Literary Terms Glossary
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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.
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.
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."
According to The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, 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.
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.
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. In discussing this in your literary analysis, you would want to emphasize the effect of leaving the ending open to interpretation rather than providing definite explanation of what happens.
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. Wright was constructing 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. Connecting this to the theme of the story can be extremely beneficial, as it will help you understand the text's overall meaning.
The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms says the antagonist of a story is typically the character who works against the protagonist, and who, if they are especially cruel, can be considered the villain.
Think back to your favorite childhood movie, and consider the main character, or the protagonist. Got it? Now, think about which other character, or force, actively worked against your character to prevent them from achieving their goals. Have one in mind? That character you just brought to mind is considered, in literary terms, to be the antagonist of the story. While this person isn’t always malicious or villainous, they surely can be. Think about Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Ariel, the mermaid princess and protagonist, wants to go ashore and make Prince Eric fall in love with her. Her antagonist is Ursula, the sea witch, who she bargains with to get feet instead of fins. Ursula, who acts as a villain, tries to thwart Ariel’s plan, and make sure she has to return to the sea and become her prisoner.
Based on that example, who would you consider to be Mrs. Mallard’s antagonist in Chopin’s “Story of an Hour”? Like Ariel, she also has one clear antagonist: her husband and his return home. Since his presence stands in the way of her freedom, he can be classified as an antagonist, as she can't reach her goals with him there.
You could choose to write about the antagonist in a variety of ways, but you’ll want to make sure you aren’t simply telling about them, but rather, are exploring and analyzing some detail about their personality, or the way they tie into the story. In the case of “Story of an Hour,” you could discuss the antagonist is by exploring how one particular trait or action impacts the other characters, or even just the theme, and reveals important ideas for the author.
The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms defines an anti-hero as a protagonist character who doesn’t exhibit the typical heroic traits like valor, honesty, etc. Rather, this character is quite plain and ordinary, and maybe even unlikeable. This glossary made sure to note, additionally, that an anti-hero should not be confused with the antagonist, as an antagonist is pitted against the main character.
Discussing an anti-hero in a literary analysis can be interesting, and even fun, because writers have the opportunity to explore several facets of the individual’s characterization, and analyze how and why this character’s status as an anti-hero is important. In writing about this character, consider what specific traits, or even actions, contribute to this anti-heroic character, and how that effects the themes of the story as a whole. For example, if I were talking about Willy Loman’s in Arthur Miller’s play, “Death of a Salesman,” I might consider how this character’s personality and development throughout the work contributes to the themes presented in the story. The fact that Willy is somewhat unlikeable makes him and his story more relevant because it reflects everyday people in everyday situations. I could discuss this idea, and explain how it relates to the Miller’s theme that complicated family situations and money trouble, which plague the every-man, can lead to dire consequences if the individual isn’t able to properly cope. Tying in supporting evidence in terms of quotations from Willy, or about him, throughout the story, I could argue that Willy, in the fact that he’s unlikeable, brings the story down to a level that encourages readers and audiences to more closely identify with him. The story wouldn’t have quite the same message if it was written about the fall of a heroic, loveable character who commits suicide like Willy does.
According to The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, conceit is an over-arching, extended metaphor that compares to seemingly dissimilar ideas throughout a work.
Conceit can be a tricky concept because it’s a metaphor, but not in the sense we’re used to encountering metaphor. In this case, the metaphor is strung throughout the text, and is used to make a statement about whatever topic the author is making comparisons to advance. Once common example of conceit in literature occurs in Robert Frost’s acclaimed poem, “The Road Not Taken.” In this work, Frost compares life, and the choices we make to a road with two paths that diverge in a famously “yellow wood.” While we wouldn’t typically think of life as a stroll down a path were we have to make choices that either complicate or expedite our journeys, Frost does here. In doing so, he creates a new dimension to the idea of life as a journey that we may have never before considered. As he mentions the ”yellow wood,” he notes that life changes like the seasons, and depending on the season of life you find yourself in, you may choose differently (though it’s clear at the end of the poem which road Frost would have us choose).
