Just what are “literary terms” anyways? Although they are certainly not for the faint of heart, literary terms are not reserved for future English majors, writers, and lifetime bookworms. Think of literary terms as tools to store with all that other luggage you rely on when reading a text, writing an essay, or encountering literature. Understanding these terms will mean possessing a vocabulary that will help you approach any text at any time. Convinced yet? Good! Let’s start building that literary backbone!
Today’s post will focus on a few more familiar, foundational literary terms, while in future we will work cover more complex terms you might encounter in an AP English high school class or college seminar.
Metaphors and Similes
Just what is the difference between these two literary terms? Believe it or not, metaphors and similes are easily confused even amongst some of the most astute students (and scholars). You were probably told in middle school that similes are figures of speech that incorporate “like” or “as.” This is a great basic definition of a simile, but it is also important to recognize that a simile is a direct comparison because it is a rhetorical expression that uses connecting words such as “like,” “as,” “than,” or “so” in comparing one thing with another. Here are some examples:
“. . . and snow lay here and there in patches in the hollow of the banks, like a lady’s gloves forgotten.” — Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor, by R. D. Blackmore
“. . . she tried to get rid of the kitten which had scrambled up her back and stuck like a burr just out of reach.” — Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott
Metaphors, on the other hand, do away with words such as “as” or “like” in order to make an implied comparison between two things that at first might seem quite different from each other. Metaphors work to find resemblances between these disparate objects. As a result, they are a little trickier to identify. Here are some examples:
All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances. - William Shakespeare
America has tossed its cap over the wall of space. -John F. Kennedy
In both of these examples, the world is not actually a stage, and nor is the entire country of America actually throwing a literal hat over a “wall of space.” Yet the metaphor is used to draw these seemingly disparate ideas into a figurative whole to convey the author’s meaning — that is why it is a figure of speech!
An “allusion” is quite possibly the most important literary term you will encounter. You will find yourself using this big guy in English class discussions galore. Additionally, diagnosing a text’s allusions is excellent fodder for beginning an essay. Allusions are subtle or direct in-text references to known works of literature, characters, tropes, or other literary, political, historical, or social figures. Here are some examples:
“She was almost ready to go, standing before the hall mirror, putting on her hat, and he, his hands behind him, appeared pinned to the door frame, waiting like Saint Sebastian for the arrows to begin piercing him.”—Flannery O’Connor, “Everything That Rises Must Converge“
Here, O’Connor alludes to the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian to better elucidate the man’s state of anticipation at the woman’s door frame.
“When he calls to me, I am ready / I’ll wash his feet with my hair if he needs…” -Lady Gaga, “Judas”
Here, Lady Gaga alludes to the biblical story of Mary Magdalene, who washed Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair.
Some other commonly used allusions include the following: Cassandra, “catch-22,” Adonis, an “odyssey,” shibboleth, hoisting with one’s own petard.
Irony refers to a situation, statement, or figure that is either other than what it seems or presented in a way contrary to its intended meaning. Irony is a complex device and falls under three general categories: cosmic, dramatic, and verbal.
Verbal irony is irony as employed in a person’s speech, when the speaker says something the audience knows is not true or is true despite being said in jest. This is the most common source of comedy (in the form of sarcasm, overstatement, and understatement) but also of tragedy. When his cousin accuses him for laughing in the midst of a heavy moment, Titus snaps back in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus,
Why, I have not another tear to shed:
Besides, this sorrow is an enemy,
And would usurp upon my watery eyes
And make them blind with tributary tears:
Then which way shall I find Revenge’s cave?
Dramatic irony occurs at the plot level; that is, the audience may be more aware of a drama’s turn of events than the characters themselves. This is often the mechanism of tragedy. Romeo and Juliet screams dramatic irony in its final moments, especially: the audience is fully aware that Juliet is simply sleeping, yet Romeo is convinced she is dead.
Cosmic irony implies that there may a greater force or power influencing events; i.e., fate, fortune, or some other god-like being. Once again, this is often at play in tragedy.
Besides being a fun word to say, hyperbole also designates an extravagant or grandiose exaggeration. These are strictly not to be taken literally. Hyperboles are effective dramatically as well as comically. Consider these examples:
‘Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.’ – David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, 1739
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart. -“To his Coy Mistress,” Andrew Marvell
In both of these examples, exaggeration amplifies each author’s expression of man’s self-interest and the speaker’s affection, respectively; they are meant to be taken figuratively, not literally.
A symbol is, quite simply, something that signifies something else, be it a word, person, figure of speech, idea, object, etc. It is important to distinguish symbols from metaphors, which I have already discussed, motifs, allegories, and allusions. Symbols can operate at a foundational level, grounding a text to a certain association of images relevant to its overarching theme. Consider the image of the cross, for example, in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, or the handkerchief in Othello. Language itself has been said to be a system of symbols.
Next week we’ll move on to more complex literary terms. Stay tuned, writers and readers!
Check out the next posts in this three part series on literary terms and devices:
- Literary Terms and Devices Part 2 – Approaching Texts
- Literary Terms and Devices Part 3 – Finding Meaning
About the author: Kathleen McGunagle is a graduate of Princeton University’s English department and Interdisciplinary Humanities Certificate Program. Concentrating in British Renaissance Literature, she completed a thesis this spring on Shakespeare and epistolary culture (“Shakespeare’s Written World: Letters in Hamlet, Antony and Cleopatra, and King Lear”). Kathleen will be attending Boston University’s M.F.A. program in Creative Writing as a fiction writer this fall.