Key Literary Terms

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Last updated: April 26, 2019
theme
the point or main idea of a literary work

setting
the time, place, and social conditions in which literary work occurs

grotesque character
(from Sherwood Anderson) a person who takes one of the many truths, calls it his/his own, and tries to live by it; implies a character who is wounded, scarred, obsessed, who has tunnel vision about some aspect of life.

round character
(from E.M. Forster) a character who has the emotional and psychological complexities associated with “real” people, a character who is capable of surprising the reader.

flat character
a “stock” or one-dimensional character, one who lacks the multifaceted qualities associated with real people, a character who is not capable of surprising the reader in a realistic way.

alliteration
reptition of consonant sounds at the beginnings of words

allusion
a brief, often casual reference to a work of art, person, place or thing

assonance
the reptition of vowel sounds

caesura
a pause in a line of poetry

connotation
the emotional associations of a word beyond its dictionary definition

couplet
a two-lined, usually rhymed stanza

dramatic situation
“what’s going on” in a story, poem, play etc. the events, setting, and relationships that contribute to the piece

ephiphany
a moment of a sudden insight, a revelation

form
the way a poem is arranged on a page

free verse
a poem written in open form, without the constrictions of traditional rhyme and meter

haiku
traditionally a 17-syllable poem (5/7/5) that emphasizes imagery and conciseness

hyperbole
an overstatement, a statement containing exaggeration

image
sense experience expressed in language, a picture made with words

metaphor
a direct comparison, a statement that one thing is another thing

controlling/implied metaphor
a metaphor developed more subtley, throughout an entire work, a metaphor that uses neither a connective (like or as) or a form of the verb to be (is, am, are, was, were)

Sonnet
a “little song,” 14 line poem written in iambic pentameter

Shakespearean Sonnet
a sonnet that rhymes with the following pattern: abab cdcd efef gg (4 quatrains and a final couplet)

Italian/Petrachan sonnet
a sonnet that rhymes in one of the following patterns: abba abba (the octave) cdcdcd or cdecde or cdccdc

narrative poem
a poem that tells a story

onomatopeia
when the sounds of the words in a line of poetry imitate an “actual sound”

persona
the identity of “the speaker” in a poem, often different that the identity of the poet her(him)self

personification
giving human qualities to non-human things

prosody
the study of metrical structures (rhythm) in poetry

rhythm
the recurrence of stresses and pauses in poetry

refrain
the repetition of words, phrases, or lines in a poem or song

simile
a comparision using like or as

stanza
a group of lines in a poem

villanelle
a 19 line French form that emphasizes repetition. Uses the following rhyme pattern: aba aba aba aba aba abaa. Lines one and three repeat in their entirety throughout the poem!

Irony
the difference between what is expected to happen and what actually occurs

Automatic writing
“unconscious” writing , a stream of consciousness technique used to generate a great deal of content quickly; in automatic writing, writers record thoughts on paper as soon as they occur without analyzing them

Brainstorming
a rapidly made list. When writers brainstorm they do not “second guess”

Thesis statement
traditionally in the first paragraph of the analytic/argumentative papers.

Presents topics the paper will address in an organized way and expresses the essay’s argument/opinion

Topic sentence
It’s like, “the thesis statement for a paragraph.” Organizes the paragraph and prepares readers for both topic of the paragraph and the argument opinion that the paragraph will address

Romanticism
an artistic movement in the late 18th/early 19th centuries that emphasized the personal freedom of the individual. Includes such ideas/ideals as pantheism, the “noble savage,” the transcendent aspects of nature, and the idea that humans can find/know G-d directly.

Archetype
a symbol, character, situation, or image that evokes a deep universal response

Concrete poetry
when poetry makes designs (shapes) out of letters and words

Denouement
the conclusion, outcome, resolution of a story

Elegy
a sadly mediatative poem (a lament) sometimes written on the occasion of death

Soliloquy
words spoken when the actor is alone or in an aside (out of hearing range from the other actors); purpose: to reveal the character’s thoughts and/or other information essential for the audience to know

Symbol
a thing (action, object, place gesture, etc.) that suggests more than its literal meaning

Tragedy
a play usually in 5 acts, meant to arouse the emotions of pity and fear in the audience and thus produce a catharsis (purging) of these emotions [from Aristotle]

Tragic flaw
the shortcoming in the tragic hero that contributes to his/her downfall

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