Writing about conceit is often very similar to writing about metaphor. You’ll want to make sure that you’re not only identifying it, but also analyzing it to understand and interpret its importance to the text’s thematic elements. For Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” I could not only identify key features of the extended metaphor, like the imagery of the road and a journey, as well as that of seasons and changes with choices, but also work to figure out why Frost made that choice specifically. For example, Frost could have written a poem with the same themes, but used conceit concerning learning to ride a bike, or picking apples from an orchard. So, what’s significant about this particular image of seasonality and changes on two paths out in the middle of nowhere? In this case, I would argue that discussing the journey of life in relation to nature, and its routine, though extremely significant changes reflects closely with how human beings experience change—in cycles. By connecting the conceit to the story’s theme and Frost’s goals with the poem, I successfully answer the “so what?” question, and create for myself an arguable (and supportable) point.
Connotation refers to the associations evoked by words beyond their literal or dictionary meanings.
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.”
Though connotation can be a very interesting tool to use to explore meaning in a text, it's usually one that can only be discussed in supplement to another idea. On its own, connotation of particular words is unimportant. However, when paired with devices like simile or metaphor, or others that may be applicable to your particular work, you can explore those devices in more depth, understanding how each individual word impacts the meaning.
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.
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.
Though denotation can be a very interesting tool to use to explore meaning in a text, it's usually one that can only be discussed in supplement to another idea. On its own, denotation of particular words is unimportant. However, when paired with devices like simile or metaphor, or others that may be applicable to your particular work, you can explore those devices in more depth, understanding how each individual word impacts the meaning.
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.
The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms identifies hyperbole as a figure of speech that uses deliberate exaggeration to achieve some effect, whether serious, comic, or ironic. Another word for this type of expression is overstatement.
Though hyperbole may not be the most effective tool for fact-based, non-fiction writing, it can be very useful for fiction writing and poetry. Hyperbole can be used to add humor to a work, or even to explain the severity, or the extent of a situation. You may encounter hyperbole in a literary analysis of a poem, and work to explain, in your discussion of the text, what effect the phrase has on the poem’s meaning, or theme.
When analyzing hyperbole, you want to look for the “so what?” behind the author’s use of exaggeration. What’s the real reason/meaning for going overboard with the description within that particular part of the text? In reality, the author probably could have used more clear, or direct language to explain the point above, where Scout comments on how small her town really is. So, what’s the point? I think in this passage, the use of hyperbole provides another level of understanding for the reader about both the town and its opportunities. Scout’s claim about Maycomb not only speaks to its physical surroundings, but also to the emotional and intellectual climate. The phrase, “nowhere to go,” implies that there is no mobility, or forward motion. This could be discrete a reference to the small -mindedness, and prejudice of some of the people of the town, which prevents them from having any sort of personal growth/movement. For Scout, the lack of urgency may reflect a sense of complacency within the general populace. Part of analyzing hyperbole, as you can see, is digging through the author’s explicit word choice, and understanding how it changes the phrase’s meaning, and presents ideas that more direct, maybe even more concise, language would leave out.
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.
Imagery can be really interesting to write about when you connect it to other larger concepts like tone, theme, or other concepts. Like in the example, you could connect the extensive imagery post-death announcement to a new, rejuvenated tone Chopin takes when discussing Mrs. Mallard and her new freedom. This connection between imagery and tone also links to theme, in that it illuminates the clear relationship between Mrs. Mallard's husband's death and her liberation, which indicates her oppression in her marriage.
Discussing imagery in relation to these other ideas helps to answer the "so what?" question of your argument and analysis. Without this element, your essay would be incomplete, as it lacks any kind of insight into the importance or reasoning behind the appearance of imagery in the text. In talking about imagery, its never enough to simply identify it in the text--you have to explain why it's significant, and how it works in the text to provide important or interesting insights into the work you're reading.
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."
The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms defines irony as a incongruity or contradiction between appearance or expectation and reality.
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.
In writing about irony, it's critical that you not only identify the ironic sentiments, but that you also analyze it to make sense of the point it's trying to make. Part of what makes irony fun and interesting in literature is its capacity to twist the meaning or ideas the author is exploring, and change their meaning all together. Rather than just pointing these things out, you'll want to explain, in you analysis, the significance of it, and discuss why the author may have chosen to include that. In doing this, you answer the "so what?" question readers of your analysis will have about the ideas you posit in your work.
Metaphor is 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?
