Literary Definitions

It is a common problem among students who learn English Literature, to find out  the accurate literary definitions of poetic, dramatic, narrative techniques because different websites as well as printed books provide contradictory ideas. At ts same time students find it difficult to understand the accurate meaning because of the complexity of the explanations. 

The following is a complete list of literary definitions which are fundamental for G.C.E O/L, G.C.E A/L, Cambridge Literature in English, and GAQ examinations 


A term applied to many of the works of a group of dramatists who were active in the 1950s: Adamov, Beckett, Genet, Ionesco and Pinter. Among the less known were Albee, Arrabal, Günter Grass, Pinget and N. F. Simpson. The phrase ‘theatre of the absurd’ was probably coined by Martin Esslin, who wrote The Theatre of the Absurd (1961).

project the irrationalism, helplessness, and absurdity of life in dramatic forms that reject realistic settings, logical reasoning, or a coherently evolving plot are common characteristics of the theatre of the absurd

the play is absurd in the double sense that it is grotesquely comic and also irrational and non-consequential; it is a parody not only of the traditional assumptions of Western culture, but of the conventions and generic forms of traditional drama, and even of its own inescapable participation in the dramatic medium. The lucid but eddying and pointless dialogue is often funny, and pratfalls and other modes of slapstick are used to project the alienation and tragic anguish of human existence

G.C.E A/L – The Dumb Waiter by Harold  Pinter

The Acmeists were a group or school of Russian poets, who, early in the 20th c., began a new anti-symbolist movement.

G.C.E O/L – Upside Down by Alexander Kushner

An act is a major division in the action of a play. In England this division was introduced by Elizabethan dramatists, who imitated ancient Roman plays by structuring the action into five acts. Late in the nineteenth century a number of writers followed the example of Chekhov and Ibsen by
constructing plays in four acts. In the present century the most common form for non-musical dramas has been three acts.

Acts are often subdivided into scenes, which in modern plays usually consist of units of action in which there is no change of place or break in the continuity of time. (Some recent plays dispense with the division into acts and are structured as a sequence of scenes, or episodes.) In the conventional theater with a proscenium arch that frames the front of the stage, the end of a scene is usually indicated by a dropped curtain or a dimming of the lights, and the end of an act by a dropped curtain and an intermission. 

A form of hyperbole which involves the magnification of an event by reference to the impossible.


Love, which begins:
My Love is of a birth as rare
As ’tis for object strange and high:
It was begotten by despair
Upon Impossibility.

 ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God’ 

G.C.E A/L – Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope

An allegory is a story or image with several layers of meaning: behind the literal or surface meaning lie one or more secondary meanings, of varying degrees of complexity.

G.C.E O/L – The Huntsman by Edward Lowbury 

Repeated consonant sounds at the beginning of words placed near each other

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;

G.C.E O/L – The Eagle by Alfred Lord Tennyson

A substitute name, often historical, used by an author.

See pseuodonym.

G.C.E O/L – The Lumber Room by Saki /Fear by Gabriela Mistral 

A passing reference, without explicit identification, to a literary or historical person, place, or event, or to another literary work or passage.


From the great Potter’s hand that burned so warm. 

G.C.E O/L – The Earthen Goblet by Harindranath Chattopadhyaya

the ABAB rhyming scheme of a stanza. see quatrain 


“Farewell to barn and stack and tree, [a]
Farewell to Severn shore. [b]
Terence, look your last at me, [a]
For I come home no more.” [b]

G.C.E O/L – Farewell to Barn and Stack and Tree by A.E Houseman

The use of a vague or equivocal expression when what is wanted is precision and particularity of reference.

According to William Empson who published the book “Seven Types of Ambiguity” (1930), the following are the instances where ambiguity is created 

      1. When a detail is effective in several ways simultaneously.
      2. When two or more alternative meanings are resolved into one.
      3. When two apparently unconnected meanings are given simultaneously.
      4. When alternative meanings combine to make clear a complicated state of mind in the author.
      5. A kind of confusion when a writer discovers his idea while actually writing. In other words, he has not apparently preconceived the idea but come upon it during the act of creation.
      6. Where something appears to contain a contradiction and the reader has to find interpretations.
      7. A complete contradiction which shows that the author was unclear as to what he was saying.

A device related to euphemism (q.v.) where language is reduced or modified by way of preparation for the announcement of something tragic or alarming. Often used by the bearers of bad news, it is the equivalent of saying ‘I am afraid you must prepare yourself for a shock’. In Classical tragedy the Messenger had the task. Two good examples are Ross (in Macbeth) making ready to break the news to Macduff of the murder of
the latter’s wife and children; and the Messenger in Milton’s Samson Agonistes gradually working his way up to the description of how Samson destroyed the temple.

Cambridge Literature in English – Macbeth by William Shakespeare

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This term relates to verses, couplets or stanzas spoken alternately by two speakers. A device very similar to stichomythia and highly effective in creating tension and conflict.

