An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory - Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle 2016


Affective fallacy: term used by W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley to designate what they see as the error of making subjective responses (cognitive or emotional) the criteria for interpretive, critical or aesthetic judgements.

Allegory: (Gk. ’other speaking’) a narrative which — through allusion, metaphor, symbolism, etc. — can be read not simply on its own terms but as telling another, quite different story at the same time.

Alliteration: repeated consonant sounds, particularly at the beginning of words, e.g. ’kiddies’ clobber’, ’mountains of moonstone’. (See also assonance.)

Allusion: a reference, often only implicit or indirect, to another work of literature or art, person, event, etc.

Ambiguity: where a word, phrase or text may be interpreted in more than one way, but often taken to suggest an uncertainty between two (rather than three or more) meanings or readings. (See also equivocality, polysemia, undecidability.)

Animism: the rhetorical figure whereby something inanimate or lifeless is given attributes of life or spirit, e.g. Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights: ’I believe at Wuthering Heights the kitchen is forced to retreat altogether into another quarter … the chairs, high-backed, primitive structures, painted green, one or two heavy black ones lurking in the shade…’; or the opening of Shelley’s ’Ode to the West Wind’: ’O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being…’

Anthropocentrism: refers to everything in a culture that asserts or assumes that the human (Gk. anthropos, ’man’) is at the centre — whether of the universe, the world, or the meaning of a text.

Anthropomorphism: the rhetorical figure whereby the non-human is described in human terms (e.g. the legs of a table, the face of truth).

Aporia: a rhetorical figure for doubt. Especially associated with deconstructive thinking, an aporia may arise when the reader encounters two or more contradictory codes, ’messages’ or ’meanings’ in a text. It involves an impasse or site of undecidability. (See also undecidability.)

Assonance: correspondence or ’rhyming’ of vowel sounds, e.g. eat, sleep; ooze, droop.

Bathos: artistic falling-away; a sense of disappointment or anticlimax, expressed by the writer or felt by the reader, e.g. the bathos in Matthew Arnold’s ’The Buried Life’, in the use of the word ’melancholy’ at the culmination of a sentence which might have been expected to conclude on a note of triumph or joy: ’Yet still … / As from an infinitely distant land, / Come airs, and floating echoes, and convey / A melancholy into all our day’.

Catachresis: (Gk. ’misuse’) rhetorical term for misuse or misapplication of language.

Catharsis: (Gk. ’purgation’, ’purification’) according to Aristotle, something that can happen to a spectator or reader at the end of a tragedy, due to a release of emotional tension arising from the experience of a paradoxical mixture of pity and terror.

Chiasmus: (from the Gk. letter χ) a rhetorical figure involving repetition and reversal, e.g. ’If you fail to plan, you plan to fail’. More broadly the term is used to refer to forms of intercrossing or reversal whereby each of the two sides of a conceptual opposition (e.g. man/woman, text/world, etc.) is shown to be reversible and paradoxically to be present and functionally active in its opposite.

Close reading: ’method’ of reading emphasized by new critics which pays careful attention to ’the words on the page’ rather than the historical and ideological context, the biography or intentions of the author and so on. Close reading, despite its name, brackets questions of readers and reading as arbitrary and irrelevant to the text as an artifact (see affective fallacy). It assumes that the function of reading and criticism is simply to read carefully what is already ’there’ in the text.

Closure: an ending, the process of ending.

Connotation: an association, idea or image evoked by a word or phrase. Roughly equivalent to ’suggestion’, connotation is distinct from denotation (what words denote or signify).

Couplet: two successive rhyming lines in a poem, e.g. Alexander Pope’s ’Epigram Engraved on the Collar of a Dog I Gave to His Royal Highness’: ’I am his Highness’ Dog at Kew: / Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?’

Crypt: (Gk. kryptein, to hide) a term developed by the psychoanalysts Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok to describe effects of transgenerational haunting. A crypt is a sort of ’false unconscious’, the means by which a child is unknowingly preoccupied by a secret or secrets transmitted by a parent.

