Literary Techniques and Figures of Speech
Alliteration: The repetition
of similar sounds, usually consonants, at the beginning of words. For
example, Robert Frost’s poem “Out, out—” contains the alliterative
phrase “sweet-scented stuff.”
Allusion: A reference
within a literary work to a historical, literary, or biblical
character, place, or event. For example, the title of William
Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury alludes to a line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Assonance: The repetition
of vowel sounds in a sequence of nearby words. For example, the line
“The monster spoke in a low mellow tone” (from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s
poem “The Lotos-Eaters”) contains assonance in its repetition of the
Caricature: A description
or characterization that exaggerates or distorts a character’s
prominent features, usually for purposes of mockery. For example, a
cartoon of a gaunt Abraham Lincoln with a giant top hat, a very
scraggly beard, and sunken eyes could be considered a caricature.
Cliché: An expression, such
as “turn over a new leaf,” that has been used and reused so many
times that it has lost its expressive power.
Epiphany: A sudden,
powerful, and often spiritual or life changing realization that a
character experiences in an otherwise ordinary moment. For example, the
main character in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man has an epiphany during a walk by the sea.
Foreshadowing: An author’s
deliberate use of hints or suggestions to give a preview of events or
themes that do not develop until later in the narrative. Images such
as a storm brewing or a crow landing on a fence post often foreshadow
ominous developments in a story.
Hyperbole: An excessive
overstatement or conscious exaggeration of fact. “I’ve told you that a
million times already” is a hyperbolic statement.
Idiom: A common expression
that has acquired a meaning that differs from its literal meaning,
such as “It’s raining cats and dogs” or “That cost me an arm and a
Imagery: Language that brings to mind sensory impressions. For example, in the Odyssey, Homer creates a powerful image with his description of “rosy-fingered dawn.”
Irony: Broadly speaking,
irony is a device that emphasizes the contrast between the way things
are expected to be and the way they actually are. A historical example
of irony might be the fact that people in medieval Europe believed
bathing would harm them when in fact not bathing led to the unsanitary
conditions that caused the bubonic plague.
Metaphor: The comparison of one thing to another that does not use the terms “like” or “as.” A metaphor from Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Life is but a walking shadow.”
Motif: A recurring structure, contrast, or other device that develops a literary work’s major themes (see below). For example, shadows and darkness are a motif in Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, a novel that contains many gloomy scenes and settings.
Onomatopoeia: The use of words like pop, hiss, or boing, in which the spoken sound resembles the actual sound.
Oxymoron: The association of two terms that seem to contradict each other, such as “same difference” or “wise fool.”
Paradox: A statement that
seems contradictory on the surface but often expresses a deeper truth.
One example is the line “All men destroy the things they love” from
Oscar Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.”
Personification: The use of
human characteristics to describe animals, things, or ideas. Carl
Sandburg’s poem “Chicago” describes the city as “Stormy, husky,
brawling / City of the Big Shoulders.”
Pun: A play on words that
uses the similarity in sound between two words with distinctly
different meanings. For example, the title of Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest is a pun on the word earnest, which means serious or sober, and the name “Ernest.”
Rhetorical question: A
question asked not to elicit an actual response but to make an impact
or call attention to something. “Will the world ever see the end of
war?” is an example of a rhetorical question.
Sarcasm: A form of verbal irony (see above)
in which it is obvious from context and tone that the speaker means
the opposite of what he or she says. Saying “That was graceful” when
someone trips and falls is an example of sarcasm.
Simile: A comparison of two things through the use of the words like or as. The title of Robert Burns’s poem “My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose” is a simile.
Symbol: An object,
character, figure, place, or color used to represent an abstract idea
or concept. For example, the two roads in Robert Frost’s poem “The Road
Not Taken” symbolize the choice between two paths in life.
Theme: A fundamental,
universal idea explored in a literary work. The struggle to achieve the
American Dream, for example, is a common theme in 20th-century
Thesis: The central argument that an author makes in a work. For example, the thesis of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle
is that Chicago meat packing plants subject poor immigrants to
horrible and unjust working conditions, and that the government must do
something to address the problem.
Tone: The general
atmosphere created in a story, or the author’s or narrator’s attitude
toward the story or the subject. For example, the tone of the
Declaration of Independence is determined and confident.