Critical Concepts


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There are many excellent handbooks that cover literary critical terminology, together (often) with a good deal of useful literary history.  And there are a number of on-line guides and glossaries devoted to reading and writing about literature. 

In the present project (designed for undergraduate courses I teach at Kansas State University) discussions are available for the highlighted terms in the list that follows.  Non-highlighted terms will be addressed shortly, since they are referenced in the articles on the terms already discussed.  Important terms not so far listed will be included in due time.

On-line guides

Several publishers of introductory literature texts have constructed web sites supporting their texts with additional material on authors covered and on critical concepts.  These are definitely worth a look.

Writing centers at a couple of universities also offer some helpful brief guides to reading literature and writing about literary works.:

In addition, there are some fairly sophisticated glossaries of literary critical and rhetorical terms that can be consulted on the web.  The definitions given are succinct, and therefore (with few exceptions) do not touch on some of the complexities worth thinking about, but they extend to many more terms than will be covered on this site.  Here are some:

 Return to List of Critical Terms.


By far the most extensive and informative discussions of literary critical terminology is to be found in books, not on the Web. Here is a list of a few items well worth seeking out.  Serious readers of literature will want to own at least one.  Later editions than the ones I have listed may be available.  (Conversely, you may be able to run across older editions - still highly useful!  to be had at very little expense.  You can shop for these on the web at several sites offering new or used books.)  I have listed the following in approximate order of complexity and thoroughness.

For a more thorough bibliography of such works, see "Some Dictionaries of Literary Theory and Related Areas," compiled by Lowell Edmunds of the Classics Department at Rutgers University.

An excellent introduction to contemporary debates in "literary theory" is David H. Richter, ed., Falling into Theory:  Conflicting Views on Reading Literature, 2nd Edition.  Boston:  Bedford/St. Martin's.  2000. 

This contains a number of clearly written, passionately committed, conflicting answers to three questions that serious readers (not confined to people majoring in literature, but certainly including them!) will sooner or later want to develop their own answers to:  (1) Why should we read?  (More specifically:  why read literature in analytical way (instead of "just enjoying it" in an immediate way, without "thinking about it")?  (2) What should we read?  (That is, how might we decide what works are worth spending our time on)?  (3) How should we read? (Or:  since there are so many different approaches and points of view that we might adopt, which should we pick, and why?)  There is a website designed to supplement this text, but of course can't be (and isn't intended to be) a substitute for dipping into the text itself.

 Return to List of Critical Terms.

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     Contents copyright 1998 by Lyman A. Baker

Permission is granted for non-commercial educational use; all other rights reserved.

     This document last revised 30 April 1998.