Literary Terms and Definition

 

Welcome to class! 

In today’s class, we will be talking about literary terms and definition. Enjoy the class!

Literary terms | classnotes.ng

Character/characterization

These literary terms that will be discussed later are seen also to be the conventions of creative writing or concrete issues considered when appreciating a literacy work.  That is, a proper understanding of these terms would yield proper appreciation and understanding of any world of art.  In other words, students of literature should have a proper understanding of what these terms mean, to be able to discuss the aspects in a work of literature.  And these terms are:

Background

The background which can be seen as the situation of a play, novel or poem, is a combination of the circumstances, the setting inclusive, out of which emerges the story’s action.  It also includes the motivation and the stimuli which give rise to the choices open to or made available to some characters in a novel or play.  It was the background (situation) of oppression and domination of blacks by whites in South Africa that gave rise to the spineless (timid) characters that we often meet in South African Stories of the apartheid era.

Setting

The setting is the particular location where all the actions in a piece of fiction or drama take place, at a particular time or under certain psychological and moral conditions. These features serve as the platform against which characters live and pursue their life goals. Moreover, the setting is an important factor in the author’s choice of subject matter and certainly is influential in the implementation of his theme(s). A story may have a physical, socio-psychological, temporal or metaphorical setting. The physical setting of a story is its realistic background, its geographical environment. It is the physical location of the occurrences in the story. This may be localized in a known or imaginary/unfamiliar place. In drama, the physical scenery presented on stage is also part of its physical setting. The physical features of the places such as the flora and fauna, the jungle, the hills and mountains, the landscape etc. are important intangible setting. Such other details as sounds (including music and background noises) and odours are also part of a physical setting.

The socio-psychological setting of a piece of literature has to do with its social-emotional atmosphere, the cultural state of a period.  It includes the language spoken and the way it is spoken, the norms and the customs, occupations, attitudes, religious outlook, the morale and state of value, the living conditions, the quality of a human relationship, the intellectual and emotional environment of the characters, the economic and social class formations prevalent at a time etc.  These influence the characters and inform their motivations and actions in a work.

The setting is temporal when it is simply a reference to historical times such as in Renaissance England, at the turn of the century post-independence era in Africa, the Nigerian Civil War period etc.  It is metaphorical when it tends to objectify or vividly show internal states.

It is important to note that the kind of setting a writer adopts is a function of his intentions, themes or notions.  A writer could also utilize all these levels of setting in one work or could make use of some.

Plot

The plot is the sequence of actions which constitute the nucleus (centre) of the story and conveys the theme.  It is what the characters do or what is done to them as the story progresses.  As bones hold up our mass of flesh and remain the only easily observable features on an x-ray film, so is the story’s plot, its structural framework.  A plot is a carefully thought-out plan in which all the events, all the actions and reactions of the characters contribute towards the forward leap of the story.

It is the plot that imbues (gives) a story with a recognizable form, a definite structure or shape.  A simple plot has a pyramidal shape made up of an exposition, complication, conflict, climax and denouement.  Diagrammatically, it looks like this:

action           A simple, linear or conventional plot.

It is necessary to explain the various parts of the simple plot:

  1. Exposition (Development): At this point, the author establishes the background of the story, paints and builds up the setting and introduces the readers to his character.
  2. Complication: Here something throws spanner in the works. That is, some unexpected event disrupts the plans of the chief character.
  3. Conflict: This is a clash between the hero and the villain in particular, or the clash of all opposing forces in the story in general.
  4. Climax: It is the highest point of tension and intensity in a piece of fiction or drama.  It is also called the turning-point because it is after here that the reader descends the slope of the story’s actions.  A conventional plot usually has one climax while a more complex one would have more than one climax.
  5. Denouement (Resolution): It is the unravelling or unknotting of the events.  At this stage in the narration, the tense situation is resolved or contained through the action or inaction of certain characters. The simple or conventional or well-made plot is only possible when we have a subject matter and theme which can be expressed by a linear or straight forward development of events.  That is because X happened, Y took place, and because Y took place, Z occurred etc.

Evaluation

  1. With the aid of a diagram, define plot
  2. Briefly discuss background and setting.

Subject matter and theme and motif

The subject matter of a work of literature is simply the issue the author discusses in his work.

