image--guide to literary terms


English 230: Great Narrative Works

A Guide to Literary Terms


Over the course of the Fall semester, this page will accrue a list of definitions for literary terms discussed in English 230: Great Narrative Works. I will attempt to add new terms as they are brought up in class, so that by the end of this semester the guide will provide a useful resource for students preparing for final papers and exams.






blank verse




discourse and story




epic machinery

epic simile




frame narrative


hermeneutic and proairetic

heroic couplet




in medias res








proairetic and hermeneutic




story and discourse





This term refers to the rhetorical figure whereby a speaker addresses a usually absent interlocutor, for example Wordsworth's address to Nature in Book I, following the stolen boat episode: "Wisdom and Spirit of the universe!/ Thou Soul that art the eternity of thought" (1.428-29). The invocation to the Muse is another good example of this rhetorical figure. Note that the speaker could also be addressing an absent human interlocutor, for example Wordsworth's many addresses to his "Friend" throughout the Prelude. INDEX


The term was coined by Pope in juxtaposition to pathos. Pathos refers to the reader's emotional investment in a the fate of a tragic hero. Bathos, by contract, refers to the distancing effect that is often achieved in satires and mock epics when the reader sees a character or action ridiculed often through the yoking of epic style and trivial act. Pope's essay, On Bathos: Of the Art of Sinking in Poetry (1727), parodies Longinus' ancient Greek essay, On the Sublime, and makes fun of authors who, by similar unintended juxtaposition of high and low, end up sounding ridiculous, for example "the modest request of two absent lovers" in a contemporary poem: "Ye Gods! annihilate but Space and Time,/ And make two lovers happy." INDEX

Blank Verse:

This is the verse form most commonly used in Elizabethan drama and in long narrative poems generally (Paradise Lost and the Prelude being our two main examples). The form consists of unrhymed iambic pentameter lines. "Of all English verse forms," writes M. H. Abrams in his A Glossary of Literary Terms, blank verse "is closest to the natural rhythms of English speech, yet the most flexible and adaptive to diverse levels of discourse; as a result it has been more frequently and variously used than any other type of verse." INDEX


An epic catalogue is a list of people, things, or attributes, usually extended to some length. It is a device used particularly by ancient and oral literatures, although it can also be find in modern poets such as Walt Whitman or Carl Sandburg. Examples in Homer's Odyssey include the many catalogues of dead heroes and women in the nekuia of Book XI. INDEX


The best way to remember diegesis is to borrow a term from Star Trek. The diegesis of a narrative is its entire created world, or its time-space continuum. The dream of the Arab sequence in Book V of Wordsworth's Prelude is fascinating, in part, since it includes different diegetic universes: the time-space continuum of Wordsworth, who is telling his tale, that of his friend who is said to have had the dream in the 1805 Prelude, that of Cervantes' Don Quixote, which his friend is reading, that of the dream universe the friend creates when he falls asleep, and, finally, that of the Ode foretelling apocalypse, which his friend is offered in his dream. INDEX


Here's Northrop Frye et al's definition of this term in The Harper Handbook to Literature :

An alter ego; a second passional self haunting one's rational psyche; from German, "double-goer." G. H. Schubert, a follower of Franz Mesmer's psychotherapy and forerunner of Freud in seeing dreams as symbolic of repressed subconsciousness, predicted this psychic doubleness in Die Symbolik des Traumes (Bamberg, 1814--The Symbolism of Dreams ). Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) had already seen a perpetual contention between humankind's evil heart and rational head [Note: Kant is also one of the important figures in defining the sublime.] and romances had for centuries paired good and evil identities.... Nevertheless, E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776-1822) specifically embodied Schubert's psychology in his supernatural tales collected as Die Serapionsbrüder (4 vols., 1819-1821--The Serapion Brethren ) and Die Lebensansichten des Katers Murr (2 vols., 1820-1822--Katers Murr's Views of Life ), widely translated, and much of nineteenth-century fiction followed suit. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), for instance, grew out of reading ghost stories--among them presumably Hoffmann's--with Byron and Shelley during a rainy Swiss summer, with all three trying a hand at writing some. James Hogg's Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) and Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) are notable examples of the shadowy Doppelgänger that haunts a great deal of subsequent fiction, as in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment (1866) and Conrad's great story "The Secret Sharer" (1912) [and, we might add, Conrad's Heart of Darkness ]. INDEX

