Glossary of Terms for Literary Study

 amanuensis: This term refers to one employed to take dictation or to copy manuscript. It comes from the Latin phrase, servus a manu, meaning “slave at handwriting.”

autobiographical narrative:  This term refers to texts that blend autobiography with creative narrative – taking liberty with the truth.

conversion narrative: This narrative depicts the protagonist’s acceptance of Christianity as the grace which protects the protagonist from cultural evils and from developing evil thoughts about a transgressor.

close reading: Close reading is a type of reading in which we give careful consideration of each aspect of the text by combing it for lines and phrases that can actually document the plausibility of our interpretation, the connotation we infer. This process must be identifiable by the presence of a string of evidence throughout the text. Often we shall have already passed some portions of this string before we ultimately pick up the connotation itself. Therefore, close reading involves rereading the text and taking inventory of the repetitions we have found after the rereading (s). Even then we are not finished until we have created binary oppositions (sets of two) from these lists of repetitions to get from the “said” to the “unsaid,” usually the real focus of the maker of the text. Finally, we are not finished until we produce our own text of our understandings through discussion and in writing.

criticism: For our purposes, criticism involves either a critique of the themes developed in a given text, or a critique of the codes (the unwritten laws that govern behavior) addressed by the maker of the text.

culture: We will subscribe to Stephen Greenblatt’s concept of culture. He quotes anthropologist, Edward B. Tylor’s 1871 definition: “Culture or Civilization taken in its wide sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” When we are aware of culture as a complex whole, we can recover a sense of the stakes that once gave readers pleasure and pain by reconstructing the boundaries that served as a basis for the text when it was written. Mere footnotes cannot do this for us. Greenblatt offers us some important strategies for the cultural criticism we will be doing once we have completed a valid, accurate interpretation to us as a community of readers:
Greenblatt writes:
We can begin to do so simply by a heightened attention to the beliefs and practices implicitly enforced by particular literary acts of praising or blaming. That is, we can ask ourselves a set of cultural questions about the work before us:
What kinds of behavior, what models of practice, does this work seem to enforce?
Why might readers at a particular time and place find this work compelling?
Are there differences between my values and the values implicit in the work I am reading?
Upon what social understandings does the work depend?
Whose freedom of thought or movement might be constrained explicitly by this work?
What are the larger social structures with which these particular acts of praise or blame might be connected?
Such questions heighten our attention to features of the literary work that we might not have noticed, and, above all, to connections among elements within the work. Eventually, a full cultural analysis will need to push beyond the boundaries of the text, to establish links between the text and values, institutions, and practices elsewhere in the culture. But these links cannot be a substitute for close reading…. texts are not merely cultural by virtue of reference to the world beyond themselves; they are cultural by virtue of social values and contexts that they have themselves successfully absorbed. These are the Cultural History (the unwritten laws by which we live). The world is full of texts, most of which are virtually incomprehensible when they are removed from their immediate surroundings…. Works of art by contrast contain directly or by implication much of this situation within themselves, and it is this sustained absorption that enables many literary works to survive the collapse of the conditions that led to their production.
Cultural analysis then is not by definition an extrinsic analysis, as opposed to an internal formal analysis of works of art. At the same time, cultural analysis must be opposed on principle to the rigid distinction between that which is within a text and that which lies outside…. we must continue to pursue culture as a system of constraints – opposites of restriction and freedom. (“Culture,” 225-232)

