World Literature

Glossary of Literary Terms


The glossary contains terms found in various entries throughout the Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of World Literature. This glossary includes: terms for various literary components or techniques relevant to the work of the authors; terms for important artistic movements or groups discussed in relation to the authors; and terms for social, political, or philosophical ideas that profoundly impacted world literature. Definitions for more basic literary terms, such as ''figurative language,'' have not been included.

ACMEISM: A Russian literary movement in which writers focused on concrete imagery and description of the physical world. Acmeism (derived from ‘‘acme,’’ a Greek term meaning ‘‘peak’’) was seen largely as a reaction to Russian Symbolism. Acmeist writers mentioned in this encyclopedia include Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova.

ALLEGORY: A work in which the entire narrative serves as a symbol for something beyond the surface-level story. For example, George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945), aside from being a tale about a group of farm animals revolting against their master, is acknowledged by the author to be a criticism of Stalinist Russia in which each animal represents a real historical figure.

ANACHRONISM: A thing or idea mentioned in a work of art that occurs outside its normal place in time. In William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, for example, the author mentions the striking of a clock to indicate time passing—even though no such clocks existed in ancient Rome, the time period in which the play is set.

ANGRY YOUNG MEN: A group of British writers in the mid-twentieth century defined by their expression of discontent for traditional social and political institutions. Writers associated with this loosely-defined movement include Kingsley Amis, Harold Pinter, and John Osborne.

ANTI-HERO: A main character in a literary work whose actions and ideals would not generally be regarded as heroic, though the character may still be portrayed sympathetically by the author. Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment, is an example of an anti-hero.

AUTOMATIC WRITING: A method of writing, often employed by Surrealists such as Andre Breton, in which the hand is allowed to write freely without being guided by conscious thought. The novel The Magnetic Fields (1920) by Breton and Philippe Soupault was reportedly written using this technique.

AVANT-GARDE: Meaning ‘‘advance guard’’ in French, a term used to describe artists or artistic works that are considered innovative or pushing the boundaries of tradition. The term has been applied to writers of all manner of literary movements, including Surrealism, Expressionism, Symbolism, and Futurism.

BALLAD: A poetic work written in the form of a traditional song that commonly relates a folk tale, myth, or legend. Ballads are often written in four-line stanzas with alternating lines of eight and six syllables, in which the lines with six syllables contain end-rhyme. ‘‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’’ (1798) by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a famous example of a ballad.

BILDUNGSROMAN: Taken from a German term meaning ‘‘novel of formation,’’ a novel that documents the maturation of the protagonist. The bildungsroman is also commonly known as a ‘‘coming of age’’ novel.

BLANK VERSE: A type of poetry which follows a set pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in each line, but does not feature consistent rhyme. Playwrights William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson created many of their works in blank verse, as did poet John Milton.

BLOOMSBURY GROUP: A group of London artists and intellectuals formed in the early twentieth century, named after the central London area in which many of them lived. Notable members included Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster.

CLASSICAL UNITIES: A set of parameters for drama, originally derived from Aristotle and followed by neoclassicists, that were believed to be necessary for creating ideal dramatic works. According to the classical unities, a play should: focus on a single story (unity of action); take place in a single location (unity of place); and cover a period of time no longer than twenty-four hours (unity of time).

CLASSICISM: A term applied to several artistic movements in which the artists emphasized structures and styles similar to those found in ancient Greek and Roman art. For literature, this included an emphasis on the observable world and aesthetic beauty.

CLOSET DRAMA: A dramatic work that is not meant to be performed on stage. Closet dramas may be read aloud among a small group, or may be read silently as with non-dramatic literature. Samson Agonistes (1671) by John Milton is a famous example of a closet drama.

COMEDY: In classical Greek drama, a play that ends happily for its major characters; many ancient comedies poked fun at political figures or cultural stereotypes, which inspired the laughter modern audiences now associate with the term.

COMEDY OF ERRORS: A dramatic work in which the characters are subject to misunderstandings and coincidences that lead to humorous conflicts, but which are ultimately resolved without tragic consequences. William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c. 1596) is an example of a comedy of errors.

COMEDY OF MANNERS: A dramatic work that points out the unique behaviors of a certain social class or group in order to derive humor at their expense. Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest is an example of a comedy of manners.

COMMEDIA DELL'ARTE: Meaning ‘‘comedy of artists’’ in Italian, a type of street drama that relies heavily on improvisation and physical comedy built around a traditional storyline.

