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fable: From the Latin fabula (“discourse,” “story”), a fable is a form of brief allegory in which the characters, often animals, are meant to suggest humans and the events or encounters are meant to stand as examples of interactions within social or political situations. The fable almost always illustrates a moral or lesson. Early practitioners of the form include Hesiod, in his poem of the hawk and the nightingale (eighth c. BC), and perhaps the best known collection of fables are attributed to Aesop (sixth c. BC), though our knowledge of them is indirect. Later writers of the fable include La Fontaine, John Gay, G.E. Lessing, and more recently, Rudyard Kipling (Just So Stories, 1902) and James Thurber (Fables of Our Time, 1940). George Orwell’s political satire Animal Farm (1945) can be considered a kind of extended fable.
fabliau: A brief narrative verse, written in octosyllabic couplets, which usually relates a bawdy or comic situation of middle-class life. The form originated in France and thrived throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; its subject matter is often realistically portrayed, somewhat coarse in treatment, and was frequently written to either ridicule the clergy or illustrate the cuckolding of an ignorant husband. The fabliau spread to Italy and England, where it was adapted by Geoffrey Chaucer in the Miller’s Tale and Reeve’s Tale.
feminism: A social and political movement interested in the advocacy of the rights of women and based on the equality of the sexes. This advocacy primarily takes form in ideas of suffrage, economic independence, and social emancipation. While feminism as a collective social movement in America did not develop until the early twentieth century, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) describes the dual necessities of education and equal opportunity; other women writers including Harriet Beecher Stowe, Kate Chopin and Charlotte Perkins Gilman “openly challenged the limits of subject matter and method imposed by social, legal, and economic pressures on nineteenth century women” (Frye et al 197). Important texts such as Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929) and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1948; trans. 1953) call into question the limits women have traditionally encountered in literature, whether through social and economic exclusion (Woolf) or through direct marginalization by male authors (Beauvoir). As feminism flourished in the middle to late twentieth century, so did the development of feminist literary criticism, which is interested in interrogating normative modes of understanding gender, sexuality, and power relations in texts. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Imagination (1979) details the concerns about the relationship between women and literature, and the related branches of gender studies and queer theory are similarly interested in the power relations and presuppositions that underline much Western thought.
fiction: The general term for any imaginative work, usually written in prose and containing an element of narrative. “Fiction” at times can indicate any work that employs invented characters and situations; this wider understanding would include both the genres of poetry and drama. However, a narrower definition is limited to works in prose and consists of many subgenres, including the novel, the short story and the novella. Fiction is distinguished from nonfiction in that it is essentially an imagined text, whereas nonfiction takes its situations from real or factual life, biographical or autobiographical events. While these two genres are distinct from one another, elements of fiction can appear in nonfiction texts, and vice versa. Early prose fictions were brief, easily memorized, and well-suited to oral delivery, such as the parable, the fable and the folk tale. With the development of print media, longer and more complex prose fictions emerged, and from that the novel in its current form.
figure: The general term for a word or expression that is representative or suggestive of something else; the basic element of figurative language, and that which is opposed to the literal. Figures can be divided into two classes: figures of thought (tropes), and figures of speech (rhetorical figures). Figures of thought are primarily pictorial in nature, and include words or expressions that are used in a different sense from the standard literal meaning, as in metaphor, simile, allusion, personification, and the like. Figures of speech are grammatical or rhetorical in nature, and differ from figures of thought in that the departure from standard usage occurs not pictorially, but rather in the order or syntactical pattern of the words. Figures of speech include simple repetition, antithesis, parallelism, and irony.
first-person narration: In prose fiction, a kind of narration in which the character is involved in the story and a participant in the action, speaking from an “I” position. The first-person narrator is the primary voice that provides the reader with the story, and may be a major or minor character. Versions of first-person narration include the “I-as-co-protagonist” (Nick Carraway in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby), the “I-as-minor-character” (as in Charles Dickens’ “The Signalman”), the “I-as-witness-protagonist” (as in Chapter One of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary), and the “I-as-uninvolved-eyewitness” (as in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”).
flashback: A technique, found most often in fiction but at times in drama and film, in which the author depicts events that occurred prior to the immediate narrative. This can be done directly, through a character’s recollection, or indirectly, through dream or other similar modes. The term most likely derives from the cinema (the idea of a “cut back”) and is a mode of narrative exposition.
foil: A character set up in contrast to the protagonist and who helps illuminate the nature and situation of the primary character. Examples of the foil include both Laertes and Fortinbras, foils to Hamlet, and Sancho, a foil to Don Quixote.
folio: Latin for “leaf,” folio has two primary meanings: 1) A sheet of paper, folded once; and 2) The largest of book sizes, made from standard printing sheets and folded once before trimming and binding. William Shakespeare’s first folio appeared in 1623, and subsequent editions were published in 1632, 1663 and 1685 (Frye et al 205; Cuddon 322).
