Definition & Examples of Literary Device or Terms

Mofizur Rahman

Definition & Examples of Literary Device or Terms
Literary Device or Terms Definition and Examples (Part-2)

Literary Terms
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Definition & Examples of Literary Device or Terms

Definition and Examples of Literary Terms

Dramatic Irony

A dialogue or a situation which conveys one meaning to the character or characters on stage but its opposite meaning to the audience. Examples: 'hen Oedipus, in Oedipus Rex, says, “I; Oedipus, / Whose name is ,own afar” he believes that he is really renowned for his good ivities but the members of audience know that he is opposite to hat he believes.

Again, when he declares death penalty for the killer of Laius, “I here pronounce my sentence upon his head”, he does not know that the punishment falls on his own head but the members of audience, because of their prior knowledge of the myth, know it.

In Macbeth, Duncan wonders at the treason of the previous thane of Cawdor who betrayed him in the battle:

There's no art
To find the mind's construction in the face.
He was a gentleman on whom I built
An absolute trust.
(Shakespeare: Macbeth, Act I, Scene IV)

Duncan does not know that he has also failed to read the face of Macbeth who will soon murder him. Similarly, when Lady Macbeth, after the murder of Duncan, says-

A little water clears us of this deed.
How easy is it then!
(Shakespeare: Macbeth: Act II, Scene II)

The audience knows that it is not easy. She also comes to know it much later in Act V, Scene I, and says: “Here's the smell of blood still; all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.”

The use of dramatic irony enhances audience's pleasure and its recurrence strengthens unity of action.

Dramatis Personae: The characters in a play.

Epic Simile

An open comparison between two dissimilar objects of which one is fairly elaborated. It is called epic simile because the epic poets introduced the tradition of this kind of simile. For example, in the following example Hector has been compared to a boar and a lion:

He was like a wild-boar or a lion when he turns this way and
that among the hounds and huntsmen to defy them in his
(Homer: The Iliad, Book-XII)

In this simile the qualities of a boar and a'lion are elaborated to suggest Hector's strength and bravery. Similarly, in the following epic simile from Virgil's Aeneid, Book IV, Dido has been compared to a wounded deer:

Sick with desire, and seeking him she loves,
From street to street the raving Dido roves.
So when the watchful shepherd, from the blind,
Wounds with a random shaft the careless hind,
Distracted with her pain she flies the woods,
Bounds o'er the lawn, and seeks the silent floods,
With fruitless care; for still the fatal dart
Sticks in her side, and rankles in her heart.

The restless wandering of the wounded deer has been elaborated in detail to suggest the agony of love-sick Dido.

Milton uses the following epic simile to suggest the huge number of the fallen angels assembled at Pandemonium:

Thick swarm'd both on the ground and in the air,
Brush'd with the hiss of rustling wings. As bees
In spring time, when the sun with Taurus rides,
Pour forth their populous youth about the hive
In clusters; they among fresh dews and flowers
Fly to and fro, or on the smoothed plank,
The suburb of their straw-built citadel,
New rubb'd with balm, expatiate, and confer
Their state affairs: So thick the aery crowd
Swarm'd and were straiten'd; till the signal given,
(Milton: Paradise Lost, Book I)

Main features of an epic simile:-

  1. It is elaborated in considerable detail. It is complete in itself.
  2. It is mainly drawn from nature and the primary qualities of the physical nature are suggested by it. In some exceptional cases, however,history or mythology is used for its source.
  3. It is functional and integrated with the narrative.
  4. It is mainly used in epics.


A brief and witty statement which is apparently self-contradictory. Examples: “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.” (Shelley: “To a Skylark”)

Here “sweetest” and “saddest” oppose each other but as 'we go beneath the surface level, we find that the sadder the song the deeper the impression it makes.

So all my best is dressing old words new,
Spending again what is already spent;
For as the sun is daily new and old,
So is my love still telling what is told.
(Shakespeare: “Sonnet LXXVI”)

“The rising unto place is laborious; and by pains men come to greater pains;” (Bacon:“Of Great Place”)

Epigrams lead readers or listeners to think and discover the meaning of the paradox in the statement, and thus, provide the intended pleasure. They sometimes offer humour, attack the target subject and create lasting impression on the readers.