And this issue is made up of the particular actions, characters and settings which the author chooses for his work.

In other words, these make up the subject matter, the surface facts. From the foregoing, a novel subject could be a place, a situation or the quality of the human condition.  It could centre on the adventures of a character with the opposite sex, a flashback into childhood, the modern Nigerian city (always the subject matter of many of Ekwensi’s novels), the Nigerian civil war (already the subject matter of many Nigerian novels), undergraduate life the travails of long spinsterhood or the embarrassment of chronic bachelorhood, barrenness etc. Out of a subject matter, there could be many themes, themes being the abstract ideas that the subject matter exemplifies.  No theme is possible without a subject matter because it is in the relationship of the former to the later that the ultimate truth the writer has in mind is made obvious.

The theme (thesis) of a novel, poem or drama is the message it wishes to impart, some overt or subtle philosophical pronouncement it strives to make. The subject matter of Sola Owonibi’s “Homeless Not Hopeless” is composed of the mere facts of the action, character and setting of the poem; while the truth the author aims at namely, the economic, social and spiritual importance of the beggars in the African society, constitutes the theme. The subject matter, or simply subject, is the area of a story’s focus while the theme is the author’s attitude towards it.  For example, if the subject of a story is poverty, the theme may be the deprivations caused by it or the disadvantages to which a poor person is exposed to a developing country.

A motif should not be confused with motive.  It is derived from Latin movere, motum-meaning to move. It is a particular idea or dominant element running through a work of art, constituting part of the main theme.  It is a type of incident, device or formula which recurs frequently in a piece of creative literature.  Very many authors aware of these motifs make use of them in their stories, poems or plays.  For instance, the motif of a beautiful lady who rejects all her handsome suitors but marries an ugly or non-human one is derived from folklore.  Motif or the German leitmotif (a guiding spirit) is equally applied to the frequent repetition of a significant phrase or set description or complex of images in a particular work.  If the theme of a work is the author’s statement of value for or against the events constituting the subject matter of a work, its motif is a recognizable incident which recalls a similar incident in oral or written literature or attracts a historical or bible comparison.  In the example, we gave about the subject matter of work being poverty and the theme being the deprivations it gives rise to, the motif could be the biblical incident between Lazarus and the king’s dogs which such a theme recalls.

The theme is occasionally used interchangeably with motif even though ‘theme’ has to do with some underlying doctrine implicitly or explicitly stated in imaginative writing and which the author persuades his readers to behold.  Somehow, every creative writer has his own notions about life and humanity.  We call this notion a writer’s philosophy of life which is good artistic work is often hidden from a lazy reader or the reader who is merely interested in the story.  Cyprian Ekwensi’s Jagua Nana has two controlling ideas (themes) namely, the city corrupts young people and secondly, those who are morally deficient must pay for their shortcomings while one of its easily perceivable motifs is ‘the wages of sin is death’

Character and characterization

M.H. Abrams speaks of the characters in a literary work in this vein: “the persons presented in a dramatic or narrative work who are interpreted by the reader as being endowed with moral and dispositional qualities that are expressed in what they say – the dialogue and by what they do – the action.”  In drama or fiction, there would be no story or plot without a character or characters. Without characters, there would be no action since the events are determined by them.  The conception of and manner of presentation of characters have a lot of influence on the stature of a piece of creative writing as much as the significance of the story’s events and patterning.  Character means both the people (including animals) who appear in a novel, play or poem and the description of the personality of any of these figures, particularly those traits which have a significant effect on the development of the work.

To build up characters who are realistic and credible, who enjoy our love and affection or elicit our hatred or condemnation is probably one of the most herculean challenges that confront the imagination of a creative writer.  In conventional terms, the most important character in a story about whose fortunes and misfortunes we are most desirous of knowing is the protagonist, also called the hero or heroine, whether or not there is anything heroic in his or her experiences or actions.  The protagonist is often at the centre of the story’s action and controls the universe in which his actions or inaction provoke one form of crisis or the other.  In the process of the hero trying to tame his universe, he usually meets some resistance.  The reader is often desirous of knowing how he faces these obstacles and what he experiences in the attempt.  Sometimes we so get immersed in identifying with him that we laugh when he overcomes and sign when he is disadvantaged.

