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Dactyl: See Foot
Dadaism: A protest movement in art and literature founded by Tristan Tzara in 1916. Followers of the movement expressed their outrage at the destruction brought about by World War I by revolting against numerous forms of social convention. The Dadaists presented works marked by calculated madness and flamboyant nonsense. They stressed total freedom of expression, commonly through primitive displays of emotion and illogical, often senseless, Poetry. The movement ended shortly after the war, when it was replaced by surrealism.
Proponents of Dadaism include Andre Breton, Louis Aragon, Philippe Soupault, and Paul Eluard.
Decadents: The followers of a nineteenth-century literary movement that had its beginnings in French Aestheticism. Decadent literature displays a fascination with perverse and morbid states; a search for novelty and sensation — the "new thrill"; a preoccupation with mysticism; and a belief in the senselessness of human existence. The movement is closely associated with the doctrine Art for Art's Sake. The term "decadence" is sometimes used to denote a decline in the quality of art or literature following a period of greatness.
Major French decadents are Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud. English decadents include Oscar Wilde, Ernest Dowson, and Frank Harris. (Compare with Aestheticism.)
Deconstruction: A method of literary criticism developed by Jacques Derrida and characterized by multiple conflicting interpretations of a given work. Deconstructionists consider the impact of the language of a work and suggest that the true meaning of the work is not necessarily the meaning that the author intended.
Jacques Derrida's De la grammatologie is the seminal text on deconstructive strategies; among American practitioners of this method of criticism are Paul de Man and J. Hillis Miller.
Deduction: The process of reaching a conclusion through reasoning from general premises to a specific premise.
An example of deduction is present in the following syllogism:
Premise: All mammals are animals.
Premise: All whales are mammals.
Conclusion: Therefore, all whales are animals.
(Compare with Induction.)
Denotation: The definition of a word, apart from the impressions or feelings it creates in the reader.
The word "apartheid" denotes a political and economic policy of segregation by race, but its connotations — oppression, slavery, inequality — are numerous.
Denouement: (Also known as Falling Action.) A French word meaning "the unknotting." In literary criticism, it denotes the resolution of conflict in fiction or drama. The denouement follows the climax and provides an outcome to the primary plot situation as well as an explanation of secondary plot complications. The denouement often involves a character's recognition of his or her state of mind or moral condition.
A well-known example of denouement is the last scene of the play As You Like It by William Shakespeare, in which couples are married, an evildoer repents, the identities of two disguised characters are revealed, and a ruler is restored to power.
Description: Descriptive writing is intended to allow a reader to picture the scene or setting in which the action of a story takes place. The form this description takes often evokes an intended emotional response — a dark, spooky graveyard will evoke fear, and a peaceful, sunny meadow will evoke calmness.
An example of a descriptive story is Edgar Allan Poe's Landor's Cottage, which offers a detailed depiction of a New York country estate.
Detective Story: A narrative about the solution of a mystery or the identification of a criminal. The conventions of the detective story include the detective's scrupulous use of logic in solving the mystery; incompetent or ineffectual police; a suspect who appears guilty at first but is later proved innocent; and the detective's friend or confidant — often the narrator — whose slowness in interpreting clues emphasizes by contrast the detective's brilliance.
Edgar Allan Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue" is commonly regarded as the earliest example of this type of story. With this work, Poe established many of the conventions of the detective story genre, which are still in practice. Other practitioners of this vast and extremely popular genre include Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, and Agatha Christie.
Deus ex machina: A Latin term meaning "god out of a machine." In Greek drama, a god was often lowered onto the stage by a mechanism of some kind to rescue the hero or untangle the plot. By extension, the term refers to any artificial device or coincidence used to bring about a convenient and simple solution to a plot. This is a common device in melodramas and includes such fortunate circumstances as the sudden receipt of a legacy to save the family farm or a last-minute stay of execution. The deus ex machina invariably rewards the virtuous and punishes evildoers.
Examples of deus ex machina include King Louis XIV in Jean-Baptiste Moliere's Tartuffe and Queen Victoria in The Pirates of Penzance by William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. Bertolt Brecht parodies the abuse of such devices in the conclusion of his Threepenny Opera.
