Literary Terms

GlossaryFlashcards
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action
any event or series of events depicted in a literary work; an event may be verbal as well as physical, so that saying something or telling a story within the story may be an event. See also climax, complication, falling action, inciting incident, and rising action.
alexandrine
a line of verse in iambic hexameter, often with a caesura after the third iambic foot.
allegory
a literary work, whether in verse or prose, in which characters, action, and even aspects of setting signify (or serve as symbols for) a second, correlated order of concepts, persons, and actions. One of the most famous English-language allegories is John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, in which a character named Christian has to make his way through obstacles such as the Slough of Despond to get to the Celestial City.
alliteration
the repetition of usually initial consonant sounds through a sequence of words—for example, "While I nodded, nearly napping" in Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Raven."
allusion
a brief, often implicit and indirect reference within a literary text to something outside the text, whether another text (e.g., the Bible, a myth, another literary work, a painting, or a piece of music) or any imaginary or historical person, place, or thing. Many of the footnotes in this book explain allusions found in literary selections.
amphitheater
a theater consisting of a stage area surrounded by a semicircle of tiered seats.
anapestic
referring to a metrical form in which each foot consists of two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one—for example, "There are mán- | y who sáy | that a dóg | has his dáy" (Dylan Thomas, "The Song of the Mischievous Dog"). A single foot of this type is called an anapest.
antagonist
a character or a nonhuman force that opposes or is in conflict with the protagonist.
antihero
a protagonist who is in one way or another the very opposite of a traditional hero. Instead of being courageous and determined, for instance, an antihero might be timid, hypersensitive, and indecisive to the point of paralysis. Antiheroes are especially common in modern literary works; examples might include the speaker of T. S. Eliot’s "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" or the protagonist of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.
archetype
a character, ritual, symbol, or plot pattern that recurs in the myth and literature of many cultures; examples include the scapegoat or trickster (character type), the rite of passage (ritual), and the quest or descent into the underworld (plot pattern). The term and our contemporary understanding of it derive from the work of psychologist Carl Jung (1875– 1961), who argued that archetypes emerge from—and give us a clue to the workings of—the "collective unconscious," a reservoir of memories and impulses that all humans share but aren’t consciously aware of.
arena stage
a stage design in which the audience is seated all the way around the acting area; actors make their entrances and exits through the auditorium.
assonance
the repetition of vowel sounds in a sequence of words with different endings—for example, "The death of the poet was kept from his poems" in W. H. Auden’s "In Memory of W. B. Yeats."
aubade
a poem in which the coming of dawn is either celebrated, as in Billy Collins’s "Morning," or denounced as a nuisance, as in John Donne’s "The Sun Rising."
auditor
an imaginary listener within a literary work, as opposed to the reader or audience outside the work.
author
the actual or real author of a work is the historical person who actually wrote it and the focus of biographical criticism, which interprets a work by drawing on facts about the author’s life and career. The implied author, or authorial persona, is the vision of the author’s personality and outlook implied by the work as a whole. Thus when we make a claim about the author that relies solely on evidence from the work rather than from other sources, our subject is the implied author; for example, "In Dubliners, James Joyce heavily criticizes the Catholic church."
author time
see time
autobiography
see biography.