Act: a major division in a play. Often, individual acts are divided into smaller units (\"scenes\") that all take place in a specific location. Originally, Greek plays were not divided into acts. They took place as a single whole interrupted occasionally by the chorus icon

Act: a major division in a play. Often, individual acts are divided into smaller units ("scenes") that all take place in a specific location. Originally, Greek plays were not divided into acts. They took place as a single whole interrupted occasionally by the chorus

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ENG/HUM 2413 Introduction to Literature


ENG/HUM 2433 World Literature I

Literary Glossary

Excerpted from Dr. L. Kip Wheeler’s Online Literary Glossary

Complete version available at:

With additional terms from Kelli McBride

Kelli McBride

Fall 2007

Seminole State College

This packet available online at

Note: I have deleted terms that are not relevant for these two courses and/or the works we will study. However, some definitions refer to other entries (underlined terms). If you cannot find that underlined term on this handout, I have deleted it. You can, though, visit Dr. Wheeler’s web site to read the reference. Please also note that I have added some terms to this list, and you will not find those on Dr. Wheeler’s site.

  1. ACT: A major division in a play. Often, individual acts are divided into smaller units ("scenes") that all take place in a specific location. Originally, Greek plays were not divided into acts. They took place as a single whole interrupted occasionally by the chorus's singing. In Roman times, a five-act structure first appeared based upon Horace's recommendations. This five-act structure became a convention of drama (and especially tragedy) during the Renaissance. (Shakespeare's plays have natural divisions that can be taken as the breaks between acts as well; later editors inserted clear "act" and "scene" markings in these locations.) From about 1650 CE onward, most plays followed the five-act model. In the 1800s, Ibsen and Chekhov favored a four-act play, and in the 1900s, most playwrights preferred a three-act model, though two-act plays are not uncommon.

  2. ACTION: A real or fictional event or series of such events comprising the subject of a novel, story, narrative poem, or a play, especially in the sense of what the characters do in such a narrative. Action, along with dialogue and the characters' thoughts, form the skeleton of a narrative's plot.

  3. AGONIST: From the Greek agonistes: actor or contender, a character in a play. The protagonist is the first actor, the main character of the play (sometimes but not always a hero). The antagonist is the character most opposite to the protagonist (sometimes but not always a villain) that allows the development of conflict. The deuteragonist is often the second actor in a play and sometimes acts as the protagonist’s foil. See character.

  4. AIDOS: The Greek term for the great shame felt by a hero after failure.

  5. ALLEGORY: The word derives from the Greek allegoria ("speaking otherwise"). The term loosely describes any writing in verse or prose that has a double meaning. This narrative acts as an extended metaphor in which persons, abstract ideas, or events represent not only themselves on the literal level, but they also stand for something else on the symbolic level. An allegorical reading usually involves moral or spiritual concepts that may be more significant than the actual, literal events described in a narrative. Typically, an allegory involves the interaction of multiple symbols, which together create a moral, spiritual, or even political meaning. The act of interpreting a story as if each object in it had an allegorical meaning is called allegoresis.

    If we wish to be more exact, an allegory is an act of interpretation, a way of understanding, rather than a genre in and of itself. Poems, novels, or plays can all be allegorical, in whole or in part. These allegories can be as short as a single sentence or as long as a ten volume book. The label "allegory" comes from an interaction between symbols that creates a coherent meaning beyond that of the literal level of interpretation. Probably the most famous allegory in English literature is John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678), in which the hero named Christian flees the City of Destruction and travels through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, Vanity Fair, Doubting Castle, and finally arrives at the Celestial City. The entire narrative is a representation of the human soul's pilgrimage through temptation and doubt to reach salvation in heaven. Medieval works were frequently allegorical, such as the plays Mankind and Everyman. Other important allegorical works include mythological allegories like Apuleius' tale of Cupid and Psyche in The Golden Ass and Prudentius' Psychomachiae. More recent non-mythological allegories include Spenser's The Faerie Queene, Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Butler's Erewhon, and George Orwell's Animal Farm.

