aesthetic Concerning beauty and the appreciation of beauty; as a noun, used to denote the set of principles and ideas that define an artistic movement (“a classical aesthetic”).
Aestheticism A movement, originating in the late 19th century in England, which valued “art for art’s sake”, and rejected the idea that art or literature should offer a moral message or social purpose. Leading proponents included playwright Oscar Wilde, artist James Whistler, and poet and artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
alexandrine A poetic line consisting of 12 syllables split into six iambic feet (an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable).
allegory A work of art or literature that contains a veiled meaning or message, often conveyed symbolically. For example, a tale about squabbling farmyard animals can be an allegory for a country’s corrupt political leaders.
alliteration The use of several words in a row or close together that begin with the same consonant or sound, often for deliberate poetic effect.
antihero The protagonist of a literary work who embodies a noticeably different moral code from the conventional (or role model) hero, because they are either unheroic or actively villainous.
antinovel A term coined by the mid-20th century Existentialist philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre to refer to a novel in which the conventions of the form are deliberately ignored or subverted. A key development of Postmodern literature, an antinovel may have some features in common with metafiction.
ballad A form of popular verse that narrates a story, often set to music, and widespread throughout Europe from the Middle Ages until the early 19th century.
Bildungsroman A “novel of formation” that tells of the early struggles and emotional education of a young protagonist, who grows and matures during the process. The genre originated in Germany in the late 18th century. Many Bildungsromans are regarded as partly autobiographical.
Byronic hero A hero having the qualities for which the English Romantic poet Lord Byron was famed, including rebelliousness, passion, defiance, contempt for conventional morality, and possibly an appetite for self-destruction.
canto From the Italian meaning “song”, a section of a long (or especially epic) poem, comparable to a chapter in a novel or long work of non-fiction.
chanson de geste A form of epic poem of the 11th to 13th centuries that incorporates legends about historical figures such as Charlemagne, and which was sung or recited at court. Often considered to be the beginning of French literature. The term is from the Old French, “song of heroic deeds”.
classic In its literary sense, a work widely accepted as being of lasting value and worthy of study.
comedy One of the two types of drama created in ancient Greece (the other being tragedy), whose purpose is laughter, entertainment, and satire. In contrast to tragedy, comedy tends to have a happy ending and to deal with ordinary people and with the mundane aspects of life.
conceit An elaborate or unlikely metaphor, especially popular in Elizabethan poetry, comparing two things that are not obviously similar. English poet John Donne famously compares parting lovers to the arms of a compass, apart but still connected.
couplet Two successive lines of verse that go together, often rhyming. When occurring at the conclusion of a poem (such as a Shakespearean sonnet), it can form a summing-up of the poem’s sentiment or message.
drama A work intended to be acted out on a stage before an audience, originating in Athens in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE. The main genres were originally tragedy and comedy. The term comes from the Greek word meaning “action”.
dystopia The opposite of utopia: a vision (usually in novel form) of a future in which society is dominated by a totalitarian state, or has broken down, often through environmental disaster or war. Life in a dystopia usually involves fear and hardship.
epic poem A long narrative poem, detailing the adventures of a historic or legendary hero. Epic poems are the oldest literary texts in the world, and probably originated in an oral tradition.
epistolary novel A type of novel popular in 18th-century European literature in which the narrative is told entirely via letters or other documents written by the characters.
Existentialism A theory of philosophy that emerged in Europe in the late 19th century, focusing on the individual’s experience of the world and the importance of individual agency and responsibility. Existentialist literature often contains elements of anxiety, loneliness, and paranoia in characters’ reactions to a meaningless universe.
fable A simple story with a moral message, often featuring animal characters and mythical elements.
fairy tale A short tale featuring folkloric fantasy characters and wonderful events, and set in a magical, timeless, and usually rural world.
fiction A work that is entirely invented, consisting of a made-up narrative and imaginary characters. A work of fiction may be wholly fantastical or embedded in the real world. In a wider sense, fiction is the genre consisting of novels and stories.
folklore The traditional beliefs, legends, and customs of a culture, passed down by oral tradition for many hundreds (or even thousands) of years.
folktale A popular or traditional tale handed down from generation to generation by oral transmission; another name for a fairy tale.
frame narrative An outer narrative that introduces a story (or stories) contained within it — generally via a character who narrates the main, inner story. The frame provides context and structure, and sometimes incorporates many different stories, as in Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron and Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.
genre A style or category of literature (or art or music), such as tragedy, comedy, history, spy fiction, science fiction, romance, or crime.
Gothic A genre that explores the limits of the imagination, originating in England and Germany in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Its features include gloomy, macabre settings (such as castles, ruins, or graveyards), supernatural beings (such as ghosts and vampires), and an atmosphere of mystery and horror.
haiku A Japanese form comprising a short poem with three lines of five, seven, and five syllables respectively, and traditionally dealing with the natural world. It flourished from the 17th to the 19th centuries and became popular in Western literature in the 20th century.
hard-boiled fiction A type of urban crime fiction originating with the US pulp-fiction detective magazines of the 1920s, often with a sardonic private investigator as the protagonist, and featuring gangsters, prostitutes, guns, sex, and violence, as well as fast, colloquial dialogue.
