Protagonist
The main character in a story, the one with whom the reader is meant to identify. The person
is not necessarily “good”, but is the person whom the reader is most invested in. Holden
Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye

Antagonist
Counterpart to the main character/protagonist and source of a story’s main conflict. It may not
even be a person

Plot
Sequence of events in the story. Exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution

Setting
Time and place in which the story occurs.

Conflict
A struggle between opposing forces which drive the story. This is what keeps the reader
reading! The outcome of the story is usually a resolution of the conflict. The opposing force
does not have to be a person. The basic types of conflict are: Man vs. Self, Man vs. Man, Man
vs. Nature, Man vs. Society or Man vs. Machine.

Climax
The dramatic high of the story. Right before the climax is the turning point, usually where
something goes wrong. The climax then ensues and comes to a resolution. A resolution does
not necessarily mean the problem has been solved; only that the high point has ended.

Motifs, Themes and Symbols
A motif is a recurring important idea, structure or image; it differs from a theme in that it can
be expressed as a single word or fragmented phrase. e.g. comparing a person’s stages of life to
seasons of the year.
A theme usually must be expressed as a complete sentence. A theme is a main universal idea
or message conveyed by the piece. e.g. Little Red Riding Hood’s theme may be “Don’t talk to
strangers.”
A symbol is an object, colour, person, character or figure used to represent abstract ideas. A
symbol, unlike a motif, must be tangible or visible.

Atmosphere
The mood or emotional condition created by within the setting. Atmosphere refers to the
general sense or feeling which the reader is supposed to get from the text and is not
necessarily referring to the characters’ state of mind.

Point of View
The identity of the narrator’s voice, the point of view from which the reader sees the story. It
may be first person (there is no narrator) or third person (the story is told by a character or
direct observer in the story).

Allegory
Where an entire story is representative/symbolic of something else, usually a larger abstract
concept or important historical/geopolitical event (e.g. Animal Farm is an allegory of Soviet
totalitarianism).

Alliteration
The repetition of consonant sounds, usually used consecutively in the same sentence (e.g.
Silly Sally saw sixty slithering snakes)

Anthropomorphism
Where animals or inanimate objects are portrayed as people. (e.g. in Animal Farm the animals
can talk, walk, and interact like humans).

Assonance
The repetition of similar vowel sounds in a sentence or a line of poetry or prose, as in “I rose
and told him of my woe.” Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” contains
assonantal “I’s” in the following lines: “How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick, /
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself.”

Deus ex machina
Latin for “God out of the machine”, this term describes the primary conflict being solved out
of nowhere, as if God or a miracle could only solve the complex conflict.

Dictio
The selection of words in a literary work. A work’s diction forms one of its centrally
important literary elements, as writers use words to convey action, reveal character, imply
attitudes, identify themes, and suggest values. We can speak of the diction particular to a
character, as in Iago’s and Desdemona’s very different ways of speaking in Othello. We can
also refer to a poet’s diction as represented over the body of his or her work, as in Donne’s or
Hughes’s diction.

Dramatic irony
Where the audience or reader is aware of something important, of which the characters in the
story are not aware. Situational irony is different in that the readers are not aware; the results
are unexpected and mocking in relation to what was expected (the usual use of the term
irony). Verbal irony is an expression that is opposite of what it is intended to mean (e.g. the
Ministry of Love is actually a place of torture and brainwashing in the novel 1984).

Euphemism
Linguistic style means by which an unpleasant, negative or objectionable matter is expressed
veiling or euphemistically. A euphemism softens language, what you do not want to express
in a direct way. – Example: To die for the word, there are many euphemisms: asleep
peacefully, are called to God, passed away.

Exposition
When an author interrupts a story in order to explain something – usually to provide important
background information. An exposition can also be essential information which is given at the
beginning of a play or short story, about the plot and the events which are to follow.

Flashback
An interruption of a work’s chronology to describe or present an incident that occurred prior
to the main time frame of a work’s action. Writers use flashbacks to complicate the sense of
chronology in the plot of their works and to convey the richness of the experience of human
time. Faulkner’s story “A Rose for Emily” includes flashbacks.

Foil
A character who is meant to represent characteristics, values or ideas which are opposite to
another character (usually the protagonist). Laertes, in Hamlet, is a foil for the main character;
Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay from A Tale of Two Cities are also classic foils.

