Glossary of Literary Terms

This page will include the most important literary terms you need to understand in the short story course.
The source is mainly “Glossary of Literary Terms” 7th edition by the contemporary American Critic M. H. Abrams
NOTE: all terms are important but the ones in red are more important.

allegory: A story in which people, things, and events have another meaning.  Examples of allegory are Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress‘, Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queene’, and Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm‘.

ambiguity: Multiple meanings a literary work may communicate, especially two

meanings that are incompatible.

*apostrophe: Direct address, usually to someone or something that is not present.

Keats’s “Bright star! Would I were steadfast” is an apostrophe to a star, and “To Autumn” is an apostrophe to a personified season.

*connotation: The implications of a word or phrase, as opposed to its exact meaning (denotation). Both China and Cathay denote a region in Asia, but to a modern reader,  the associations of the two words are different.

*convention: A device of style or subject matter so often used that it becomes a recognized means of expression. For example, a lover observing the literary love conventions cannot eat or sleep and grows pale and lean. Romeo, at the beginning of the play is a conventional lover, while an overweight lover in Chaucer is consciously mocking the convention.

*denotation: The dictionary meaning of a word, as opposed to connotation.

didactic: Explicitly instructive. A didactic poem or novel may be good or bad. Pope’s

“Essay on Man” is didactic; so are the novels of Ayn Rand.

digression: The use of material unrelated to the subject of a work. The interpolated narrations in the novels of Cervantes or Fielding may be called digressions, and Tristram Shandy includes a digression on digressions.

euphemism: A figure of speech using indirection to avoid offensive bluntness, such as “deceased” for “dead” or “remains” for “corpse.”

*hyperbole: Deliberate exaggeration, overstatement. As a rule, hyperbole is selfconscious, without the intention of being accepted literally. “The strongest man in the world” and “a diamond as big as the Ritz” are hyperbolic.

*literal: Not figurative; accurate to the letter; matter of fact or concrete.

parable: A story designed to suggest a principle, illustrate a moral, or answer a question. Parables are allegorical stories.

*paradox: A statement that seems to be self-contradicting but, in fact, is true. The

figure in Donne’s holy sonnet that concludes I never shall be “chaste except you ravish me” is a good example of the device.

parody: A composition that imitates the style of another composition normally for

comic effect. Fielding’s Shamela is a parody of Richardson’s Pamela. A contest for parodies of Hemingway draws hundreds of entries each year.

*personification: A figurative use of language that endows the nonhuman (ideas,

inanimate objects, animals, abstractions) with human characteristics. Keats personifies the nightingale, the Grecian urn, and autumn in his major poems.

*reliability: A quality of some fictional narrators whose word the reader can trust. There are both reliable and unreliable narrators, that is, tellers of a story who should or should not be trusted. Most narrators are reliable (Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway, Conrad’s Marlow), but some are clearly not to be trusted (Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart,” several novels by Nabokov). And there are some about whom readers have been unable to decide (James’s governess in The Turn of the Screw, Ford’s The Good Soldier).

*rhetorical question: A question asked for effect, not in expectation of a reply. No reply is expected because the question presupposes only one possible answer. The lover of Suckling’s “Shall I wasting in despair / Die because a lady’s fair?” has already decided the answer is no.

*stereotype: A conventional pattern, expression, character, or idea. In literature, a

stereotype could apply to the unvarying plot and characters of some works of fiction

(those of Barbara Cartland, for example) or to the stock characters and plots of many of the greatest stage comedies.

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