Epic Machinery:

The complement of gods and other divine or quasi-divine characters that take interest (or even take action) in the events of humans in the traditional epic. Here's Alexander Pope's definition in the Rape of the Lock: "The machinery, Madam, is a term invented by the critics to signify that part which Deities, Angels, or Daemons are made to act in a Poem: for the ancient Poets are in one respect like many modern ladies: let an action be never so trivial in itself, they always make it appear of the utmost importance" (Dedication). INDEX

Epic Simile:

An extended simile, used to elevate the style of an epic. The simile is most commonly used to compare a character or his/her actions to a similar person or event in the natural, human, or supernatural world. An interesting example that crosses both enemy and gender lines occurs in Book VIII when Odysseus cries after hearing Demoducus tell the tale of the Trojan horse (a tale that Odysseus himself requested):

These things the famous singer sang. Odysseus
was moved; beneath his eyelids, tears ran down
his cheeks. And even as a woman weeps,
flinging herself across the fallen body
of her dear husband where he lies, before
his city and his fellow warriors,
a man who tried to keep the day of doom
far from his children and beloved home;
she, clinging to him, wails; and lance on lance,
the enemies behind her strike her back
and shoulders, then they carry her away
to slavery and trials and misery;
her cheeks are wasted with the pain, the grief:
just so, Odysseus, from beneath his brows,
let fall the tears of sorrow. INDEX


The revelation of a god to a particular character. Athena, for example, often reveals herself to Odysseus throughout the Odyssey (though she often begins in disguise). This convention is connected to the convention of supernatural machinery in the traditional epic. INDEX


A compound adjective, as in "all-seeing" love, "swift-footed" Achilles, "gray-eyed" Athena, "rosy-fingered" dawn, that is attached to a particular character. For the oral poet, it served also as a mnemonic device that, in the original Greek, fit perfectly into the alexandrin hexameter line of Homeric verse. One can also have noun phrases that act as epithets, for example: "the man of many wiles" for Odysseus. INDEX

Frame Narrative:

A story within a story, within sometimes yet another story, as in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The form is significant in Mary Shelley and Joseph Conrad since it seems to echo in structure the thematic search for, as Conrad puts it, a heart of darkness, something deep, dark, and secret at the heart of the narrative. The form thus also resembles the psychoanalytic process of uncovering the unconscious behind various levels of repressive, obfuscating narratives put in place by the conscious mind. In each of the frames, a different individual is narrating the events of a story. This structure of course also leads us to question the reasons behind each of the narrations since, unlike an omnicient narrative perspective, the teller of the story becomes an actual character with concomitant shortcomings, limitations, prejudices, and motives. The process of transmission is also highlighted since we often have a sequence of embedded readers or audiences, like the audience that sometimes interrupts Marlow's tale in the Heart of Darkness. This audience, by necessity, reminds us of our own reading process. Indeed, one could say that the faceless narrator in the outer frame of Conrad's text remains faceless because that makes it easier for us to identify with his role as receiver of Marlow's tale. Citizen Kane, which also has a frame structure, underlines the fact of its narrational presentation by various visual means (close-up shots of Thatcher's diary entries during his narration; the fact that Thatcher gazes directly at the camera throughout that segment; the placement of a given segment's narrator in the bottom corner of a given scene; and, once again, the use of the faceless narrator through the reporter, who, despite the visual nature of film, remains indiscernible throughout the film). INDEX

Hermeneutic and Proairetic Codes:

