Aesthetic: Broadly, something pleasing, or the study of beauty; more specifically, if you don't feel like reading Immanuel Kant, in this class we'll consider the principles used in the construction of a work that reflect the overall meaning and themes of that work.
Aesthetic Distance: A sense of distance, detachment or non-involvement with the characters or situation in a story that allows for audience contemplation or reflection. This depends heavily on the reader's awareness that what is being read is a representation of reality, and not reality itself. Aesthetic distance figures more prominently in 3rd person omniscient narratives.
Allegory: A narrative where characters, actions (rising, falling), and sometimes setting are consistently symbolic of something else (often philosophical or moral abstractions).
Character: A textual representation of some agent within a story, like a person, animal, or even an object. Characters are often round (have depth), flat (one-dimensional), dynamic (changing) or static (does not change).
Climax: The height of tensions or suspense in a story's plot, where conflict comes to a peak.
Conflict: The part of the plot that establishes an opposition that becomes a point of interest. Can be an opposition between characters, between a character and environment, between elements in a character's personality, etc.
Content: As distinct from form, generally what is said or written in a text. Content doesn't really exist without form.
Denouement: French for untying, it's the final element of the conflict in a plot. See Resolution.
Epiphany: Secularly, a revelation in the everyday world, where the whatness of a common thing or gesture becomes radiant and deeply comprehended to the observer --either the observer in the text or to the audience.
Exposition: Provides background on characters, setting, plot.
Falling Action: The part of the plot following the climax that declines towards resolution. See Denouement.
Figurative Language: Language used in a way to achieve some effect beyond literal meaning. See Hyperbole, Metaphor, Metonymy, Personification, Simile, Synecdoche.
Form: As distinct from content, generally how something is said or written in a text. Can also mean a genre or a specific poetic device like a sonnet, or, more abstractly, the structure or unifying principles of a work. Form doesn't really exist without content.
Gap: A place in the text where something is left out; as a reader, you can identify those gaps and use them to help interpret the story. Like with irony, identifying a gap (between what’s being presented and the reality of the situation) can help you come to a more developed or better understanding of a text.
Genre: A classification of writing that relates to the kind of strategies used to understand a text and thus defines that classification. Poetry and fiction are genres, as are ballads and novels and short stories.
Hyperbole: Figurative language that uses exaggeration for emphasis, like I’m starving when you haven’t eaten in four hours, or I’ve been waiting forever when that’s impossible because you probably were born at some point, and forever was happening a long time before you were born.
Ideology: Literally the study of ideas, the collective knowledge, understandings, opinions, values, preconceptions, experiences and/or memories that informs a culture and its individual people. Ideology is often aligned with political beliefs, but is much broader than that, relating to any social or cultural beliefs, and these beliefs are revealed in literary or other texts. In a text, certain ideas or values will be dominant, while others will be necessarily marginalized. For instance, on its most basic level, The Three Little Pigs reveals an ideology that values a strong home and good work ethic that lead to a stable existence, and the pigs can be read against this ideology.
Imagery: Often used in (but not particular to) poetry, language that creates a kind of sensation, usually visual, and associates a topic or theme with that sensation, thereby creating some underlying comment. For instance, in Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man is Hard to Find the narrator says "the line of woods gaped like a large open mouth," creating an image of the woods eating the family; or in James Joyce's Araby, the houses on the street "conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces," creating an image of the houses like people trying to retain a sense of respect. Since imagery affects the senses, it is concrete rather than abstract language. See Simile, Metaphor, Metonymy, Personification.
Intertextuality: In a text, implied references to or implied influences from another text. This concept allows a reader to make links between genres, and to see how themes, plot, etc. may develop or change in relation or in light of that other text.
Indeterminacy: The unknowable, undecidable, uncertain, or ambiguous in a text. Indeterminacy is related to gaps in a text, but are less obviously identifiable and are a quality of a reading or interpretation, not just the text.
Irony: At its most basic, a difference or gap between the presentation/representation of something and its reality. In other words, when what something appears to be and what it is are not the same. Irony can be engaged or detached: Engaged irony uses the gaps between reality and representation to make a point or expose something; detached irony exploits gaps for immediate effect, like humor, satire or surface criticism. Irony can also occur at different levels of a text; for instance, verbal irony would occur at the level of the word or sentence, where double meanings come into play; dramatic irony would occur at the level of the plot, where events and action are constructed in a way to take the reader in one direction while the reality is something else (a technique often found with 1st person unreliable narrators and 3rd person privileged narrators).
Metaphor: Figurative language that creates an analogy between two unlike things. Metaphor does not make a comparison, but creates its analogy by representing one thing as something else (a sea of troubles, war is hell, necessity is the mother of invention, all the world's a stage, calling a basketball a rock or a guitar an axe or a try at something a shot). Metaphor is something we use all the time, but is actually much more complex than it may seem. From the Greek metapherein for "transfer," the idea is that the qualities of one thing are being carried over and juxtaposed with the qualities of another while they remain ostensibly separate and different. Like irony, there is a gap between the subjects in question. A metaphor is thus a function that occurs between the audience and language when the audience juxtaposes the qualities of two different things to yield a new meaning –the audience literally carries over the meaning. At an extreme level, all language is metaphoric, and therefore all writing is a metaphor. The huge woody thing with some dried leaves outside my window is tree in English but baum in German, tre in Norwegian, mti in Swahili, traba in Latin, träd in Swedish, árvorel in Portuguese, kigi in Japanese, crann in both Irish and Scottish –you get the idea; obviously none of the words are the thing itself, they just point to the thing and we carry over the meaning. When written, these words are definitely not the big woody thing, but just nifty ink blots on a page or electronic blips on a screen. We as an audience create the meaning by associating the qualities of the word with the qualities of something else. When we read, we essentially perform the same function, transferring something implied by cultural associations (the meanings of words) over into a coherent narrative. See Irony.