Cultural materialism: cultural materialism may be considered as the British version of new historicism. Both schools of criticism are characterized by newly theorized and politicized readings of history and of literary texts. While new historicism is particularly concerned with the textuality of history, however, cultural materialism, influenced by Raymond Williams’s version of Marxist criticism, focuses on the material conditions of the production and reception of literary texts. Cultural materialists are thus concerned to expose the ideological and political dimensions of such texts.

Deconstruction: a term particularly associated with the work of Jacques Derrida. Roughly speaking, deconstruction is desedimentation: to deconstruct is to shake up and transform.

Defamiliarization: the Russian formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky uses the term ostranenie, usually translated as ’making strange’ or ’defamiliarization’, to denote what he sees as the primary function of literary texts — to make the familiar unfamiliar, to renew the old, or make the habitual appear fresh or strange.

Deixis: a term from linguistics, referring to the use of words concerning the place and time of utterance, e.g. ’this’, ’here’.

Denouement: (Fr: ’unknotting’) either the events following the climax of a plot, or the resolution of this plot’s complications at the end of a short story, novel or play.

Discourse: can mean simply ’speech or language generally’, or ’language as we use it’. But the term is often used in more theoretical contexts to signify the use of language associated with a particular institution, cultural identity, profession, practice or discipline. In this way each discourse is one of a number of discourses (the discourse of the colonizer, for instance, as distinct from that of the colonized). Whether general or particular, discourse is always inscribed within relations of power, within the structures and strictures of institutions.

Double bind: a double bind involves the kind of double or contradictory statement or order which deconstructive criticism tends to focus on, e.g. the sentence ’This sentence is not true’ is both true and not true at the same time (if it’s true then it’s not true and if it’s not true then it’s true). Rather differently, the sentence ’Do not read this sentence’ involves an order which can only be obeyed if it is disobeyed (we have to read the sentence in order to know that we should not read it).

Ecocriticism: the study of literature from the perspective of the relationship between humans and their environment.

Ekphrasis: (Gk. ’description’) narrowly defined, ekphrasis involves the attempt to describe a visual work of art in words; more generally, however, ekphrasis denotes any attempt to encapsulate a visual image or perception or effect in language.

Elegy: (Gk. ’lament’) a poem of mourning for an individual or a lament for a tragic event; the adjective ’elegiac’ may be used to describe a sense of mourning or loss encountered in any text — poem or prose.

End-stopping: where lines of poetry end with punctuation, usually with strong punctuation such as full stops, semi-colons or colons, e.g. in the penultimate section of Wallace Stevens’s ’An Ordinary Evening in New Haven’: ’The wind has blown the silence of summer away. / It buzzes beyond the horizon or in the ground: / In mud under ponds, where the sky used to be reflected’. End-stopping is the opposite of enjambement.

Enjambement: the phenomenon whereby one line of poetry carries over into the next line without any punctuation whatsoever. Especially characteristic of poetry such as Milton’s, Wordsworth’s and Shelley’s.

Epic: long narrative dealing with heroic deeds usually employing elevated language and traditionally involving a heroic or ’superhuman’ protagonist, e.g. The Odyssey, Paradise Lost.

Epistemophilia: (Gk. ’a love of knowledge’) the desire for knowledge which literary texts produce in readers — the desire for the ’truth’ or ’meaning’ of the text, for example. Peter Brooks argues that epistemophilia is a dimension of the sex drive, and that it involves a ’dynamic of curiosity’ which may be thought to be ’the foundation of all intellectual activity’ (Brooks 1993, xiii).

Equivocality: like ’ambiguity’, this suggests that a word, phrase, etc. has more than one meaning but, while ’ambiguous’ suggests that it may be possible to decide on one primary meaning, ’equivocal’ suggests that the meaning cannot be resolved. (See also undecidability, polysemia.)