These terms come from the narratologist Roland Barthes, who wishes to distinguish between the two distinct forces that drive narrative and, thus by implication, our own desire to follow a narrative to its conclusion. The hermeneutic code refers to those plot elements that raise questions on the part of the reader of a text or the viewer of a film. For example, in the Star Trek episode that we saw in the first week, we are led to ask why the enterprise is destroyed. Indeed, we are not satisfied by a narrative unless all such "loose ends" are tied. Another good example is the genre of the detective story. The entire narrative of such a story operates primarily by the hermeneutic code. We witness a murder and the rest of the narrative is devoted to determining the questions that are raised by the initial scene of violence. The proairetic code, on the other hand, refers to mere actions--those plot events that simply lead to yet other actions. For example, a gunslinger draws his gun on an adversary and we await the resolution of this action. We wait to see if he kills his opponent or is wounded himself. Suspense is thus created by action rather than by a reader's or a viewer's wish to have mysteries explained. INDEX

Heroic Couplet:

This verse form consists of iambic pentameter lines with rhymed couplets. In the eighteenth century, when this verse form was most popular, poets tended also to write in closed couplets, which is to say that the end of each couplet, and even each line, tended to coincide with the end of a sentence or a self-sufficient unit of syntax. The form is in some ways reflective of eighteenth-century ideals of order, balance, and closure. INDEX


Overreaching pride, resulting from the overconfidence of a protagonist. In Homer, it is usually directed against the gods, for example the belief the one accomplished some act without their help or the belief that humans do not need the gods in their everyday lives. INDEX

in medias res:

This is the technical term for the epic convention of beginning "in the middle of things," rather than at the very start of the story. In the Odyssey, for example, we first learn about Odysseus' journey when he is held captive on Calypso's island, even though, as we find out in Books IX through XII, the greater part of Odysseus' journey actually precedes that moment in the narrative. The "in medias res" convention is also a good example of the discursive manipulation of story. In other words, the chronological order of events in a given epic is reworked, leading to a movement back in time in order to make sense of the events we are given first in the actual presentation of the story. Interestingly enough, Odysseus does retell his story in chronological order later when he recounts his adventures to Penelope. Another good example of beginning in medias res is the Star Trek episode we examined, appropriately enough titled "Cause and Effect." INDEX


An invocation is any address to a deity, usually for help of some sort. The epic traditionally begins with an invocation to the Muse (a request for help in the telling of the tale). In fact, in an oral culture, the storyteller or "rhapsode" is considered merely a vessel through which the gods (and particularly the Muses) speak. (This is the reason Plato makes fun of oral storytellers in Ion.) There are traditionally nine Muses, each presiding over a different genre of literature. The traditional Muse of epic poetry is Calliope, although Homer does not address her by name in his invocation at the beginning of the Odyssey. INDEX


The hatred of women. The term came to the fore as we discussed the two female models for Penelope that are refered to repeatedly in the Odyssey : Cytemnestra and Helen. As the ghost of Agamemnon states, even as he praises Penelope,

The daughter of Icarius
will never lose the fame that she has won;
for your Penelope the deathless ones
will shape a song to bring delight among
all men on earth. The daughter of Tyndareus
was unlike that: her deeds were dark; she killed
the man whom she had wed; a song of hate--
such is to be the chant that shapes her name
among all men; the fame of womankind--
even the chaste--is blemished by her name. (p. 479) INDEX


Here is a strong definition of narration from The Harper Handbook to Literature, edited by Northrop Frye, Sheridan Baker, and George Perkins:

[Narrations] take their names from the grammatical stance employed by the narrator: first-person narration for a narrative perspective inside the story, third-person narration for one outside. The first-person narrator speaks as an "I" and may be identified in one of three roles; first person as protagonist, the hero or heroine of the story; first person as participant, a character in a subsidiary role; first person as observer, a character without essential function except to observe and record, sometimes developed fully as an individual with a name, history, and personality, sometimes almost nonexistent except for the "I" that appears occasionally as a reminder of the individual's personal relation to the story.... [A] third-person narrator... stands outside the story, speaking of those within it in the grammatical third person (he, she, they).... [One kind of third-person narration] is called THIRD-PERSON OMNISCIENCE, because the [third-person] narrator assumes the privileges of omniscience, moving about in time and space, entering freely into the unverbalized thoughts and motives of the characters.... All-knowing should not, however, be confused with all-revealing, in either traditional or modern tales.... [T]he third-person omniscient narrator will seldom reveal the mysteries and secret motives of the story before the moment of greatest effect. Knowing all, the story teller teases the reader with bits and pieces until all comes together at the end. [In other words, the story teller discursively re-orders the chronological events of the story.]