Metonymy: Figurative language where one term is used in place of something else that it is related to or often associated with; like saying the White House for the president, or Hollywood for the American film industry.
Modernism: Loosely, a term referring to experimental and avant- garde trends in literature and other arts in the early 20th century, which resulted from conscious rejections of traditional 19th century artistic conventions like realism and traditional verse forms. Some of the experimental forms include symbolism, expressionism, and surrealism, and some narrative innovations include stream-of-consciousness and multiple points of view. A problematic term, since we are always already in the modern moment. See Post-Modernism.
Narrative: The telling of a story; in class, also the organization of that telling, or how the narrator structures the plot.
Narrative Point of View/Narrative Voice: The mode of narration, or the perspective the narrator uses to relate action and characters to the reader, or narratee. Primarily a convention of short stories, the point of view can be first person ("I"), second person ("you," generally a tricky one to pull off) or third person omniscient ("it," "they," "he," "she"). Within these areas, perspective can be shifting or consistent, involved or detached and omniscient, or even unreliable. See Narrator.
Narrator: The implied voice relating the characters and the action of the plot to the implied reader. The narrator can be a character, which makes that narrator involved. If the narrator is not a character and takes a position of revealing information to the reader, that narrator is omniscient. An omniscient narrator can either take the reader inside the consciousness of the character, or is privileged, or can remain distant, or not privileged. A narrator that seems to be biased, misleading, provides faulty information or otherwise is not telling the whole story is said to be unreliable. The implied person to whom the narrator is speaking is known as the narratee. See Narrative Point of View, Narrative.
Personification: Figurative language in which a concept, idea, object or animal is given human qualities (think of every Bugs Bunny cartoon you ever saw). See Imagery.
Plot: The order or structure of events in a story. Plot tends to follow a pattern of exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, and falling action or denouement.
Post-Modernism: An even more problematic term than modernism, in its most general sense it refers to late-20th century artistic trends that develop out of modernism, often using in its construction the cultural condition resulting from capitalism. Some characteristics may be waves of Intertextuality (or relationships with other texts), disconnected images and various juxtaposed styles, as seen in television commercials and music videos, or in advertisements in magazines or on the street. (Think of all the commercials you witness in one commercial break, and then think of how connected and disconnected they are from one another, the only linking frames of reference being your blue-black screen and their desire to sell you something.) In this sense, post-modernism is essentially fragmentary, and does away with traditional approaches to depth, coherence, originality and authenticity in favor for a mélange of signs. If modernism tried to excavate and forge meaning out of the world using myths, symbols, narrative and formal complexity, post-modernism embraces the seemingly incoherent and plays with it, using its own means to create something new that reflects its own condition (i.e. self-reflexivity). This is by no means a complete definition of post-modernism, as the term, like its means, seems to always be in flux and is easily adapted to different situations. See Modernism.
Resolution: Similar to denouement, or the untying of the action, the final plot element where conflict is brought to a conclusion.
Realism: Writing that represents events and people in a way that resembles the/an external reality and human experience outside the text. See Verisimilitude.
Rising Action: The part of the plot that follows the conflict and leads towards a climax, hopefully catching the reader's interest.
Satire: Blending criticism and humor to expose a fault or problem; often used ironically.
Setting: Describes the place and time in which the characters are acting and the action occurs.
Simile: > Figurative language in which two seemingly unlike things are explicitly compared to yield another meaning by using like, as, as if, or so.
Style: How language is used in a text, including its grammatical constructions, syntax, diction, length, and figurative speech. A style can be colloquial or vernacular, straightforward, ironic, funny, stilted – it depends on the effect the writer is trying to achieve. The 19th C. colloquial style of Huckleberry Finn is used to create a sense of realism, while the pared-down, bare-bones style, of Hemingway is often meant to reveal meaning in its starkest sense.
Symbol: A word or phrase (often a thing, like Poe’s gold bug) that stands for or refers to something else, often an idea, concept or quality. A symbol allows the reader to see related and nonliteral meanings at play in the text. How a symbol functions depends on some common understanding between the reader and the text; if a reader doesn’t recognize how a symbol is being used, it is unlikely that symbol will be used in any interpretation. A text can be read symbolically, as well as figuratively, literally, etc. See Metaphor.
Synecdoche: Figurative language in which a part of something stands for the whole to give an other than literal meaning; Green Bay doesn’t play St. Louis, but their football teams do.
Text: Broadly, a specific work or the actual wording of a work. As defined in Wingard, p. 17, something understood as in process, volatile, changing; in other words, something that demands interaction and interpretation, and thus changes with each reading. See Work.
Theme: An idea or concept that concerns the text. This can be a principle, a moral or ethical point, or the resolution of some conflict. Theme is a function of what's in a text and the strategies a reader brings to that text.
Tone: The implied attitude or position of the narrator.
Verisimilitude: How real a text seems; how closely it matches the reader’s expectations of reality. This is accomplished through realistic-seeming characters, setting and style. See Realism.
Work: Writing understood as a closed, completed, stable piece that refers to something outside itself. See Text.
Definitions largely based on the glossary of Joel Wingard’s Literature, pp. 1702-1716.