Essentialism: refers to ways of conceiving people, cultures, etc. as having certain innate, natural or universal characteristics. Essentialism is strongly contested in most contemporary literary theory. The following three statements are all examples of essentialist thinking: (1) ’I have a personality and individuality which is completely unaffected by anything out there in the “real” world, such as language, economics, education, nationality, etc.’; (2) ’Women are more intelligent, caring and sensitive than men’; and (3) ’At bottom, you are either white or black, and that’s all there is to it’.

Fabula: (also referred to as ’story’ or ’histoire’) the events of a narrative.

Feminist criticism: feminist criticism seeks on the one hand to investigate and analyse the differing representations of women and men in literary texts and, on the other hand, to rethink literary history by exploring an often marginalized tradition of women’s writing. Feminist criticism is concerned to question and challenge conventional notions of masculinity and femininity; to explore ways in which such conventions are inscribed in a largely patriarchal canon; and to consider the extent to which writing, language and even literary form itself are themselves bound up with issues of gender difference.

Figure (of speech), figurative language: this is usually defined in negative terms — that is to say, as non-literal language. Figurative language involves the entire field of what is known as rhetoric and includes, for example, metaphor, simile, hyperbole, anthropomorphism, etc.

Formalism: refers generally to kinds of criticism that emphasize the importance of the formal dimensions of literary texts, such as prose style, rhyme, narrative structure, verse-form and so on. In this respect formalism is seen to stress the importance of form as (supposedly) distinct from content, meaning, social and historical context, etc. The term can be encountered in two quite different contexts, namely Russian formalism and the formalist concerns of American new criticism (or ’close reading’). In fact, the Russian formalists were not simply formalist: their close attention to the specificity of literary form was consistently subordinate to more general political, even revolutionary concerns.

Genre: a kind; a literary type or style. Poetry, drama, novel may be subdivided into lyric (including elegy, ode, song, sonnet, etc.), epic, tragedy, comedy, short story, biography, etc.

Hermeneutic: a term formerly used to designate attempts to establish a set of rules governing the interpretation of the Bible in the nineteenth century; in the context of contemporary criticism, the term refers to theories of interpretation more generally.

Heteroglossia: (Gk. ’other/different tongues’) term used by Mikhail Bakhtin to describe the variety of voices or languages within a novel, but can be used of any text to give the sense that language use does not come from one origin but is multiple and diverse, a mixing of heterogeneous discourses, sociolects, etc. (See also polyphony.)

Humanism: any system of thought that accords human beings central importance can be called humanism. Humanism involves the belief that humans are unique among animals (that they are not, in a sense, animals at all), as well as a resistance to superstitious or religious thinking.

Hyperbole: a figure of speech which involves exaggeration, excess or extravagance, e.g. ’I’m starving’ instead of simply ’I am hungry’, and ’incredible’ instead of ’very good’.

Ideology: while the term ’ideology’ has a long history, its most common usage in contemporary literary criticism and theory originates in Marx’s distinction between base and superstructure and refers to the way in which literary texts may be said to engage with — to reinforce or resist — the governing social, cultural and especially political ideas, images and representations of a society. Ideology, in the work of writers such as Louis Althusser and Pierre Macherey, is seen as fundamental to the very production of subjectivity itself, and for these writers, all cultural signification (including that of literary texts) is ’ideological’. According to this thinking, ideology reflects the fact that no writer is merely ’free’ to express him- or herself, but is necessarily constrained by the conditions of the production of his or her text, by his or her social, cultural, economic and political circumstances. Ideology is thus held to be ineradicably inscribed in the literary text and the task of the critic is to analyse the work’s often disguised or hidden ideological subtext.

Implied reader: Wolfgang Iser uses this term to denote a hypothetical reader towards whom the text is directed. The implied reader is to be distinguished from the so-called ’real reader’.

Indeterminacy: see undecidability.