Harlem Renaissance A flourishing of black American writing (also art and music) that came out of the new black middle class in 1920s’ Harlem, New York. Lasting from around 1918 to the early 1930s, it helped establish a black cultural identity in the USA.
humanism During the Renaissance, an intellectual movement springing from a revived interest in classical Greek and Roman thought; today, a largely secular, rationalist system of thought that emphasizes human rather than divine agency.
legend A traditional story, linked to historical events, people, or locations, and operating within the realms of the possible (as opposed to a myth, which incorporates supernatural elements), although the exact dates and details may have been lost.
magic realism A Postmodern style of artistic expression that in literature takes the form of a traditional realist narrative into which bizarre or supernatural elements are introduced, forcing the reader to re-evaluate the reality of the surrounding fiction.
metafiction A type of Postmodern writing that uses techniques to remind the reader of the artificiality of a fictional work (for example by including the author as a character, or by having characters who are aware that they are in a story), to draw attention to the relationship between fiction and real life.
metaphor A figure of speech that adds an extra layer of meaning to an object by equating it with something else.
metre In poetry, the rhythm of a piece of verse, dictated by the “feet” (stressed syllables) in a line.
Modernism In literature, a movement that lasted from the late 19th to the mid-20th century. It broke with traditional forms and expanded the limits of poetry and fiction with experimental methods that sought a new level of psychological truth, such as stream of consciousness.
motif A theme that returns several times throughout a work, and which may reflect on and enhance the other themes or central message of a work.
myth A symbolic account of gods or superhuman beings existing in a time apart from ordinary human history, used to explain the customs, rituals, and beliefs of a people or culture. Often mentioned in the same phrase as, but different from, legend.
narrative An account of a series of connected events, whether fictional or non-fictional.
narrative voice The way in which a narrative is communicated to the reader, for example via a first-person or an omniscient narrator.
Naturalism A literary movement that went further than realism in trying to recreate human behaviour in exact and precise detail. It also tried to show how people (especially the poor) are formed by their environments and social pressures, and it was often criticized for concentrating on human misery. It originated in France in the mid-19th century, and is perhaps best exemplified by the novels of Émile Zola.
neoclassicism A fascination with the ideals of classical Greece and Rome that was prevalent in the arts in Europe during the Enlightenment (1650—1800). In literature, neoclassicism developed most fully in France, with playwrights Molière and Jean Racine writing comedies and tragedies respectively that adhered to the classical unities. In Britain, major proponents included poet Alexander Pope and satirist Jonathan Swift.
New Journalism A form of non-fiction writing that uses stylistic devices from fiction to achieve a heightened literary effect, dramatizing events rather than sticking to objective journalistic truth. Key practitioners included Hunter S Thompson, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Joan Didion. The name derives from the 1973 book by US author Tom Wolfe.
non-fiction A work of prose in which nothing is made up, and which is about and based on facts and real events (as opposed to fiction).
novel A sustained work of prose fiction, usually of several hundred pages, and typically containing characters and a plot. The novel form developed gradually from the 16th century onwards.
novella A work of prose fiction that is shorter than a novel, but longer than a short story. A novella can touch on themes almost as broad in scope as a full novel, although it retains some of the compact unity of the short story.
novel of manners A literary style that examined (often satirically) the values and contradictions of society through the domestic scenarios of the middle and upper classes, and in which literary realism was a key element. Developed partly in reaction to the Gothic novels of the late 18th century and the excesses of Romanticism.
ode A usually rhyming lyric poem written as an address to (often in praise of) a person, place, or thing. It originated in ancient Greece, where it was performed accompanied by music.
parody A work that mocks its target by humorously, satirically, or ironically imitating and exaggerating its least effective elements.
pathetic fallacy First coined by Victorian critic John Ruskin in 1856, the term describes a literary device by which human emotions are attributed to nature or the environment, in such a way that nature seems to offer a reflection of a character’s inner state.
picaresque novel From the Spanish word pícaro, meaning “rogue” or “rascal”, an episodic prose narrative about a disreputable but likeable hero.
plot The main story, or the sequence and interrelationship of crucial events, in a work of literature.
poetry Literary writing of concentrated expression, intended to evoke a greater resonance than prose. Poetry uses a wide variety of devices, including alliteration, rhyme, metaphor, and rhythm, to achieve its effects. Different forms of poetry include the epic, the ballad, the sonnet, and, more recently, the less structured form of free verse.
postcolonial literature A branch of writing, especially novels, that developed in former colonies around the world in the mid-20th century, dealing with the aftermath of colonization and examining issues such as oppression and freedom, cultural identity, and diaspora.