foot: In poetry, a combination of syllables which form a patterned unit. A foot usually consists of two or three stressed and/or unstressed syllables, and when used repeatedly in a line or stanza of a poem, forms the metrical scheme of that poem. The regular use of metrical feet is found only in accentual and accentual-syllabic verse; syllabic and free verse forms do not rely on regular meter patterns, and are therefore open to use a variety of feet in a variety of ways. In English prosody, the most common feet include the iamb, the trochee, the dactyl, the anapest, and the spondee.
foreshadowing : A narrative technique, used most often in fiction and drama, in which the author provides clues for what is to come; it is a way of arranging events and information so as to prepare the audience for what will come to pass. As such, foreshadowing is a technique for suggesting a development in a text before it occurs, and applies primarily to the plot of a narrative.
form: This is the general term for the shape or structure that a piece of writing takes, or the arrangement of parts in a text. Form is distinguished from content or subject; that is, the outward appearance or style in contrast to what it is about. Form can also mean the genre in which a text belongs or the literary type it is; for example, a sonnet, a short story, or a personal essay.
formalism: A literary movement and theory that emerged in Russia in the 1920s and 1930s and emphasized analysis of literary texts with a scientific rigor, focusing more often on forms, structures and linguistic elements rather than extrinsic features (author, context, history, audience, and so forth). Prominent early innovators include Victor Shklovksy (Literature is “the sum total of all the stylistic devices employed in it”), Boris Eichenbaum, Tzvetan Todorov, and René Wellek who, in different ways, stressed the “analysis of the literary work as a self-sufficient verbal entity, constituted by internal relations and independent of reference either to the state of mind of the author or to the ‘external’ world” (Abrams 103). Many of the early formalists were linguists, and Roman Jakobson introduced formalist ideas and methods into French structuralism, which can be seen as an evolution of the earlier Russian movement (as can American New Criticism). Formalism can also be understood in more general terms as a kind of literary critique in which the primary object of analysis is the structures, tropes, and techniques of the text itself. Important concepts developed by the formalists include Shklovksy’s idea of “defamiliarization” (ostranenie or “making strange”), which he explains in “Art as Technique” (1917):
Another crucial idea developed by the formalists is the distinction in narrative between plot (syuzhet) and story (fabula). The Prague School (including Roman Jakobson and René Wellek) effectively united Russian formalism and Saussurean linguistics, which similarly influenced New Criticism.
free indirect discourse: A narrative technique which presents the thoughts or speech of fictional characters seemingly in combination with those of the narrator. The difference between “straight” discourse and free indirect discourse is a difference in how an utterance is framed. While the following statement is unframed and direct (Susan thought: “I’m not as idiotic as Margot”), the free indirect statement is more complex and interwoven with the intent or thought of the narrator (“Susan tried to console herself with the thought that she was not so idiotic as Margot”). Free indirect style can gain another level of complexity when the “commitments and abstentions of the authorial voice” are evident; what’s created is an ambiguity in terms of narrator, author, and character (Cuddon 330-31). For a further example of free indirect discourse, see Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925).
free verse: Any poetry with no consistent metrical pattern, also known in various contexts as “open form,” “vers libre,” or “open versification.” Free verse is contrasted to metered verse or accentual-syllabic poetry, which relies on a regular pattern of more or less regular rhythm, and usually ends in rhyme. Most free verse has irregular line lengths and either does not use rhyme or uses it infrequently. The origins of free verse are often located within Walt Whitman’s poetry, whose Leaves of Grass (1855) is based “not on the recurrence of stress accent in a regular, strictly measurable pattern, but rather on the irregular rhythmic cadence of the recurrence, with variations, of significant phrases, image patterns, and the like” (Preminger 289). Whitman’s innovations influenced the French symbolists through Baudelaire, all of whom were experimenting with freer lines, often in the form of prose poems. Similarly, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ experiments with “sprung rhythm” were a further effort to find alternative modes of versification. With the innovations of modernist poets including T.S. Eliot, Guillaume Apollinaire, Ezra Pound, H.D., and William Carlos Williams, free verse became the dominant form of twentieth century poetry, and the majority of poetry published today is nonmetrical. However, freedom from traditional metrical and stanzaic patterns does not mean that free verse has no patterns at all; it simply means that poets are looking for other forms of order (visual patterns, repetition, internal rhyme) to govern the poem than traditionally structured meter and rhyme patterns. For theories of free verse and open form, see T.S. Eliot, “Reflections on Vers Libre” (1917), Charles Olson, “Projective Verse” (1950), Allen Ginsberg, “Notes on Finally Recording Howl” (1959), Denise Levertov, “On the Function of the Line” (1979), and Lyn Hejinian, “The Rejection of Closure” (1983).
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