Foreshadowing
Where future events in a story, or perhaps the outcome, are suggested by the author before
they happen. This suggestion can be made in various ways such as a flashback, an object, or a
previous minor situation which reflects a more significant situation later on. This sort of
warning sign can also be called a red herring.

Hyperbole
A description which uses exaggeration or extremes to convey emphasize a characteristic; e.g.
“I told you a thousand times!” does not mean the person has been one thousand times.

Imagery
The pattern of related comparative aspects of language, particularly of images, in a literary
work. Imagery of light and darkness pervade James Joyce’s stories “Araby,” “The Boarding
House,” and “The Dead.” So, too, does religious imagery.

Interjection
Interjections are exclamatory words and feelings that are woven into sentences (also in the
spoken language) to express a certain feeling intensified. – Examples: Whoa, where do you
come from? Oh, if only you knew!

Irony
A contrast or discrepancy between what is said and what is meant or between what happens
and what is expected to happen in life and in literature. In verbal irony, characters say the
opposite of what they mean. In irony of circumstance or situation, the opposite of what is
expected occurs. In dramatic irony, a character speaks in ignorance of a situation or event
known to the audience or to the other characters. Flannery O’Connor’s short stories employ all
these forms of irony, as does Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado.”

Metaphor vs. Simile
A metaphor is direct relationship where one thing IS another (e.g. “Juliet is the sun”). A
simile, on the other hand, is indirect and usually only likened to be similar to something else.
Similes usually use “like” or “as” (e.g. “Your eyes are like the ocean”).

Onomatopoeia
The use of words to imitate the sounds they describe. Words such as buzz and crack are
onomatopoetic.

Oxymoron
Style character in text, in which two originally contradictory concepts connected to an
expression to each other. The aim is to increase the vividness of speech and expression in a
text – examples: a young old man, black snow, bitter sweet

Parallelism
The use of similar or identical language, structures, events or ideas in different parts of a text.

Parody
A humorous, mocking imitation of a literary work, sometimes sarcastic, but often playful and
even respectful in its playful imitation. Examples include Bob McKenty’s parody of Frost’s
“Dust of Snow” and Kenneth Koch’s parody of Williams’s “This is Just to Say.”

Pathetic fallacy
When the mood of the character is reflected in the atmosphere (weather) or inanimate objects.

Personification
Where inanimate objects or abstract concepts are given human thoughts, actions, perceptions
and emotions. E.g. “The moon danced mournfully over the water” – you see that a moon
cannot actually dance or with mourning, therefore it is being personified in order to create
artistic meaning.

Repetition
When a specific word, phrase, or structure is repeated several times, usually in close
proximity, to emphasize a particular idea.

Understatement
A figure of speech in which a writer or speaker says less than what he or she means; the
opposite of exaggeration. The last line of Frost’s “Birches” illustrates this literary device:
“One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.”

Aside
Words spoken by an actor directly to the audience, which are not “heard” by the other
characters on stage during a play. In Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago voices his inner thoughts a
number of times as “asides” for the play’s audience.

Assonance
The repetition of similar vowel sounds in a sentence or a line of poetry or prose, as in “I rose
and told him of my woe.” Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” contains
assonantal “I’s” in the following lines: “How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick, / Till
rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself.”

Catastrophe
The action at the end of a tragedy that initiates the denouement or falling action of a play. One
example is the dueling scene in Act V of Hamlet in which Hamlet dies, along with Laertes, King
Claudius, and Queen Gertrude.

Catharsis
The purging of the feelings of pity and fear that, according to Aristotle, occur in the audience of
tragic drama. The audience experiences catharsis at the end of the play, following the
catastrophe.

Character
An imaginary person that inhabits a literary work. Literary characters may be major or minor,
static (unchanging) or dynamic (capable of change). In Shakespeare’s Othello, Desdemona is a
major character, but one who is static, like the minor character Bianca. Othello is a major
character who is dynamic, exhibiting an ability to change.

Characterization
The means by which writers present and reveal character. Although techniques of
characterization are complex, writers typically reveal characters through their speech, dress,
manner, and actions. Readers come to understand the character Miss Emily in Faulkner’s story
“A Rose for Emily” through what she says, how she lives, and what she does.

Chorus
A group of characters in Greek tragedy (and in later forms of drama), who comment on the
action of a play without participation in it. Their leader is the choragos. Sophocles’ Antigone and
Oedipus the King both contain an explicit chorus with a choragos. Tennessee Williams’s Glass
Menagerie contains a character who functions like a chorus.