Dialogue: In its widest sense, dialogue is simply conversation between people in a literary work; in its most restricted sense, it refers specifically to the speech of characters in a drama. As a specific literary genre, a "dialogue" is a composition in which characters debate an issue or idea.
The Greek philosopher Plato frequently expounded his theories in the form of dialogues.
Diary: A personal written record of daily events and thoughts. As private documents, diaries are supposedly not intended for an audience, but some, such as those of Samuel Pepys and Anais Nin, are known for their high literary quality. The Diary of Anne Frank is an example of a well-known diary discovered and published after the author's death. Many writers have used the diary form as a deliberate literary device, as in Nikolai Gogol's story "Diary of a Madman." (Compare with Autobiography.)
Diction: The selection and arrangement of words in a literary work. Either or both may vary depending on the desired effect. There are four general types of diction: "formal," used in scholarly or lofty writing; "informal," used in relaxed but educated conversation; "colloquial," used in everyday speech; and "slang," containing newly coined words and other terms not accepted in formal usage.
(See also Colloquialism.)
Didactic: A term used to describe works of literature that aim to teach some moral, religious, political, or practical lesson. Although didactic elements are often found in artistically pleasing works, the term "didactic" usually refers to literature in which the message is more important than the form. The term may also be used to criticize a work that the critic finds "overly didactic," that is, heavy-handed in its delivery of a lesson.
Examples of didactic literature include John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Alexander Pope's essay on Criticism, Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile, and Elizabeth Inchbald's Simple Story.
Dimeter: See Meter
Dionysian: See Apollonian and Dionysian
Discordia concours: A Latin phrase meaning "discord in harmony." The term was coined by the eighteenth-century English writer Samuel Johnson to describe "a combination of dissimilar images or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike." Johnson created the expression by reversing a phrase by the Latin poet Horace.
The metaphysical poetry of John Donne, Richard Crashaw, Abraham Cowley, George Herbert, and Edward Taylor among others, contains many examples of discordia concours. In Donne's "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," the poet compares the union of himself with his lover to a draftsman's compass:
If they be two, they are two so,
As stiff twin compasses are two:
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do;
And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.
(Compare with conceit.)
Dissonance: A combination of harsh or jarring sounds, especially in Poetry. Although such combinations may be accidental, poets sometimes intentionally make them to achieve particular effects. Dissonance is also sometimes used to refer to close but not identical rhymes. When this is the case, the word functions as a synonym for Consonance.
Robert Browning, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and many other poets have made deliberate use of dissonance. (Compare with Assonance.)
Documentary: A work that features a large amount of documentary material such as newspaper stories, trial transcripts, and legal reports. Such works can include fictionalized segments or may contain a fictional story in which the author incorporates real-life information or events; these are referred to as documentary novels.
Examples of documentary novels include the works of Theodore Dreiser, Emile Zola, John Dos Passos, and James T. Farrell. An example of a nonfictional literary documentary is James Agee's and Walker Evans's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
Documentary Novel: See Documentary
Doppelganger: (Also known as The Double.) A literary technique by which a character is duplicated (usually in the form of an alter ego, though sometimes as a ghostly counterpart) or divided into two distinct, usually opposite personalities. The use of this character device is widespread in nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature, and indicates a growing awareness among authors that the "self" is really a composite of many "selves."
A well-known story containing a doppelganger character is Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which dramatizes an internal struggle between good and evil.
Double Entendre: A corruption of a French phrase meaning "double meaning." The term is used to indicate a word or phrase that is deliberately ambiguous, especially when one of the meanings is risque or improper.
An example of a double entendre is the Elizabethan usage of the verb "die," which refers both to death and to orgasm.
Double, The: See Doppelganger
Draft: Any preliminary version of a written work. An author may write dozens of drafts which are revised to form the final work, or he or she may write only one, with few or no revisions.
Dorothy Parker's observation that "I can't write five words but that I change seven" humorously indicates the purpose of the draft.