Existentialism:  Existentialism: term applied to a group of attitudes found in philosophical, religious, and artistic thought during and after World War II, which emphasizes existence rather than essence, and proposes that  the basic philosophical question for everyone should be the inadequacy of the human reasoning faculties to explain the riddle of the universe

ideology: We will use James Kavanagh’s definition of ideology. The rigidly held system of an extremist set of ideas imposed on a moderate mainstream is not the meaning of ideology in the cultural criticism we will be doing in literary study. We will be relying on Marxist theory that seeks a more comprehensive understanding: that there is an important relationship among the political, economic, and cultural elements in specific societies. The concept of ideology is useful in our literary or cultural analyses because individuals carry around in their heads a picture of society and their place in it. Current ideological theory “tries to understand the complex ways through which modern societies offer reciprocally reinforcing versions of `reality,’ `society,’ and `self’ to social subjects. Current ideological theory also recognizes that perceived forms of social `reality’ and subjectivity are constructed within more than one system of differences: sex, religion, region, education, ethnicity, and class determine how ideology “works up a `lived’ relation to the real. Ideology is a social process that everyone is “in” whether they “know” or understand it or not. We will especially pay attention to Kavanagh’s words as follows:
We live in a society with a constantly changing variety of social apparatuses which have a heavily ideological function: the family (in crisis), churches (now multiple and quasi-competitive), schools, sports, network TV, public TV, cable TV, Hollywood (mass-audience) films, independent, foreign, and “art” (educated-audience) films, not to mention the various “literary” genres from ” serious” fiction and drama to “popular” romances, science fiction, westerns, comic books, and so on. Most of these institutions make every effort emphatically to disavow “politics,” to avoid thinking about who should control the power of the state, and it would be silly to treat them as if they were indistinguishable from those institutions that do directly address political questions explicitly. A horror film does not work in the same way as a campaign speech, though it is in fact the kind of address that works better and for more people. A declining percentage of the American population pays any attention to predominantly political institutions; every singly American subject is addressed by, and pays attention to, some of these predominantly ideological apparatuses. This declining political interest does not mean the system is not working; to the contrary, it is a sign that the system is working quite well, thank you-only working for more people more of the time through apparatuses of ideological interpellation/subjection, rather than those of political persuasion.

interpretation: We will define interpretation as “acceptable and approximating translation,” from the Oxford English Dictionary. Steven Mailloux proposes that translation is “always an approximation of something,” “always directed toward something” whether it be situations, actions, gestures, graffiti, poems, novels, contracts, etc. Of course, we will direct our efforts toward written texts. For our purposes a theory of interpretation will mean “a general account of how readers make sense of texts.” Correct interpretations that are considered accurate, valid, and acceptable to our community of readers based on whether the reader has followed any of the common sets of critical strategies we will learn to use (“Interpretation,” 124-34).

irony: Irony is a broad term that refers to the recognition of a reality different from the masking appearance. Verbal irony is a trope in which the actual intent is expressed in words that carry the opposite meaning. The presence of irony is marked by a sort of grim humor and unemotional attachment on the part of the writer, coolness in expression at a time when the writer’s emotions are really heated. Characteristically irony speaks words of praise to imply blame and words of blame to imply praise, but the inherent critical quality of irony makes the first type more common than the second. The great effectiveness of irony as a literary device is the impression it gives of great restraint. The writer of irony has h/er tongue in h/er cheek. For this reason irony is more easily detected in speech than in writing because the voice can warn the listener, through its intonation, of a double significance. But irony applies not only to statement, but also to event, situation, and structure. In contemporary criticism, irony is used to describe writer’s recognition of incongruities and his controlled acceptance of them.

Modernist: term applied to writing marked by a strong and conscious break with traditional forms and techniques of expression.  (for example, e e cummings –  as he writes his name – never uses capital letters or punctuation in his poetry).  In many respects you will notice that the movement is a reaction against realism and naturalism.  Not all of the following characteristics of modernist writing are found in
any one writer who merits the designation of modern:

  • writer’s imaginative frame of reference is NOT in Cultural History, but in the text itself since people create the world in the act of perceiving it
  • texts suggest historical discontinuity, a sense of alienation, of loss, and of despair
  • rejects the society whose fabrication of history is a record
  • elevates the individual and his inner being over social man
  • prefers the unconscious to the self-conscious
  • artistic strategies are basically anti-intellectual, and existentialist (see above), celebrating passion and will over reason and systematic morality

naturalism:  “…Naturalistic writing usually contains two tensions or contradictions, and . . . the two in conjunction comprise both an interpretation of experience and a particular aesthetic recreation of experience. In other words, the two constitute the theme and form of the naturalistic novel. The first tension is that between the subject matter of the naturalistic novel and the concept of man which emerges from this subject matter. The naturalist populates his novel primarily from the lower middle class or the lower class. . . . His fictional world is that of the commonplace and unheroic in which life would seem to be chiefly the dull round of daily existence, as we ourselves usually conceive of our lives. But the naturalist discovers in this world those qualities of man usually associated with the heroic or adventurous, such as acts of violence and passion which involve sexual adventure or bodily strength and which culminate in desperate moments and violent death. A naturalistic novel is thus an extension of realism only in the sense that both modes often deal with the local and contemporary. The naturalist, however, discovers in this material the extraordinary and excessive in human nature.

The second tension involves the theme of the naturalistic novel. The naturalist often describes his characters as though they are conditioned and controlled by environment, heredity, instinct, or chance. But he also suggests a compensating humanistic value in his characters or their fates which affirms the significance of the individual and of his life. The tension here is that between the naturalist’s desire to represent in fiction the new, discomfiting truths which he has found in the ideas and life of his late nineteenth-century world, and also his desire to find some meaning in experience which reasserts the validity of the human enterprise.”  Donald Pizer, Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction, Revised Edition, 1994, pp. 10-11.

picaresque narrative: This popular late eighteenth century to nineteenth century genre is a pseudo-autobiography shaped principally around military exploits, court intrigues, and spiritual quests. It is one source for the slave narrative’s format. In France and England the picaro, the narrative’s protagonist, might have been an Elizabethan sea dog or a war general, a rogue at court, or a Christian convert. For the picaro, usually an orphan, fate brought enslavement at a certain (and structurally crucial) point of perception in his or her life. This pseudo-autobiography allows the picaro to at the same time revive and judge, present and remember his life. Henry Louis Gates (1987) observes that in both the picaresque and slave narratives, “the narrator’s point of view is partial and prejudiced, although the total view of both is “reflective, philosophical, and critical on moral or religious grounds. In both, there is a general stress on the material level of existence or indeed of subsistence, sordid facts, hunger, money.” Both narrative forms have “a profusion of objects and detail. Both the picaro and the slave, as outsiders, comment on, if not parody, collective social institutions. Moreover, both, in their odysseys, move horizontally through space and vertically through society (82).

polemic: A polemic is a controversy or argument, especially one that is a refutation of, or an attack upon a specified opinion or doctrine. Polemics (used with a singular verb) is the name given to the art or practice of argumentation or controversy.

realism:  Broadly defined as “the faithful representation of reality” or “verisimilitude,” realism is a literary technique practiced by many schools of writing. Although strictly speaking, realism is a technique, it also denotes a particular kind of subject matter, especially the representation of middle-class life. A reaction against romanticism, an interest in scientific method, the systematizing of the study of documentary history, and the influence of rational philosophy all affected the rise of realism. According to William Harmon and Hugh Holman, “Where romanticists transcend the immediate to find the ideal, and naturalists plumb the actual or superficial to find the scientific laws that control its actions, realists center their attention to a remarkable degree on the immediate, the here and now, the specific action, and the verifiable consequence” (A Handbook to Literature 428).

Many critics have suggested that there is no clear distinction between realism and its related late nineteenth-century movement, naturalism. As Donald Pizer notes in his introduction to The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism: Howells to London, the term “realism” is difficult to define, in part because it is used differently in European contexts than in American literature. Pizer suggests that “whatever was being produced in fiction during the 1870s and 1880s that was new, interesting, and roughly similar in a number of ways can be designated as realism, and that an equally new, interesting, and roughly similar body of writing produced at the turn of the century can be designated as naturalism” (5). Put rather too simplistically, one rough distinction made by critics is that realism espousing a deterministic philosophy and focusing on the lower classes is considered naturalism.

