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English 102: Approaches to Literature

TC3, Fall 2004, LEC 50, Tuesdays 5:00 pm - 7:45 pm, Dryden 293B
Drs. Gary and Elizabeth Gutchess, instructors

Glossary of Basic Literary Terms

Allegory: a narrative that conveys hidden meanings, especially about death and the afterlife. For example, Christians historically have read the story of the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt as an allegory of the soul's departure from the body at death.

Antagonist: The principal opponent of the protagonist in a literary work.

Audience: literally, the hearers. By extension to written texts, the readers.

Author: a person who composes a work of literature. Don't confuse the author with the narrator; the author may consider the narrator to be just another character, especially in fiction. For example, Homer (or whoever composed the Homeric songs) uses the Muse as narrator in the Iliad and Odyssey; Shakespeare uses the Chorus as narrator in Romeo and Juliet

Biographical criticism: the attempt to explain works of literature in terms of their authors' lives. For example, Shakespeare in Love is a tongue-in-cheek exercise in biographical criticism, since it attempts to explain Shakespeare's tragedy Romeo and Juliet in terms of a supposed love affair that Shakespeare had in 1593. (In fact we know that Shakespeare got the story for Romeo and Juliet from a popular novella, and there is no evidence at all that he had such an affair as this outrageous film depicts.) Biographical criticism was fashionable in the 19th and early 20th century (the golden age of psychology), but it is less influential today. 

Catharsis: the purgation of emotions through drama. Aristotle in the Poetics considered the aim of ancient tragedy to be the catharsis of pity and fear.

Characters: the persons presented in literature. "Round characters" are complex; "flat characters" are less developed, and "stock characters" are mere stereotypes.

Comedy (from Greek Comos, the name of a god of fertility): forms of literature, especially drama, that stimulate laughter, light heartedness, or a sense of well being. Ancient Greek comedy in the 5th century BCE ridiculed the un-heroic aspects of  everyday life in Athens. (For example, Aristophanes' comedy, The Clouds, satirized the philosopher Socrates as a corrupter of young people who visited the heavens in a hot air balloon and taught that Zeus did not exist.) In the Middle Ages, as in Dante's Divine Comedy, comedy was conceived as any literary work that begins in sorrow (Dante's Inferno, for example) and ends in joy (Dante's Paradiso). Both ideas of comedy--the satiric and the joyful--were prevalent in Shakespeare's time and remain today.

Conflict: the opposition that makes tension in plot. The opposition to the protagonist may come from another person (the antagonist) from the protagonist's own conflicting desires, or from outside forces such as society, fate or gods.

Criticism: the practice of interpreting or otherwise commenting on literature or art. In popular culture, critics may simply express views about their likes or dislikes, but in academic culture, criticism attempts to be objective and descriptive rather than evaluative. (But see "deconstruction.") Criticism may take a variety of forms including but not limited to allegorical interpretation, biographical criticism, genre criticism, historical criticism, myth criticism, and psychological criticism. Criticism is sometimes used to promote political or social or intellectual causes, as in feminist criticism, Marxist criticism, and Darwinian criticism.     

Darwinian criticism: the criticism of literature or art in terms of its evolutionary function, especially in sexual selection or mating display.

Deconstruction: a badly mistaken but fashionable contemporary literary theory that texts are only word games in which there is and can be no certainty of objective meaning. The theory rests on the notion that language and physical reality are radically separate because the signs (words) are distinct from the things signified. Since words do not refer to real objects but only to concepts, which are expressed by other words; signs have meaning only in terms of other signs, not necessarily in terms of any objective reality. Because of the gap between words and objective meaning, literary texts are self-contained systems that exist independently from the real world. Finding real meaning in texts, then, is impossible because interpretations are merely additional words lacking any objective reality in themselves. Critics therefore cannot develop valid interpretations of texts but can "deconstruct" them to show  their self-contradictions, inconsistencies, and ultimate lack of meaning. Spearheaded by European nihilists, deconstruction theory has been used in recent decades as an excuse to dismantle the study of traditional western literary classics from the Bible to Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, and Dickens.

Dialogue: Conversation between two or more characters in a literary work.

