Monday, August 20, 2012

Glossary of literary terms

Foreshadowing is the technique of referring to events (and/or information) in a story before they actually happen. Foreshadowing is used to prepare the reader for events that occur later in the story.

Imagery is the use of language to represent objects, actions, feelings, thoughts, ideas and/or states of mind. Writers use images to extend our understanding of a piece of writing. By appealing to our senses through an image, an author helps us to “see” the fictional (or poetic) landscape, to “taste” the fictional roast beef, or to “smell” the poetic rose. Many images are expressed through figurative language such as metaphor or simile. Images are also found in every day conversation. For example: the expressions “it rained cats and dogs” and “war is hell” bring vivid pictures to our minds.

Literary images are often concrete (making them easy to visualize) and condensed. You’ll notice that if you try and paraphrase an image, you will end up using more words and your version will not be as effective as the original. Literary images also tend to be very precise and vivid. By combining often literally incompatible terms, (i.e. juxtaposition) authors teach us new ways of looking at objects, people, situations, feelings, etc.

This excerpt from The Art of fiction describes a game that uses imagery as a way of describing people:

We frequently learn about fictional characters as we identify people in the game called Smoke, or sometimes called Essences. In this game the player who is it thinks of someone famous personage living or dead, such as Conrad Black, Tony Blair, Margaret Laurence, or Alice Cooper, then tells the other players, “I am a dead Canadian,” “I am a living American” or whatever. The players try to guess the name of the personage by asking such questions as “What kind of weather are you?” “What kind of animal are you?” “What part of the human anatomy?” And so on. The player who is it answers not in term of weather he/she might have preferred, etc., but what the person would be if he were incarnated not as a human being but a certain kind of weather – sunny, overcast, raining, blizzard, etc.

As they ask their questions, the players develop a powerful sense of the personality they’re seeking and when finally on the basis of the information they’ve been given, someone makes the right guess, the result is one of immense relief.

Obviously the game cannot be played with the intellect; it depends on metaphoric intuition. Yet anyone who plays the game with good players will discover that the metaphors that describes the person who name is being sought have...a remarkable precision.

Irony first appeared in Plato’s Republic (4th c. B.C.) where it has the meaning of “a glib and underhanded way of taking people in.” There are two basic kinds of irony: verbal irony and irony of the situation. At its simplest: one person saying to another: “I haven’t seen you in ages,” when in fact they meet every day. Situational irony occurs when, for example, a character laughs uproariously at the misfortune of another, while unknown to the first character, the same misfortune is happening to him/her. Some critics have stated that true irony begins with the contemplation of the fate of the world. Further developed, irony may be seen as a way of viewing our existence. For many authors, their use of irony springs from their perception of the absurdity of life.

Symbols are objects, animate or inanimate, used by an author to “stand for” or represent something else. Often symbols are used to express an emotion or an abstract idea. We live in a very symbolic world: the scales for justice, the Cross for Christianity; and the swastika for Nazi Germany are just a few of the easily recognisable symbols. Actions and gestures may also be symbolic: arms raised signify surrender; moving the head up and down means yes; moving the head sideways means no.

English literature is full of symbols. For example, the blood in Macbeth symbolizes guilt and violence; the shooting of the albatross in Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner symbolizes people’s sins and their lack of respect for life and proper humility towards all living things. Melville’s whale in Moby Dick is probably the most discussed symbol in Western literature.

Modernism & post modernism
Characterized by a breaking away from the established rules and conventions, modernism is a term used to describe art that sought to break with the dominant and dominating artistic conventions – primarily realism – of 19th century culture. It includes many experiments in form and style. Some examples of modernism include the Beat Poets, existentialism, imagist writing, theatre of the absurd, and stream of consciousness.

Perhaps the best description of the modernist approach to language is found in this excerpt from Burnt Norton by T. S. Eliot.
.........Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with impression, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.......

Post modernism
The term post modernism is used in three different ways:
  1. to describe the non-realist and non-traditional literature and art produced since the end of World War II
  2. to describe literature and art which take modernist techniques to the extreme
  3. to describe the more general human condition of the ‘late capitalist’ world.
As a way of looking at the world, post modernism is generally more positive about the modern world than modernism. Post modernism accepts the changes that have (are) occurring in our world and suggests a celebration of the past. Many post modernists are fascinated with technology and do not reject the “popular” as being beneath them.

Naturalism and realism
Naturalism is sometimes used as a synonym for realism, but it is in fact, different. It is also sometimes used to refer to literary works that display a pronounced interest in, sympathy with, and love of natural beauty. Strictly speaking, it should be used for works of literature that convey a belief that everything exists as part of nature and can be explained by natural and material causes, and not by spiritual or supernatural causes.

In literature, naturalism developed out of realism. Major influences included Darwin’s biological theories. This literature focuses on the character’s social environment, its deficiencies and the character’s shortcomings. Emile Zola’s novel, Therese Raquin (1868), is one of the best examples of this literary style. Zola’s influence can be seen in such authors as Theodore Dreiser and Stephen Crane as well as in the dramas of Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov.

Realism in literature refers to the author portraying life with fidelity. This type of literature shows life as it seems to the “common reader”, making him/her think that such characters might in fact exist and that such events might well happen. Realism in literature came about partly as a reaction to the Romantic movement.

Magic realism
The term magic realism was first applied to painting. In this art the world is depicted in a heightened, more vivid, yet still realistic fashion. In writing, the author interweaves fantastic and dream-like elements into the story. Magic realism may also include experiments with form, style and the temporal sequences of a story. The Canadian short story writer, Alice Munro, uses magic realism in many of her stories. Some of the techniques she uses to achieve magic realism include irony, paradox and understatement. Other authors who have written in this style include Fowles, Grass and Borges.

Romanticism is a very elastic term applied in many ways. In English Literature it is best represented by the Romantic Poets (e.g. Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley) who presented an idealized view of people, nature and their place in the world. Today we label a writer’s style as romantic if the work presents a more picturesque, fantastic, adventurous or heroic view of the characters or their environments. Romanticism presents the world as the author would like it to be.

Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of literary terms. 6th edition. Toronto: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1993.
Barnet, Sylvan. A Short guide to writing about literature. Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1985.
Cuddon, J. A. A Dictionary of concise literary terms. London: Penguin Books, 1979.
Hawthorn, Jeremy. A Concise glossary of contemporary literary theory. London: Hodder & Stroughton, 1992.

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