Carnival – Linguist and literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin uses the term “carnival” in to mean “the context in which individual voices flourish.” The carnival is a threshold or liminal or uncanny or abject space. In the carnival, conventions are broken, reversed, or disregarded. Out of and because of this seeming chaos, true dialogue begins to [...]

Apophasis versus Cataphasis

Apophasis versus Cataphasis – Revelation/explanation via negative example, opposed to cataphasis (revelation/explanation via positive example, showing). An example is one common theological defense of God: He’s unseen, timeless, without bounding dimension or any limit, etc. Apophasis is more powerful than cataphasis in general: Especially when it comes to theme (emotion, soul), the best strategy is [...]


Antagonist – The person, place, object, idea, or whatever other entity complicate the goals of the protagonist. In The Birds, the birds are antagonists, blocking Nat’s desire to not see his family die. In the Steven Millhauser story “The Invasion From Outer Space,” the main antagonist isn’t from outer space—it’s the town’s desire for something [...]


Allusion - Allusions reference other texts, people not explicitly talked about in the text, historical events not directly related to the text, etc. Many names in books are allusive; they recall other characters or books. James Joyce’s great Ulysses is titled after the Latin name of Odysseus, the famous Greek sailor-hero who goes on a great journey of self-discovery. In [...]

The Absurd

The Absurd – a condition in which our reality does not match our pretensions. American philosopher Thomas Nagel gives good examples: As we are being knighted, our pants fall down; we unknowingly read a love poem into a voicemail; etc. Absurdity may or may not be the condition of life. Nagel certainly has a good [...]


Systrophe – The technique of adding description after description of something without ever (“properly”) defining it. Lanham gives the example: “Man is an example of imbecility, the spoil of time, an image of unconstancy, a captive of calamity, a prisoner to pains, a servant to covetousness, finally, a food for worms” (Peacham, p. 137). Hip [...]

How to Read a Book

How to Read a Book – There are four huge domains to explore when reading a book, especially a novel or collection of stories, for a college humanities class. These are: Theme – Emotional insight, expressible as a single sentence or short paragraph. Specific elements in the story lead to a universal insight Structure – [...]