Postmodernism In literature, a movement that began after World War II, developing from the experimentation of the Modernist era. Postmodernist works exhibit differing approaches, but often mock previous traditions by parody, pastiche, and the mixing of elements of high and low art; they use techniques of metafiction to draw attention to a work’s artificiality.
prose The ordinary, natural form of written or spoken language, as opposed to the more structured, rhythmic forms of poetry.
protagonist The chief character in a story or narrative; the person to whom the story happens.
realism The accurate depiction of life as it is lived by ordinary people. Often specifically referring to the literary approach that was adopted in France (particularly in the novels of Gustave Flaubert) in the 19th century, which stressed material facts and sociological insight in reaction to the emotional nature of Romantic literature.
rhyme A repetition of the same sound in two or more words; when this occurs at the end of lines in a poem it creates an effect, which poets use to achieve various ends (for example to enhance meaning, to round off a poem, or simply for harmony).
rhyme scheme The pattern of the rhymes in a poem. Certain types of poem have strict rhyme schemes, such as terza rima , the Shakespearean sonnet, and the Keatsian ode.
roman à clef A work in which real people and events are presented in fictionalized form. From the French meaning “novel with a key”.
romance In the 16th to 18th centuries, a work of fiction that contained extraordinary adventures or fanciful elements. In contemporary fiction, a genre whose narrative and plot focus on romantic love.
Romanticism In literature, a Europe-wide literary movement that began in the late 18th century, in which writers rejected the Enlightenment ideals of objective reason, and wrote only from their own personal perspective. Rationality and restraint were replaced by inspiration and subjectivity. Themes included intense emotional experiences and the sublime beauty of nature.
saga A narrative from Iceland or Norway written in the Middle Ages, mainly in the Old Norse language, and principally dealing with the founding of Iceland (family sagas), the kings of Norway (kings’ sagas), and legendary or heroic exploits (sagas of antiquity). Although written in prose, the saga shares characteristics with the epic.
satire Born out of the comedies of ancient Greece, this is a literary form that uses such elements as irony, sarcasm, ridicule, and wit to expose or attack human failings or vices, often with the intent of inspiring reform.
science fiction Writing that explores the possibility of scenarios that are at the time of writing technologically impossible, extrapolating from present-day science; or that deal with some form of speculative science-based conceit, such as a society (on Earth or another planet) that has developed in wholly different ways from our own.
slave narrative A non-fiction narrative told by a slave who has escaped captivity or been granted freedom. Necessarily quite rare (because education was denied to slaves), they were used by anti-slavery campaigners to bring the slaves’ plight to wider public attention, helping to end European trading in slaves and the abolition of slavery in North America.
soliloquy A device in a play in which a character speaks his or her innermost thoughts aloud, which has the effect of sharing them directly with the audience.
sonnet A type of poem created in medieval Italy, having 14 lines of a set number of syllables, and following a specific rhyme scheme. The two most common types are the Petrarchan (or Italian) and the Shakespearean (or English) sonnet.
speculative fiction First used in 1947 by US science fiction writer Robert A Heinlein as a synonym for science fiction, the term now signifies a loose genre of work that deals with the question “What if?” through science fiction, horror, fantasy, mystery, and other genres, sometimes all at the same time.
stream of consciousness A key experimental technique used by Modernist writers, which tries to portray a character’s thoughts, feelings, and perceptions as they actually occur, often jumbled and unfinished, instead of in formal, composed sentences. Its proponents include James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner.
Sturm und Drang “Storm and stress”, a German literary movement of the late 18th century that overturned Enlightenment conventions, and revelled in extremes of individuality, violence, and passionate expression. The young Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller were two of its main exponents.
terza rima A form of poetry that uses three-line verses with an interlocking rhyme scheme, so that the first and third lines rhyme with each other, and the middle line rhymes with the first and third lines of the next verse. Developed (although not invented) by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri.
tragedy One of two types of play created in ancient Greece (the other being comedy), in which events move towards a catastrophic conclusion, and which shows characters brought low and experiencing terrible suffering, often because of a tragic flaw.
tragic flaw In Greek tragedy, the element of a protagonist’s character that leads to his or her downfall.
Transcendentalism A 19th-century movement in the USA whose adherents saw a divine beauty and goodness in nature that they tried to express through literature. Its most famous writers were Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
troubadour A travelling composer and singer in the courts of medieval Europe. The troubadours were usually artists of noble birth who sang tales about courtly love, rather than tales of bloody and heroic deeds.
trouvère A composer of epic poems in northern France, operating roughly from the 11th to the 14th centuries.
unities, the The three rules that governed the structure of neoclassical drama, following Aristotle’s notes on ancient Greek drama. They are unity of action (a single plot or storyline), unity of time (a single day), and unity of place (a single location).
utopia A theoretical perfect society in which all people live a harmonious existence. Taken from the name of the 1516 work by the English humanist and statesman Sir Thomas More.
vernacular The language of a specific country; ordinary language as it is actually spoken, as opposed to formal literary language.
Victorian literature British literature written during the reign of Queen Victoria (reigned 1837—1901), which often consisted of long and highly ambitious novels depicting broad cross-sections of society and often containing a moral lesson. Key authors were Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and William Makepeace Thackeray.
Weimar Classicism A German literary movement that lasted from the 1780s to 1805, named after the German city of Weimar, home of its principal authors, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller. These authors used the structure of classical Greek drama and poetry to create works of aesthetic balance and harmony.
world literature Literature that has developed an audience and had an influence beyond its original culture and language.