Allegory—An allegory is a literary work that has an underlying meaning beneath the literal meaning. Allegory relies heavily on symbolism to teach a lesson or illustrate an idea. Characters often represent abstract concepts such as truth


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Literary Terms with Examples

Pre-AP English Grades 8-12

Allegory—An allegory is a literary work that has an underlying meaning beneath the literal meaning. Allegory

relies heavily on symbolism to teach a lesson or illustrate an idea. Characters often represent

abstract concepts such as truth, good, or evil.

  • Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory in which Vanity Fair represents the world, and the Celestial City symbolizes Heaven.

Alliteration—Alliteration is the repetition of beginning consonant sound in a line of poetry.

  • Let us go forth to lead the land we love. J.F. Kennedy, Inaugural

Allusion—An allusion makes reference to a historical or literary person, place, or event with which the reader

is assumed to be familiar. Many works of prose and poetry contain allusions to the Bible or to

classical mythology.

  • Allusions can be historical, (like referring to Hitler), literary (like referring to Kurtz in

Heart of Darkness), religious (like referring to Noah and the flood), or mythical (like

referring to Atlas).

Ambiguity—a term describing those words, figures of speech, and also actions in literary works for which

more than one meaning is possible. It may result from the subtlety of an author’s art, or it may

stem from his confusion. It is the source of multiple interpretations: that is, different people can

interpret the same words and events in opposite ways because of the suggestive power of the

story or the poem.

  • William Empson’s analysis of a line from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73—In the poem the speaker compares his advancing age to a tree in early winter and the bough of that tree to “Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.”

Analogy---makes a comparison between two or more things that are similar in some ways but otherwise


Anaphora—the regular repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of successive phrases or


  • We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on

the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we

shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight

in the hills. We shall never surrender. Churchill
Anecdote---is a brief story about an interesting, amusing, or strange event. Writers tell anecdotes to entertain

or to make a point.

  • Evelyn Waugh’s essay “People Who Want to Sue Me” contains an anecdote about a young lady who mistakenly thought she knew who the characters in his book were.

Antagonist—The antagonist (bad guy) is the character who is placed in opposition to the protagonist (good

guy). He is a rival or enemy of the protagonist.

  • The antagonist in Tolsoy’s “The Long Exile” is Makar Semyonof.

Anastrophe—word order is reversed or rearranged.

  • Milton’s Paradise Lost—from the beginning of Belial’s speech in the Council of Pandemonium is deliberately confused to suggest Belial’s speciousness:

I should be much for open war, O Peers,

As not behind in hate, if what was urged

Main reason to persuade immediate war

Did not dissuade me most, and seem to cast

Ominous conjecture on the whole success.

When he who most excels in fact of arms,

In what he counsels and in what excels

Mistrustful, grounds for his courage on dispair

And utter dissolution, as the scope

Of all his aim, after some dire revenge.

Antithesis—the juxtaposition of contrasting ideas.

  • Francis Bacon’s apophthegm “Crafty men contemn studies; simple men admire them; and wise men use them.”

Aphorism—a self-evident or universally recognized truth written in a concise manner. Aphorisms are used to

make a point about a topic or issue. Aphorisms are also called maxims, axioms, morals, sayings,

or adages.

  • from Pope’s An Essay on Criticism: We think our fathers fools, so wise we grow;

Our wiser sons, no doubt, will think us so.
Apostrophe—a figure of speech that directly addresses an absent or imaginary person or abstraction.

  • For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar’s angel.

Judge, O you gods, how dearly Caesar loved him. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
Apposition—the placing next to a noun another noun or phrase that explains it.

Archetype—An image, plot, character, or descriptive detail that occurs frequently in literature, myth, religion,

or folklore, and causes emotion in the reader because it awakens an image in unconscious

memory. The archetype is universally recognized, transcending cultures and time.

