Literary Terms and Context
Allegory—A figurative literary work that has two surfaces--the narrative on the surface where the story is told and the secondary narrative which contains the symbolic meaning. The secondary narrative is the purpose of the work. For example, Christ's parables are allegories in that the surface story is only a means for conveying the true meaning or the lesson of the parable. John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress is an allegory about the obstacles humans face in life as they seek salvation.
Allusion—In literature, it is called a literary allusion which is a figurative reference to a previous work or historical event as a comparison. Its purpose is to provide a figurative image that links the literary work to that previous work or historical event to increase the range of meaning through the context of the alluded work. For example, in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The City in the Sea,” her uses the phrase “up Babylon-like walls” to illustrate the doomed city of death.
Analogy—A literary analogy is a comparison in which the subject is compared point by point to something far different, usually with the idea of clarifying the subject by comparing it to something familiar. Analogies can provide insights and also imply that the similarities already present between the two subjects can mean even more similarities. Anne Bradstreet's "The Author to Her Book" contains an analogy that compares the book to a child.
Deism—A belief system that purports that through reason, humans can determine all knowledge that is necessary, possible, or permitted for them to know. Deists usually assert these propositions: 1) There is only one God (not a triune God); 2) God is morally and intellectually perfect; 3) God’s perfection is displayed and ordered through divine natural, moral and physical laws; 4) There are no miracles since they would violate natural order; 5) Humans’ ability to reason can determine these laws and use the laws to adapt human activity to follow God’s perfect order; 6) Such order means that humans should love and honor both God and God’s creation, including other humans; 7) The chief human end is to lead a moral life; 8) There is immortality with humans who lead a moral life being rewarded and those who do not being punished (Emerson).
Dichotomy—A division into two opposing parts, such as the dichotomy of the soul and body or the dichotomy of good and evil in humans.
Figurative language—A means of saying something other than in the literal meaning of the words. The writer uses other images, usually unusual ones, to make a comparison between between unlike things so that their similarities present a different, but revealing way, of looking at the subject. Different types of figurative language are metaphors, similes, analogies, personification, paradoxes, allusions, etc.
Humanism—A philosophy that holds that humans are basically good and therefore capable of correct thinking and moral action arrived at through their own innate abilities to reason. As a result, by using reason and the scientific method, humans can solve their own problems without the help of a deity. Humanists believe that the chief goal of humanity is “‘worldly happiness, freedom, and progress (economic, cultural, and ethical) of all humankind, irrespective of nation, race, or religion’” (Lamont 280).
Metaphor—A comparison of two unlike things, as in “My boss is a dragon.” The purpose of the metaphor is to use the qualities of the one element to illustrate the qualities in the other. For example, in the above metaphor, the boss, by being compared to a dragon, is illustrated as someone who gets angry, destroys what is in front of her or him, and even hoards treasures. When reading poetry, look for such comparisons and interpret them according to what they have to say about the subject of the poem. Metaphor are never taken literally because to take them literally would create a nonsensical image.
Metaphysical poetry—Highly intellectual poetry often focusing on a dramatic event, such as damnation, salvation, death, or love. Although such poetry can be highly emotional, it is often more argumentative in nature in that the poet is presenting through an intricate analogy two sides in the dramatic event. The analogy often arises from the poet’s ordinary life, as in Edward Taylor’s use of a spinning wheel, flowers, insects, or tailoring. As the ordinary image is worked out in descriptive terms, the human conflict is developed. For example, in Taylor’s “Huswifery,” the spinning wheel represents the human, who through God’s grace, will produce a life and works (yarn) that reflect that grace. In working out metaphysical poetry, always be aware that the poem is reflecting some important event—usually spiritual or emotional—in human life.
Point of view—The vantage point through which a story is presented by the author to the reader.
In first person point of view, the story is told in first person, with a narrator who is a character in the story. Readers can get into only the narrator's thoughts to know what she or he is thinking about the action or other characters in the story. For example, William Faulkner's "That Evening Sun" is told in first person.
In third person point of view, the narration is about the characters in the book and thus is told using third person pronouns--he, she, they, etc. However, third person point of view can have different forms.
An objective point of view presents only action and dialogue; readers do not get into the thoughts of any characters. A good example of an objective point of view is Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery."
In limited omniscient point of view, readers get into only one or two characters' thoughts. John Updike's "Separating" uses a limited omniscient point of view since readers get only into Richard's thoughts.
In omniscient point of view, readers get into several characters' thoughts, as in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.
Knowing the point of view is important since it helps determine characters' motives and also their understanding (or lack of understanding) about the action and other characters in the story.
Satire—Using writing or other forms of art to ridicule the subject of the work with the overall intention of seeking a change. Richard Green Moulton in The Modern Study of Literature appropriate said that "Satire is the comic counterpart of wisdom" (360).
Simile—Comparing two unlike things (usually nouns) by using or implying like or as. For example, Emily Dickinson uses a simile in Poem 1263 when she says, "There is no Frigate like a Book." The purpose is the same as with all tropes (see below) in that the comparison must be taken figuratively and never literally. In Dickinson's poem, she is comparing a book (the subject of a poem) to a frigate to indicate that the book, like a frigate, can carry a person away.
Tone—The writer’s emotional attitude toward the subject of her or his work. For example, John Greenleaf Whittier’s tone in “Laus Deo” is one of celebration at having the war over.
Trope—A trope is the figurative use of an expression. It can never be taken literally. For example, all metaphors are tropes, as are all similes and analogies. To take a trope literally would create a nonsensical meaning. For example, in “My cat is an Einstein,” Einstein is a metaphor and therefore a trope since no cat can literally be an Einstein.
Emerson, Roger L. “Deism.” Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Charlottesville:
U of Virginia Library, 2003. Electronic Text Center. 30 Mar. 2005 <http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/cgi-local/DHI/dhi.cgi?id=dv1-77>.
Lamont, Corliss. The Philosophy of Humanism. Rev. 8th ed. New York: Humanist P, 1997.
Moulton, Richard Green. Modern Study of Literature. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1915.
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