In medias res: (L. ’in the middle of things’) starting a story in the middle of the action.

Intentional fallacy: W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley’s term for what they see as the mistake of attempting to interpret a literary text by appealing to the supposed intentions of its author.

Interpretation: usually understood to involve an attempt to define the meaning or meanings of a specific text, with the assumption that a text has a limited meaning or meanings.

Intertextuality: a term coined by Julia Kristeva to refer to the fact that texts are constituted by a ’tissue of citations’, that every word of every text refers to other texts and so on, limitlessly. Often used in an imprecise or weak sense to talk about echoes or allusions.

Irony: a rhetorical figure referring to the sense that there is a discrepancy between words and their meanings, between actions and their results, or between appearance and reality: most simply, saying one thing and meaning another.

Jouissance: (Fr. ’bliss’, ’pleasure’, including sexual bliss or orgasm) a term introduced into psychoanalytic theory by Jacques Lacan, to refer to extreme pleasure, but also to that excess whereby pleasure slides into its opposite. Roland Barthes uses the term to suggest an experience of reading as textual bliss. Similarly, Jacques Derrida suggests that the effect of deconstruction is to liberate forbidden jouissance.

Logocentrism: term introduced by Jacques Derrida in order to refer to everything in Western culture that puts logos (the Gk. term for ’word’, more broadly translatable as ’meaning’ or ’sense’) at the centre. As Derrida argues, there is no simple escape from logocentric thinking.

Lyric: usually a fairly short poem supposedly expressing the thoughts and emotions of a speaker. Lyrics tend to be non-narrative in form.

Metafiction: a short story or novel which exploits the idea that it is (only) fiction, a fiction about fiction. Arguably, however, there are metafictional dimensions in any work of fiction. (See also self-reflexivity.)

Metaphor: a basic trope or figure of speech in which one thing is described in terms of its resemblance to another thing, e.g. the verb ’to fly’ in ’she flew into his arms’. (See also simile.)

Metonymy: a basic trope or figure of speech in which the name of an attribute of an object is given for the object itself (e.g. in ’the pen is mightier than the sword’, ’pen’ is a metonym for writing; ’sword’ is a metonym, for fighting or war).

Metre: the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in verse — one of the primary characteristics which may be said to distinguish verse from prose.

Mimesis: (Gk. ’imitation’) the idea that literature attempts to represent ’life’ or ’the world’ more or less accurately, as it ’actually’ is, etc. (See also realism.)

Monologue: a text (or part of a text) consisting of the speech of a single person (usually a fictional narrator, character or persona) speaking in actual or virtual solitude. In drama, referred to as a ’soliloquy’.

Narrative: may be defined in terms of the recounting of a series of events and the establishing of some (causal/temporal) relation between them.

Narratology: the field of critical and theoretical inquiry concerned with analysis of the underlying narrative structure or form of literary and other texts. Originating in the structuralist desire to produce a quasi-mathematical modelling of the deep structure of all narrative texts, recent developments in the field have encompassed poststructuralism, psychoanalytic criticism, feminism and other tendencies and have tended to move away from such scientism to examine the cultural and political significance of the workings of specific narrative texts in their historical context.

Narrator: the person or persona (as distinguished from the author) who is telling a story. Narrators can be variously categorized: a so-called omniscient narrator appears to know everything; an intrusive narrator gives his or her own comments and opinions on the story; an unreliable narrator cannot be trusted for some reason (e.g. he or she is prejudiced, exaggerating, lying); a first-person narrator presents himself or herself in the story as ’I’; a third-person narrator speaks of his or her characters as ’she’, ’he’, etc.

New historicism: like its British version, cultural materialism, new historicism in the USA is concerned with a newly politicized and theorized historical criticism. While cultural materialism traces its roots back to Raymond Williams, new historicism is particularly influenced by Foucault’s investigations of the workings of the institutions and discursive practices of medicine, psychology, the law, the university and so on, by which subjects are constructed, by which ideas are formed, and within which contexts literary texts are produced. New historicists are concerned with what Louis Montrose, in a now famous chiasmus, calls the ’historicity of texts and the textuality of history’ (in Veeser 1989): history is itself ’textual’ and open to interpretation, while literary texts are subject to the circulation of political and other currents of power.