    The following illustrative passage comes from J. A. Cuddon's Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, 3rd edition (Penguin Books, 1991). I have Americanized the British spelling and punctuation:

To distinguish more clearly we can take the old Arab fable of the frog and the scorpion, who met one day on the bank of the River Nile, which they both wanted to cross. The frog offered to ferry the scorpion over on his back provided the scorpion promised not to sting him. The scorpion agreed so long as the frog would promise not to drown him. The mutual promises exchanged, they crossed the river. On the far bank the scorpion stung the frog mortally.

"Why did you do that?" croaked the frog, as it lay dying.

"Why?" replied the scorpion, "We're both Arabs, aren't we?"

If we substitute for a frog a "Mr. Goodwill" or a "Mr. Prudence," and for the scorpion "Mr. Treachery" or "Mr. Two-Face," and make the river any river and substitute for "We're both Arabs . . ." "We're both men . . ." we turn the fable [which illustrates human tendencies by using animals as illustrative examples] into an allegory [a narrative in which each character and action has symbolic meaning]. On the other hand, if we turn the frog into a father and the scorpion into a son (boatman and passenger) and we have the son say "We're both sons of God, aren't we?", then we have a parable (if a rather cynical one) about the wickedness of human nature and the sin of parricide. (22)

Contrast allegory with fable, parable, and symbolism, below, or click here to download a PDF handout contrasting these terms.

  1. ALLITERATION: Repeating a consonant sound in close proximity to others, or beginning several words with the same vowel sound. For instance, the phrase "buckets of big blue berries" alliterates with the consonant b. Coleridge describes the sacred river Alph in Kubla Khan as "Five miles meandering with a mazy motion," which alliterates with the consonant m. The line "apt alliteration's artful aid" alliterates with the vowel sound a. One of Dryden's couplets in Absalom and Achitophel reads, "In pious times, ere priestcraft did begin, / Before polygamy was made a sin." It alliterates with the letter p. Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" employs the technique: "I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass." Most frequently, the alliteration involves the sounds at the beginning of words in close proximity to each other. Alliteration is an example of a rhetorical scheme. Alliteration in which the first letters of words are the same (as opposed to consonants alliterating in the middles or ends of words) is more specifically called head rhyme, which is a bit of a misnomer since it doesn't actually involve rhyme in a technical sense. If alliteration also involves changes in the intervening vowels between repeated consonants, the technique is called consonance. See alliterative verse, alliterative prose, and consonance. See also alliterative revival.

  2. ^ ALLITERATIVE PROSE: Many texts of Old English and Middle English prose use the same techniques as alliterative verse. Aelfric (c. 955-1010 CE) and Wulfstan (d. 1023) wrote many treatises using skillful alliteration. The Herefordshire texts known collectively as the "The Katherine Group" (Hali Meiohad, Sawles Warde, Seinte Katerine, Seinte Marherete, Seinte Iuliene) are some examples in Middle English.

  3. ^ ALLITERATIVE VERSE: A traditional form of Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse poetry in which each line has at least four stressed syllables, and those stresses fall on syllables in which three or four words alliterate (repeat the same consonant sound). Alliterative verse largely died out in English within a few centuries of the Norman Conquest. The Normans introduced continental conventions of poetry, including rhyme and octosyllabic couplets. The last surge of alliterative poetry in the native English tradition is known as the alliterative revival during the Middle English period. See alliteration, above.

  4. ALLUSION: A casual reference in literature to a person, place, event, or another passage of literature, often without explicit identification. Allusions can originate in mythology, biblical references, historical events, legends, geography, or earlier literary works. Authors often use allusion to establish a tone, create an implied association, contrast two objects or people, make an unusual juxtaposition of references, or bring the reader into a world of experience outside the limitations of the story itself. Authors assume that the readers will recognize the original sources and relate their meaning to the new context. For instance, if a teacher were to refer to his class as a horde of Mongols, the students will have no idea if they are being praised or vilified unless they know what the Mongol horde was and what activities it participated in historically. This historical allusion assumes a certain level of education or awareness in the audience, so it should normally be taken as a compliment rather than an insult or an attempt at obscurity.

  5. AMBIGUITY: In common conversation, ambiguity is a negative term applied to a vague or equivocal expression when precision would be more useful. Sometimes, however, intentional ambiguity in literature can be a powerful device, leaving something undetermined in order to open up multiple possible meanings. When we refer to literary ambiguity, we refer to any wording, action, or symbol that can be read in divergent ways. As William Empson put it, ambiguity is "any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language" (qtd. in Deutsch 11).