Climax
The turning point of the action in the plot of a play or story. The climax represents the point of
greatest tension in the work. The climax of John Updike’s “A & P,” for example, occurs when
Sammy quits his job as a cashier.

Comedy
A type of drama in which the characters experience reversals of fortune, usually for the better.
In comedy, things work out happily in the end. Comic drama may be either romantic–
characterized by a tone of tolerance and geniality–or satiric. Satiric works offer a darker vision
of human nature, one that ridicules human folly. Shaw’s Arms and the Man is a romantic
comedy; Chekhov’s Marriage Proposal is a satiric comedy.

Complication
An intensification of the conflict in a story or play. Complication builds up, accumulates, and
develops the primary or central conflict in a literary work. Frank O’Connor’s story “Guests of the
Nation” provides a striking example, as does Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal.”

Convention
A customary feature of a literary work, such as the use of a chorus in Greek tragedy, the
inclusion of an explicit moral in a fable, or the use of a particular rhyme scheme in a villanelle.
Literary conventions are defining features of particular literary genres, such as novel, short
story, ballad, sonnet, and play

Denouement
The resolution of the plot of a literary work. The denouement of Hamlet takes place after the
catastrophe, with the stage littered with corpses. During the denouement Fortinbras makes an
entrance and a speech, and Horatio speaks his sweet lines in praise of Hamlet.

Dialogue
The conversation of characters in a literary work. In fiction, dialogue is typically enclosed within
quotation marks. In plays, characters’ speech is preceded by their names.

Diction
The selection of words in a literary work. A work’s diction forms one of its centrally important
literary elements, as writers use words to convey action, reveal character, imply attitudes,
identify themes, and suggest values. We can speak of the diction particular to a character, as in
Iago’s and Desdemona’s very different ways of speaking in Othello. We can also refer to a poet’s
diction as represented over the body of his or her work, as in Donne’s or Hughes’s diction.

Dramatic monologue
A type of poem in which a speaker addresses a silent listener. As readers, we overhear the
speaker in a dramatic monologue. Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” represents the epitome
of the genre

Dramatis personae
Latin for the characters or persons in a play. Included among the dramatis personae of Miller’s
Death of a Salesman are Willy Loman, the salesman, his wife Linda, and his sons Biff and
Happy.

Exposition
The first stage of a fictional or dramatic plot, in which necessary background information is
provided. Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, for instance, begins with a conversation between the two
central characters, a dialogue that fills the audience in on events that occurred before the action
of the play begins, but which are important in the development of its plot.

Fable
A brief story with an explicit moral provided by the author. Fables typically include animals as
characters. Their most famous practitioner in the west is the ancient Greek writer Aesop, whose
“The Dog and the Shadow” and “The Wolf and the Mastiff” are included in this book.

Figurative language
A form of language use in which writers and speakers convey something other than the literal
meaning of their words. Examples include hyperbole or exaggeration, litotes or understatement,
simile and metaphor, which employ comparison, and synecdoche and metonymy, in which a
part of a thing stands for the whole.

Foil
A character who contrasts and parallels the main character in a play or story. Laertes, in
Hamlet, is a foil for the main character; in Othello, Emilia and Bianca are foils for Desdemona.

Fourth wall
The imaginary wall of the box theater setting, supposedly removed to allow the audience to see
the action. The fourth wall is especially common in modern and contemporary plays such as
Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, Wasserstein’s Tender Offer, and Wilson’s Fences.

Gesture
The physical movement of a character during a play. Gesture is used to reveal character, and
may include facial expressions as well as movements of other parts of an actor’s body.
Sometimes a playwright will be very explicit about both bodily and facial gestures, providing
detailed instructions in the play’s stage directions. Shaw’s Arms and the Man includes such
stage directions. See Stage direction.

Image
A concrete representation of a sense impression, a feeling, or an idea. Imagery refers to the
pattern of related details in a work. In some works one image predominates either by recurring
throughout the work or by appearing at a critical point in the plot. Often writers use multiple
images throughout a work to suggest states of feeling and to convey implications of thought
and action. Some modern poets, such as Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, write poems
that lack discursive explanation entirely and include only images. Among the most famous
examples is Pound’s poem “In a Station of the Metro”:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Metonymy
A figure of speech in which a closely related term is substituted for an object or idea. An
example: “We have always remained loyal to the crown.” See Synecdoche.