In American literature, the term “realism” encompasses the period of time from the Civil War to the turn of the century during which William Dean Howells, Rebecca Harding Davis, Henry James, Mark Twain, and others wrote fiction devoted to accurate representation and an exploration of American lives in various contexts. As the United States grew rapidly after the Civil War, the increasing rates of democracy and literacy, the rapid growth in industrialism and urbanization, an expanding population base due to immigration, and a relative rise in middle-class affluence provided a fertile literary environment for readers interested in understanding these rapid shifts in culture. In drawing attention to this connection, Amy Kaplan has called realism a “strategy for imagining and managing the threats of social change” (Social Construction of American Realism ix).

Realism was a movement that encompassed the entire country, or at least the Midwest and South, although many of the writers and critics associated with realism (notably W. D. Howells) were based in New England. Among the Midwestern writers considered realists would be Joseph Kirkland, E. W. Howe, and Hamlin Garland; the Southern writer John W. DeForest’s Miss Ravenal’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty is often considered a realist novel, too.


(from Richard Chase, The American Novel and Its Tradition)

  • Renders reality closely and in comprehensive detail. Selective presentation of reality with an emphasis on verisimilitude, even at the expense of a well-made plot
  • Character is more important than action and plot; complex ethical choices are often the subject.
  • Characters appear in their real complexity of temperament and motive; they are in explicable relation to nature, to each other, to their social class, to their own past.
  • Class is important; the novel has traditionally served the interests and aspirations of an insurgent middle class. (See Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel)
  • Events will usually be plausible. Realistic novels avoid the sensational, dramatic elements of naturalistic novels and romances.
  • Diction is natural vernacular, not heightened or poetic; tone may be comic, satiric, or matter-of-fact.
  • Objectivity in presentation becomes increasingly important: overt authorial comments or intrusions diminish as the century progresses.
  • Interior or psychological realism a variant form.

romanticism:  The period between the “second revolution” of the Jacksonian Era and the close of the Civil War in America saw the testings of a nation and its development by ordeal. It was an age of great westward expansion, of the increasing gravity of the slavery question, of an intensification of the spirit of embattled sectionalism in the South, and of a powerful impulse to reform in the North. Its culminating act was the trial by arms of the opposing views in a civil war, whose conclusion certified the fact of a united nation dedicated to the concepts of industry and capitalism and philosophically committed to egalitarianism. In a sense it may be said that the three decades following the inauguration of President Andrew Jackson in 1829 put to the test his views of democracy and saw emerge from the test a secure union committed to essentially Jacksonian principles.

In literature it was America’s first great creative period, a full flowering of the romantic impulse on American soil. Surviving form the Federalist Age were its three major literary figures: Bryant, Irving, and Cooper. Emerging as new writers of strength and creative power were the novelists Hawthorne, Simms, Melville, and Harriet Beecher Stowe; the poets Poe, Whittier, Holmes, Longfellow, Lowell, Dickinson, and Whitman; the essayists Thoreau, Emerson, and Holmes; the critics Poe, Lowell, and Simms….

The poetry was predominantly romantic in spirit and form. Moral qualities were significantly present in the verse of Emerson, Bryant, Longfellow, Whittier, Holmes, Lowell, and Thoreau. The sectional issues were debated in poetry by Whittier and Lowell speaking for abolition, and Timrod, Hayne, and Simms speaking for the South. Poe formulated his theories of poetry and in some fifty lyrics practiced a symbolist verse that was to be, despite the change of triviality by such contemporaries as Emerson, the strongest single poetic influence emerging from pre-Civil War America, particularly in its impact on European poetry….Whitman, beginning with the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, was the ultimate expression of a poetry organic in form and romantic in spirit, united to a concept of democracy that was pervasively egalitarian.