Drama: In its widest sense, a drama is any work designed to be presented by actors on a stage. Similarly, "drama" denotes a broad literary genre that includes a variety of forms, from pageant and spectacle to tragedy and Comedy, as well as countless types and subtypes. More commonly in modern usage, however, a drama is a work that treats serious subjects and themes but does not aim at the grandeur of tragedy. This use of the term originated with the eighteenth-century French writer Denis Diderot, who used the word drame to designate his plays about middle-class life; thus "drama" typically features characters of a less exalted stature than those of tragedy.
Examples of classical dramas include Menander's comedy Dyscolus and Sophocles' tragedy Oedipus Rex. Contemporary dramas include Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, Lillian Hellman's Little Foxes, and August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. (Compare with Melodrama.) (See also Comedy of Manners, Commedia dell'arte, Epic Theater, Farce, genre, Masque, Revenge Tragedy, Theater of the Absurd, and Theater of Cruelty.)
Dramatic Irony: Occurs when the audience of a play or the reader of a work of literature knows something that a character in the work itself does not know. The irony is in the contrast between the intended meaning of the statements or actions of a character and the additional information understood by the audience.
A celebrated example of dramatic irony is in Act V of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, where two young lovers meet their end as a result of a tragic misunderstanding. Here, the audience has full knowledge that Juliet's apparent "death" is merely temporary; she will regain her senses when the mysterious "sleeping potion" she has taken wears off. But Romeo, mistaking Juliet's drug-induced trance for true death, kills himself in grief. Upon awakening, Juliet discovers Romeo's corpse and, in despair, slays herself.
Dramatic Monologue: See Monologue
Dramatic Poetry: Any lyric work that employs elements of drama such as dialogue, conflict, or characterization, but excluding works that are intended for stage presentation.
A Monologue is a form of dramatic poetry. (Compare with Lyric Poetry and Narrative Poetry.) (See also Poetry.)
Dramatis Personae: The characters in a work of literature, particularly a drama.
The list of characters printed before the main text of a play or in the program is the dramatis personae.
Dream Allegory: See Dream Vision
Dream Vision: (Also known as Dream Allegory.) A literary convention, chiefly of the Middle Ages. In a dream vision a story is presented as a literal dream of the narrator. This device was commonly used to teach moral and religious lessons.
Important works of this type are The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, Piers Plowman by William Langland, and The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan. (See also Allegory.)
Dystopia: An imaginary place in a work of fiction where the characters lead dehumanized, fearful lives.
Jack London's The Iron Heel, Yevgeny Zamyatin's My, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four, and Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale portray versions of dystopia. (Compare with Utopia.)
Eclogue: In classical literature, a poem featuring rural themes and structured as a dialogue among shepherds. Eclogues often took specific poetic forms, such as elegies or love poems. Some were written as the Soliloquy of a shepherd. In later centuries, "eclogue" came to refer to any poem that was in the pastoral tradition or that had a dialogue or Monologue structure.
A classical example of an eclogue is Virgil's Eclogues, also known as Bucolics. Giovanni Boccaccio, Edmund Spenser, Andrew Marvell, Jonathan Swift, and Louis MacNeice also wrote eclogues. (Compare with Pastoral.)
Edwardian: Describes cultural conventions identified with the period of the reign of Edward VII of England (1901-1910). Writers of the Edwardian Age typically displayed a strong reaction against the propriety and conservatism of the Victorian Age. Their work often exhibits distrust of authority in religion, politics, and art and expresses strong doubts about the soundness of conventional values.
Writers of this era include George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, and Joseph Conrad. (Compare with Victorian.)
Edwardian Age: See Edwardian
Electra Complex: A daughter's amorous obsession with her father.
The term Electra complex comes from the plays of Euripides and Sophocles entitled Electra, in which the character Electra drives her brother Orestes to kill their mother and her lover in revenge for the murder of their father. (Compare with Oedipus Complex.)
Elegy: A lyric poem that laments the death of a person or the eventual death of all people. In a conventional elegy, set in a classical world, the poet and subject are spoken of as shepherds. In modern criticism, the word elegy is often used to refer to a poem that is melancholy or mournfully contemplative.
