raisin.
Imagery – According to The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, imagery can be split into three categories: (1) “the corpus of images or in a text,” (2) word images meant to convey experiences in the reader’s mind that appeal to the senses, and (3) the “use of figurative language to express abstract ideas” in more vivid, interesting language. Imagery can be used in all literary works but is especially common in poems. Authors mainly use imagery in their works to more clearly convey ideas that can’t be depicted in a direct manner, or to involve the reader by describing a scene or character in vivid detail.
For the short story “The Story of an Hour,” Chopin writes: She could see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring of life. The delicious breath of rain was in the air. In the street below a peddler was crying his wares. The notes of a distant song which someone was singing reached her faintly, and countless sparrows were twittering in the eaves.
Here, Chopin uses imagery to create a multi-sensory picture in readers' minds of what the main character sees when she looks out the window. In an essay, one could write about how she uses the imagery to set up the scene and contribute to the tone and message she is trying to convey - in this case, how the main character feels joy now that she is a widow and her surroundings seem more beautiful.
Another example is in "Harlem," when Hughes writes,
"What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore -
And then run?
Hughes incorporates imagery to best explain his point about dreams “deferred.” He recognized that his idea is abstract, and uses imagery to make the pain and severity of a "dream deferred" more understandable while keeping the complexity of his idea. Readers can analyze what he means more clearly by asking questions about the images he uses and what they make readers feel. "Festers" implies pain, and "a raisin in the sun" appeals to the sense of touch; in using these terms, Hughes writes a poem that affects the reader in an unpleasant, even painful way, which is his point about a "dream deferred."
Irony- Irony usually entails a contradiction.
When choosing to write about Irony, it is important to have taken note of certain situations that make a contradiction clear. After you have taken note of certain passages that have stirred the question of "what? Well how can that be?" in you, you can appreciate irony. Instead of simply stating something, it is important to use a contradiction to emphasize a point. Kate Chopin produces an example of irony in her short story "The Story of an Hour":
“When the doctors came the said she had died of heart disease—of the joy that kills.”
When using irony, the writer is subtly informing the reader of something that other characters do not quite see. This ignorance is manipulated to help engage the reader and also to develop an ironic theme. It is believed by doctors and family that Mrs. Mallard died as a result of her heart’s inability to handle the joy that came along with her husband’s return. Chopin contradicts this belief with the fact that Mrs. Mallard was nowhere near joy, but in disbelief that her life would never truly be hers. Her use of irony engages the reader and helps Chopin critique traditional marriage.
Metaphor – A figure of speech used to show a similarity between two very different objects but, unlike simile, does not connect this comparison through the use of words like or as. In general, metaphors are more complex than similes, and are sometimes used to more vividly make a point or increase readers’ understanding of the author’s intention for writing the work. Metaphors are sometimes a sign of symbolism, as the two objects being compared often hints at a symbolic connection or meaning.
For example, in "Harlem," Hughes uses similes until the very last line:
Or does it explode?
Asking if a dream deferred explodes is associating it with a bomb being detonated. It compares a dream to something much harsher and more intense for the readers' benefit. The comparison of a dream deferred and a bomb indicates that they both can be unpredictable and catastrophic, which further provokes thought on how. For an essay, discuss how it affects the tone and message of the poem. Why would Hughes choose to end it with a question? Why choose that particular metaphor?
Personification- According to The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, personification is a “figure of speech”which attributes human qualities to inanimate objects, “abstract ideas” or animals. Humanizing something that is inanimate is a kind of metaphor. It is an abstract concept, and therefore, a challenging device to tackle in a literary analysis essay. If you choose to write about personification, you will first want to examine what human qualities the inanimate item is being endowed with. Are they virtues, vices, or something as simple as the involuntary biological behavior of "breathing" as illustrated in "The Story of an Hour" example illustrated below? How does the dramatic imagery conjured by the use of personification convey a message of a work? Often instances of personification produce a certain tone or mood - how do these reinforce or negate a work's central idea(s)? And most importantly, why is the object being given human qualities? Asking these types of questions about the occasions of personification will help point you to an argument you can make in your literary analysis essay.
In Kate Chopin’s The Story of an Hour, the rain is described as having a “delicious breath.” Here, the human process of breathing is attributed to the non-living rain. This application of personification emphasizes Mrs. Mallard’s newly rejuvenated frame of mind: with her own freedom and individual life restored she begins to see the presence of“life” in everything, even the air and rain.
In Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat," the sea is described as being "nervously anxious to do something effective in the way of swamping boats" (134). Here, the sea is assigned the human characteristic of nervous anxiety. The application of personification suggests that Nature is apathetic or even malevolent toward humankind and that it intentionally harms people by capsizing their vessels.
Plot – According to The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, plot is “the arrangement and interrelation of events in a narrative work” that is organized specifically to engage the readers’ attention and/or interest, while simultaneously carrying the author’s message, or theme. The plot enables and often employs elements like characterization and conflict to stimulate interest and help to tell the story. Poems can have no plot, often presenting an idea or portraying a scene in an interesting fashion. Each plot contains certain core elements, or a “plot triangle”: exposition, inciting incident, complications (or rising action), conflict, climax, and falling action. Many literary works include an optional sixth element, resolution. The length or detail given to each aspect of the plot varies with the literary work: novels often take multiple chapters for each plot element; on the other hand, short stories tend to focus on just one plot structure or use a series of plot triangles.
In Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour,” the story follows the plot triangle. The exposition, as is the case with many short stories, is very brief, only describing that Mrs. Mallard had “heart trouble” and that her brother-in-law broke the news of her husband’s death after verifying it twice. The inciting incident comes when Mrs. Mallard hears of her husband’s death and, after crying with “wild abandonment,” retreats to her room alone. The rising action comes as she sits in her room and reflects on her life. Despite her husband being a good man, she is overcome with happiness as the world around her looks brighter. She is now free to do as she pleases and live life for herself. The climax occurs as she finally leaves her room and walks down the stairs with her sister, just as her husband walks through the door. The falling action is the final paragraph, when the doctors say she died of “the joy that kills.” When writing about this plot, readers could analyze the significance of a short exposition and how it helped Chopin's point. By having Mrs. Mallard's happiness so brief, it makes the climax of the story (her reaction) more exciting.
Point Of View- As The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms defines it, point of view is the perspective or angle “from which a narrative is told.” Point of view usually takes the form of first-person or third-person, but is very rarely addressed through second-person.
For example, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is written from the first person point of view and Kate Chopin’s The Story of an Hour is written in third person omniscient. By Harper Lee using first person, readers get both adult Scout's remembrances and young Scout's naive insights about many different characters. By Chopin using third person omniscient, readers get insight into Mrs. Mallard's motivations and thought processes in addition to those around her. By showing the discrepancies between how the characters perceive Mrs. Mallard and how she actually feels to readers, Chopin is creating an even stronger sense of irony and structuring her critique of traditional marraige. When writing about this device, focus on what insights the point of view gives the reader about the narrator or other characters, always remembering to tie it back to the theme of the essay.
Setting- Setting is the time period, location, and “social” situation of a story. According to The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms the setting “provides the general
background for the characters and plot of a literary work.” If you decide to write about setting in your essay, you could analyze the historical context of the work. Try to distinguish how the historical setting relates to its topic and the theme(s). Where do significant plot developments take place? What do characters say about the setting? How do they describe it? Does the setting of a symbolic meaning? All of these inquiries may show you patterns among different settings or the same setting that convey a work's core message. The significance of a setting may emerge through its connection with the plot, character development, or its symbolic representation.
Susan Glaspell’s play “Trifles” was published in 1916. It is set in the early 20th century American West during a fierce winter. The early 1900s were also a period of great social and political inequality for women. They were obtusely considered the weaker and less intelligent sex, a theme which is strung throughout "Trifles." The play’s action takes place in a cluttered kitchen, a woman's designated domain. The setting of “Trifles” is absolutely essential to the drama’s plot and themes because the kitchen is where Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters discover the clues concerning Mr. Wright’s demise; where the question as to who better understands the nature of justice, men or women, is posed.
Simile- A simile is a kind of metaphor in which two un-like things are compared using the words like or as. Usualy, when a similie is being made it requires more thought on what the author is trying to say. Comparing two unlike things with a similie may show that they are actualy quite similar.
When writing about a simile you should ask yourself if the similie conveyed an idea or provided an image in your head. Allowing yourself to draw connections and think about the comparison being made will help you understand the text in fewer words. Like allusions, similes may cause you to do further research for deeper understanding. Langston Hughes uses simile in his poem "Harlem":
“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?”