In essays and in lectures the New England transcendentalists– Emerson, Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Alcott–carried the expression of philosophic and religious ideas to a high level….In the 1850s emerged the powerful symbolic novels of Hawthorne and Melville and the effective propaganda novel of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Poe, Hawthorne, and Simms practiced the writing of short stories through the period, taking up where Irving had left off in the development of the form,,,,

At the end of the Civil War a new nation had been born, and it was to demand and receive a new literature less idealistic and more practical, less exalted and more earthy, less consciously artistic and more honest than that produced in the age when the American dream had glowed with greatest intensity and American writers had made a great literary period by capturing on their pages the enthusiasm and the optimism of that dream.

sentimental novel: The sentimental novel has particular characteristics such as stilted rhetoric, severe piety, destruction of the family unit, violation of womanhood, abuse of innocence, punishment of persecution, florid asides, and the rags-to-riches success story.

satire: The use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.

slave narrative: This is a polemical Afro-American first person form, noticeably combining features of the picaresque, sentimental, confession (and often conversion), and American romance characteristics. In it the author turns its direction inward to present a character that is an example of something and also turns its direction outward to expose weaknesses in society. The central trope is the correlation of freedom with literacy. It combines features of the confession, picaresque, and the American romance form to depict scenes of instruction of slaves (usually by a “kind” female owner); the slave’s initial encounter with formal, written language; rhetorical tirades against the heinous features of the tyrannical mask of enslavement, gross evil, and human depravity; thus, the slave narrative is primarily an expression personal emotion, as well as the explication of evil and depravity. Many of the slave narratives were published through conspiring of abolitionists and slaves to break the black silence. Black ex-slaves had to demonstrate their language using capacity before they could become social and historical entities (subjects or doers, rather than objects or those acted upon). The narratives use as a structural principle the irony of seeming innocence, especially the refusal or failure to recognize evil while participating in that evil. Illusion and substance are patterned antitheses. Finally, as in romance narratives, the slave narrative turns on unconsummated love; only the slave or ex-slave is the dark lady of a new country destined to die for unrequited love. A major motif is the journey north and the concurrent evolution of consciousness within the slave from an identity as property and object to a sublime identity as human being and subject. According to Gates (1987), “the author of the slave narrative, in his or her flight through the wilderness (recreated in vivid detailed descriptions of the relationship between man and land on the plantation and off), seems to be arguing strongly that one can ‘study nature’ to know oneself.”

text: We will use Robert Scholes definition of a literary text from Semiotics and Literature, 1982. Scholes says that as a text, “a piece of writing must be understood as the product of a person or persons, at a given point in human history, … taking its meanings from the interpretive gestures of individual readers using the grammatical, semantic, and Cultural History available to them. It always echoes other texts. Although the process by which the Cultural History become represented in the text is not in manuscript form, the process must be assumed anyway. (pp. 15-16)

text production: We turn to Robert Scholes for this concept. As we make intertextual connections among the texts we are reading, other texts, and Cultural History in the real world, we will infer connotations that enable us to produce oral and written discussion (texts) of our own. We will “produce texts” on three levels. On level one, we will produce statements that clarify our understanding of just what happens literally in the text: text within the text. On level two, we will produce an interpretation of some meaning this general human behavior implies or suggests: text upon the text. On level three we will make a connection with the validity (or non-validity) this behavior has with Cultural History underlying human behavior in our real worlds: text against the text. We will achieve a literal understanding, a figurative understanding, and a critical evaluation of the authors’ positions on these codes in light of our own cultures.
trope: A trope is the figurative use a word, phrase, or situation. Simply put, it is any figurative language.

trope:  A trope is the figurative use of a word, phrase, or situation. Simply put, it is any figurative language.

URL: the name and address of a document on the Internet is called a URL, or uniform resource locator.