DADAISM: A European artistic movement that flourished during World War I and was characterized by opposition to the war, as well as a rejection of logic and traditional definitions of art. Poet and playwright Tristan Tzara was a key figure in Dadaism.

ELEGY: A written work, generally a poem, that expresses mourning over the death of a person or some other profound loss. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem ‘‘Adonai's’’ (1821) is an example of an elegy.

ENJAMBMENT: In poetry, the splitting of a continuous phrase or sentence into two or more lines. The result is that a single line may appear to express an incomplete thought, though the work as a whole is afforded a more complex rhythm and structure. William Shakespeare made frequent use of enjambment in his later plays.

EPIC: A literary work, originally a work in poetic form, that focuses on large-scale events and themes, and often takes place over a long period of time. The Odyssey, an ancient Greek epic by Homer, is one of the earliest examples.

EPIGRAM: A short, clever statement—often in the form of a couplet—intended to impart humor and insight.

EPISTOLARY NOVEL: A novel in which the story is told through letters written by one or more characters. Samuel Richardson was an early practitioner of the epistolary novel, with works such as Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748).

EXISTENTIALISM: A philosophical movement that gained popularity in the first half of the twentieth century, thanks to literary works by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, among others. Existentialism is characterized by the idea that life does not have a greater meaning or purpose beyond that which people choose to create for themselves.

EXPERIMENTAL NOVEL: A work which defies the traditional structure or subject matter of a novel, and emphasizes style or technique over content. Though the term can be used to describe any number of nontraditional works, Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759) is an oft- cited example of an early experimental novel.

EXPRESSIONISM: An artistic movement characterized by an emphasis on expressing emotion and psychological states instead of objective realism. Playwright August Strindberg is often considered one of the first to bring Expressionist ideas to drama.

FABLE: A short tale whose purpose is to impart a message or lesson, usually featuring animals as characters. ‘‘The Tortoise and the Hare’’ is a well-known example of a fable.

FARCE: A dramatic work characterized by characters being put into comedic situations that are unlikely or improbable, as in Georges Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear (1907).

FLASH FICTION: Short fiction, usually under one thousand words, that despite its length contains all the traditional elements of story such as a protagonist and conflict that is somehow resolved.

FRAME NARRATIVE: A literary device in which the main story being told to the reader is presented as a story being told by one of the characters within the work, such as in Heart of Darkness (1899) by Joseph Conrad. Frame narratives often contain several stories and multiple storytellers, as in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (written in the fourteenth century).

FUTURISM: A literary movement of the early twentieth century, primarily in poetry, meant to express the dynamic nature of the modern world. Futurist poetry was characterized by onomatopoeia, unusual word order, and unexpected juxtaposition of objects and images. Vladimir Mayakovsky was one of the best- known Russian Futurists.

GENERATION OF '27: A loose collective of Spanish poets and artists active during the 1920s who became known, despite their differing styles, for their avantgarde approach. The Generation of ’27 included members such as Federico Garcia Lorca, Luis Cernuda, and Jorge Guillen.

GENERATION OF '98: A group of Spanish writers active during and after the Spanish-American War, known for their interest in forging a Spanish cultural identity. Members of the Generation of ’98 included Antonio Machado and Ramon del Valle Inclan.

GOTHIC FICTION: A literary sub-genre that emerged in the last half of the eighteenth century and was characterized by eerie atmosphere, melodrama, mystery, and romance. Ann Radcliffe was an important figure in the development of Gothic fiction.

GRAND GUIGNOL: A French theater founded in 1894 and known for its plays depicting horrifying and graphically violent events, most of which were written by Andre de Lorde; the term ‘‘Grand Guignol’’ is still used to describe tales of grisly horror.

GROUP 47: A German literary group established to cultivate and advance German literature in the wake of World War II. Though membership was often private and ever-changing, notable members included Gunter Grass and Heinrich Boll.

HAIKU: A Japanese poetic form whose English equivalent consists of only three lines, the first and third containing five syllables and the second containing seven. Matsuo Basho was an early master of this poetic form.

HEROIC COUPLET: An English poetic form which consists of a rhyming pair of ten-syllable lines. Geoffrey Chaucer and Alexander Pope were both known for their use of the heroic couplet.