Note:It is difficult to distinguish an epigram from an aphorism because both of them are witty and concise. However, an epigram is a paradoxical statement while an aphorism is a statement of a principle and truth. An aphorism is didactic but an epigram is often ironic. [see Aphorism]

Epigram also means a kind of short, witty poem.


A moment of sudden revelation or awareness that changes the course of life of the major character of a novel or short story. James Joyce defined epiphany as the moment when the “soul of the commonest object .. seems to us radiant”.

Stephen, the hero of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, once saw a young wading girl on the shore of the sea. The girl looked like a seabird: “She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird. (Chapter 4)

The image of the wading girl manifested to him as a hawk like seabird soaring high. In a flash, the sight created in him awareness of imagination-the real vocation of an artist. An artist's imagination soaring higher and higher also reflects absolute freedom. So, later in the novel (Chapter 5) Stephen rejects all that dominated him so far-'his family, homeland and religion-in order to be an artist. The wading girl is an epiphany that finally changes the course of Stephen's life.

An epiphany signals a turning point in the plot. Sometimes it is used to change the opinion of one character about other characters, events and places after a sudden awareness of the situation. It may also be a sign of a conclusion in the story.


A part of a longer story or a larger sequence.

For example, in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, the part that narrates Lydia's elopement and its impacts on the Bennet family is an episode. In Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man, the part that describes Bluntschli's visit to Petkoff's house to return the coat is an episode.

In Aeneid, the part which deals with the love of Dido for Aeneas is an episode. TV serials are divided into episodes which are shown in succession. Though an episode appears complete in itself, it leaves behind some clues on which the next episode is developed. An episode contributes to the total design of the story.


Basically an adjective placed before or after a person or a thing. For example: “Swift-footed Achilles”, “god-like Hector”, “red-haired Menelaus", “laughter-loving Aphrodite”, “"white-armed Helen", “Ox-eyed queen”, “Athene of the flashing eyes", Alexander the Great, “weary way", “labouring clouds”, etc.

An epithet is used as a substitute for the description of some of the characteristics of a person or thing.


The beginning of a play which artistically presents some of the past and present events and hints at what is coming next. It builds the background of the plot, introduces the major theme(s), character(s) and locates the story in time and place. It set the tone of the play.

Figures of Speech

The ornaments of language. They are the words and phrases that convey more than their dictionary or literal meanings. The commonly used figures of speech are: simile, metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, personification, hyperbole, etc.

For instance, the word 'log' in the sentence, “She sleeps like a log”, is a figure of speech called simile. The literal meaning of 'log' is 'a thick piece of wood cut from a tree'. So, a log is lifeless, motionless-dead. “She” has been compared to a “log” to suggest that she sleeps very deeply as if she were dead.

The language containing figures of speech is called figurative language. Figurative language is different from the language of sciences because figures of speech are avoided in writings on the subjects of science.

Flat character

A flat character is a person who does not change in course of the narrative of a fictional work of literature.

The features of a flat character are:-

He or she remains the same throughout the story of the work;
He or she is simple in nature;
In most cases he or she plays the role of a supporting character;
In Dickens' Great Expectations, Joe is a flat character because he is simple, plays a minor role and remains unchanged. Similarly, in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Collins, Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Bennet do not change. They are simple and minor characters. They are flat characters. [see Round Character]


A unit of two or more stressed and unstressed syllables in a verse line. Example:

“Thě cúr / fěw tólls / thě knéll / ốf párt / ǐng dáy”
(Gray: “Elegy”)
In this line there are five feet each consisting of an unstressed /~/ syilsble followed by a stressed /~/ syllable.