When writing about metaphor, you want to consider how and why the author made that particular comparison, and what it contributes to the work as a whole. For example, in "Harlem," Hughes could have compared a dream deferred to almost anything--so why did he choose to discuss it in relation to a bomb? What's unique about this comparison that contributes to the message and meaning of the rest of the text? In describing and discussing metaphor, you'll want to work toward answering these questions so you can explore the "so what?" aspect of the analysis. You NEVER want to just simply identify literary features in the text and stop there-- always delve into the reasoning for why it might be significant. Anyone can show that it's there, but not everyone has the same insights as to why it matters.
The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms defines oxymoron as a phrase which pairs two opposite words or ideas to make a somewhat ironic, or paradoxical point. Fittingly, the word “oxymoron” comes from a Greek word that means “pointedly foolish,” which, considering its meaning, makes a whole lot of sense. Oxymoron is meant to make the reader think, “what? How can that be?” as a way to make a point.
Oxymoron presents itself throughout our daily lives, adding a hint of interest and flare to sometimes boring language. Phrases like “living dead,” “small crowd,” and “act naturally” all involve oxymoron. Why, and how? Because they are two seemingly opposite ideas that come together to make a point, or to create a specific image. Something can’t be both “living” and “dead” at the same time…except zombies! In this case, oxymoron creates a very specific image in our minds that other language may not create as clearly. In the case of “small crowd,” the oxymoron comes from the idea that crowds typically mean large groups of people. Calling a large group of people small seems to defeat the point of calling it a crowd in the first place. “Act naturally,” is also a great example of oxymoron because of course, if you have to act, its definitely not how you might normally behave in that certain circumstance.
When writing about oxymoron is more than just identifying that the author put two opposite ideas together. Sure, finding an example in your text is one big step, but the next step is to figure out why the author thought those two ideas together were ideal to make their point clear. Understanding the “why?” behind oxymoron requires us to consider the meaning of the sentence, the passage, or sometimes, even the work as a whole, to understand how the author’s use of those particular words is significant. Within this quote, Scout’s description of the scent of the African Americans she has encountered as “bittersweet” may reflect her perspective on their lives. Why both bitter and sweet, and why used in this context in a church designed specifically for people of color? I think, in this case, the phrase indicates the duality of their experience—sweet because they have a church to go to in which they feel a sense of community and connectedness, but bitter, because they have to have such segregation in the first place. This idea that the sweetness of church is undercut by a bitter, almost unpalatable separateness within the community plays into her discussion of the racism that exists in society. Considering these next-level concepts in connection with such small words or phrases within a text is a key part of analyzing oxymoron, and uncovering the fullness of the text.
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.
When writing about personification, you, like with any feature, want to note why it's significant, and what it adds to the overall meaning of the text. When considering personification, you want to ask, "why did the author choose to give this object human qualities? What does it contribute to their themes? What does it add to the context of the occurrence?" Asking these questions will help you formulate a discussion of these ideas within the text. As you saw in the example, the writer posits that the significance of the personification of the rain shows the changes in Mrs. Mallard's character after her husband supposedly dies, as she comes to life herself. The personification helps her see the life in everything. These kinds of analyses are critical for your papers, and provide for your readers a more comprehensive understanding of the text you're discussing.
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.
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. Though you probably couldn't make a whole paper out of writing about plot, you could discuss it in relation to theme, and explain the way the triangle form of Chopin's work contributes to ideas like the oppression of women and others she discusses.
When discussing plot, you always want to make sure that you aren't simply explicating details, but are truly analyzing how it is interesting or impactful on another facet of the story. Connecting the plot to other details within the text can help you prevent this and ensure that you're providing analysis to answer the "so what?" question your readers will be asking as they read your work.
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.
Writing about point of view can be particularly interesting when the author of a text breaks from conventional norms. If I were writing about Chopin's "The Story of an Hour," I might explore why Chopin might have chosen to use an omniscient narrator as opposed to the first person. Having it written in the third person adds a level of irony because it furthers the concept she discusses that people outside the home, or even outside of the mind of women in society, are unable to accurately interpret and perceive their reactions. For example, they perceive Mrs. Mallard's death was caused by overwhelming joy, but really it was from heartbreak from the loss of her new-found independence. Discussing the role of point of view in explaining these ironies can be both helpful for readers and extremely interest.
Further, if an author chooses to utilize the second person in their writing, it's probably worth mentioning in literary analysis. Most of the time, unless it's a self-help or how-to piece, writers limit the use of the second person. Therefore, if they decide to address the audience and speak directly to them, it's probably for a very pointed, specific reason. When this happens, you'll want to consider the context of the second-person, and what the writer is hoping to communicate to the audience, or what they want them to consider or question.