Dreams are usually not compared to raisins, but in this poem they are so that the reader can interpret what happens to a dream when it is deferred. The comparison to a raisin shriveling up in the sun helps the reader understand that it is not a positive outcome. Although these two things are not generaly similar, comparing them helps provide a more vivid and deeper undestanding for the reader. Harper Lee presents this simile in To Kill a Mockingbird:
"Jem waved my words away as if fanning gnats."
Using simile to develop a theme does not mean just comparing to things that are alike. When creating a similie, the point is to compare to abstract things and create a deeper meaning.This simile helps the reader understand how Jem was not taking Scout’s words seriously. Although Jem may not have literally been fanning her words away, this simile portrays the distaste he has for the same way one would for a pesty insect. Similies provide a visual for the reader and therefore engage them. Instead of just reading that Jem did not like what Scout was saying, the reader can picture Jem angrily waving his arms to fan away annoying gnats. Kate Chopin uses simile in her short story "The Story of an Hour":
“She sat with her had thrown back upon the cushion of the chair, quite motionless, except when a sob came up into her throat and shook her, as a child who has cried itself to sleep continues to sob in its dreams.”
Significance: This simile is used to reach out to the reader and enable them to feel the sane heartache that Mrs. Mallard was feeling. It compares her emotions to that of a frightened child, which is something everyone can relate to.
Symbol – an object, person, emotion, or action that represents or signifies a more profound issue or item. In layman's terms, it is when something in a literary work is present but also stands for something else. The symbol is usually a physical object that helps the reader understand the significance of a larger issue the author wants to convey. Unlike simile or metaphor, it is not comparing two things but rather having one object stand for another, entirely separate one.
In Susan Glaspell's play "Trifles," she uses symbolism throughout the piece to broadcast her larger message about the detrimental effects of sexism on women. The canary symbolizes Mrs. Wright or women's rights in general, two ideas that cannot be as easily grasped as a physical object. When Mr. Wright, a male character, kills the canary because he tires of its singing, it symbolizes how men often step on or suppress women's rights for their own gain.
Syntax- According to The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, syntax is the organization of words in “a phrase, clause, or sentence.”
In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout says, “I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.” The simplistic construction of this quote emphasizes Scout’s childish nature, especially when compared with the longer, more complex sentences that narrator adult Scout uses. When writing about syntax, it is good to think about contrasts between different characters or the effect the syntax has on the reader. For example, is the work filled with long, rambling sentences that make the reader feel disoriented? Why would the author choose to do that?
Theme- A repeated idea that is incorporated throughout a literary work. Theme often reflects on a deeper issue and helps the reader understand the purpose of the work. Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird reveals this theme:
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view-until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."
Significance: this quote portrays the novel’s theme which is an exploration of morality and the value of compassion. Quotes similar to this one are included throughout the novel to reflect the theme of the work. Atticus is not talking about literally climbing into someone’s skin, but trying to understand a human on a non-judgmental level. This idea provokes the reader to deeper thought about empathy and compassion.
to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew’”(105). Atticus is directly characterized by Judge Taylor, when the judge says, “‘…Mr. Finch is always courteous to everybody’” (168). One can use the device of characterization (direct or indirect) to discuss the development of a character through a psychological, moral, feminist, or Marxist lens.
Tone- Tone is the approach that a writer takes to encompass an attitude towards the subject in a literary work. Tone may be formal, nostalgic, intimate, angry, serious, playful, factual, poetic, cynical, etc. A tone is achieved through certain words, moods, and characters.
Using tone will allow you to send a message that words alone cannot provide. Instead of simply saying what feelings are present, you can apply tone to let your reader infer on their own. The use of tone is important because not only can it engross your reader, but it can help them understand what your thesis is trying to prove. Using tone appropriately is good way to emphasize your thesis. If you decide to write about tone, it is important to make note of the emotions that the text you read provoked.Tone is extremely important when developing a theme. The tone of the story gives insight to what is being said about the theme.
A paragraph from Trifles reads: "The kitchen in the now abandoned farmhouse of John Wright, a gloomy kitchen, and left without having been put in order--unwashed pans under the sink, a loaf of bread outside the breadbox, a dish towel on the table--other signs of incompleted work."
The introduction to the play sets a somber and somewhat apprehensive tone. The gloominess and disarray of the kitchen does not imply anything positive. The setting of tone allows the reader to feel what the rest of the play will mostly be about. Even though by reading this intro it is not clear what the theme exactly is, it is obvious that it will not be uplifting.
Literary devices are used all in everyday conversation, our favorite shows, and popular music. Here's a fun video we found on YouTube that illustrates some of the most common literary elements.