In English the following are the principal feet:
Iamb or iambus (adj. iamb = /~ '/ = sed+stressed mbic)  unstressed + st
Trochee (adj.trochai = /'~/ =' stressed aic) stressed + unstres
Spondee (adj.spond ndaic) =/' ' /= stressed + stressed
Pyrrhic(adj.Pyrrh Thic)=/~v/ =unstressed + unstressed
Anapaest (adj. anapaestic) = /~ v / = unstressed++unstressed+ stressed 
Dactyl (adj. dactylic) = /'vv / = stressed+unststressed+ unstressed 
Bacchi hius = /~ '' / = unstressed + stressed + stressed
Antibacchi = /' ' ~ / =  unstressedhius stressed + stressed + uns
Amphibra sed+unstressed
brach = /~  ~ / = unstressed +stressed + ι
Amphimacnacer= /' v' / = stressed + unst stressed+stressed
The most common of these feet are iamb, trochee, anapaest, and dactyl.
[see Iamb, Anapaest, Trochee and Dactyl]

S.T. Coleridge's “Lesson for a Boy” provides us with examples of almost all of the English feet in a poem written for a child:

Tróchee/tríps from/lóng to/shórt;
From lóng/to lóng/in sól/emn sórt
Slów spón / deé stálks;/ stróng foót! / Yét íl /áblě
Évěr tǒ / cóme ǔp wǐth / Dáctyl trǐ / sýllǎblě.
Yám /bǐcs márch/ frǒm shórt/to lóng;
Wǐth ǎ leáp /ǎnd a bóund /the swift Án/apaests thróng
Oně sýllă / blě lóng, wǐth / õnestórt ǎt/ěach síde,
Amphíbrǎ/ chys hástes with /ǎ státely / stríde.
Fírst and lást/ béing lóng, / míddle shórt, / Ámphimá/cer
Stríkes his thún/déring hoofs/líke a proúd/híghbred Rá/cer.

Among thése, iambic and anapaestic feet are used in rising rhythm as in these feet voice gradually rises up. Similarly, trochaic and dactylic feet are used in falling rhythm as in these feet voice gradually falls down. Rise and fall of rhythm is significant in English verse.

Genre or Form

One of the types or kinds of literature. The major genres are: poetry, drama, fiction, lyric, epic, mock-epic, tragedy, comedy, novel, short story, essay, etc.[see page 73]


An error or a flaw in the character of the protagonist of a tragedy. It causes the fall of the protagonist from the zenith of his success to the nadir of his misery. It is also called tragic flaw.

Dr. Faustus' thirst for god-like power in Doctor Faustus, King Lear's error of judgement in King Lear, Hamlet's indecision in Hamlet, Macbeth's high ambition in Macbeth and Othello's jealousy in Othello, are the causes of their tragic doom. Each of these flaws is known as hamàrtia. 

If the protagonist suffers and dies for his pride, the flaw in his character is called hubris.

Heroic Couplet

A pair of iambic pentameter verse lines which rhyme together. Example:
Bǔt whén / tǒ mís / chiěf mór/ tǎls bénd/theǐr wíll Hǒw soón / they fínd / fǐt íns /trǔménts / ǒf íu!
(Pope: The Rape of the Lock)

Each of these lines consists of five iambic feet. In other words, each line consists of five pairs of syllables and in each pair the first syllable is unstressed and the second is stressed. Such five feet arranged in a verse line are called iambic pentameter. 

When two such iambic pentameter lines end with similar sounds as “ill” in the above lines, they are called heroic couplet. The meaning of this couplet is complete in itself. This kind of couplet is called closed couplet. Here is another example of closed couplet:-

Favours to none, to all she smiles extends;
Oft she rejects, but never once offends.
(Pope: The Rape of the Lock)
However, the meaning of a couplet may not be complete in itself as in the following one:

That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive; I call
(Robert Browning: “My Last Duchess”)

Heroic couplets are mostly used in poems which deal with heroic actions, grand emotions and lofty thoughts. Pope and Dryden are the well-known masters of heroic couplet. [see Foot, Couplet]


The four kinds of human temperaments. The four fluids that determine the four temperaments are also called humours.

The theory of four temperaments was introduced by an ancient Greek physician, Hippocrates (460-370BC). According to his physiology, the four fluids-blood, phlegm, black bile (or melancholy) and yellow bile (or choler) - are analogous to the four basic elements: air, water, earth and fire.

Thus, blood is as hot and moist as air; phlegm is as cold and moist as water; black bile is as cold and dry as earth; yellow bile is as hot and dry as fire. The predominance of any of these humours in a person determines his or her character. For example, the predominance of blood makes a person sanguine, joyful and amorous.

