Copyright © 2007 by Jay Braiman
Literary devices refers to specific aspects of literature, in the sense of its universal function as an art form which expresses ideas through language, which we can recognize, identify, interpret and/or analyze. Literary devices collectively comprise the art form’s components; the means by which authors create meaning through language, and by which readers gain understanding of and appreciation for their works. They also provide a conceptual framework for comparing individual literary works to others, both within and across genres. Both literary elements and literary techniques can rightly be called literary devices.
Literary elements refers to particular identifiable characteristics of a whole text. They are not “used,” per se, by authors; they represent the elements of storytelling which are common to all literary and narrative forms. For example, every story has a theme, every story has a setting, every story has a conflict, every story is written from a particular point-of-view, etc. In order to be discussed legitimately as part of a textual analysis, literary elements must be specifically identified for that particular text.
Literary techniques refers to any specific, deliberate constructions or choices of language which an author uses to convey meaning in a particular way. An author’s use of a literary technique usually occurs with a single word or phrase, or a particular group of words or phrases, at one single point in a text. Unlike literary elements, literary techniques are not necessarily present in every text; they represent deliberate, conscious choices by individual authors.
“Literary terms” refers to the words themselves with which we identify and designate literary elements and techniques. They are not found in literature and they are not “used” by authors.
Allegory: Where every aspect of a story is representative, usually symbolic, of something else, usually a larger abstract concept or important historical/geopolitical event.
Lord of the Flies provides a compelling allegory of human nature, illustrating the three sides of the psyche through its sharply-defined main characters.
Alliteration: The repetition of consonant sounds within close proximity, usually in consecutive words within the same sentence or line.
Antagonist: Counterpart to the main character and source of a story’s main conflict. The person may not be “bad” or “evil” by any conventional moral standard, but he/she opposes the protagonist in a significant way. (Although it is technically a literary element, the term is only useful for identification, as part of a discussion or analysis of character; it cannot generally be analyzed by itself.)
Anthropomorphism: Where animals or inanimate objects are portrayed in a story as people, such as by walking, talking, or being given arms, legs, facial features, human locomotion or other anthropoid form. (This technique is often incorrectly called personification.)
The King and Queen of Hearts and their playing-card courtiers comprise only one example of Carroll’s extensive use of anthropomorphism in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Blank verse: Non-rhyming poetry, usually written in iambic pentameter.
Most of Shakespeare’s dialogue is written in blank verse, though it does occasionally rhyme.
Character: The people who inhabit and take part in a story. When discussing character, as distinct from characterization, look to the essential function of the character, or of all the characters as a group, in the story as a whole.
Rather than focus on one particular character, Lord assembles a series of brief vignettes and anecdotes involving multiple characters, in order to give the reader the broadest possible spectrum of human behavior.
Golding uses his main characters to represent the different parts of the human psyche, to illustrate mankind’s internal struggle between desire, intellect, and conscience.
Characterization: The author’s means of conveying to the reader a character’s personality, life history, values, physical attributes, etc. Also refers directly to a description thereof.
Atticus is characterized as an almost impossibly virtuous man, always doing what is right and imparting impeccable moral values to his children.
Climax: The turning point in a story, at which the end result becomes inevitable, usually where something suddenly goes terribly wrong; the “dramatic high point” of a story. (Although it is technically a literary element, the term is only useful for identification, as part of a discussion or analysis of structure; it cannot generally be analyzed by itself.)
The story reaches its climax in Act III, when Mercutio and Tybalt are killed and Romeo is banished from Verona.
Conflict: A struggle between opposing forces which is the driving force of a story. The outcome of any story provides a resolution of the conflict(s); this is what keeps the reader reading. Conflicts can exist between individual characters, between groups of characters, between a character and society, etc., and can also be purely abstract (i.e., conflicting ideas).
The conflict between the Montagues and Capulets causes Romeo and Juliet to behave irrationally once they fall in love.
