What are Literary Devices?
From the very first time humans began sharing stories, literary devices have played a key role in our history. Along with the creation of storytelling came the development of narrative elements like plot, character, and tone. As storytelling evolved over the millennia, so too did the range and complexity of techniques available to authors. Many of the elements that authors use are so fundamental that they are not necessarily conscious choices, such as theme or tone (though these two examples, of course, could be consciously constructed by the author). Other techniques, however, are more intentional, such as foreshadowing and red herrings.
Literary devices are common to all forms of literature, including poetry, prose, plays, and even in songs. While literary devices predate literary analysis, some schools of literary criticism base much of their theory around the importance and definition of literary terms. For example, the formalists of the early twentieth century wanted to separate literary works from their authors and analyze the works solely through their inherent features. This approach negated any importance of the cultural context of the work, and instead highlighted the “forms” of the text (hence the name for the movement, formalism). They identified the literary devices in a work as primary to understanding the work. While the formalist method of analyzing literature has now fallen out of favor due to its limited scope of examination, the study of literary devices remains vital to investigating literary works.
We will explore the difference between literary elements and literary techniques, and look at examples and definitions of several popular literary terms. We’ll also look at how these literary devices function in two popular works, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
What is the difference between literary elements and literary techniques?
Literary elements are the universal constituents of literature and thus can be found in any written or oral story. Plot and character, for example, are necessary to story and are present in stories from every culture and time period.
Literary techniques, however, are not universal or necessary in the sense that not all works contain instances of them. Simile and irony are examples of literary techniques. While many poems contain similes, not all do. Simile, therefore, is a literary technique instead of a literary element.
Examples of literary devices
There are many hundreds of terms that refer to a unique aspect of literature. Below, we’ve chosen three popular literary devices to examine in depth.
Common in all forms of literature, metaphor is a way of comparing things by stating that one thing is the same or very similar to another seemingly unrelated object. Metaphor is a type of analogy, and is often mistaken with simile. The difference between metaphor and simile is that a simile includes “like” or “as” in the comparison (for example: “O my luve’s like a red, red rose), whereas metaphor is an assertion of the comparison without modifiers or conjunctions. One of the most famous examples of metaphor is from Shakespeare’s play As You Like It:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
Here, the character Jaques states that the world is a stage, which we know not to be literally true. However, by extending the metaphor, Jaques compares the lifetime of a human to acts in a play, with birth and death being merely “entrances” and “exits”, respectively. Psychologically, the use of metaphor often expands the way the reader or viewer understands the world around him or her, as it does in this example.
Most common in poetry, though also present in some lines of prose and theater, alliteration is the repetition of the same sound at the beginning of adjacent words. This was a very popular literary device in Old English storytelling, as the presence of alliteration made the oral stories easier to remember and retell through the generations. The Mother Goose rhyme “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers” is an example of alliteration due to the repetition of the letter “p”. Alliteration is a special case of consonance, which is the repetition of consonant sounds anywhere in the word (the “ck” sound from the previous Mother Goose rhyme is an example of consonance, as it comes in the middle of the words rather than at the beginning, though the repetition of “p” sound can also be described as consonance).
Point-of-view is a term for the narrative mode, and is primary characteristic of prose. It is the way in which the author narrates the story. There are many options, the most common of which are first person singular and third person limited; authors also sometimes choose to mix different points of view in the same novel. Here is a list of the types of point-of-view:
- First person singular: This point-of-view uses an “I” character to narrate the story. The narrator is not necessarily the protagonist, though this is often the case as this point-of-view is the most intimate and allows for the most direct access to a character’s thoughts.
- First person plural: A relatively uncommon choice for point-of-view, the first person plural uses the pronoun “we” as the narrator. In this case, there must be some uniting factor between the group of people narrating the story. One example of this is the 1993 novel The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides in which a group of unnamed young men from a small town observe and comment on a family with five sisters. For example:
Whenever we saw Mrs. Lisbon we looked in vain for some sign of the beauty that must have once been hers.
- Second person: Even less common is the novel narrated with “you.” This is a very difficult point of view to sustain, as the reader must identify with the “you”, or it must be clear that the “you” character is, in fact, a way for the narrator to reflect back on his or her own actions. The most successful examples are the Choose Your Own Adventure series, in which the reader is encouraged to imagine himself or herself as the protagonist. For example:
You are a deep sea explorer searching for the famed lost city of Atlantis. This is your most challenging and dangerous mission. Fear and excitement are now your companions.
- Third person limited: This point-of-view uses “he” or “she” to refer to the narrator of the story. It is less intimate than the first person point of view, yet being limited to only one person’s thoughts it can still provide psychological access to that character. However, it also allows for the author to add descriptive and narrative details that the character doesn’t necessarily notice.
- Third person omniscient: Here the author uses the pronouns “he” and “she”, but can access the thoughts of any character in the story. This point of view creates the most distance between the reader and any one character of the story.
Literary devices in Hamlet
Shakespeare’s classic play Hamlet is full of literary devices. Below is an excerpt from the most famous soliloquy from the play (and, indeed, perhaps the most famous soliloquy ever written).
To be, or not to be, that is the question—
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them? To die, to sleep—
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; Aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.
In just this short excerpt, we are able to find many literary devices at work. There are many instances of repetition, especially of the word “sleep,” which functions as a metaphor for death. There are other metaphors in this excerpt, such as the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” and the “sea of troubles.” Fortune does not literally shoot arrows, and there is no literal sea of troubles, yet the reader or viewer is able to connect the two concepts mentally. In this excerpt, Hamlet is contemplating death, both murder and suicide, and thus the mood is quite somber. The soliloquy provides access to Hamlet’s motivation for whether or not to avenge his father’s death.
Literary Devices in The Great Gatsby
The Great Gatsby is famous for its use of a third person limited narrator who is not the protagonist. This is a relatively uncommon method in which to narrate a novel. Nick Carraway tells the story, and yet the plot revolves around the actions of his friend Jay Gatsby.
There is much juxtaposition in the novel between West Egg and East Egg, and the comparable fortunes of the men who arrive at Jay Gatsby’s famous parties. Fitzgerald also uses irony throughout the novel, including readers’ knowledge of Jay and Daisy’s affair of which Daisy’s husband Tom is unaware (dramatic irony) and Daisy’s decision to stay with Tom at the end of the novel, contrary to readers’ expectations (situational irony).