The character in opposition to the protagonist is called the antagonist or the villain. He opposes the hero and tries to foil him in his plans.  He makes every effort to soil the hero’s good name and reputation, and/or snatch his lover or mistress from him.  The foil of a character contrasts him; his role in the novel or play is essential to serve as a mirror of behavioural contrast to the chief character.  The hero’s goodness stands in bold relief if the antagonist is shown to be mean, cunning and devilish.  However, the antagonist need not be an ‘evil’ character in the way that the protagonist may not have to be a ‘good’ personality.  For example, in The Merchant of Venice by Williams Shakespeare, the protagonist is shylock, the resolute money-lender, while the antagonist is the kind-hearted Antonia.

Two main characters exist in literature.  There are round and flat or static characters.  This is in fact the only way we can conveniently say it because human personalities are difficult to be neatly classified, the human person being capable of adopting a combination of roundness and flatness if he so desires, and depending on the circumstances before him.  The roundness of character indicates that a literary character is dynamic, complex, developing, life-like and multi-faceted.  A round character grows and changes as the narrative progresses.  The growth may be physical – from childhood to adulthood; it may be mental /psychological – from ignorance to knowledge, or from naiveté to sophistication.  A round character is not usually in the same state of innocence or ignorance with which he is associated at the beginning of the novel or play.  Towards the end, he now exhibits a new consciousness, a new awareness and can now behold reality with new eyes, capable of surprising the reader convincingly.

The other type of character is the flat or simple character, also referred to as one-dimensional, non-developing or simple character. Flat characters are quite predictable and never really grow or change in the course of the story.  Often static characters are minor characters, but this need not be so.

The stock character, on the other hand, maybe round or flat.  His distinguishing quality is that he is a character type which recurs repeatedly in a particular literary genre.  He is an archetypal model, the typical character specimen whom authors try to portray as prototypes.

Characterization is the effort made by a creative writer to erect credible characters. Authors adopt several characterization methods.  There is exposition in which the writer or narrator steps into the tale to let the reader know about the character such as his physical attributes, his motives and his traits.  Another is the dramatic or scenic or showing method, the author presents the character as he acts, reflects, talks or interacts without any attempt to tell the reader the type of person the character is.

The writer allows the character to reveal himself through his words and actions. Characterization could be advanced by the author’s use of some characters to inform his reader about the other characters.  In that way, the writer is further removed from the scene, and in that way increases his level of objectivity in the story.  A writer does this by pitching characters against one another in dialogues at which they talk about their fellow characters.

There is also a stream of consciousness method by which the writer merely records the state of a character’s mental activity as it traverses the present and the past, as it reels off the character’s mental torture or excitement. Through this approach, the writer appears to be showing us the character’s mental film of feelings, thoughts and memories which flows or streams. In the end, readers learn about characters by what they do, what they say and what others say about them.  In one work, a writer may use all these techniques or some of them.

Evaluation

  1. Explain character and characterization to a layman.
  2. What factors differentiate subject matter from theme and motif?

Language and style

This has been variously defined as “the manner of linguistic expression” (M.H. Abrams), “the patterning of language” (Richard Taylor), “way of writing “(A.F. Scott), “that which intervenes between the artist and his material” (Victor Jones), “the expertise which goes into your creation” (Chukwuemeka Ike) etc.  While some authorities seem to anchor style on language, some consider it as being constituted by the overall presentation and achievement of effect in a work.  But it has a lot to do with the manner of writing with which a creative writer is associated.  Hence, there is a popular adage which says that the style is the man himself.  “Style is the final result of what the author does with the materials he employs – his characters, the environment of the story, the narrative perspective (is it in the first person or the omniscient voice etc.?), the organization of the events and actions and the implementation of linguistic devices.  The style includes a creative writer mannerism and rhetoric, his effective use of language for the decoration of ideas and painting features in bold relief, presenting facts with charity and brevity, the utilization of wits, ironies and jests and the arousal of emotions in others, for, as F.L. Lucas says in his Style, “without emotion, no art of literature; nor any other art.”