In THIRD-PERSON LIMITED OMNISCIENCE, the narrator frequently limits the revelation of thoughts to those of one character, presenting the other characters only externally. As a result, the reader's experience is conditioned by the mental state, the qualities of perception, ignorance, or bias of the filtering or reflecting mind.



The descent into the underworld, which in Homer's Odyssey occurs in Book XI and then again at the end of the narrative. This is a common plot devise of the traditional epic, occuring also in Vergil's Aenead. INDEX


C. Hugh Holman's A Handbook to Literature describes pantheism in the following way:


The name for the wandering oral storyteller of an oral culture. Etymologically, the term comes either from the fact that the oral storyteller held a staff--Greek rhabdos-- while reciting his material or because the storyteller must "stitch together" (rhaptein) one song or plot element to another. The latter definition makes significant the many references to "weaving" in the Odyssey. INDEX

Story and Discourse:

These terms refer to the basic structure of all narrative form. Story refers to the chronological sequence of events as they actually occurred in the time-space (or diegetic) universe of the narrative being read. So, for example, in the Odyssey (Book XXIII, pages 467-68), Odysseus presents the story of his adventures to Penelope in almost pure "story" form, in the chronological order of occurence. Discourse refers to all the manipulations of the story that normally occur in a narrative. So, for example, in the Odyssey, we do not begin at the chronological start of the story but in medias res, when Odysseus is about to be freed from the isle of Calypso (which actually occurs nearly at the end of the story which Odysseus relates to Penelope on p. 467). Discourse also refers to all the material an author adds to a story: similes, metaphors, invocations, zeugmas, verse form, etc.. In the Rape of the Lock, for example, the story can be summed up in this way: Belinda wakes up from troubled sleep, gets dressed, goes out in public and plays cards, has a lock of her hair cut and gets upset. Almost all the additional epic trappings can be designated as discourse. Bathos can be said to function by the disjunction between a mundane story and an elaborately grand discursive presentation. INDEX


The sublime can be best distinguished in contradistinction to the beautiful. The beautiful is that in nature which can be admired calmly and appreciated for its surface appearance (color, depth, material, balance). The sublime is that in nature which is so much greater than man that its attraction actually includes a certain degree of fear and trepidation on the part of the beholder, although a fear not so immediate that it traumatizes. The stolen boat episode in Book I of the Prelude (starting at line 372) relates Wordsworth's first experience with this terrible, frightening side to Nature's otherwise gentle and calming beauty. Natural landscapes that often evoke the sublime include mountains, chasms, Northern wastelands, massive waterfalls, etc.. Consider, for example, J. M. W. Turner's painting "The Passage of the St. Gothard" (1804) to the right of this text. (Note: if you click on the image, you will link to a larger reproduction of the same painting with slightly better resolution.) You might also have a look at Clerval's defense of the beautiful against the sublime in Shelley's Frankenstein, pp.182-83. Here's the definition of the sublime in Hugh Holman's A Handbook to Literature:

Edmund Burke in 1756 wrote A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful . Kant followed Burke's line of thinking in his Criticique of Judgment (1790), where he linked beauty with the finite and the sublime with the infinite. Burke's doctrine of the sublime was powerfully influential on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers. He believed that a painful idea creates a sublime passion and thus concentrates the mind on that single facet of experience and produces a momentary suspension of rational activity, uncertainty, and self-consciousness. If the pain producing this effect is imaginary rather than real, a great aesthetic object is achieved. Thus, great mountains, storms at sea, ruined abbeys, crumbling castles, and charnel houses are appropriate subjects to produce the sublime. INDEX


The term means "yoking" in Greek and refers to the rhetorical figure by which two or more words are yoked together by a grammatical construction to achieve a comic or unexpected effect. It is commonly used by Pope in his Rape of the Lock, since it does in small what the mock epic does on a larger scale: yokes the serious to the trivial in order to effect a bathetic reduction. The classic example comes from the Rape of the Lock: "or stain her honour, or her new brocade."INDEX



Last Revised: August 9, 2000