The symbols that exists in the collective unconscious of people that include symbols in art,

literature, myths, religion that reoccur over time and across cultures. All archetypes must be

primordial, universal, and recurring. There are three types of archetypes: situational, character,

and symbolic.

1—situational archetypes

a—the quest—this motif describes the search for someone or some talisman which when

found and brought back, will restore fertility to a waste land, the desolation of

which is mirrored by a leader’s illness and disability

b—the task—to save the kingdom, to win the fair lady, to identify himself so that he may

reassume his rightful position the hero must perform some nearly superhuman

deed or the function of the ultimate goal

c—the initiation—this usually take the form of an initiation into adult life. The adolescent

comes into his/her maturity with new awareness and problems along with

new hope for the community

d—the journey—the journey sends the hero in search for some truth or information necessary

to restore fertility to the kingdom. Usually the hero descends into a real or

psychological hell and is forced to discover the blackest truths, quite often

concerning his faults. Once the hero is at his lowest point, he must accept

personal responsibility to return to the world of the living. A second use of this

pattern is the depiction of a limited number of travelers on a sea voyage, bus

ride, or any other trip for the purpose of isolating them and using them as a

microcosm of society.

e—the fall—this archetype describes a descent from a higher to a lower state of being. The

experience involves a defilement and/or loss of innocence and bliss. The fall is

often accompanied by expulsion from a kind of paradise as penalty for

disobedience and moral transgression

f—death and rebirth—the most common of all situational archetypes, this motif grows out of

the parallel between the cycle of nature and the cycle of life. Thus,

morning and springtime represent rebirth, birth, and youth; evening and

winter suggest old age and death

g—nature vs. mechanistic world—nature is good while technology and society are often evil

h—battle between good and evil—obviously the battle between two primal forces. Mankind

shows eternal optimism in continual portrayal of good

triumphing over evil despite great odds

i—the unhealable wound—this wound is either physical or psychological and cannot be healed

fully. This wound also indicated a loss of innocence. These

wounds often drive the sufferer to desperate measures.

k—the ritual—the actual ceremonies the initiate experiences that will mark his rite of passage

into another state. The importance of the ritual rites cannot be over stressed as

they provide clear sign post for character’s role in society as well as our own

position in the world.

l—the magic weapon—this symbolizes the extraordinary quality of the hero because no one

else can wield the weapon or use it to its fullest potential. It is usually

given by a mentor figure.

m—paradise—is seen as a place of peace, light, and beauty, echoing the primordial perfection

of nature. It sometimes represents heaven itself and sometimes a stage on the

road toward it. It may be depicted as a garden or, in the Christian tradition, as

the New Jerusalem.

2—character archetypes—

a—the hero—Lord Reglan in the Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth and Drama, contends that

this archetype is so well defined that the life of the protagonist can be clearly

divided into a series of well—marked adventured which strongly suggest

a ritualistic pattern. Reglan finds that traditionally the hero’s mother is a virgin,

the circumstances of his conception are unusual, and at birth some attempt is

made to kill him. He is, however, spirited away and reared by foster parents.

We know almost nothing of his childhood, but upon reaching manhood he

returns to his future kingdom. After a victory over the king or a wild beast, he

marries a princess, becomes a king, after which he meets a mysterious death,

often at the top of a hill. His body is not buried, but nevertheless, he has one of

more holy sepulchers

b—the young man from the provinces—this hero is spirited away as a young man and raised

by strangers. He later returns to his home and

heritage where he is a stranger who can see new

problems and solutions.

c—the initiates—these are young heroes or heroines, who prior to their quest, must endure

some training and ceremony.

d—mentors—these individuals serve as teachers or counselors to the initiates. Sometimes

they work as role models and often serve as a father or mother figure

e—mentor-pupil relationship—the mentor teaches by example the skills necessary to survive

the quest

f—father-son conflict—tension often results from separation during childhood or from an

external source when the individuals meet as men and where the

mentor often has a higher place in the affections of the hero than the

natural parent

g—hunting or group companions—loyal companions willing to face any number of perils in

order to be together

h—loyal retainers—these individuals are somewhat like servants who are heroic themselves.

