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dactyl: In poetry, a dactyl is a three-syllable metrical unit in which two unstressed syllables follow one stressed syllable, as heard in words like “tenderly” or “anapest.” The falling rhythm produced is heard in the first line from Thomas Hardy’s “The Voice” (1912):
deconstruction: A method of literary critique which is defined by the practice of dissecting a text’s claims, statements and structures as a way of exposing its inherent contradictions and instabilities; it emphasizes linguistic analysis over other elements of criticism and is a form of poststructuralism. Deconstruction was developed in the twentieth century by Jacques Derrida in Of Grammatology (1967, trans. 1976) and Writing and Difference (1967, trans. 1978); his seminal essay, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” (1966) outlines the logical underpinnings of the deconstructive method of analysis. For Derrida and others (notably, Paul de Man and Barbara Johnson), language is dynamic, ambiguous, and unstable, continuously disseminating multiple meanings. “Meaning,” therefore, is produced through the play of language and is never stable, but always contextual. A deconstructive reading involves exposing the contradictory claims within the text itself, questioning the possibility of a single, stable “meaning,” and revealing the inconsistencies that undermine its purported structure and content, all of which allow for an endless possibility of interpretations. It is important to note that Derrida did not consider deconstruction to be a mode of literary criticism, but rather a method of analyzing or reading any kind of text in any field. See also Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading (1979) and Barbara Johnson, Tbe Critical Difference (1981).
denotation: The literal meaning of a word rather than its suggestions or implications (the “connotation”); the objective definition of a word rather than the things the word suggests. As an example, “colonialism” denotes a form of political and social expansion or control; it connotes much more than this.
deus ex machina: Latin for “god out of the machine,” the term refers to the convention in Greek theater of lowering a god by means of a mechanical device in order to solve or untangle complications in the plot or between the characters. Beyond this original context the term is applied more broadly to any form of intervention used by an author in any genre to resolve the plot. See the drama of Euripides, as well the parody of this device in Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera (1928).
diction: The word choice or vocabulary used by a writer in any given text; along with syntax, the language choices a writer makes and an important element of style. Diction can range from slang, simple or colloquial to highly formal or specialized (obscure terms, technical language). For an interesting comparison of poetic diction, see Shakespeare’s sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”) and Harryette Mullen’s “Dim Lady” (“My honeybunches’ peepers are nothing like neon”).
disability theory: A term which postulates a distinction between impairment and disability. The former is the medical, physical, affective or cognitive attribute, while the latter is the social process that disables the person with the impairment. This is known as the social model, and is contrasted with the medical model that focuses on cure, and the charity model that localizes disability in the context of religion. It further theorizes the way that disability is constructed and represented within a culture, as well as the identitarian subjectivity that ensues from such constructions. (Lennard Davis).
drama: One of the three majors genres of literature, along with fiction and poetry. The drama, unlike its counterparts, is designed for performance on a stage by actors who take the roles of characters, perform the actions indicated by the script, and voice the written dialogue. Northop Frye writes that the history of the drama is, “in ways unique to the genre, a history of the conditions of presentation: theaters, directors, actors and acting companies, stage equipment, and audience expectations” (158). This history begins in Western literature with Greek religious rites; comedy emerged from celebrations of fertility, and tragedy from rites associated with death. Aeschylus (The Oresteia) and Sophocles (Antigone, Oedipus Rex) are the earliest known dramatists, whose works were performed in the fourth and fifth centuries BC. Miracle and morality plays dominated the drama of the middle Ages, and in the Renaissance, a great deal of dramatic literature was produced, including Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy (1586), William Shakespeare’s oeuvre, and works by Ben Jonson (Volpone) and Christopher Marlowe (The Jew of Malta, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus). Corneille, Molière, Racine, and Dryden wrote a good deal of the drama of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and in the nineteenth century, both the romanticism of figures like Johan Wolfgang von Goethe, as well as the realism of writers like Henrik Ibsen (A Doll’s House) and Anton Chekhov (The Cherry Orchard) were developed. Social drama was a preoccupation of playwrights at the turn of the twentieth century, including George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. Other modes, including the epic theater of Bertold Brecht and the Theater of the Absurd (Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Harold Pinter), illustrate the experimental turn in dramatic form and structure in the twentieth century. See also works by Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman), Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellman, David Mamet, Neil Simon, Wendy Wasserstein, Caryl Churchill (Top Girls), Laurie Anderson, and Ntozake Shange.
dramatic monologue: A poem of medium length in the form of a speech, spoken by an invented character and addressed to a silent auditor. In the dramatic monologue, the speaker typically reveals private information about him or herself in a specific situation or at a critical moment; there is an implied listener, but this listener does not respond. Examples include Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” (1842), Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses” (1842), and T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917). A more contemporary example which tests the limits of the form is Frank Bidart’s “Ellen West” (1990). The dramatic monologue in poetry is closely related to the soliloquy in drama, in which a character breaks from the action of the play in order to deliver a speech to the audience.
dramatic poetry: A genre of poetry (differing from its counterparts, lyric and narrative) which is performed as a speech by an invented character who is largely or totally unlike the author, to a silent auditor. Though the dramatic monologue is the most common example of this genre, it can also take the form of dialogue poetry, in which two personae speak alternately (see “Up-Hill” by Christina Rossetti or “The Ruined Maid” by Thomas Hardy). In a broader sense, the term can refer to poetry in drama, lyrics in plays, or poetic drama like Shakespeare’s The Tempest; broader still, it can indicate poetry which involves intense dramatic situations.
dramatic situation: The event or idea of a poem, often clarified by asking “Who is speaking to whom under what circumstances?” In assessing the dramatic situation of T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” then, we can conclude that Prufrock is speaking, that his speech is directed toward an unspecified “you,” and that he is considering the events which have transpired in his life as he is aging. Similarly, Marianne Moore’s poem “To a Steam Roller” is a direct address to the machine, spoken in a voice which can be closely aligned with the author’s, and considers the aesthetic nature of an object which some would question as aesthetic. Articulating the dramatic situation of a poem gives readers a place to begin an analysis of the other elements of a text.
dramatic structure: The term for the structural arrangement of the action of a play, best illustrated using Freytag’s Pyramid. In film, the schema begins with the “point of attack” (an opening shot which establishes locale, theme, etc.), and in drama begins with “exposition,” the unfolding of events and information necessary for later plot development. This is followed with “rising action,” in which complications are developed, usually between the protagonist and antagonist; the “climax” or high point of the action in which the crisis of the drama occurs; and the “falling action,” where the result or outcome of the climax is explored. The final point of the pyramid is the “resolution” or “denouement” (meaning the “untying of the knot”), in which order is restored and conclusions, for better or worse, are established. Although the pyramid involves five essential movements, not all plays follow this pattern, and twentieth century innovations with regard to structure are apparent in a variety of playwrights’ work. A similar pattern can also be charted in novels, epic poems and other long forms.
dystopian novel: A text which illustrates societies or systems gone wrong, or forecasts the doom awaiting peoples, nations, or the world on the whole; opposed to “Utopia” or the “utopian novel.” From the Greek for “bad place,” cultural, political and social dystopias are explored in works such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948), as well as in the more recent apocalyptic fiction of Kurt Vonnegut, Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange, 1962), and William S. Burroughs.
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