Jack’s priorities are in conflict with those of Ralph and Piggy, which causes him to break away from the group.
Man-versus-nature is an important conflict in The Old Man and the Sea.
Context: Conditions, including facts, social/historical background, time and place, etc., surrounding a given situation.
Madame Defarge’s actions seem almost reasonable in the context of the Revolution.
Creative license: Exaggeration or alteration of objective facts or reality, for the purpose of enhancing meaning in a fictional context.
Orwell took some creative license with the historical events of the Russian Revolution, in order to clarify the ideological conflicts.
Dialogue: Where characters speak to one another; may often be used to substitute for exposition.
Since there is so little stage direction in Shakespeare, many of the characters’ thoughts and actions are revealed through dialogue.
Dramatic irony: Where the audience or reader is aware of something important, of which the characters in the story are not aware.
Macbeth responds with disbelief when the weird sisters call him Thane of Cawdor; ironically, unbeknownst to him, he had been granted that title by king Duncan in the previous scene.
Exposition: Where an author interrupts a story in order to explain something, usually to provide important background information.
The first chapter consists mostly of exposition, running down the family’s history and describing their living conditions.
Figurative language: Any use of language where the intended meaning differs from the actual literal meaning of the words themselves. There are many techniques which can rightly be called figurative language, including metaphor, simile, hyperbole, personification, onomatopoeia, verbal irony, and oxymoron. (Related: figure of speech)
The poet makes extensive use of figurative language, presenting the speaker’s feelings as colors, sounds and flavors.
Foil: A character who is meant to represent characteristics, values, ideas, etc. which are directly and diametrically opposed to those of another character, usually the protagonist. (Although it is technically a literary element, the term is only useful for identification, as part of a discussion or analysis of character; it cannot generally be analyzed by itself.)
The noble, virtuous father Macduff provides an ideal foil for the villainous, childless Macbeth.
Foreshadowing: Where future events in a story, or perhaps the outcome, are suggested by the author before they happen. Foreshadowing can take many forms and be accomplished in many ways, with varying degrees of subtlety. However, if the outcome is deliberately and explicitly revealed early in a story (such as by the use of a narrator or flashback structure), such information does not constitute foreshadowing.
Willy’s concern for his car foreshadows his eventual means of suicide.
Hyperbole: A description which exaggerates, usually employing extremes and/or superlatives to convey a positive or negative attribute; “hype.”
The author uses hyperbole to describe Mr. Smith, calling him “the greatest human being ever to walk the earth.”
Iambic pentameter: A poetic meter wherein each line contains ten syllables, as five repetitions of a two-syllable pattern in which the pronunciation emphasis is on the second syllable.
Shakespeare wrote most of his dialogue in iambic pentameter, often having to adjust the order and nature of words to fit the syllable pattern, thus endowing the language with even greater meaning.
Imagery: Language which describes something in detail, using words to substitute for and create sensory stimulation, including visual imagery and sound imagery. Also refers to specific and recurring types of images, such as food imagery and nature imagery. (Not all descriptions can rightly be called imagery; the key is the appeal to and stimulation of specific senses, usually visual. It is often advisable to specify the type of imagery being used, and consider the significance of the images themselves, to distinguish imagery from mere description.)
The author’s use of visual imagery is impressive; the reader is able to see the island in all its lush, colorful splendor by reading Golding’s detailed descriptions.
Irony (a.k.a. Situational irony): Where an event occurs which is unexpected, in the sense that it is somehow in absurd or mocking opposition to what would be expected or appropriate. Mere coincidence is generally not ironic; neither is mere surprise, nor are any random or arbitrary occurrences. (Note: Most of the situations in the Alanis Morissette song are not ironic at all, which may actually make the song ironic in itself.) See also Dramatic irony; Verbal irony.
Jem and Scout are saved by Boo Radley, who had ironically been an object of fear and suspicion to them at the beginning of the novel.
Metaphor: A direct relationship where one thing or idea substitutes for another.