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.
When writing about setting, its important to ask yourself how and why this story is different or interesting based on the location and time period. For example, if a story about child labor is written in Manchester in the early 1800s, we know that it's commenting on the negative effects of the Industrial Revolution in England. Understanding the social and political climate of a particular time and place, as well as the culture that's established there can have a huge impact on how you read a text. In many cases, understanding the setting is the difference between allowing an important theme to slip by unnoticed and actually recognizing it as important. If you ask yourself how and why the story is different or special because of the setting and have a definitive answer, you have a good start on writing a solid paragraph on setting.
Setting is often really important when writing literary criticism as well, since very often the time period and location determine how and why the characters act or think in a particular way. Using the setting in connection to these concepts, critics can come to understand the positive or negative impact their setting had on both the characters, and the culture as a whole.
A simile is a kind of metaphor in which two un-like things are compared using the words like or as. Usually, when a simile is being made it requires more thought on what the author is trying to say. Comparing two unlike things with a simile may show that they are actually 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 generally similar, comparing them helps provide a more vivid and deeper understanding 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.
The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms identifies a stock character as an established, instantly recognizable character type to whom the audience or reader prescribes particular traits or characteristics. Though sometimes these characters are genre-specific, they can also occur within any literary work of all kinds. These characters can be either flushed out and fully developed, or can be more stereotyped and flat.
You’re probably most familiar with the idea of a stock character from your favorite Disney movies. For instance, the evil queen or stepmother is often a stock character, as are the main characters’ side-kicks. Think, Rapunzel’s chameleon, Pascal, for one, and Peter Pan’s Tinkerbell as another example. These characters also come up in books and TV shows as well—think of your favorite cowboy from an old western film, or a mysterious detective character that shows up again and again in your favorite murder-mysteries.
An example of a stock character in classical literature might be Bob Ewell in To Kill A Mockingbird. Bob is your stereotypical example of a country-bumpkin and a racist who causes problems and violence within his community. He doesn’t have any other remarkable traits besides his racist and selfish tendencies, and thus, functions as a good example of this kind of character.
In a literary analysis, you may discuss how and why the author includes a stock character, or characters, in a text. For example, if I decide to write about Bob Ewell and how he functions as a stock character in Lee’s novel, I may discuss the significance of having him in the story for Lee’s overall themes. Bob Ewell, in this story, acts as the quintessential southern racist who is out to cause trouble for non-whites in his community. Having this problematic character in her story allows Lee to communicate the idea that people like Bob Ewell are far too common, both in literature, and in life, for comfort. His presence, and his blatant racism and hatefulness, which readers can easily identify, illustrates the necessity for change in a racist society.
A symbol is 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.
Symbolism is something that students very often have to discuss in literary analysis but that can be quite confusing. When reading literature, you might find yourself asking, "is anything ever just what it is, nothing more?" And in truth, very often, writers are simply talking about the literal object they present. But, sometimes, and especially depending on the theme, certain objects, people, ideas can mean something totally different. When talking about symbols, you'll want to consider the text's theme, and how the symbol you've identified relates to that. If I was writing about To Kill A Mockingbird, for example, I might explain how the image of the mockingbird and what it means to kill one relates to the theme Lee presents about the dangers of racism. In this case, I might discuss how Mockingbirds, which are black in color, have one purpose in life--to sing, and thus, provide joy to those around them who can hear them. These birds, who are completely innocent of any kind of violence or annoyance, come to symbolize the African American community, who are guilty of nothing but working hard to be productive and help others be happy. By comparing the African Americans, namely Jim, in the text to these sweet, innocent birds, Lee comments on the extreme violence and hatred that come from killing such a kind-hearted, innocent creature.
Knowing whether something is a symbol or not can be somewhat difficult, but it most always relates, in some way, to the theme or central idea the author is trying to discuss. If the author wants to discuss ideas like sexism, racism, or other taboos, they may use symbolism to sort of code it into the text, and communicate these ideas in a more subtle way. Uncovering these moves when they happen can help you better understand what writers are trying to communicate in terms of main ideas.
Overall, symbolism doesn't usually exist in a vacuum-- when you identify symbolism in a text, you'll want to analyze it to understand why the author would place it there. Is it because it contributes to theme? Is it to conceal a taboo concept, but still talk about it, if subtly? Once you figure this out, you'll be able to draw on evidence in the text to support your claims and write a quality analysis.
