A Glossary of Literary Terms

Robert Harris
Version Date: February 25, 2012
 October 11, 2008

To find a particular term, use your browser's Find command. Note: Terms already in the Handbook of Rhetorical Devices have been deleted from this file.

 Adventure novel. A novel where exciting events are more important than character development and sometimes theme. Adventure novels are sometimes described as "fiction" rather than "literature" in order to distinguish books designed for mere entertainment rather than thematic importance. Examples:

Allegory. A figurative work in which a surface narrative carries a secondary, symbolic or metaphorical meaning. In The Faerie Queene, for example, Red Cross Knight is a heroic knight in the literal narrative, but also a figure representing Everyman in the Christian journey.  Many works contain allegories or are allegorical in part, but not many are entirely allegorical. Some examples of allegorical works include Apologue. A moral fable, usually featuring personified animals or inanimate objects which act like people to allow the author to comment on the human condition. Often, the apologue highlights the irrationality of mankind. The beast fable, and the fables of Aesop are examples. Some critics have called Samuel Johnson's Rasselas an apologue rather than a novel because it is more concerned with moral philosophy than with character or plot. Examples: Autobiographical novel. A novel based on the author's life experience. More common that a thoroughly autobiographical novel is the incluision of autobiographical elements among other elements. Many novelists include in their books people and events from their own lives, often slightly or even dramatically altered. Nothing beats writing from experience, because remembrance is easier than creation from scratch and all the details fit together. Examples of autobiographical novels are: 7 Speed Reading Blank Verse. Unrhymed iambic pentameter. Shakespeare's plays are largely blank verse, as are other Renaissance plays. Blank verse was the most popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England.

Here are some examples you likely won't see elsewhere:

                   At last,
The clouds consign their treasures to the fields,
And softly shaking on the dimpled pool
Prelusive drops, let all their moisture flow
In large effusion o'er the freshened world.
     --James Thomson, The Seasons, Spring, 172-176

Delightful task! to rear the tender thought,
To teach the young idea how to shoot,
To pour the fresh instruction o'er the mind,
To breathe the enlivening spirit, and to fix
The generouis purpose in the glowing breast.
     --James Thomson, The Seasons, Spring, 1152-1156

How poor, how rich, how abject, how august,
How complicate, how wonderful is man!
How passing wonder He, who made him such!
Who centred in our make such strange extremes?
. . . . . . . .
Distinguish'd link in being's endless chain!
Midway from nothing to the Deity!
     --Edward Young, Night Thoughts, Night the First, 67-70, 73-74

Burlesque. A work designed to ridicule a style, literary form, or subject matter either by treating the exalted in a trivial way or by discussing the trivial in exalted terms (that is, with mock dignity). Burlesque concentrates on derisive imitation, usually in exaggerated terms. Literary genres (like the tragic drama) can be burlesqued, as can styles of sculpture, philosophical movements, schools of art, and so forth. See Parody, Travesty.

Caesura. A pause, metrical or rhetorical, occurring somewhere in a line of poetry. The pause may or may not be typographically indicated (usually with a comma). An example from George Herbert's "Redemption":

At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth
Of theeves and murderers: there I him espied,
Who straight, Your suit is granted, said, and died.
Canon. In relation to literature, this term is half-seriously applied to those works generally accepted as the great ones. A battle is now being fought to change or throw out the canon for three reasons. First, the list of great books is thoroughly dominated by DWEM's (dead, white, European males), and the accusation is that women and minorities and non-Western cultural writers have been ignored. Second, there is pressure in the literary community to throw out all standards as the nihilism of the late 20th and early 21st century makes itself felt in the literature departments of the universities. Scholars and professors want to choose the books they like or which reflect their own ideas, without worrying about canonicity. Third, the canon has always been determined at least in part by political considerations and personal philosophical biases. Books are much more likely to be called "great" if they reflect the philosophical ideas of the critic.

On the other hand, a great case can be made for reading through the traditional canon because over many years (hundreds or thousands in some cases) some works have emerged as the best--reaching the deep truths of human nature or discussing the greatest of ideas (who we are, why we live, what our purpose here is, why we go wrong) in the most intelligent, fruitful, and thoughtful ways. The canon works raise the most interesting questions, sometimes offer answers, and often present both Q and A in a beautiful way. You could do worse than read Aristotle, or Samuel Johnson, or Charles Dickens, or Epictetus, or George Herbert.

For some sample traditional lists, see the great books lists and programs at The Center for the Study of Great Ideas, The Great Books Index, and Robert Teeter's Great Books Lists.

Children's novel. A novel written for children and discerned by one or more of these: (1) a child character or a character a child can identify with, (2) a theme or themes (often didactic) aimed at children, (3) vocabulary and sentence structure available to a young reader. Many "adult" novels, such as Gulliver's Travels, are read by children. The test is that the book be interesting to and--at some level--accessible by children. Examples:

Christian novel. A novel either explicitly or implicitly informed by Christian faith and often containing a plot revolving around the Christian life, evangelism, or conversion stories. Sometimes the plots are directly religious, and sometimes they are allegorical or symbolic. Traditionally, most Christian novels have been viewed as having less literary quality than the "great" novels of Western literature. Examples: Coming-of-age story. A type of novel where the protagonist is initiated into adulthood through knowledge, experience, or both, often by a process of disillusionment. Understanding comes after the dropping of preconceptions, a destruction of a false sense of security, or in some way the loss of innocence. Some of the shifts that take place are these: Examples: Conceit. An elaborate, usually intellectually ingenious poetic comparison or image, such as an analogy or metaphor in which, say a beloved is compared to a ship, planet, etc. The comparison may be brief or extended. See Petrarchan Conceit. (Conceit is an old word for concept.) See John Donne's "Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," for example, lines 21-32, where he compares his and his love's souls first to gold (which can be hammered to such a thinness that a small lump can cover the dome of a building) and then to a drawing compass whose foot in the center allows the other to draw a perfect circle. Romantic, isn't it:

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
    Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
    Like gold to aery thinness beat,

If they be two, they are two so
    As stiff twin compasses are two ;  
Thy soul, the fix'd foot, makes no show
    To move, but doth, if th' other do.  

And though it in the centre sit,
    Yet, when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,  
    And grows erect, as that comes home.

Detective novel. A novel focusing on the solving of a crime, often by a brilliant detective, and usually employing the elements of mystery and suspense. Examples:

Dystopian novel. An anti-utopian novel where, instead of a paradise, everything has gone wrong in the attempt to create a perfect society. See utopian novel. Examples: End-stopped. A line that has a natural pause at the end (period, comma, etc.). For example, these lines are end stopped:
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun.
Coral is far more red than her lips red. --Shakespeare
Enjambed. 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. For example, all the lines here are enjambed:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove. . . . --Shakespeare

A hint to those who read poetry aloud: Don't pause a long time at the end of a line with no punctuation. Pause for a comma, pause longer for a semicolon, longer still for a period, but at the end of an enjambed line, if you pause at all, only the hemidemisemiquaver of a pause. On the other hand, don't go out of your way to join the lines together by a forceful lack of spacing.

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Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com