John Milton's "Lycidas" and Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Adonais" are two examples of this form. (See also Pastoral.)
Elizabethan Age: A period of great economic growth, religious controversy, and nationalism closely associated with the reign of Elizabeth I of England (1558-1603). The Elizabethan Age is considered a part of the general Renaissance — that is, the flowering of arts and literature — that took place in Europe during the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries. The era is considered the golden age of English literature. The most important dramas in English and a great deal of lyric Poetry were produced during this period, and modern English criticism began around this time.
The notable authors of the period — Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Francis Bacon, and John Donne — are among the best in all of English literature.
Elizabethan Drama: English comic and tragic plays produced during the Renaissance, or more narrowly, those plays written during the last years of and few years after Queen Elizabeth's reign. William Shakespeare is considered an Elizabethan dramatist in the broader sense, although most of his work was produced during the reign of James I.
Examples of Elizabethan comedies include John Lyly's The Woman in the Moone, Thomas Dekker's The Roaring Girl, or, Moll Cut Purse, and William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Examples of Elizabethan tragedies include William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, and John Webster's The Tragedy of the Duchess of Malfi.
Empathy: A sense of shared experience, including emotional and physical feelings, with someone or something other than oneself. Empathy is often used to describe the response of a reader to a literary character.
An example of an empathic passage is William Shakespeare's description in his narrative poem Venus and Adonis of:
the snail, whose tender horns being hit,
Shrinks backward in his shelly cave with pain.
Readers of Gerard Manley Hopkins's The Windhover may experience some of the physical sensations evoked in the description of the movement of the falcon.
English Sonnet: See Sonnet
Enjambment: The running over of the sense and structure of a line of Verse or a couplet into the following verse or couplet.
Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" is structured as a series of enjambments, as in lines 11-12: "My vegetable love should grow/Vaster than empires and more slow."
Enlightenment, The: An eighteenth-century philosophical movement. It began in France but had a wide impact throughout Europe and America. Thinkers of the Enlightenment valued reason and believed that both the individual and society could achieve a state of perfection. Corresponding to this essentially humanist vision was a resistance to religious authority.
Important figures of the Enlightenment were Denis Diderot and Voltaire in France, Edward Gibbon and David Hume in England, and Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson in the United States. (Compare with Neoclassicism.) (See also Humanism.)
Epic: A long narrative poem about the adventures of a hero of great historic or legendary importance. The setting is vast and the action is often given cosmic significance through the intervention of supernatural forces such as gods, angels, or demons. Epics are typically written in a classical style of grand simplicity with elaborate Metaphors and allusions that enhance the symbolic importance of a hero's adventures.
Some well-known epics are Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil's Aeneid, and John Milton's Paradise Lost.
Epic Simile: See Homeric Simile
Epic Theater: A theory of theatrical presentation developed by twentieth-century German playwright Bertolt Brecht. Brecht created a type of drama that the audience could view with complete detachment. He used what he termed "alienation effects" to create an emotional distance between the audience and the action on stage. Among these effects are: short, self-contained scenes that keep the play from building to a cathartic climax; songs that comment on the action; and techniques of acting that prevent the actor from developing an emotional identity with his role.
Besides the plays of Bertolt Brecht, other plays that utilize epic theater conventions include those of Georg Buchner, Frank Wedekind, Erwin Piscator, and Leopold Jessner. (Compare with catharsis.)
Epigram: A saying that makes the speaker's point quickly and concisely.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote an epigram that neatly sums up the form:
What is an Epigram? A Dwarfish whole,
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.
(Compare with Bon Mot.)
Epilogue: A concluding statement or section of a literary work. In dramas, particularly those of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the epilogue is a closing speech, often in Verse, delivered by an actor at the end of a play and spoken directly to the audience.
A famous epilogue is Puck's speech at the end of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. (Compare with Prologue.)
Epiphany: A sudden revelation of truth inspired by a seemingly trivial incident.