Shakespeare often uses light as a metaphor for Juliet; Romeo refers to her as the sun, as “a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear,” and as a solitary dove among crows.
Mood: The atmosphere or emotional condition created by the piece, within the setting. Mood refers to the general sense or feeling which the reader is supposed to get from the text; it does not, as a literary element, refer to the author’s or characters’ state of mind. (Note that mood is a literary element, not a technique; the mood must therefore be described or identified. It would be incorrect to simply state, “The author uses mood.”)
The mood of Macbeth is dark, murky and mysterious, creating a sense of fear and uncertainty.
Motif: A recurring important idea or image. A motif differs from a theme in that it can be expressed as a single word or fragmentary phrase, while a theme usually must be expressed as a complete sentence.
Blood is an important motif in A Tale of Two Cities, appearing numerous times throughout the novel.
Onomatopoeia: Where sounds are spelled out as words; or, when words describing sounds actually sound like the sounds they describe.
Remarque uses onomatopoeia to suggest the dying soldier’s agony, his last gasp described as a “gurgling rattle.”
Oxymoron: A contradiction in terms.
Romeo describes love using several oxymorons, such as “cold fire,” “feather of lead” and “sick health,” to suggest its contradictory nature.
Paradox: Where a situation is created which cannot possibly exist, because different elements of it cancel each other out.
In 1984, “doublethink” refers to the paradox where history is changed, and then claimed to have never been changed.
A Tale of Two Cities opens with the famous paradox, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
Parallelism: Use of similar or identical language, structures, events or ideas in different parts of a text.
Hobbs’ final strikeout parallels the Whammer’s striking out against him at the beginning of the novel.
Personification (I) Where inanimate objects or abstract concepts are seemingly endowed with human self-awareness; where human thoughts, actions, perceptions and emotions are directly attributed to inanimate objects or abstract ideas. (Not to be confused with anthropomorphism.)
Malamud personifies Hobbs’ bat, giving it a name, Wonderboy, and referring to it using personal pronouns; for example, “he went hungry” during Hobbs’ batting slump.
Personification (II) Where an abstract concept, such as a particular human behavior or a force of nature, is represented as a person.
The Greeks personified natural forces as gods; for example, the god Poseidon was the personification of the sea and its power over man.
Plot: Sequence of events in a story. Most literary essay tasks will instruct the writer to “avoid plot summary;” the term is therefore rarely useful for response or critical analysis. When discussing plot, it is generally more useful to consider and analyze its structure, rather than simply recapitulate “what happens.”
Point-of-view: The identity of the narrative voice; the person or entity through whom the reader experiences the story. May be third-person (no narrator; abstract narrative voice, omniscient or limited) or first-person (narrated by a character in the story or a direct observer). Point-of-view is a commonly misused term; it does not refer to the author’s or characters’ feelings, opinions, perspectives, biases, etc.
Though it is written in third-person, Animal Farm is told from the limited point-of-view of the common animals, unaware of what is really happening as the pigs gradually and secretively take over the farm.
Writing the story in first-person point-of-view enables the reader to experience the soldier’s fear and uncertainty, limiting the narrative to what only he saw, thought and felt during the battle.
Protagonist: The main character in a story, the one with whom the reader is meant to identify. The person is not necessarily “good” by any conventional moral standard, but he/she is the person in whose plight the reader is most invested. (Although it is technically a literary element, the term is only useful for identification, as part of a discussion or analysis of character; it cannot generally be analyzed by itself.)
Repetition: Where a specific word, phrase, or structure is repeated several times, usually in close proximity, to emphasize a particular idea.
The repetition of the words “What if…” at the beginning of each line reinforces the speaker’s confusion and fear.
Setting: The time and place where a story occurs. The setting can be specific (e.g., New York City in 1930) or ambiguous (e.g., a large urban city during economic hard times). Also refers directly to a description thereof. When discussing or analyzing setting, it is generally insufficient to merely identify the time and place; an analysis of setting should include a discussion of its overall impact on the story and characters.
