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Literary Criticism: Literary Elements

Literary Elements

Think of Literary elements as the building blocks of the work. These blocks or "elements" can be broken apart and individually examined to give a deeper meaning into a specific aspect of the text. 


  • Referring to something indirectly. This subtle reference could be to an idea, a person, a place, or even an event. 
Example: The poem "Nothing Gold Can Stay," by Robert Frost alludes to the biblical story of The Garden of Eden. 



  •  Time and place
  •  Broader setting- the historical period, social environment, etc.
  •  Often directly tied to characters, their actions, ideas, and the plot.
    • How would characters act in a different setting? 
Example: In Hamlet, the setting of the graveyard appears throughout the play, and it could be scrutinized that this particular setting directly ties into the mortality theme the work displays. 



  • Authors' develop tones for their works to portray their attitude of the subject matter. 
  • Assists the reader with understanding the overall message and the authors feelings about it.  
  • Exhibits emotion- can influence the reader.
Example: The tone in The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, could be described as a comedic satire. This tone is critical to showing the hypocrisies within Victorian Society. Even within the title, Wilde uses his comedic wit. 



  • Symbolism is often used to bring an abstract idea to the forefront.
  • The idea can be represented in many ways such as a person, an object, or an action to name a few. 
  • Symbolism often has deep meaning and gives substantial meaning to the text.
  • It it is important to examine the surrounding text when analyzing symbolism- put it in context
Example: Color can often have symbolic meaning. In William Faulkner's short story A Rose for Emily, one can analyze the symbolic meaning of Emily's hair turning a deeper shade of gray as the story progresses. It could be determined that the change in Emily's hair is a symbolic progression of time, loss, depression, but also a simultaneous growing strength. 



  • The language used to describe and bring readers into the literary world. 
  • Mainly focuses on our five senses. 
  • Critical for setting the mood of the text
    • Look at the adjectives used to set the mood, are they somber, cheerful, etc.?
    • What importance does the mood play with the overall theme of the text?
Example: The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien uses visual imagery to showcase the landscape of war, its brutal hardships, and the guilt that accompanies it.


Diction and Syntax

  • Diction focuses on the word choice of the text and the precise meaning of those words.
    • Words that are purposefully left out could also be analyzed. 
  • Syntax analyzes the sentence structure.
Example: Within Hills Like White Elephants, Earnest Hemingway carefully chooses words to construe a conversation between a couple. The word choice is critical because the meaning of the conversation is never given. Similarly, Hemingway uses precise sentences that lack description and context. It is therefore left to the reader to deduce the topic of conversation and its connection to the couple.