G.C.E O/L Father and Son by cat Stevens

A rare poetical device.The term derives from the Greek word amphisbaina, ‘a monster with a head at each end’. It denotes a backward rhyme. 



Beginning a sentence in one way and continuing or ending it in another. 


‘You know what I – but let’s forget it!’

The repetition of the last word of one clause at the beginning of the following clause to gain a special effect.


‘Labour and care are rewarded with success, success produces confidence, confidence relaxes industry, and negligence ruins the reputation
which diligence had raised.’

 See epanados; epanalepsis.

G.C.E A/L – Sonnet 73 by William Shakespeare

A term used by Aristotle in Poetics to describe
the moment of recognition (of truth) when ignorance gives way to knowledge. According to Aristotle, the ideal moment of anagnorisis coincides with peripeteia, or reversal of fortune. 

G.C.E A/L – Othello by William Shakespeare

Cambridge Literature in English Macbeth by William Shakespeare

A word or thing similar or parallel to another. As a literary term it
denotes a story for which one can find parallel examples in other languages
and literatures.

A rhetorical device involving the repetition of a word or group of words in successive clauses. It is often used in ballad and song, in oratory and sermon, but it is common in many literary forms.


Swich fyn hath, lo, this Troilus for love!
Swich fyn hath al his grete worthynesse!
Swich fyn hath his estat real above,
Swich fyn his lust, swich fyn hath his noblesse!
Swich fyn hath false worldes brotelnesse!
And thus bigan his lovyng of Criseyde,
As I have told, and in this wise he deyde.


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything

Inversion of the syntax of a sentence 


SON of the old moon-mountains African! 

(note that in the correct word order, it should be African moon-mountains)

Denotes ‘having characteristics of both genders’, or ‘the merging of male and female attributes’. It has
often been considered as a synonym for hermaphroditism and bisexuality.
The idea of androgyny has a long tradition. It can be found in Hindu
mythology, Daoist philosophy of yin and yang, which is based on the unity
of opposites, the writings of Plato, the story of Tiresias in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in the work of Renaissance writers and in Freud. In Plato’s Symposium (c. 384 bc), for example, Aristophanes tells the story of the ‘double’
beings who were male-male, female-female and male-female before they
were split in half by Zeus out of fear of competition. Since then, humans have
longed to return to this primal state of wholeness and have yearned to be
reunited with their other ‘lost half’.
John Donne’s love poetry is characterized by such androgynous reunion,
and this is particularly evident in his poems on the merging of lovers (e.g.
‘An Epithalamion’, ‘The Canonization’, ‘The Extasie’, ‘The Undertaking’).
The theme of androgyny is also prominent in Shakespeare’s plays (e.g. Ariel
in The Tempest, the cross-dressing in As You Like It and Two Gentlemen of

 A stanza composed of lines of unequal lengths


Go and catch a falling star,
    Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
    Or who cleft the devil’s foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy’s stinging,
            And find
            What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.


In drama or fiction the antagonist opposes the hero or protagonist. 


In Othello Iago is antagonist to the Moor.

A figurative device in which a word is used twice or more in two or more of its possible senses. 


When Othello is about to murder Desdemona (Othello, V, ii) he says: ‘Put out the light, and then put out the light’. The first ‘light’ refers to a candle or taper; the second to Desdemona’s life. 

See pun; paronomasia.

Describes the attribution of human characteristics to non-human entities, concepts inanimate objects, abstract ideas or forces.


Prominent examples in literature and art are to be found in the fable tradition in which animals are made anthropomorphic in order to illustrate moral lessons or other maxims. The gods and goddesses in epics such as Gilgamesh and the Iliad and Odyssey are often both supernatural forces and anthropomorphic beings.

A ‘non-hero’, or the antithesis of a hero of the old-fashioned kind who was capable of heroic deeds, who was dashing, strong, brave and


the eponymous knight of Don Quixote 

Dead Pool

A dramatic work which not only ignores the traditional conventions but actively distorts them. There is no observable plot and little development of character. Dialogue is often inconsequential or totally disconnected. Playwrights of the Theatre of the Absurd have used anti-play techniques.

A complex figurative device in which an order or precept is given and a reward offered if it is obeyed, and punishment threatened if it is ignored. 


Do’t, and thou hast the one half of my heart;
Do’t not, thou split’st thine own.

The suppression of an initial, unstressed syllable, usually a vowel


‘mongst’ for amongst; ‘mid’ for amid; ‘tween’ for between. 