Style possesses two principal ingredients: the content as shown in the expression of ideas and the way this is done; and the consistent and unique manner an author deploys various devices and strategies to make his work memorable.  To examine a writer’s style demands a consideration of all that he does in a piece of creative writing with a peculiarity associated with him.  In addition to a characteristic portrayal of characters, setting, narrative points of view, events and actions which we pointed out in the preceding paragraph, there is also the author’s use of dialogue, his humour, powers of observation, the length and variety of his sentence structure, his fidelity or otherwise to linguistic conventions, the words and word-types he employs, the paragraphing and figurative use of language.

Discussions on style often tend to centre on the author’s levels of language deployment: the high (or grand), the middle (or mean), and the low (or base, or plain) styles.  A writer may employ the three levels in the same novel or play, depending on his characters and the cumulative effect he has in mind.  It is the duty of an author to ensure that the level of style in a literary work is appropriate to the speaker, the occasion and the dignity of the literary genre in question.  The high or grand style is associated with formality in language, consisting of elaborate sentence patterns and figurative ornamentation, tight, united statements, balanced constructions and consciously designed statements. The middle level is akin to informality in language use which would include the language of domestic conversation and the classroom, ordinary speech rhythms, loose constructions, short, simple and compound sentences, phrases and clauses which often stand on their own, declamatory statements and the admittance of interjections, and asides which interfere with the movement of the basic sentence construction.  The low level is the illiterate / vulgate speech exemplified by regional dialects, slang and artisan vocabulary.

We may also classify styles according to literary epoch – Augustan style, metaphysical style etc.   It may be derived from the source of its influence – the Biblical style; or from a type of use, say the journalistic or the scientific style; or it could be traced to the influence of a specific author – Shakespearean, Miltonic, Achebe, Soyinka, etc. styles.  It is after the consideration of all these stylistic facets that an author’s style may be described in several ways. These include its classification as possessing the ‘ornate’, ‘episodic’, ‘poetic’, ‘elaborate’, ‘forceful’, ‘florid’, ‘gay’, ‘sober’, ‘dull’, ‘pace/racy’ etc. style.

Point of view

Point of view in a story is the author’s expressive devices, his models of narration.  It is associated with the theme, but more precisely it is the outcome of the subject – theme relationship.  An author’s chosen theme or themes have a direct impact on his viewpoint because just as a point of view is the angle from which a story is narrated, an author’s theme is informed by his chosen perspective.  In drama and poetry, the point of view is often easily identifiable, but in fiction, this is not always possible.  The fact is that narrations have narrators who may act as filters standing between the author, and the story events, on one hand, and the characters and the author, on the other.

Every story then could be told in several ways or a combination of some of them.  The three common approaches are the use of one of the characters in the story; the use of a third person, an outsider who is not a participant in the story events; and lastly, the story could ‘tell’ itself without the intervention of anybody whatsoever.  The use of one of the characters is also referred to as the personalized point of view; the third person narrator (persona) is the omniscient view in which the third – person pronouns (he, she, they or it) are used about characters in a story; and there is also the non-intervening narration, also referred to as the objective point of view in which the narrator merely introduces the characters to the reader without any effort to describe them or to reveal their inner thoughts and motivations.

(i)  The Participant/Personalized Point of View

This is equally referred to as the first – person point of view.  In this narrative technique, the writer appoints one of the characters who is both a participant and a narrator.  Such a character is usually the story’s protagonist.  He uses ‘I’ or ‘We’ in places.  The voice is his own, not necessarily the authors.  He is not necessarily the author’s favourite and what he says, the follies he commits or the fortunes he makes may not necessarily enjoy the author’s support.  Also, the first-person narrator in any work of literature must not necessarily be a major character.  That is, a minor character can enjoy the right to be the narrator in a piece of literature.

(ii) The Non-Participant Narrator/Third Person/Omniscient Point of View

The narrator here is omniscient, he is everywhere.  He is not a character in the novel.  The story told in the omniscient viewpoint uses the third person (he, she, it or they) in describing the characters and their action except when they are conversing.  The omniscient narrator is an outsider who enjoys the characteristics of God omniscience.  He sees and knows everything, and can and does enter the minds of the story’s characters to reveal their fears and hopes.  He knows the past, the present and the future of the characters.

