Literary Terms and Devices Part III: Finding Meaning

1001_findingmeaning_mailer_facebookMy previous posts on literary terms have focused on two major uses of these special devices: understanding and approaching texts and, importantly, writing about them. Here we will emphasize one further purpose: locating meaning. Yes, that could mean anything! But in writing and reading literature, meaning is everything. Training your brain and eye to search for underlying meaning in what you read (and even what you experience in daily life) will teach you to be a better reader, writer, and observer of the world. How is this accomplished in texts? Read on to find out!

Why and how do writers strive for meaning in their work? Why do we, as readers, seek it out? You and I can certainly tilt back in our chairs sipping tea and deliberating over these questions and their endless answers until the next great American novel appears. Susan Wolf, in Meaning in Life and Why it Matters argues that “meaningfulness” in life is achieved in part through participating in something “larger” than one’s life. Although Wolf’s book (you should really check it out, by the way!) analyzes meaning in life, I would contend that her thesis is just as applicable to understanding and utilizing literature. Meaning in literary texts is often encased in layers, smaller or larger than the text itself. It is grasped by looking farther and closer. Nowhere is this tension more fully elaborated than in metonymy and synecdoche.


Metonymy is a literary device in which a thing, idea, entity, or individual is referred to by the title or name of something associated in meaning or attribute with that thing, idea, entity, or individual. Crucially, this title or name is not an actual part of the original object. Some basic examples of metonymy are referring to royal authority as “the Crown,” the financial sector as “Wall Street,” the body of U.S. government workers as “the White House,” and the media hub of California as “Hollywood.” Remember that although it is also a tool for symbolism, metonymy is distinct from metaphor, which is a figure of speech linking two different objects or ideas together, not an object and its association or attribute.

Metonymy can operate at several levels within a literary text. Consider, for example, characterization. What defines or names us? How does an author define or name his/her characters–through their attributes, associations, and material things, or by something else? In describing her perspective of people in Henry James’ A Portrait of a Lady, Madame Merle emphasizes the need to define people by their clothes and possessions:

“When you have lived as long as I, you will see that every human being has his shell, and that you must take the shell into account. By the shell I mean the whole envelope of circumstances. There is no such thing as an isolated man or woman; we are each of us made up of a cluster of appurtenances. What do you call one’s self? Where does it begin? where does it end? It overflows into everything that belongs to us—and then it flows back again. I know that a large part of myself is in the dresses I choose to wear. I have a great respect for things! One’s self—for other people—is one’s expression of one’s self; and one’s house, one’s clothes, the book one reads, the company one keeps—these things are all expressive.”

Although it may appear a narrow view in the context of the novel, Madame Merle’s viewpoint is persuasive; it evokes the limitations as well as the economy of perceiving people metonymically.


To continue in a Jamesian vein, Isabel Archer ruminates about her husband Osmand in A Portrait of a Lady:

“She saw the full moon now—she saw the whole man. She had kept still, as it were, so that he should have a free field, and yet in spite of this she had mistaken a part for the whole.”

Isabel’s mistake is synecdochal: she has “mistaken a part for the whole.” We could discuss the consequences of this mistake in another blog post, certainly. But for now, this fully elaborates the use of synecdoche, a term which refers to something (a whole) by one of its parts. Consider, for example, referring to farm workers as hands, a host of ships as sails, and a group of people as many mouths. In Shakespeare’s tragedy Coriolanus, the title figure is referred to by his wounds, a figurative reference which surfaces throughout the text, and the citizens as tongues or mouths:

for if he [Coriolanus] show us
his wounds and tell us his deeds, we are to put our
tongues into those wounds and speak for them. (Coriolanus, II.3)

Reducing Coriolanus to the sum of his battle scars, and the plebeians to hungry mouths or tongues, has enormous consequences within the tragedy. Just as Isabelle Archer bemoans her synecdochal reading of Osmond–it has cost her her shining independence, amongst other things–reading Coriolanus as a summation of wounds leads to his expulsion from Rome, and the patricians’ understanding of the plebeians as mere tongues or mouths exacerbates their political uprising. Appropriately, the plebeians literally tear Coriolanus to pieces at the tragedy’s end.