HUMANISM: A philosophical notion that emphasizes the inherent goodness and rationality of all people, as well as the encouragement of artistic creation among people of all levels of society. Francois Rabelais and Thomas Mann were both notable supporters of humanism.

IMAGISM: A poetic movement of the early twentieth century that emphasized direct expression through concise imagery and non-standard structure. Ezra Pound was instrumental in the development of the Imagist movement.

IMPRESSIONISM: An artistic movement that emerged during the latter half of the nineteenth century, and focused on artistic impression over realistic representation. In literature, impressionism was characterized by a focus on the depiction of the interior, mental landscapes of characters, and was associated with other literary movements such as Symbolism.

IRONY: A literary device in which a character’s perception of reality differs from actual reality, or in which a character’s words do not express their true feelings. Sarcasm is a well-known form of irony. Dramatic irony occurs when an audience is given information that is not known by one or more characters in the play.

LIBRETTO: A text for the vocal portion of an opera or other musical work, often written in verse form. Famous composers frequently employed well-known poets to write libretti for their works, and writers such as William Congreve, Victor Hugo, and Gertrude Stein have worked as librettists.

LOST GENERATION: A term used to describe a loosely defined group of American writers who spent time in Europe—especially Paris—following World War I. These writers, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Sherwood Anderson, were notable for themes of disillusionment in their works.

MAGIC REALISM: A literary style developed primarily in South America in which fantastic or supernatural elements are woven into otherwise realistic tales. Writers commonly associated with magic realism include Jorge Luis Borges, Alejo Carpentier, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Carlos Fuentes.

MASQUE: A theatrical pageant performed for royalty and nobility during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Masques were generally written and performed for special occasions. Ben Jonson and Sir Philip Sidney were well-known writers of masques.

MELODRAMA: A literary work which contains heightened or exaggerated emotions from the characters. The term originally applied to theatrical productions in which music (or melody) was used to accentuate the drama occurring on the stage.

MODERNISM: An artistic movement during the early twentieth century influenced by the rapid industrialization, scientific advancements, and devastating warfare of the time. Modernist writers were noted for their radical departure from traditional literary forms, with notable Modernist works including T. S. Eliot’s poem ‘‘The Waste Land’’ (1922) and James Joyce’s novel Ulysses (1922).

NATURALISM: A literary movement from the late nineteenth century that focused on realistic portrayals of people and situations, and specifically dealt with the effects of heredity and environment on a characters’s personality and development. Emile Zola is widely regarded as a Naturalist.

NEOCLASSICISM: A literary movement during the first half of the twentieth century that marked a movement away from romanticism and sought inspiration in ancient Greek and Roman art.

NIHILISM: A philosophical movement that first appeared in the nineteenth century and is characterized by the belief that life has no objective purpose, moral code, or value. Writers associated with nihilism include Ivan Turgenev, whose novel Fathers and Sons (1862) described the Russian Nihilist movement and popularized the concept.

NOUVEAU ROMAN: Also known as an ‘‘anti-novel’’ (the term itself is French for ‘‘new novel’’), a literary work in which traditional storytelling elements are absent or altered, so that the reader cannot determine with certainty the correct order or reality of events depicted. Alain Robbe-Grillet was instrumental in defining the nouveau roman.

PARABLE: A short tale meant to impart a message or lesson to the reader. Parables are similar to fables, but do not include supernatural or fantastic elements such as talking animals.

PARODY: A literary work designed to mock or criticize another, usually well-known literary work or genre. An early example is Shamela (1741), Henry Fielding’s parody of the successful Samuel Richardson novel Pamela (1740).

PASTORAL: Literature that depicts rural life, nature, and the people of the region in a highly idealized way. Eclogues (c. 40 B.C.E.) by the ancient Roman poet Virgil are among the oldest examples of pastoral poetry.

PICARESQUE: A type of novel first developed in Spain that focuses on the adventures of a rogue, or clever anti-hero. Among many others, George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels exhibit the key traits of the picaresque.

POSTMODERNISM: A post-World War II literary movement characterized by nonlinearity, or a nonstandard narrative timeline, as well as metafiction, in which the author shows awareness of the story as a work of fiction and may even appear as a character within it.

PSEUDONYM: An alternate name used by a writer, often to hide the writer’s identity. For example, Charles Dodgson used the pen name Lewis Carroll when writing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871).

PSYCHOLOGICAL NOVEL: A type of novel in which a great deal of attention is paid to the thoughts and feelings of the characters, as opposed to external action. Stendahl’s 1830 novel The Red and the Black is often cited as an early example of the psychological novel.