The novel is set in the South during the racially turbulent 1930’s, when blacks were treated unfairly by the courts.
With the island, Golding creates a pristine, isolated and uncorrupted setting, in order to show that the boys’ actions result from their own essential nature rather than their environment.
Simile: An indirect relationship where one thing or idea is described as being similar to another. Similes usually contain the words “like” or “as,” but not always.
The simile in line 10 describes the lunar eclipse: “The moon appeared crimson, like a drop of blood hanging in the sky.”
The character’s gait is described in the simile: “She hunched and struggled her way down the path, the way an old beggar woman might wander about.”
Speaker: The “voice” of a poem; not to be confused with the poet him/herself. Analogous to the narrator in prose fiction.
Structure: The manner in which the various elements of a story are assembled.
The individual tales are told within the structure of the larger framing story, where the 29 travelers gather at the Inn at Southwark on their journey to Canterbury, telling stories to pass the time.
The play follows the traditional Shakespearean five-act plot structure, with exposition in Act I, development in Act II, the climax or turning point in Act III, falling action in Act IV, and resolution in Act V.
Symbolism: The use of specific objects or images to represent abstract ideas. This term is commonly misused, describing any and all representational relationships, which in fact are more often metaphorical than symbolic. A symbol must be something tangible or visible, while the idea it symbolizes must be something abstract or universal. (In other words, a symbol must be something you can hold in your hand or draw a picture of, while the idea it symbolizes must be something you can’t hold in your hand or draw a picture of.)
Golding uses symbols to represent the various aspects of human nature and civilization as they are revealed in the novel. The conch symbolizes order and authority, while its gradual deterioration and ultimate destruction metaphorically represent the boys’ collective downfall.
Theme: The main idea or message conveyed by the piece. A theme should generally be expressed as a complete sentence; an idea expressed by a single word or fragmentary phrase is usually a motif.
Orwell’s theme is that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
The idea that human beings are essentially brutal, savage creatures provides the central theme of the novel.
Tone: The apparent emotional state, or “attitude,” of the speaker/narrator/narrative voice, as conveyed through the language of the piece. Tone refers only to the narrative voice; not to the author or characters. It must be described or identified in order to be analyzed properly; it would be incorrect to simply state, “The author uses tone.”
The poem has a bitter and sardonic tone, revealing the speaker’s anger and resentment.
The tone of Gulliver’s narration is unusually matter-of-fact, as he seems to regard these bizarre and absurd occurrences as ordinary or commonplace.
Tragedy: Where a story ends with a negative or unfortunate outcome which was essentially avoidable, usually caused by a flaw in the central character’s personality. Tragedy is really more of a dramatic genre than a literary element; a play can be referred to as a tragedy, but tragic events in a story are essentially part of the plot, rather than a literary device in themselves. When discussing tragedy, or analyzing a story as tragic, look to the other elements of the story which combine to make it tragic.
Tragic hero/tragic figure: A protagonist who comes to a bad end as a result of his own behavior, usually cased by a specific personality disorder or character flaw. (Although it is technically a literary element, the term is only useful for identification, as part of a discussion or analysis of character; it cannot generally be analyzed by itself.)
Willy Loman is one of the best-known tragic figures in American literature, oblivious to and unable to face the reality of his life.
Tragic flaw: The single characteristic (usually negative) or personality disorder which causes the downfall of the protagonist.
Othello’s tragic flaw is his jealousy, which consumes him so thoroughly that he is driven to murder his wife rather than accept, let alone confirm, her infidelity. (Although it is technically a literary element, the term is only useful for identification, as part of a discussion or analysis of character; it cannot generally be analyzed by itself.)
Verbal irony: Where the meaning of a specific expression is, or is intended to be, the exact opposite of what the words literally mean. (Sarcasm is a tone of voice that often accompanies verbal irony, but they are not the same thing.)
Orwell gives this torture and brainwashing facility the ironic title, “Ministry of Love.”
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