When considering literature, the first and most important considerations are your own initial responses to the ideas and emotions expressed. You should aim to gain an overall impression of the piece, and note what is most immediately striking or apparent. You should then re-read the text and ensure you understand and are familiar with the topic, subject, narrative etc. of the work (i.e. 'what happens').
Once you have registered your initial response, you need to consider the writer's themes and messages, and how these are conveyed to the reader. In order to do this you need to consider techniques and devices.
Technical Terms and Devices
The following is by no means an exhaustive list, but most of the terms which follow are general enough to be applied to a range of texts, not just drama, poetry or prose.
Structure and Form
Ask yourself - what 'variety' of poem is this? Within this, consider:
- formal poetic rhythm dependent on the number and length of feet in a line.
single unit of stressed and unstressed syllables which repeats to give poetic metre.
Rhyme scheme -
the pattern of rhyming sounds at the ends of lines of poetry, described by assigning each sound a letter and showing the pattern of matching and differing sounds
- (e.g. abab or abba etc.)
- A poem of four lines or verses.
- Sonnet -
- A 14-line poem in iambic pentameter (often with the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg).
- Blank verse -
- Lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter.
- Rhyming couplet -
- pair of adjacent lines which rhyme with each other.
- Caesura -
- A pause, metrical or rhetorical, occurring somewhere in a line of poetry. More specifically, a break or pause between words within a metrical foot.
- Dramatic monologue -
- A poem written as if it were the speech of a single character to an audience, usually intended to provide a narrative and a sense of the speaker's psychological state.
- Lyric Poetry -
- Poetry which expresses intense personal emotion in few words and in a manner suggestive of song. Lyric poetry verbalizes the thoughts and feelings of the poet.
- Ballad -
- a narrative poem composed of short stanzas, intended to be sung or recited.
- Narrative poem -
- a poem, usually long, that tells a story.
- Pastoral -
- Poetry dealing with idealized, rural life.
- Allegory -
- A metaphorical narrative in prose or verse in which characters and parts of the narrative usually represent moral or spiritual values.
- Point of view -
- The perspective from which a story is told. A story may be told in first or third person. If the story is told by an "I," this is the voice of the first-person narrator.
- The first-person narrator may be an observer or a participant. The first-person observer is not involved in the story's events, but the first-person participant is involved in
- the story he or she tells, and may be the major character. You will recognize the presence of a third-person narrator by the use of these pronouns: she, he, it, they.
- Third-person narrators are classified by the amount of information they possess regarding characters' inner thoughts. Third-person omniscient (omni = all, science =
- knowing) narrators describe not only the action and dialogue, but also what the characters think. Third-person limited omniscient narrators have access to the thoughts
- of only one character. Third-person objective narrators relate actions and quotations but they do not describe what any of the characters think, nor do they make
- comments about the action.
Background and Context
The Time a text was written informs its outlook and attitudes to subject matter, so it is important that we, as students of literature, are aware of the historical, political, social and cultural contexts of texts. Useful information will include contemporary political and social changes, prevalent academic, philosophical, moral and religious views, and the life and ideas of the writer. A useful term here is ideology.
Ideology refers to the conscious or unconscious beliefs, habits, and social practices of a particular society. These beliefs often seem true, correct, and universal to members of that society when, in fact, they are relative and specific to that society. Ideology pervades every aspect of our lives from our table manners to our politics; it is reflected in the clothes we wear just as much as in our religious and educational practices. Within any society, ideologies are continually at odds or in conflict; however, certain ideologies are always dominant.
You should ask yourself how the writer feels about his.her subject matter; how others in his/her society felt about the same issues; how you feel about them and how the important issues of the day are reflected or discussed by the action and themes of the text.(NB - Theme = the specific and central idea or ideas that a literary work explores. Especially effective literary works often contain more than one theme.)
- Pararhyme (also half-rhyme) -
- words in which the final syllables are identical in all but the vowel sound.
- Cadence -
- Natural, 'lilting' rhythm in language (also used to describe intonation of speech).
- Cacophony -
- harsh joining of sounds. (e.g. "We want no parlay with you and your grisly gang who work your wicked will". W. Churchill) In Literature, diction is used to mean word choice, type of words, 'style' and level of language (formal, informal, neutral etc.)
- Semantic field
- Denotation -
- The dictionary meaning of a word; its explicit literal meaning.
- Connotation -
- The emotional, psychological, or social overtones or implications that words carry in addition to their denotative meaning.
- Pleonasm -
- use of superfluous or redundant words, often enriching the thought. (e.g. "No one, rich or poor, will be excepted.")
- Imagery -
- In poetry, an image is a word or sequence of words that refers to any of the five senses. Often the experience is a sight (visual image), but it may also be a sound (auditory image), a touch (tactile image), a taste (gustatory image), or a smell (olfactory image).
- Tone -
- The methods writers use to convey and control the attitude toward the subject itself, or about the audience. A written work's tone is akin to tone of voice. When someone speaks, you can tell by the tone of voice whether that person is happy, sad, angry. In literature, the choice of words, their denotative and connotative meaning and the images they conjure up create tone.