Oxymoron: (Gk. ’wise foolishness’) a trope which combines contradictory words or ideas, e.g. ’bittersweet’, ’darkness visible’.

Paradox: an apparently contradictory or strange statement of how things are: that which is apparently illogical or absurd but may be understood to be meaningful or ’true’.

Parody: an imitation of another work of literature (usually with exaggeration) in order to make it seem ridiculous and/or amusing.

Paronomasia: word play. (See also pun.)

Pastiche: a work made up of imitation of other work(s); unlike parody, pastiche is not necessarily designed to ridicule.

Performative: pertaining generally to performance and, in the context of drama, to the active, dynamic effects of theatre. More specifically in the context of speech-act theory and the analysis of literary texts, however, ’performative’ is an adjective referring to the capacity that statements have for doing as well as saying things. A promise or an act of naming, for example, is a performative.

Peritext: term used by the narratologist Gerard Genette (1987) to denote elements on the ’threshold’ of a text such as the title, author’s name, preface, chapter titles, indicators of generic identity (’A Novel’, ’A Memoir’, ’A Romance’ and so on), epigraph, footnotes, or indeed glossary.

Phallocentrism: refers to everything in a culture that asserts or assumes that the phallus (the symbolic significance of a penis and more generally the patriarchy linked to this) is at the centre.

Phallogocentrism: a term conflating logocentrism and phallocentrism, used to refer to everything in language or meaning (logos) which is phallocentric. See also logocentrism and phallocentrism.

Point of view: refers to the way in which the narrator ’sees’ or interprets her or his material: also referred to as ’narrative perspective’.

Polyphony: literally, ’having many voices’: the idea that, rather than originating in a ’single voice’ (cf. univocal), a literary text has multiple origins or voices. Cf. heteroglossia, intertextuality.

Polysemia or polysemy: (Gk. ’many meanings’) the quality of having several or many meanings.

Poststructuralism: term used to describe those kinds of thinking and writing that disturb or exceed the ’merely’ rational or scientific, self-assuredly ’systematic’ work of structuralists. It is primarily associated with the work of Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, Cixous and (post-1967) Barthes. Poststructuralism entails a rigorous and, in principle, interminable questioning of every centrism (logocentrism, ethnocentrism, anthropocentrism, etc.), of all origins and ends, meaning and intention, paradigm or system.

Protagonist: the leading character in a story (hero or heroine).

Pun: a play on words alike or nearly alike in sound but different in meaning (e.g. the word ’grave’ in ’Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man’, Romeo and Juliet, 3.1.97—8).

Queer theory: taking as its starting point an assumption about the constructedness of human sexualities, queer theory argues that sexuality is neither ’innate’ nor ’natural’ but subject to social, cultural, religious, educational, intellectual and other influences. Following Michel Foucault, theorists such as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Judith Butler, Jonathan Dollimore and Joseph Bristow examine ways in which masculinity and femininity, and homo- and heterosexuality, are represented in literary and other texts and question traditional notions of the stability of such categories. In the work of such critics, ’queer theory’ is in fact central to any thinking about literary representation, homosexual, heterosexual or other.

Realism: a descriptive term particularly associated with the nineteenth-century novel to refer to the idea that texts appear to represent ’the world’ ’as it really is’.

