Glossary of Literary Terms


Literary criticism, like every specialized subject, has its own vocabulary or “jargon.” Even for non-specialists, sometimes it’s very helpful to have precise ways to talk about literary form or devices. This kind of terminology is especially valuable for recognizing and appreciating a writer’s craft: for understanding how a novel is built, how it achieves the effects we feel when we read it.

Useful terms

Here are a few terms that I think could be useful for talking about Middlemarch, with brief explanations. You don’t have to use this specialized vocabulary to analyze the book, of course, but it’s such a smart, complex, and well-crafted novel that you may want to! You can find a lot more in the online sources I’ve linked to. Be careful not to turn into Mr. Casaubon, though!

allusion: an implicit or explicit reference to something else, such as another literary text or a historical character or event (usually serves to make connections or add layers to our interpretation)

characterization: the ways information about a character is conveyed (through description, for instance, or dialogue, or action)

dramatic irony: when we as readers or audience know more about a situation than the characters (often contributes to suspense)

epic: a long poem in an elevated style treating a serious subject, usually focusing on a noble, heroic character

exposition: information presented directly by the narrator, often background or context

flashback: a movement back in time to a scene prior to the novel’s present

free indirect discourse: a mode of narration in which the narrator’s voice merges with a character’s point of view (both Jane Austen and George Eliot use this technique a lot – the lack of overt signals that we aren’t getting the narrator’s point of view makes it important to pay thoughtful attention to tone and diction)

irony: saying one thing but meaning its opposite

metaphor: an implicit comparison of one thing to another (when the comparison is explicit, as in “my love is like a red, red rose,” it is a simile)

pathetic fallacy: the reflection of internal feelings in external objects or circumstances (such as a thunderstorm that suggests characters’ turbulent emotions)

point of view: the perspective from which a story or scene is seen or told

prolepsis: a look forward, to events after the novel’s present (also flashforward)

symbol: something that stands for something else (symbols can be conventional – widely recognized, as in a heart for love or a dove for peace – or contextual – taking on significance from a particular context)

theme: the underlying meaning or idea of a novel, beyond its literal subject

Online Literary Dictionaries

Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (Oxford Reference)

Literature Glossary (McGraw-Hill)


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