  6. ^ AMERICAN DREAM: A theme in American literature, film, and art that expresses optimistic desires for self-improvement, freedom, and self-sufficiency. Harry Shaw notes that the term can have no clear and fixed expression because "it means whatever its user has in mind a particular time" (12). In general, it has connotations of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" in Thomas Jefferson's phrasing. One expression of this is the materialistic "rags-to-riches" motif of many nineteenth-century novels. Here, a young pauper through hard work, cleverness, and honesty, rises in socio-economic status until he is a powerful and successful man. An example here would be the stories by Horatio Alger. Other expressions of this theme focus on more more abstract qualities like freedom or self-determination. Many critics have argued that this dream is in many ways a myth in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, given America's frequent discriminatory treatment of immigrants and its continuing economic trends in which an ever smaller number of wealthy people acrue an ever larger percentage of material wealth with each generation, i.e., "the rich get richer and the poor get babies." Other events, such as the loss of the American frontier, segregation and exclusion of minorities, McCarthyism in the 1950s, unpopular wars in Vietnam in the 1960s, and gradual ecological devastation over the last hundred years, together have inspired literary works that criticize or question the American Dream--often seeing it as ultimately selfish or destructive on one or more levels. Examples of these writing would be Miller's Death of A Salesman, Ellison's Invisible Man, and Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.

  7. AMPHITHEATER: An open-air theater, especially the unroofed public playhouses in the suburbs of London. Shakespeare's Globe and the Rose are two examples.

  8. ANAGNORISIS: (Greek for "recognition"): A term used by Aristotle in the Poetics to describe the moment of tragic recognition in which the protagonist realizes some important fact or insight, especially a truth about himself, human nature, or his situation. Aristotle argues that the ideal moment for anagnorisis in a tragedy is the moment of peripeteia, the reversal of fortune. Critics often claim that the moment of tragic recognition is found within a single line of text, in which the tragic hero admits to his lack of insight or asserts the new truth he recognizes. This passage is often called the "line of tragic recognition." See further discussion under tragedy.

  9. ANAPEST: A foot or unit of poetry consisting of two light syllables followed by a single stressed syllable. Some words and phrases in English that constitute anapests include the following examples: understand, interrupt, comprehend, anapest, New Rochelle, contradict, "get a life," condescend, Coeur d'Alene, "in the blink of an eye," and so on. Anapestic meter consists of lines of poetry that follow this pattern of "light stress, light stress, heavy stress" pattern. For example: "The Assyrian came dówn like a wólf on the fóld." (Lord Byron, "The Destruction of Sennacherib.") or "Oh he flies through the air with the greatest of ease." See extended discussion under meter. Click here to download a PDF handout that contrasts anapests with other types of metrical feet.

  10. ^ ANGLO-SAXON: (1) Historically, the term refers to a group of Teutonic tribes who invaded England in the fifth and sixth centuries following the departure of Roman legions in 410 CE. These tribes, the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes, came from the northern parts of Europe and gave their name (Angle-Land) to England, driving the native Celtic peoples into the farthest western and northern regions of Britain. We can also refer to the time-period of 410 CE up until about 1066 CE as the "Anglo-Saxon" historical period in Britain. In linguistics, the term Anglo-Saxon is also used to refer to Old English, the language spoken by these tribes and the precursor of Middle English and Modern English. See Old English. (2) In colloquial usage, the term Anglo-Saxon is often used to distinguish people of "English" ethnicity in Great Britain, Canada, and the United States--hence acronyms like "WASP" (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant).

  11. ANTAGONIST: See discussion under character, below.

  12. ANTHOLOGY (from Grk. anther+logos, "flower-words"): Literally implying a collection of flowers, the term anthology refers to a collection of poetry, drama, or verse. English majors may be familiar with the ubiquitous Norton Anthology of British Literature, for instance. The first collection of poetry thus labeled was The Anthology, a collection of some 4,500 Greek poems dating between 490 BCE and 1,000 CE.