Drama: the enactment of a narrative or impersonation of characters by players. Some critics would restrict the term to live performances--hence excluding films. In common usage, the term "drama" is used to describe any film or televised fiction that is serious in tone (as opposed to "comedy"), but literary critics use the term without regard to tone or mood of the play.

Epic: a long narrative poem concerning heroic characters and/or gods engaged in mythic or legendary acts, especially battles and foundations of cities or cults.

Feminist criticism: the criticism of literature or art in terms of feminist concerns, such as social equality of women, reproductive rights, and domestic violence.

Fiction: (from Latin fictio, "a thing made") an account that is not fact--and usually is not presented as fact. Traditionally fiction has been associated almost exclusively with narrative, though there is no philosophical reason that it should be excluded from drama or poetry. The Greek philosopher Aristotle distinguished history from fiction by saying that the historian tells what happened, but the fiction maker tells why. Since the "why" involves causation, and causation in human affairs is often hypothetical, fiction is at best an inexact science. However, Aristotle preferred fiction to history on the ground that fiction at least attempts to answer questions of causation, and its answers sometimes appear to be probable. Hence, he thought that fiction making is a more philosophical activity than history writing. 

Fantasy: Imaginative fiction that depends on unreal settings, such as other words or times, and characters such as monsters and supernatural beings.

Flashback: A scene that interrupts present plot action to inform the reader about events that occurred in the past.

Foreshadowing: verbal or dramatic hints that suggest what will happen later in a literary work.

Genre criticism: the attempt to explain works of literature in terms of other works that appear to be similar in kind. For example, the Iliad might be studied as an epic, in comparison and contrast to other epics, such as Virgil's Aeneid, Beowulf, The Song of Roland, or Milton's Paradise Lost.

Hero: the Greek term for a deceased ancestor who is offered praises and gifts in a cult ritual. Because the first stories in western literature were stories about these cult heroes, the term "hero" in popular speech has come to be the equivalent of protagonist. In the technical language of literary criticism, however, the term hero is restricted to Greek literature and imitations. 

Historical criticism: the criticism of works of literature in terms of the historical periods in which they were produced. For example, we might attempt to describe A Midsummer Night's Dream in terms of Elizabethan wedding entertainments or courtly life.

Impersonation: embodiment. Ancient prophets impersonated the gods (that is, claim to speak the words of gods); stage actors impersonate characters.

Interpretation: see criticism.

Irony: a literary device that uses contradictory statements or situations to reveal a reality different from what appears to be true. Verbal irony occurs when a character says one thing but means the opposite. Dramatic irony occurs when a character states or believes something that the reader knows is untrue. Irony of situation occurs when what happens in reality is the opposite of what is expected or appropriate.

Literary history: the history of literature, especially the history of fiction, drama and poetry.

Literature: literally, things made of letters. Literature may be fictional (fiction, drama, poetry) or non-fictional (medical literature, political literature). 

Marxist criticism: the criticism of literature or art from the point of view of socialist or communist ideology. For example, works of Shakespeare may be interpreted in terms of the class struggle of the poor and working people against the aristocracy.

Mood: the emotion or feeling that a given work of literature evokes in its readers or audience. Examples are the pity and fear engendered by classical tragedy, or the laughter produced by classical comedy. Complex works (such as Shakespeare's plays) and long works (like Homer's epics) tend to evoke a variety of moods, since any given mood is difficult to sustain over long periods of time. 

Muses: Greek goddesses who personified all of the different kinds of music that traditionally had been played and sung in Greek, including songs that had been recited from memory long before the introduction of writing. This group included, among others, heroic poetry (personified by the Muse Calliope), history (Clio), tragedy (Melpomene), comedy (Thalia), astronomy (Urania), religious hymn (Polyhymnia), love song (Erato), dance (Terpsichore), and instrumental (Euterpe).

Myth: the Greek word for "story,"  especially a sacred story of gods or heroes or ancestors of a cult. To the believer, myth expresses a transcendental or timeless truth; to the non-believer it is only a false tale or lie.

Myth criticism: a variety of criticism of literature which points out the similarities or resemblances between works of literature and sacred myths.