Parody
A humorous, mocking imitation of a literary work, sometimes sarcastic, but often playful and
even respectful in its playful imitation. Examples include Bob McKenty’s parody of Frost’s “Dust
of Snow” and Kenneth Koch’s parody of Williams’s “This is Just to Say.”
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Pathos
A quality of a play’s action that stimulates the audience to feel pity for a character. Pathos is
always an aspect of tragedy, and may be present in comedy as well.

Props
Articles or objects that appear on stage during a play. The Christmas tree in A Doll’s House and
Laura’s collection of glass animals in The Glass Menagerie are examples.

Recognition
The point at which a character understands his or her situation as it really is. Sophocles’
Oedipus comes to this point near the end of Oedipus the King; Othello comes to a similar
understanding of his situation in Act V of Othello.

Reversal
The point at which the action of the plot turns in an unexpected direction for the protagonist.
Oedipus’s and Othello’s recognitions are also reversals. They learn what they did not expect to
learn. See Recognition and also Irony.

Satire
A literary work that criticizes human misconduct and ridicules vices, stupidities, and follies.
Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is a famous example. Chekhov’s Marriage Proposal and O’Connor’s
“Everything That Rises Must Converge,” have strong satirical elements.

Soliloquy
A speech in a play that is meant to be heard by the audience but not by other characters on the
stage. If there are no other characters present, the soliloquy represents the character thinking
aloud. Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech is an example. See Aside.

Stage direction
A playwright’s descriptive or interpretive comments that provide readers (and actors) with
information about the dialogue, setting, and action of a play. Modern playwrights, including
Ibsen, Shaw, Miller, and Williams tend to include substantial stage directions, while earlier
playwrights typically used them more sparsely, implicitly, or not at all. See Gesture.

Staging
The spectacle a play presents in performance, including the position of actors on stage, the
scenic background, the props and costumes, and the lighting and sound effects. Tennessee
Williams describes these in his detailed stage directions for The Glass Menagerie and also in his
production notes for the play.

Subject
What a story or play is about; to be distinguished from plot and theme. Faulkner’s “A Rose for
Emily” is about the decline of a particular way of life endemic to the American south before the
civil war. Its plot concerns how Faulkner describes and organizes the actions of the story’s
characters. Its theme is the overall meaning Faulkner conveys.

Symbol

Synecdoche
A figure of speech in which a part is substituted for the whole. An example: “Lend me a hand.”
See Metonymy.

Syntax
The grammatical order of words in a sentence or line of verse or dialogue. The organization of
words and phrases and clauses in sentences of prose, verse, and dialogue. In the following
example, normal syntax (subject, verb, object order) is inverted:
“Whose woods these are I think I know.”

Tragedy
A type of drama in which the characters experience reversals of fortune, usually for the worse.
In tragedy, catastrophe and suffering await many of the characters, especially the hero.
Examples include Shakespeare’s Othello and Hamlet; Sophocles’ Antigone and Oedipus the
King, and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. See Tragic flaw and Tragic hero.

Tragic flaw
A weakness or limitation of character, resulting in the fall of the tragic hero. Othello’s jealousy
and too trusting nature is one example. See Tragedy and Tragic hero.

Unities
The idea that a play should be limited to a specific time, place, and story line. The events of the
plot should occur within a twenty-four hour period, should occur within a give geographic locale,
and should tell a single story. Aristotle argued that Sophocles’ Oedipus the King was the perfect
play for embodying the unities.

Villanelle
A nineteen-line lyric poem that relies heavily on repetition. The first and third lines alternate
throughout the poem, which is structured in six stanzas –five tercets and a concluding quatrain.
Examples include Bishop’s “One Art,” Roethke’s “The Waking,” and Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle
into That Good Night.”

Rhyme
This is the one device most commonly associated with poetry by the general public. Words that
have different beginning sounds but whose endings sound alike, including the final vowel sound and
everything following it, are said to rhyme.
Example: time, slime, mime
Double rhymes include the final two syllables. Example: revival, arrival, survival
Triple rhymes include the final three syllables. Example: greenery, machinery, scenery
A variation which has been used effectively is called slant rhyme, or half rhyme. If only the final
consonant sounds of the words are the same, but the initial consonants and the vowel sounds are
different, then the rhyme is called a slant rhyme or half rhyme. When this appears in the middle of lines
rather than at the end, it is called consonance.
Example: soul, oil, foul; taut, sat, knit
Another variation which is occasionally used is called near rhyme. If the final vowel sounds are the