The non-participant narrator or the third-person point of view is sub-divided into three: the editorial omniscient narrator, the neutral omniscient narrator and selective omniscience (a stream of consciousness).  In editorial omniscience, the author, in addition to a full knowledge of his characters, intervenes from time to time to say one or two things about his characters.  In neutral omniscience, the narrator makes no comments on his feelings about anything instead he makes available the much he knows about each character without passing a value judgment on them or their actions.  In the third type of omniscience, the narrator has access to very few of the characters, sometimes to one of them.  This is called selective omniscience or stream of consciousness technique because of the narrator’s restriction to one character or two whose formed and unformed thoughts, emotions and dreams he can make available to the reader by occasionally penetrating their consciousness.

(iii) The Objective/Camera Point of View

Like in the omniscient narrator model, the objective /camera/disappearing author point of view uses the third person pronouns but has no omniscient narrator.  The author does not intervene in the course of the story.  It is described as ‘camera’ because the author does no more than present the characters as they act and converse with one another.  The author does not attempt to describe them or to penetrate the recesses of their consciousness, or to judge their actions and reasons for doing what they do.  It is the reader who makes all the deductions based on what he hears the characters say or do and what the characters say about others or what they do to one another.  There are neither authorial intrusions nor the summarization of events in parts.  One incident gives rise to another without intervention from any quarters whatsoever.  The result is that there are usually a lot of conversations, almost resembling what happens in a drama.

(iv)         Multiple Points of View

This is the use of more than one point of view in the same story.  It can lead to the complexity of work.  A story written in the first person could also have a substantial number of passages in which the stream of consciousness is employed by the narrator to dissect his own thought.  It is also possible that an author whose point of view is omniscient could have a passage of a stream of consciousness, some letters or even diaries.

Evaluation

  1. Discuss the aspects of style in literature.
  2. Discuss the types of author’s point of view.

Rhythm, metre and scansion

Apart from inventing new pictures/images reflecting one or more of the sense impressions, poets quite often arrange their diction to achieve a special kind of beat, pulse, movement or rhythm.  This is especially true of English poetry before the 20th century.  This is not to say that rhythm is not important in 20th-century poetry, for there is a sense in fact in which every good poem has an inherent rhythm, even if it is irregular.  J.P. Clark’s “Ibadan” may possess irregular rhythm, but it does suggest that the arrangement of buildings and structures in the city is irregular and confused:

Ibadan,

running splash of rust

and gold-flung and scattered

among seven hills

like broken china in the sun.

(J.P. Clark)

Rhythm in words or drumming in wave motion or landscape refers to the repetition of pattern, particularly when it is done with some amount of variation and movement. Rhythm is a natural process such as we experience in our breathing, speaking, walking, pounding, etc. in the existence of day and night; in the appearance and disappearance of the moon or the seasons etc.  In English speech, the voice falls more heavily on some sounds than on others.  English poetry has always made use of these rhythmic patterns.  Therefore, whenever we read a poem, we should try to observe the words that are emphasized or repeated, and the general pacing of the poem.  Essentially that is what rhythm in poetry is about.  Rhythm in poetry expresses emotion and suggests or aids the determination of a poem’s theme.

In English poetry, the regular beats are referred to as the foot or metre.  Until very recently, English poems were written with an eye on certain rules of rhythm known as metrical laws.  Metre refers to the pattern of accented and unaccented syllables in a line.  This is possible because English as a language is syllable-timed.  In other words, every English word is composed of phonemes which are either stressed or unstressed (account and unaccented).  For example, con/duct (noun) and con/duct (verb).  When we read a poetic line aloud, our voice is never at the same level throughout; we vary and modulate it.  The pitches fall on particular syllables according to the nature of their phonemic weight.

Sometimes a whole word is taken to be a syllable as income, put, quick, John, eat, hell etc.  At other times, the word is regarded as possessing two syllables and so is divided in a manner that the accent falls on the first or second syllable.  For example, quickly, report, rapport etc.  Thus is a poetic line, one would expect to find several accented and unaccented syllables arranged in an identifiable order or pattern, known as the metre.  It is the arrangement of the feet in a line of the stressed and unstressed syllables that determines what the metre of the whole poem is;

(i)        The Iambus/Iambic Foot (0-): consists of one unaccented (unstressed) syllable followed by one accented (stressed) syllable.