Narrative: a fancy synonym for "story," words that describe a series or sequence of incidents or actions. This term may include historical and factual narratives as well as fiction

Narrator: a character who tells the story or presents the work of fiction. Don't confuse the narrator with the author; the author may consider the narrator to be just another character in the fiction. For example, Homer uses the Muse as narrator in the Iliad and Odyssey; Shakespeare uses the Chorus as narrator in Romeo and Juliet

New criticism: a movement in 20th century literary criticism that emphasized close reading of texts and attempted to analyze works without regard to external considerations, such as their authors' lives, historical periods, or genres. This movement was in reaction against widespread biographical criticism and historical criticism and Marxist criticism that had shifted attention away from the literature itself.

Plot: the sequence of incidents or actions in a literary work. Plot typically resolves a conflict. Plot patterning often includes exposition (which presents the conflict), rising action (escalating conflict), climax or reversal (the most intense conflict), falling action and resolution (end of conflict). The rising and falling action are often diagrammed as a triangle known as a Freytag pyramid, named after 19th century German critic Gustav Freytag who in pointed out the recurring pattern in dramatic tragedies. This triangle bears resemblance to the tri-partite structure of the hero story according to myth criticism (such as Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces): namely the hero's departure, initiation, and return

Poetry: (from the Greek word poiesis, meaning "making") a song or words composed in the form of verse (as opposed to ordinary speech or prose), generally conveying a heightened consciousness, heightened perception, insight or meditation. The purpose of poetry traditionally has been identified as entertainment and moral instruction, but in modern times the purposes are more often seen as self-expression, self-promotion ("I am a poet."), or word gaming in which readers puzzle out their own meanings.

Point of view: The perspective from which a work of literature is presented to its audience. In the omniscient point of view, the narrator can comment on the thoughts and feelings of all of the characters; the limited omniscient point of view is restricted to the perspective of a single character; in the first person point of view, the narrator uses the word "I" to present the point of view of that single character.

Protagonist: The main character in a literary work, the starring role. The protagonist provides a focal point through which the audience can experience the action and conflict. In criticism, the term protagonoist is preferred to the popular term "hero," since the hero has a narrow technical meaning in ancient Greek culture.  The term protagonist derives from ancient Greek theater where it referred to the actor who played the largest role.

Psychological criticism: the criticism of literature or art in terms of theories in psychology. Principal kinds historically have included Freudian criticism (using Sigmund Freud's theories) and Jungian criticism (following Carl Jung). Psychological criticism today will follow modern understanding of the brain and human physiology. The attempt to understand literature in terms of the autonomic system (our project in Lesson 1 of this course) is a form of psychological criticism.

Recognition (Greek anagnorisis): the moment at the climax in fiction or drama when the protagonist discovers the truth. This discovery may reveal the identities of characters who have been disguised (e.g., Odysseus revealing himself to the suitors), or the self-identity of the protagonist (e.g., Achilles' moment of tragic insight with King Priam).  

Setting: the location or locations where the action in literature is imagined to take place. Multiple settings are the rule in longer works. The Iliad for instance features settings in Troy, in the Achaean camp, on the battlefield, and on Mount Olympus. Settings are often symbolic (for instance, the Cyclops' cave, the dark Athenian wood).

Symbol: A person, object, image, word, or event that stands for itself and an additional, usually more than abstract, meaning than its literal meaning.

Textual criticism. The attempt to establish the most correct texts of literary works. For example, in the case of  Romeo and Juliet, a textual critic might analyze the many differences among the quarto texts of 1597 and 1599 and the Folio of 1623. 

Theater: a place set aside for the staging of drama.

Theme: the central unifying idea or concept of a literary work

Tone: the author's attitude toward the characters, theme, or audience in a literary work; the mood or atmosphere that the author's attitude creates.

Tragedy: (from Greek Comos, the name of a god of fertility): forms of literature, especially drama, that deal with unhappiness or sorrow and tend to provoke pity or tears. Ancient Greek tragedy in the 5th century BCE dramatized heroic incidents, often modeled on the Homeric songs. (For example, Aeschylus dramatized the sorrowful homecoming of Agamemnon from the Trojan War; a counterpart to Odysseus' homecoming in Homer.) In the Middle Ages, tragedy generally was conceived of as the fall of princes or rulers from political power; blame for the fall was assigned to the wheel of Fortune, or to the Devil, or to moral failings. These ancient and medieval traditions of tragedy have continued from Shakespeare's time to today.

Drs Gary & Elizabeth Gutchess