 The term ‘apocalyptic’ derives from Greek apocalypse, ‘to disclose’, and Apocalypse is the name given to the last book of the New Testament, The Revelation of St John. Such literature comprises prophetic or quasi-prophetic writings which tend to present doom-laden visions of the world and sombre and minatory predictions of mankind’s destiny. An early example is Wulfstan’s homily to the English. In the later Middle Ages chiliastic movements in Europe evoked a large number of diatribes against the wickedness of humanity and the imminence of the end of the world. Sermon literature abounds in apocalyptic visions. The apocalyptic imagery in much of Blake’s poetry combines religious visions with a more secular anger directed at the injustices and depravations of the modern world; subsequently, apocalyptic writing has tended to blame man rather than God for bringing about the end of civilization. In the 20th c., and in the postwar period especially, visions of man-made apocalypses brought about by war, pandemic or environmental catastrophe are not uncommon, and abound in science fiction. Examples of apocalyptic literature might include James Thomson’s poem The City of Dreadful Night (1874), H. G. Wells’s Mind at the End of its Tether (1945), perhaps George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night (1968) and Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City (1969). Many such narratives focus on the post-apocalyptic aftermath, which facilitates an exploration of what humanity might be like without the support – or constraints – of civilization as we know it. Thus recent apocalyptic writing has close parallels with dystopian literature and desert island fiction.

The dropping of a letter or letters from the end of a word. Fairly common in verse to achieve an elision, especially with the word ‘the’. Other examples are: taxi(cab); edit(or); curio(sity); cinema (tograph).

Terms derived from the names of the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus. Apollo was the messenger of the gods, and the presiding deity of music, medicine, youth and light, and was sometimes identified with the sun. Dionysus was the god of vegetation and wine and, it might be said, of ‘permissiveness’. Nietzsche used the terms in The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music (1872). He was making a distinction between reason and instinct, culture and primitive nature; possibly brains as opposed to loins and heart. Apollonian is also often thought to signify ‘sunny’ and ‘serene’, whereas the Dionysian means ‘stormy’ and ‘turbulent’. Nietzsche argued that these elements formed a unity in Greek tragedy where dialogue provided the Apollonian element and the dithyrambic choral songs the Dionysiac. In the 19th c. this antinomy was much elaborated, particularly in the work of Schopenhauer, but it was Schiller who originally made the distinction between naiv and sentimentalisch (q.v.). Among more modern writers D. H. Lawrence was deeply interested in it. He might be described as a Dionysiac writer whereas Stendhal and André Gide were Apollonian. Of course, a combination is possible, as in Shakespeare’s sonnets, or the love
poems of Donne and Burns. 

Affirming by apparent denial, a stressing through negation. 


Hamlet’s parting words to Gertrude at the end of the ‘bedroom scene’ (III, iv): 

Not this, by no means, that I bid you do:
Let the bloat King tempt you again to bed;

A rhetorical device in which speech is broken off abruptly and the sentence is left unfinished. 


– No, you unnatural hags,
I will have such revenges on you both,
That all the world shall – I will do such things, –
What they are, yet I know not; but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.

A figure of speech in which a thing, a place, an abstract quality, an idea, a dead or absent person, is  addressed as if present and capable of understanding.

A feature of scholarly editions of literary works, historical documents, etc. It includes textual footnotes, emendations, variant readings, marginalia, appendices, glossaries, and so forth.

This term denotes what is old or obsolete. Its use was common in poetry until the end of the 19th c. The reasons are various. Sometimes the older form of a word was more suitable metrically

A basic model from which copies are made; therefore a prototype. In general terms, the abstract idea of a class of things which represents the most typical and essential characteristics shared by the class; thus a paradigm or exemplar. An archetype is atavistic and universal,
the product of ‘the collective unconscious’ and inherited from our ancestors. The fundamental facts of human existence are archetypal: birth, growing up, love, family and tribal life, dying, death, not to mention the struggle between children and parents, and fraternal rivalry. Certain character or personality types have become established as more or less archetypal. For instance: the rebel, the Don Juan (womanizer), the all-conquering hero, the braggadocio, the country bumpkin, the local lad who makes good, the self-made man, the hunted man, the siren, the witch and femme fatale, the villain, the traitor, the snob and the social climber, the guilt-ridden figure in search of
expiation, the damsel in distress, and the person more sinned against than sinning. Creatures, also, have come to be archetypal emblems. For example,the lion, the eagle, the snake, the hare and the tortoise. Further archetypes are the rose, the paradisaical garden and the state of ‘pre-Fall’ innocence. Themes include the arduous quest or search, the pursuit of vengeance, the overcoming of difficult tasks, the descent into the underworld, symbolic fertility rites and redemptive rituals.

In drama a few words or a short passage spoken in an undertone or to the audience. It is a theatrical convention and by convention the words are presumed inaudible to other characters on stage; unless of course the aside be between two characters and therefore clearly not meant for anyone else who may be present.

Sometimes called ‘vocalic rhyme’, it consists of the repetition of similar vowel sounds, usually close together, to achieve a particular effect
of euphony.


The Lotos blooms below the barren peak:
The Lotos blows by every winding creek:
All day the wind breathes low with mellower tone
Thro’ every hollow cave and alley lone,
Round and round the spicy downs the yellow Lotos-dust is

asyndeton (Gk ‘unconnected’) A rhetorical device where conjunctions, articles and even pronouns are omitted for the sake of speed and economy.


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