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?
Most of the time, syntax isn't something that can stand alone as a paper topic when doing literary analysis, as it almost always relate to another idea. In the case of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, her short, simple sentences can help illustrate her childish nature. To write a quality analysis, you wont want to just stop there with your study--you'll want to further connect the syntax to characterization or other ideas that help to explain the significance of these syntactical patterns. A good way to do this could be to compare the syntax of the dialogue between characters, and evaluate how the author shifts and changes the patterns to communicate different things about the characters. For example, Atticus's dialogue would probably have very different syntax than Scouts--what effect might that have on their characterization? What does that tell you about them and their differences? You could go further and compare characters like Scout and her brother, Jem, and more to understand the relationship between syntax and characterization.
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.
To see an even more comprehensive explanation of theme and how to write about it, click the link in red above to explore our page devoted to it solely.
Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird explores several important themes, but one in particular is evidenced clearly in the following quotation:
“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."
Lee uses this quote to encourage 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, and contribute similarly to this over-arching concept Lee hopes readers will understand by reading her novel. Here, Atticus is not talking about literally climbing into someone’s skin, but instead, provides a metaphor that provokes the reader to consider more deeply the way they interact with others.
When you have a literary analysis paper, 99.999% of the time, you'll want to relate whatever figures of speech or other concepts you find in your piece back to the theme. What this means is that once you identify 1) what elements you find in your piece, and 2) what the theme or themes are, you'll want to figure out how they work together.
For example, I might explore how the similes and metaphors Lee uses in To Kill a Mockingbird, like the one above, contribute to the theme she presents about connecting with people in a way that is non-judgmental and accepting instead of harsh and unforgiving. You would want to identify specific features within the text that contribute to that theme by exploring several examples of these nods to her theme in the text.
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.
For example, the tone your mom uses in your birthday card each year is very different from the one she uses when she texts you and says your room is a grand disaster and that you need to come home and clean it up IMMEDIATELY (we've all been there, yes?). The same thing happens in literature--sometimes characters speak or think with words that let the reader know they're happy or pleased, but other times, their tone can be fearful, worried, or even eerie.
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.
The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms breaks up the concept of “voice” in a few distinctive concepts: first, that voice is something the narrator or main character of the story communicates through a particular type of speech, and second, that it’s something an author creates for readers through careful word choice and other features.
The first conception of voice, in that it’s established by characters or the narrator, is important for considering works of prose, while the second is more important for other genres like poetry or non-fiction. Although every character, especially main ones, has a specific voice, you may remember notable ones like Huck from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for their distinctiveness. In this novel, Huck’s friend Jim has a very distinctive way of speaking, which Twain makes clear through specific diction. Based on the way Jim speaks, readers can infer things about his character, such as where he may be from, his level of education, and more. The other type of voice, which is less about a character and more focused on the author itself is more relevant in poetry or non-fiction. Writing features like word choice, tone, and even use of figurative language like simile and metaphor contribute to how the reader perceives the writer and their message. For instance, if an author of a scholarly journal uses seemingly colloquial, conversational language, their voice would come off very differently than someone’s who uses elevated diction. The same can be said for poetry—depending on word choice and style, the poem’s narrator (or author, depending on the work, and whether or not we assume these people are the same person) can present different ideas or feelings for the reader to consider.
Voice can be especially interesting to write about when it’s contrary to what you might expect for a particular setting or audience, or when the writer’s voice contributes to the theme. Continuing with the Huck Finn examples, Huck’s rowdy, care-free attitude comes out in his thoughts and in his dialogue, and communicates bits of his personality to readers through his voice. His overwhelming, almost over-bearing features help to solidify the idea for readers that this is a young kid on a journey to development and growth. If he sounded more sophisticated and polished it wouldn’t seem that growth is as important to his story as it actually is. If I were writing about voice in this respect, I would discuss how his voice shifts throughout the story, and reflects changes in Huck himself as time goes on.
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.
Writing about Literary Elements
"Writing about literature is so much more than simply reading a text and identifying particular elements that appear there. The best thing about literature is that it offers a plethora of complex ideas and perspectives that readers get to explore and unpack. Using these concepts, you will be able to write about moves the author makes to offer your own unique perspective on why they're important to the text's meaning." -Allie