  13. ANTICLIMAX (also called bathos): a drop, often sudden and unexpected, from a dignified or important idea or situation to one that is trivial or humorous. Also a sudden descent from something sublime to something ridiculous. In fiction and drama, this refers to action that is disappointing in contrast to the previous moment of intense interest. In rhetoric, the effect is frequently intentional and comic. For example: "Usama Bin Laden: Wanted for Crimes of War, Terrorism, Murder, Conspiracy, and Nefarious Parking Practices."

  14. ^ ANTIHERO: A protagonist who is a non-hero or the antithesis of a traditional hero. While the traditional hero may be dashing, strong, brave, resourceful, or handsome, the antihero may be incompetent, unlucky, clumsy, dumb, ugly, or clownish. Examples here might include the senile protagonist of Cervantes' Don Quixote or the girlish knight Sir Thopas from Chaucer's "Sir Thopas." In the case of the Byronic and Miltonic antihero, the antihero is a romanticized but wicked character who defies authority, and becomes paradoxically ennobled by his peculiar rejection of virtue. In this sense, Milton presents Satan in Paradise Lost as an antihero in a sympathetic manner. The same is true of Heathcliffe in Emily Bronté's Wuthering Heights. Compare with the picaro.

  15. ANTISTROPHE: See discussion under strophe.

  16. ANTITHESIS (plural: antitheses): Using opposite phrases in close conjunction. Examples might be, "I burn and I freeze," or "Her character is white as sunlight, black as midnight." The best antitheses express their contrary ideas in a balanced sentence. It can be a contrast of opposites: "Evil men fear authority; good men cherish it." Alternatively, it can be a contrast of degree: "One small step for a man, one giant leap for all mankind." Antithesis is an example of a rhetorical scheme. Contrast with oxymoron.

  17. APOSTROPHE: Not to be confused with the punctuation mark, apostrophe is the act of addressing some abstraction or personification that is not physically present: For instance, John Donne commands, "Oh, Death, be not proud." King Lear proclaims, "Ingratitude! thou marble-hearted fiend, / More hideous when thou show'st thee in a child / Than the sea-monster." Death, of course, is a phenomenon rather than a proud person, and ingratitude is an abstraction that hardly cares about Lear's opinion, but the act of addressing the abstract has its own rhetorical power. An apostrophe is an example of a rhetorical trope.

  18. ARCHETYPE: An original model or pattern from which other later copies are made, especially a character, an action, or situation that seems to represent common patterns of human life. Often, archetypes include a symbol, a theme, a setting, or a character that some critics think have a common meaning in an entire culture, or even the entire human race. These images have particular emotional resonance and power. Archetypes recur in different times and places in myth, literature, folklore, fairy tales, dreams, artwork, and religious rituals. Using the comparative anthropological work of Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough, the psychologist Carl Jung theorized that the archetype originates in the collective unconscious of mankind, i.e., the shared experiences of a race or culture, such as birth, death, love, family life, and struggles to survive and grow up. These would be expressed in the subconscious of an individual who would recreate them in myths, dreams, and literature. Examples of archetypes found cross-culturally include the following:

    1. Recurring symbolic situations (such as the orphaned prince or the lost chieftain's son raised ignorant of his heritage until he is rediscovered by his parents, or the damsel in distress rescued from a hideous monster by a handsome young man who later marries the girl. Also, the long journey, the difficult quest or search, the catalog of difficult tasks, the pursuit of revenge, the descent into the underworld, redemptive rituals, fertility rites, the great flood, the End of the World),

    2. Recurring themes (such as the Faustian bargain; pride preceding a fall; the inevitable nature of death, fate, or punishment; blindness; madness; taboos such as forbidden love, patricide, or incest),

    3. Recurring characters (such as witches as ugly crones who cannibalize children, lame blacksmiths of preternatural skill, womanizing Don Juans, the hunted man, the femme fatale, the snob, the social climber, the wise old man as mentor or teacher, star-crossed lovers; the caring mother-figure, the helpless little old lady, the stern father-figure, the guilt-ridden figure searching for redemption, the braggart, the young star-crossed lovers, the bully, the villain in black, the oracle or prophet, the mad scientist, the underdog who emerges victorious, the mourning widow or women in lamentation),

    4. Symbolic colors (green as a symbol for life, vegetation, or summer; blue as a symbol for water or tranquility; white or black as a symbol of purity; or red as a symbol of blood, fire, or passion) and so on.

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