REALISM: An artistic movement characterized by a desire to portray characters and environments as objectively, or as close to reality, as possible. Realism relies heavily upon physical descriptions, and Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary (1856)—with its almost grotesque precision to detail—is considered a landmark work of realism.

ROMAN A CLEF: A literary work containing fictionalized depictions of real people and events. The work may be autobiographical, as in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963), or it may refer to thinly-disguised versions of well-known figures, as in George Orwell’s depiction of Stalin and other Soviet politicians in Animal Farm (1945).

ROMANTICISM: An artistic and philosophical movement that developed throughout Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Romantic literature is notable for its expression of powerful emotions and use of natural settings. Poets associated with the Romantic movement include Lord Byron, William Wordsworth, and John Keats.

SAMIZDAT: A secret distribution method used by Soviet dissident writers for literary works that could not be published within their own country. Samizdat involved the manual copying of manuscript pages to be distributed among small groups of readers who could be trusted not to reveal the source of the work. Writers whose work appeared in samizdat form included Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky.

SATIRE: A type of literature intended to attack a person, group, institution, or idea through parody or irony. Very often, the satirist exposes the shortcomings of its subject by ironically expressing a position in support or praise of the subject. A famous example of satire is Jonathan Swift’s ‘‘A Modest Proposal,’’ (1729) in which he skewers England’s mistreatment of Ireland by enthusiastically proposing to the Irish that they sell their children for food.

SERIAL PUBLICATION: The printing of consecutive portions of a novel or other lengthy work of literature in successive issues of a periodical. Serial publication was especially popular in England during the nineteenth century, and many of Charles Dickens’s novels were first printed through serial publication.

SOCIAL REALISM: An artistic movement of the nineteenth century defined by sympathetic yet realistic depictions of the working class and the poor conditions in which they lived.

SOCIALIST REALISM: The official art style of the Soviet Union of six decades, socialist realism was defined by its glorification of the working class and Soviet leaders, as well as its depiction of common scenes and avoidance of fanciful subject matter. Artists and writers who did not fit this style were typically deemed unproductive or disruptive, and sent to one of many government-run labor camps.

SONNET (ELIZABETHAN): A poetic form popular in England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I), typically consisting of fourteen ten-syllable lines and an alternating rhyme scheme. William Shakespeare is perhaps the most famous practitioner of the Elizabethan sonnet.

STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS: A literary technique meant to emulate the flow of thought in a character’s mind. This is sometimes expressed through disjointed or run-on sentences, repetitions of words or phrases, or tenuous associations between different subjects. Notable works that use the stream of consciousness technique include Mrs. Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf and Finnegans Wake (1939) by James Joyce.

STURM UND DRANG: A German artistic movement that arose in the late eighteenth century and was characterized by free expression of emotion—often negative emotion such as torment or greed. Literary works of the Sturm und Drang movement often end tragically or violently for their characters. Writers associated with the Sturm und Drang movement include Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller.

SURREALISM: An artistic movement of the early twentieth century noted for its embrace of the irrational. Surrealist literary works often contained jarring juxtapositions of unrelated things, seemingly random or nonsensical phrases, and dreamlike situations. Poet Andre Breton was a founding figure in Surrealism.

SYMBOLISM: A late nineteenth century artistic movement noted for its rejection of realism and description of the physical, in favor of using words to evoke the metaphysical, emotional, and spiritual. Maurice Maeterlinck was a key figure in the development of Symbolist drama.

THEATER OF CRUELTY: A view of theater conceived by playwright Antonin Artaud in which audiences are exposed to painful truths by being centrally involved in the play’s action.

THEATER OF THE ABSURD: A dramatic movement linked with Existentialism in which characters often find themselves at the mercy of an incomprehensible universe. A rejection of realism and typical story structure, Theater of the Absurd dramas often had no discernible purpose or message.

TRAGEDY: In classical Greek drama, a play that focuses on themes such as love, fate and betrayal, does not end happily for one or more of the main characters. The play Antigone (c. 442 B.C.E.) by Sophocles is a typical Greek tragedy.

VERNACULAR: The casual and natural speech of a group of people or culture. Up until the Middle Ages, European literature was typically written in Latin instead of the commonly spoken language of the region; the development of literature written in the vernacular allowed audiences of almost any social level to enjoy such works.