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Literature becomes universal when it draws connections between the particular and the general. Often, certain levels of a literary work’s meaning are not immediately evident. The following terms relate to the relationship between the words on the page and the deeper significance those words may hold.



Archetype: A theme, motif, symbol, or stock character that holds a familiar and fixed place in a culture’s consciousness. For example, many cultures across the world feature an archetype of the resurrected god to herald the coming of spring. The Fisher King, Jesus Christ, and the goddess Persephone are three familiar instances of this archetype in Western culture.

Emblem: A concrete object that represents something abstract. For example, the Star of David is an emblem of Judaism. An emblem differs from a symbol in that an emblem’s meaning is fixed: the Star of David always represents Judaism, regardless of context.

Imagery: Language that brings to mind sense-impressions, especially via figures of speech. Sometimes, certain imagery is characteristic of a particular writer or work. For example, many of Shakespeare’s plays contain nautical imagery.

Motif: A recurring structure, contrast, or other device that develops or informs a work’s major themes. A motif may relate to concrete objects, like Eastern vs. Western architecture in E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, or may be a recurrent idea, phrase, or emotion, like Lily Bart’s constant desire to move up in the world in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth.

Symbol: An object, character, figure, or color that is used to represent an abstract idea or concept. For example, the two roads in Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” symbolize the choice between two paths in life. Unlike an emblem, a symbol may have different meanings in different contexts.

Theme: A fundamental and universal idea explored in a literary work. For example, a major theme of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is the perpetual contest between good and evil.

Thesis: The central argument that an author makes in a work. Although the term is primarily associated with nonfiction, it can apply to fiction. For example, the thesis of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is that Chicago meatpacking plants subject poor immigrants to horrible and unjust working conditions, and that the government must do something to address the problem.

Tone: The general atmosphere created in a story, or the narrator’s attitude toward the story or reader. For example, the tone of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground is outraged, defiant, and claustrophobic.


Brian M Logan

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