Rhyme: like assonance and alliteration, rhymes are everywhere, in prose as well as in strictly ’poetic’ texts. There are several varieties of rhyme, of which the most common are (i) full rhyme, e.g. ’cat’/’sat’; (ii) half-rhyme or off-rhyme, e.g. ’beat’/’keep’, ’crime’/’scream’; (iii) internal rhyme, where a rhyme occurs within a line of verse, e.g. the ’-ell’ rhymes in Keats’s ode ’To Autumn’: ’To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells / With a sweet kernel; to set budding … /’; (iv) eye-rhyme, which should be seen but not heard, e.g. ’love’/’prove’; (v) masculine or strong rhymes, that is, words of one syllable, e.g. ’cat’/’sat’, etc.; (vi) feminine or weak rhymes, which extend over more than one syllable, e.g. ’follow’/’hollow’, ’qualify’/’mollify’, etc.

Satire: the humorous presentation of human folly or vice in such a way as to make it look ridiculous, e.g. Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal.

Self-reflexivity: the phenomenon whereby a piece of writing refers to or reflects on itself. Often used interchangeably with ’self-referentiality’. (See also metafiction.)

Sibilance: an emphatic presence of ’s’ or ’z’ sounds.

Simile: a trope in which one thing is likened to another, specifically through the use of ’like’ or ’as’ (a species of metaphor): in ’The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne / Burn’d on the water’ (Antony and Cleopatra, II, ii) there is a metaphor in ’The barge … burn’d’ (it is not literally on fire), and a simile in ’the barge … like a burnish’d throne’.

Simulacrum: (L. ’to make like’) in the postmodernism of Jean Baudrillard the simulacrum is defined in terms of the substitution of the sign of the real for the real itself, in terms of a copy without origin.

Sjuzhet: (Russian ’plot’) term used by the Russian formalist critics and borrowed by certain narratologists to denote the way in which a story is told, its ’discourse’ or telling, as opposed to the events of the narrative, the fabula or story.

Sonnet: a lyric poem of (usually) fourteen lines, most commonly divided into units of eight lines (octave) plus six (sestet), or of three quatrains (four lines each) and a couplet.

Stanza: a grouping of lines of verse, usually forming a self-contained pattern of rhymed lines — thus stanzas of a poem are normally of equal length.

Symbol: a figure in which one object represents another object (often an abstract quality): conventional symbols include, for example, scales for justice, a dove for peace, a goat for lust, a lion for strength, a rose for beauty or love, etc. A symbol is a kind of metaphor in which the subject of the metaphor is not made explicit, and may be mysterious or undecidable.

Teleology: literally, ’to do with the study of the end, goal or purpose’. In contemporary literary studies, ’teleology’ has to do with the idea that we think about texts (or about our activities as readers) as having a particular kind or particular kinds of telos (goal, purpose or end). One way of defining deconstruction or poststructuralism would be as a sustained questioning of the meaning, value and effects of teleological assumptions and ideas.

Trauma theory: (’trauma’ from Gk. ’a wound’) trauma theory is concerned with ways in which traumatic events are represented in language. It is particularly concerned with the difficulty or impossibility of such representations, particularly in the context of a sense of the unspeakable or untellable and of Freud’s notion of Nachträglichkeit or deferred action, whereby the trauma may properly be said to be experienced only after it is retrospectively (re)interpreted.

Trope: (Gk. ’turn’): any rhetorical figure or device.

Undecidability: the phenomenon or experience of being unable to come to a decision when faced with two or more possible readings or interpretations. In a weak and imprecise sense, used interchangeably with ’indeterminacy’. ’Indeterminacy’ is a negative term, however, implying that a decision (about being unable to determine a reading or interpretation) has already been reached. ’Undecidability’, on the other hand, stresses the active, continuing challenge of being unable to decide.

Univocal: the quality of supposedly having only one meaning. ’The cat sat on the mat’ might (and at some level must) be considered as a statement with univocal meaning: everyone knows what it is referring to. But at another level univocality is always open to question, in particular insofar as the context of a statement is never stable but is always susceptible to alteration or recontextualization. For example: Does ’cat’ mean ’lion’ here? One person’s sense of ’mat’ may not be someone else’s (it may be their prize Persian rug). And so on.