The term was widely used by James Joyce in his critical writings, and the stories in Joyce's Dubliners are commonly called "epiphanies."
Episode: An incident that forms part of a story and is significantly related to it. Episodes may be either self-contained narratives or events that depend on a larger context for their sense and importance.
Examples of episodes include the founding of Wilmington, Delaware in Charles Reade's The Disinherited Heir and the individual events comprising the picaresque novels and medieval romances. (Compare with Hamartia.)
Episodic Plot: See Plot
Epistolary Novel: A novel in the form of letters. The form was particularly popular in the eighteenth century.
Samuel Richardson's Pamela is considered the first fully developed English epistolary novel.
Epitaph: An inscription on a tomb or tombstone, or a Verse written on the occasion of a person's death. Epitaphs may be serious or humorous.
Dorothy Parker's epitaph reads, "I told you I was sick."
Epithalamion: (Also spelled Epithalamium.) A song or poem written to honor and commemorate a marriage ceremony.
Famous examples include Edmund Spenser's "Epithalamion" and e. e. cummings's "Epithalamion."
Epithalamium: See Epithalamion
Epithet: A word or phrase, often disparaging or abusive, that expresses a character trait of someone or something.
"The Napoleon of crime" is an epithet applied to Professor Moriarty, arch-rival of Sherlock Holmes in Arthur Conan Doyle's series of detective stories.
Erziehungsroman: See Bildungsroman
Essay: A prose composition with a focused subject of discussion. The term was coined by Michel de Montaigne to describe his 1580 collection of brief, informal reflections on himself and on various topics relating to human nature. An essay can also be a long, systematic discourse.
An example of a longer essay is John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.
Exempla: See Exemplum
Exemplum: A tale with a moral message. This form of literary sermonizing flourished during the Middle Ages, when exempla appeared in collections known as "example-books."
The works of Geoffrey Chaucer are full of exempla. (Compare with Fable.)
Existentialism: A predominantly twentieth-century philosophy concerned with the nature and perception of human existence. There are two major strains of existentialist thought: atheistic and Christian. Followers of atheistic existentialism believe that the individual is alone in a godless universe and that the basic human condition is one of suffering and loneliness. Nevertheless, because there are no fixed values, individuals can create their own characters — indeed, they can shape themselves — through the exercise of free will. The atheistic strain culminates in and is popularly associated with the works of Jean-Paul Sartre. The Christian existentialists, on the other hand, believe that only in God may people find freedom from life's anguish. The two strains hold certain beliefs in common: that existence cannot be fully understood or described through empirical effort; that anguish is a universal element of life; that individuals must bear responsibility for their actions; and that there is no common standard of behavior or perception for religious and ethical matters.
Existentialist thought figures prominently in the works of such authors as Eugene Ionesco, Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Simone de Beauvoir, Samuel Beckett, and Albert Camus.
Expatriates: See Expatriatism
Expatriatism: The practice of leaving one's country to live for an extended period in another country.
Literary expatriates include English poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats in Italy, Polish novelist Joseph Conrad in England, American writers Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest Hemingway in France, and Trinidadian author Neil Bissondath in Canada.
Exposition: Writing intended to explain the nature of an idea, thing, or theme. Expository writing is often combined with description, narration, or argument. In dramatic writing, the exposition is the introductory material which presents the characters, setting, and tone of the play.
An example of dramatic exposition occurs in many nineteenth-century drawing-room comedies in which the butler and the maid open the play with relevant talk about their master and mistress; in composition, exposition relays factual information, as in encyclopedia entries.
Expressionism: An indistinct literary term, originally used to describe an early twentieth-century school of German painting. The term applies to almost any mode of unconventional, highly subjective writing that distorts reality in some way.
Advocates of Expressionism include dramatists George Kaiser, Ernst Toller, Luigi Pirandello, Federico Garcia Lorca, Eugene O'Neill, and Elmer Rice; poets George Heym, Ernst Stadler, August Stramm, Gottfried Benn, and Georg Trakl; and novelists Franz Kafka and James Joyce.
Extended Monologue: See Monologue