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Literary Terminology for AP English Literature

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Apr 25, 2014

Literary analysis assumes the working knowledge of a common vocabulary.

The Kaleidoscope of Literary Meaning

Literary meaning is developed and revealed through various devices and techniques. What follows is a brief listing of those terms and devices most often used in prose, poetry, and drama.

  • Allusion: An allusion is a reference to another work, concept, or situation which generally enhances the meaning of the work that is citing it. There are many types of allusions, and they may be implicit or explicit, highly limited, or broadly developed. Often, modern readers may miss the context of a particular reference because they have a limited frame of reference. A few common categories of allusion follow:
    • Mythological allusions: These often cite specific characters. Common allusions might refer to the beauty of Aphrodite or the power of Zeus. "She followed like Niobe, all tears" (Hamlet). Sometimes the entire work may refer to a mythological event. The play Desire Under the Elms is a sustained allusion to the Phaedra legend, as well as the Oedipal myth.
    • Biblical allusions: These references may deal with circumstances as familiar as "the mark of Cain," "the fall from paradise," "the tribulations of Job," or "destruction by flood or fire." A character may have the "strength of Samson" or the "loyalty of Ruth."
    • Historical allusions: These kinds of allusions might refer to major historical events, such as Napoleon meeting his Waterloo or Nixon dealing with Watergate.
    • Literary allusions: Often works will refer to other well-known pieces. For example, West Side Story expects you to think of Romeo and Juliet. To describe a character as "quixotic" refers to Cervantes's great novel Don Quixote.
    • Political allusions: These references would be sustained in works like Gulliver's Travels or Alice in Wonderland. They might also be used briefly. If a character were called the next Julius Caesar, we might sense that he would be betrayed in some manner. The Crucible is a historical allusion to the Salem witch trials and is also a statement about McCarthyism in the 1950s.
    • Contemporary allusions: These are often lost when the current context is no longer in the public eye. For example, "valley girls" or "Beavis and Butthead" may not remain in vogue, and, therefore, references to them would lose their effectiveness.
  • Ambiguity: This is the seemingly incongruous and contradictory interpretations of meaning in a work. James Joyce and William Faulkner utilize ambiguity often in their writing.
  • Allegory: A work that operates on another level. The characters and events may be interpreted for both literal and symbolic meaning. For example, Of Mice and Men by Steinbeck is an indictment of the exploitation of the masses and a call to unionism as well as a story of doomed friendship. Other allegorical works include The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway, Animal Farm by Orwell, Candide by Voltaire, and Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan.
  • Parable: A parable is an allegorical story that is intended to teach. It generally provides a moral lesson or illustrates a guiding principle. "The Nun's Tale" in The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer is a parable about vanity and pride.
  • Symbol: This is an image that also represents something else. Some symbols appear to be extremely specific. In Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter the scarlet letter is a symbol of Hester's impropriety. It can also represent Hester's pride, talent, responsibility, and shame. The reader should always be open to the broadest interpretation of the concept of symbol, whether about character, setting, situation, detail, or whatever. Another example of symbol is the splitting of the chestnut tree in Jane Eyre. Here Bronte symbolizes the breach in the relationship between Jane and Rochester. The white hat in The Secret Sharer by Conrad is a symbol of man's compassion and pity for his own kind.
  • Connotation: This is the implication that is suggested by a word or phrase rather than the word or phrase's actual, literal meaning. For example, the use of "antique land" instead of "ancient land" brings a richer connotation to Shelley's "Ozymandias." The reader must be especially open to the varied levels of meaning in poetry.
  • Denotation: The literal meaning of a word or phrase. If a reader is attempting to present a valid interpretation of a literary work, he or she must pay attention to both the denotation and the connotation of the language.
  • Tone: Tone is difficult to define but is relatively easy to assess. It is a subtle feeling that the author creates through diction. The following is a short list of words often used to describe tone. Notice that they are adjectives.
      • bitter
      • sarcastic
      • ironic
      • mocking
      • scornful
      • satiric
      • vituperative
      • scathing
      • confidential
      • factual
      • informal
      • facetious
      • critical
      • objective
      • naive
      • joyous
      • spiritual
      • wistful
      • nostalgic
      • humorous
      • mock-serious
      • pedantic
      • didactic
      • inspiring
      • remorseful
      • disdainful
      • laudatory
      • idyllic
      • compassionate
      • reverent
      • lugubrious
      • elegiac
      • gothic
      • macabre
      • reflective
      • maudlin
      • sentimental
      • patriotic
      • jingoistic
      • detached
  • Transition: Do not be fooled into thinking that "transition" is an unimportant term. An author will give you a road map through his or her story's journey, and one of the best indicators of direction is the transition word or phrase. Transitions help to move the reader smoothly from one part of the text to another. Below is a list of the most effective commonly used transitions:
      • and
      • but
      • for
      • nor
      • or
      • so
      • yet
      • also
      • besides
      • consequently
      • furthermore
      • however
      • likewise
      • moreover
      • nonetheless
      • similarly
      • still
      • therefore
      • as a result
      • for example
      • in addition
      • in the same way
      • on the contrary
      • on the other hand
      • otherwise
      • unlike the former
      • after
      • although
      • because
      • once
      • since
      • unless
      • until
      • while
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