The predominance of phlegm makes a person phlegmatic, dull and cowardly. The predominance of black bile makes a person melancholic, thoughtful and sentimental.

The predominance of yellow bile makes a person choleric, impatient and obstinate. Humours, therefore, mean four fluids as well as four temperaments. [see Comedy ofHumours]


An exaggerated statement or an extreme overstatement.
“Ten thousand saw I at a glance,”
(Wordsworth: “Daffodils”)

From the east to western Ind
No jewel is like Rosalind.
Her worth being mounted on the wind
Through all the world bears Rosalind.
All the pictures fairest lined
Are but black to Rosalind.
(Shakespeare: As You Like It, Act III, Scene II)

“Ay sir, to be honest as this world goes, is to be one man pick'd out oftwo thousand.”
(Shakespeare: Hamlet, Act II, Scene II)

I lov'd Opelia; forty thousand brothers
Could not (with all their quantity of love)
Make up my sum.
(Shakespeare: Hamlet, Act V, Scene I)

An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
(Andrew Marvell: “To His Coy Mistress”)

I'll love you, dear, I'll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,
(W.H. Auden:“As I Walked Out One Evening”)

Hyperbole is used to create strong emotional response. It can be positive as well as negative. It can be a source of laughter. It can also be a bitter criticism.

Iamb (imbus)

A metrical foot which consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. [see Foot]

For examples:
Y wán/děred lóne/lý ás/ ǎ cloúd
Thắt floáts/ ồn hígh/ õ'er váles/ ănd híÍls,
(Wordsworth: “Daffodils”)

“Whǒ háth/ nǒt seén/ theě óft/ ǎmid/thy stóre?”
(Keats: “To Autumn”)


“Picture in words”. It is a replica produced in the mind of the reader by sense perception. For example, the sentence, “The black cat is now in the dark room” reflects in our mind a picture of an animal which is not a dog or a tiger or a lion or any other animal but the small animal which is named as cat.

We also understand that its colour is black. This picture of the black animal reflected in our mind is an image in this sentence.

Images appeal to human senses and the process deepens readers' understanding of literature.

Images may be classified according to the various senses which we use to perceive things: ocular images, auditory images, olfactory images, gustatory images, tactile images, kinaesthetic images and organic images.


The collective use of images. Look at the title of the book Caroline Spurgeon wrote on all the images that Shakespeare has used in all of his plays: Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells. The word “Imagery” in the title is singular and its pronoun is “Iť”.

It covers all the images of Shakespeare's plays. If we say imagery of “To Autumn”, we mean all the images in it. It is customary to use the word “imagery” instead of “images” when we want to mean all the images of a text or of a writer. We use the plural of “imagery” when we mean all the images of two or more texts or writers.


A statement or a situation or an action which actually means the opposite of its surface meaning. The first sentence of Pride and Prejudice is an example of irony:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

After reading the novel one, however, finds that it is not the rich man who needs a wife but, quite opposite to it, it is the marriageable girls' mother who needs rich husbands for her daughters.

An often quoted example of irony is in Antony's speech at the funeral of Caesar who was killed by Brutus.

A part of the speech is quoted here:-
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men;
Come I to speak in Caesar's funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me;
But Brutus says he was ambitious,
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome,
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill.
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
(Shakespeare: Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene II)

Antony repeats “Brutus is an honourable man” a few more times in the rest of the speech. The irony in this statement glorifying Brutus had tremendous opposite effect.

Though Anțóny says: “Brutus is an honourable man” the Romans assembled around the dead body of Caesar understood the opposite of what Brutus says. They understood that Brutus was a dishonourable “traitor” and a despicable “villain”. They immediately turned rebellious against Brutus.

Situational irony occurs when the opposite of expectation takes place. For instance, in Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Part II, Chapter VI, Gulliver talks to the King very highly about the parliament, judiciary, treasury, army, war and some other aspects of England expecting the King to praise the people of England.

But the King ends up with a bitter comment totally opposite to Gulliver's expectation: “I cannot but conclude the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.”

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