Their duty is to protect the hero and reflect the nobility of the hero.

i—friendly beast—this shows that nature is on the side of the hero

k—the devil figure—evil incarnate, this character offers worldly goods, fame, or knowledge to

the protagonist in exchange for possession of the soul

l—the evil figure with the ultimately good heart—a redeemable devil figure saved by the

nobility or love of the hero

m—the scapegoat—an animal or more usually a human whose death in a public ceremony

expiates some taint or sin that has been visited upon a community. Their

death often mistakes them a more powerful force in society than when

they lived.

n—the outcast—a figure who is banished from a social group for some crime (real or imagined)

against his fellow man. The outcast is usually destined to become a wanderer

from place to place.

o—the woman figure

1—the earthmother—symbolic of fruition, abundance, and fertility. This character

traditionally offers spiritual and emotional nourishment to

those with whom she comes in contact. Often depicted in earth

colors and has large breasts and hips symbolic of her

childbearing capabilities

2—the temptress—characterized by sensuous beauty, this woman is one to who the

protagonist is physically attracted and who ultimately brings

about his downfall

3—the platonic ideal—this woman is a source of inspiration and a spiritual ideal, for

whom the protagonist or author has an intellectual rather than a

physical attraction

4—the unfaithful wife—a woman married to a man she sees as dull or distant and is

attracted to more virile or interesting men

5—the damsel in distress—the vulnerable woman who must be rescued by the hero.

She often is used as a trap to ensnare the unsuspecting


6—the star-crossed lovers—these two characters are engaged in a love affair that is

fated to end tragically for one or both due to the

disapproval of the society, friends, or family or some

tragic situation

p—the creature of nightmare—a monster usually summoned from the deepest, darkest part of

the human psyche to threaten the lives of the hero/heroine.

Often it is a perversion or desecration of the human body

3—symbolic archetypes

a—light vs. dark—light usually suggests hope, renewal, or intellectual illumination; dark implies

the unknown, ignorance, or despair

b—water vs. desert—because water is necessary to life and growth, it commonly appears as a

birth or rebirth symbol. Water is used in baptismal services, which

solemnizes spiritual births. Similarly, the appearance of rain in a work of

literature can suggest a character’s spiritual rebirth.

c—heaven vs. hell—Man has traditionally associated parts of the universe not accessible to

him with the dwelling places of the primordial forces that govern his

world. The skies and mountain tops house the gods; the bowels of the

earth contain diabolic forces that inhabit this universe

d—innate wisdom vs. educated stupidity—some characters exhibit wisdom and

understanding of situations instinctively as

opposed to those supposedly in charge. Loyal

retainers often exhibit this wisdom as they

accompany them on the journey.

e—haven vs. wilderness—places of safety contrast sharply against the dangerous wilderness.

Heroes are often sheltered for a time to regain health and


f—supernatural intervention—the gods intervene on the side of the hero or sometimes

against him

g—fire vs. ice—fire represents knowledge, light, life, rebirth; while ice like desert represents

ignorance, darkness, sterility, and death

h—mandalas (India) and yantras (Tibet)—In Sanskrit, mandala means circle. Jung says that

one of the most powerful religious symbols is the

circle. He says that the circle is one of the most

powerful religious symbols is the circle. He says

that the circle is one of the greatest primordial

images of mankind and that, in considering the

symbol of the circle, we are analyzing the self.

The circle represents totality, everything within the

circle is one thing which is encircled, enframed.

But the temporal aspect of the circle is that you

leave, go somewhere, and always come back.

The circle suggests a complete totality, whether in

time or space.

i—mazes or labyrinth—inner journey through the confusing and conflicting pathways of the

mind until the seeker reaches the center and discovers the realities of

his/her own nature

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