- Irony -
- words in which the intended meaning is the opposite of the literal (denotative) one.
- Climax -
- arrangement of words, phrases, or clauses in an order of ascending power.
- Archaism -
- use of an older or obsolete form.
- Cliché, idiom and figures of speech
- Dialect words
- Stylistic Devices
- Bathos -
- anticlimax for humorous effect.
- Hyperbole -
- exaggeration for emphasis or for rhetorical effect.
- Litotes -
- understatement, for intensification, by denying the contrary of the thing being affirmed. (e.g. "A few unannounced quizzes are not inconceivable.")
- Oxymoron -
- apparent paradox achieved by the juxtaposition of words which seem to contradict one another. (e.g. "I must be cruel only to be kind." Shakespeare, 'Hamlet')
- Analogy -
- The comparison of two things, which are alike in several respects, for the purpose of explaining or clarifying some unfamiliar or difficult idea or object by showing how the idea or object is similar to some familiar one.
- Apostrophe -
- A figure of speech in which an absent character, personified force, or object is addressed directly as if it were present and could understand. (e.g. "O Rose, thou art sick!")
- Sentimentality -
- A term use to describe a writer's effort to induce more extreme emotional responses in readers than the story situation warrants, exploiting our capacity to feel tenderness, compassion, or sympathy. Sentimental writing cons readers into feeling sympathy for the "bad guy" when we shouldn't like him at all, or shedding tears for a poor unhappy lover who perhaps suffers, but doesn't deserve so much emotion from us.
Plot or Development of Ideas
- Character -
- The representation of a human being in narrative fiction, poetry or drama. E. M. Forster's distinction between round and flat characters are still useful. Round characters
- are major figures; they have numerous realistic traits and are relatively fully developed. Round characters are often considered dynamic since they have the capacity to
- change or act unpredictably. Even a one-time, out-of-character action indicates the dynamic nature of a round character. Flat characters are indistinguishable from their
- group or class. They are usually minor figures, though not all minor characters are flat. Since flat characters are not central to the plot, they do not need to change,
- mature: they are usually static.
- Protagonist -
- The major character in a work.
- Antagonist -
- The character, characters, circumstances or things opposing the protagonist.
- Foil -
- A type of character who sets off or highlights aspects of the protagonist.
- Direct speech -
- Character speech quoted directly, often in speech marks.
- Indirect speech -
- Character speech reported by another character, not using speech marks, often in the form of "X said that..."
- Climax -
- The high point in an action. The point where the conflict and resulting tension out to the fullest extent. The turning point of a work that determines the outcome.
- Rising action -
- The action in a work before the climax.
- Falling action -
- The action in a work after the climax.
- Resolution -
- The last stage of plot development in which conflicts may be resolved and problems are solved. If conflicts are resolved and problems solved, then we can say the narrative has closure or has a conclusion. If conflicts and problems are not resolved, or solutions are ambiguous, then the narrative does not conclude and does not have closure.
- Foreshadowing -
- Events or scenes early in a story which hint at something which occurs later in the story.
- Epiphany -
- Some moment of insight, discovery, or revelation by which a character's life of view of life is greatly altered.
Rhetorical and Grammatical Features
- Sentence length
- Word length -
- use of monosyllabic, disyllabic and polysyllabic words.
- Sentence types -
- statements, questions, orders, exclamations.
- Rhetorical questions
- Parallel construction -
- the repetition of phrase or clause structure.
- End-stopped -
- A line that has a natural pause at the end (full-stop, comma, etc.).
- The running over of a sentence or thought into the next couplet or line without a pause at the end of the line; a run-on line.
- Anastrophe -
- transposition of normal word order. (e.g. "The helmsman steered; the ship moved on; yet never a breeze up blew." Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
- Antistrophe -
- repetition of the same word or phrase at the end of successive clauses. (e.g. "In 1931, ten years ago, Japan invaded Manchukuo -- without warning. In 1935, Italy
- invaded Ethiopia -- without warning. In 1938, Hitler occupied Austria -- without warning. In 1939, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia -- without warning. Later in 1939,
- Hitler invaded Poland -- without warning. And now Japan has attacked Malaya and Thailand -- and the United States --without warning." Franklin D. Roosevelt)
- Antithesis -
- opposition, or contrast of ideas or words in a balanced or parallel construction. (e.g. "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice, moderation in the pursuit of justice is
- no virtue.")
- Chiasmus -
- two corresponding pairs arranged not in parallels (a-b-a-b) but in inverted order (a-b-b-a); from shape of the Greek letter chi (X). (e.g. "Those gallant men will remain often
- in my thoughts and in my prayers always.")
- Zeugma -
- two different words linked to a verb or an adjective which is strictly appropriate to only one of them. (e.g. "Nor Mars his sword, nor war's quick fire shall burn / The living
- record of your memory.")