Much has been (and will be) written about allegory and its uses (and abuses) in literature. First and foremost it is important to remember that allegory is not a symbol, despite the fact that it is very similar to a symbol. An allegory denotes generally an image, concept, story, or figure that has a secondary meaning. Very often this secondary meaning is political, social, philosophical, or religious. Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, written at the time of the Reformation, is a classic example of an allegorical work. Throughout Spenser’s ambitious lyric poem, the characters of Faerie Land–some of which include the Redcrosse Knight, the Princess Una, Jealousy, and Archimago the villain–encounter spiritual and political challenges on their individual quests. These challenges often elaborate Christian/Catholic doctrine and its abuses, intents, and interpretations. One of the most famous scenes in the Faerie Queene is Redcrosse Knight’s slaying of the monster Error in the first book. In her death agony, Error spews forth all sorts of books and teachings thought to reference the error of human interpretation of spiritual doctrine:

Therewith she spewd out of her filthie maw

A floud of poyson horrible and blacke,

Full of great lumps of flesh and gobbets raw…

Her vomit full of bookes and papers was,

With loathly frogs and toades, which eyes did lacke. (Faerie Queen, I.I)

Allegory is tricky because it would seem to pinion a certain character or figure (the real) within the confines of its allegory (its symbolic meaning). Some argue that this leads to a sense of “over-determinism” in texts, especially if allegory always signifies, by nature, deeper or secondary meaning. How does one read a text without seeing the “lesson” of allegory? Can you enjoy an allegorical text as literature or do the layers of meaning clog this pleasure of reading?

The allegorical tradition takes up significant space in the history of literature, particularly in medieval Christian literature. Some iconic allegorical works from this period include William Langland’s Piers Plowman and (partially) Everyman. Although it rarely occupies the work of contemporary writers today, allegory is a lens through which classical, medieval, early modern, and Victorian readers and writers discovered and rendered complex meaning in texts.


Last but not least, paradox refers to a seemingly contradiction or absurdity of terms that is, in fact, true or intelligible.  You have most likely heard of paradox outside of your English class. It is a trope of conversation and dialogue, a rhetorical tool, and a source of humor and comedy. Yet its tradition is also hugely literary. Oscar Wilde champions the paradoxical tone in his famous “epigrams,” one-line witticisms that brilliantly unite seemingly incompatible ideas: “I love acting. It is so much more real than life;” “the way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it;” “art never expresses anything but itself.”

Paradox is distinct from oxymoron in that the latter denotes a figure of speech which similarly unites contradictory terms. Examples of oxymoron are, famously, the following from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, when Romeo describes “loving hate,” “brawling love,” “heavy lightness,” “cold fire,” and “serious vanity.”

How does paradox generate meaning? By wedding together contradictory or incompatible terms, the writer or speaker accomplishes much that metaphor might accomplish. He or she encourages a different form of thinking and analysis, a deliberate working through of apparent absurdity to an enlightened understanding. Paradox is sister to irony.

These four literary devices–paradox, allegory, metonymy, and synecdoche–are not the only gods of meaning in the world of literary tropes and tools. Yet they all emphasize my point that if literature concerns meaning, then part of intelligent, close reading involves a finding or discovery of that particular meaning. Understanding the tools by which writers encourage this process will assist you in this discovery, and make the journey all the more pleasurable.

Additional Reading:

Check out my previous posts in this series:


James, Henry. A Portrait of a Lady; Shakespeare, William. Coriolanus, Romeo and Juliet;  Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene; Wilde, Oscar; Wolf, Susan. Meaning in Life and Why It Matters. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.

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 past spring on Shakespeare and epistolary culture (“Shakespeare’s Written World: Letters in Hamlet, Antony and Cleopatra, and King Lear”). Kathleen is currently attending Boston University’s M.F.A. program in Creative Writing as a fiction writer.

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