(a)      That time of year thou mayst in me behold

When yellow leaves, or none or few do hang.

(b)      The curfew tolls the knell of parting day.

(ii)        The Trochee/Trochaic Foot (- 0): consists of one accented syllable followed by one unaccented syllable.

(a)      There they are, my fifty men and women.

In a cavern, in a canyon.

(iii)       The Anapest /Anapestic Foot ( 0 0 – ): two unaccented syllables followed by one accented syllable.  It is also called a running rhythm because of its prevalence in swift movements.

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,

And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold.

(iv)      The Dactyl /Dactylic Foot (-0 0): consists of one accented syllable followed by two unaccented syllables

(a)      Half a league, half a league,

half a league onwards

(v)       The Spondee /Spondaic Foot ( – -): One stressed syllable followed by another stressed syllable.

(a)      All whom war, death, age, ague, tyrannies

Despair, law, chance hath slaine

(vi)      The Pyrrhic/Pyrrhic Foot (o o): two successive unstressed syllables as found in the second and fourth feet of the first line below:

  • My way is, to begin with the beginning
  • Oh, weep for Adonais the quick dreams.

Scansion is the marking of strong and weak stresses where they fall in the various syllables.  To scan a passage of poetry is to plod through it line by line, noting its component feet while indicating where the strong and weak pauses fall within the poetic line.  It is the measuring and marking of lines by taking them foot by foot to establish their metrical pattern.

Rhyme

This is the repetition of the same sound, usually but not always, at the end of two or more lines.  Rhymed words must have the same vowel sounds, or similar consonantal sounds preceding the vowels or they must enjoy parity of accents.  These would ensure a perfect rhyme.

(a)      There is sweet music here that softer falls

Than petals from blown roses on the grass,

Or night dews on still water between walls

Of shadowy granite, in a gleaming pass;

Music that gentler on the spirit lies

Than tired eyelids upon eyes.

(Tennyson, “The Lotos Eaters”)

The rhyme scheme in the above passage is ababcc.  There are a variety of rhyme schemes including abab, aabb, abba, acbc etc.  The portion of the poem cited below has the rhyme scheme of aabbcc.

(b)      Two neighbour, who were rather dense,

Considered that their mutual fence

Were more symbolic of their peace

(Which they maintained should never cease)

If each about his home and garden

Set up a more substantial warden.

(William Soutar, “Parable”)

A verse/poem without any rhyme is referred to as blank verse while the free verse is a poem which disregards the traditional nations of rhyme and metre, and rather relies on the nature of the content to achieve its poetic form.

General evaluation
  1. What is scansion?
  2. Discuss three feet with examples in literature.

Weekend assignment

  1. We describe as ‘tragic flaw’ the ________ (a) slip made by a character which results in his fall (b) unsuccessful play written by an otherwise wonderful dramatist    (c) typographical error which recurs in a work of drama    (d) element of a plot whose prominence makes an artistic work faulty
  2. To be total or complete a play needs to have a _______ (a) soliloquy (b) conflict     (c) prologue      (d) epilogue
  3. The plot of a novel is best described as __________ (a) the outline of the story in a logical order (b) the story with its beginning, middle and end    (c) the distinct summary of the story     (d) the story in all its detail
  4. The writer of play is known as a ________ (a) playwriter (b) playwrite      (c) playwrighter        (d) playwright
  5. A narrative poem _________ (a) preaches a sermon    (b) tells a tale or story    (c) propounds a philosophy      (d) argues in a narrative manner

Theory

  1. Scan the poem, “The Ambassadors of Poverty” by Umeh P. O. C.
  2. Discuss the style of the poem, “The Ambassadors of poverty” by Umeh P.O.C.

Reading assignment

  1. Visit Wikipedia on literary terms and definitions.
  2. Visit Encarta on literary terms and definitions, and Scansion.

 

In our next class, we will be talking about Reading and Analysing Non-African Poetry: The School Boy. We hope you enjoyed the class.

Should you have any further question, feel free to ask in the comment section below and trust us to respond as soon as possible.

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