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Literary Elements

If you look at a house, you can imagine it as the sum of many things: bricks, wood, glass, stone, and so much more. But, what about a literary text, such as a novel, a fairy tale, or even a film? A text is also made up of building blocks, which an author, poet, or scriptwriter, for example, puts together to give us the exciting, entertaining whole. These building blocks, especially in literary texts, are known as 'literary elements.' Here, we will look more closely at some of the most common literary elements.

Literary Elements, a person typing on a typewriter with a lightbulb idea, StudySmarterTyping a story (with great ideas!), pixabay.

Literary Elements: List and Definitions

Below is a list of the most common literary elements. We will examine some of the key literary elements in greater detail below.

Literary ElementDefinition
ActionAny kind of physical change pertaining to characters or objects in a story.
AntagonistSomeone who or something that creates conflict in the story.
CharacterAny (not necessarily human) being in a narrative.
ConflictA challenge faced by the main character(s) of the story casts doubt on whether things will end well for them or not. Conflicts need to be resolved for the character(s) to achieve their goals.
DialogueA direct exchange between characters.
GenreA set of conventions that inform the reader of the general attributes of a story.
MoodThe overall tone of the story that evokes a certain response from the reader.
NarratorThe voice that conveys the story to the reader or audience.
PlotThe sequence of events in a story.
ProtagonistThe main character in a work of literature.
SettingThe place in which a story takes place.
ThemeThe overarching idea of the text. For example, maturity and growth is the central theme in bildungsroman narratives.

Literary Elements Meaning

Let's take a closer look at some of the literary elements listed above with examples to help you come into your own as a literary critic!

Literary Elements of a Story or Folktale

Let's see a brief explanation of the elements involved in a story or Folktale with examples of the elements mentioned above.

Action

If we think about it, we all understand what is meant by the word 'action'. But what does the term mean in a novel, folktale, or drama? How is action different from, for example, background or expressions of feelings? Let's find out!

In the simplest terms, action refers to any physical change pertaining to characters or objects in a story. Does a character leave a room? Action. Bar fight? Action. Fierce three-headed dog attacks three meddling students in a school of magic? AAAAACTION.

Action, dialogue, background/summary/exposition and thoughts/feelings/expression are generally considered to be the most prominent elements of a narrative. A writer weaves all of these different elements together in order to deliver the story to a reader in a way that makes them want to continue reading, watching, or listening, and the action within the story is often one of a its main driving forces.

'His manner was not effusive. It seldom was; but he was glad, I think, to see me. With hardly a word spoken, but with a kindly eye, he waved me to an armchair, threw across his case of cigars, and indicated a spirit case and a gasogene in the corner. Then he stood before the fire and looked me over in his singular introspective fashion' (Arthur Conan Doyle, chapter 1, 'A Scandal in Bohemia', 1891).

The quote above is taken from one of the Sherlock Holmes adventures in which Holmes' sidekick, Dr Watson, is the narrator. Now, Dr Watson could very well simply write, 'I think Sherlock was happy to see me, but he didn't really show it', however, this would be rather dull. Instead, the passage is full of action, showing us Sherlock's mannerisms and reaction upon seeing Watson. These details add atmosphere, helping us paint a mental image of Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes, their poses, the room they are in, and the awareness they show of their surroundings. Isn't it amazing what some well-constructed sentences can do?

Character

If there were no characters, every book, film, video game would be a total drag. Imagine The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) without... Dorian Gray, or Super Mario Bros without Mario and Luigi. Unthinkable, right?

A character refers to a being in a narrative. Note how we say 'being' and not 'person.' Animals, Artificial Intelligence, Cyborgs also are characters in a narrative. They drive forward the narrative and its action, and it is their struggles, thoughts, and motivations that the readers follow.

Characters can be further sub-divided in literary works depending on their function. They can be protagonists or antagonists, sidekicks or archetypical. One could argue that creating the character is perhaps the most exciting part of writing a story, reflected in the many, many people who also enjoy engaging in activities like cosplay, roleplay, fan fiction, and fan art.

'Artis Corbin was two things: a talented algaeist and a complete asshole. The former trait was crucial on a long-haul ship like the Wayfarer. A batch of fuel going brown could be the difference between arriving at port and going adrift. Half of one of the Wayfarer’s lower decks was filled with nothing but algae vats, all of which needed someone to obsessively adjust their nutrient content and salinity. This was one area in which Corbin’s lack of social graces was actually a benefit. The man preferred to stay cooped up in the algae bay all day, muttering over readouts, working in pursuit of what he called ‘optimal conditions.’ Conditions always seemed optimal enough to Ashby, but he wasn’t going to get in Corbin’s way where algae was concerned' (Becky Chambers, chapter 1, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, 2014).

The above quote describes a character – Artis Corbin. Based on the descriptions of what he does and what others think of him, we can form an impression of Corbin and then determine how he influences the narrative. He's described as introverted and rather stubborn, which could be deemed as negative qualities but are seemingly perfect for his job with algae.

Authors tend to write characters that can be both loved and hated, as this is what keeps the readers hooked. They also write characters to serve different functions, as Corbin does here. Characters, in line with their personality, react to various situations differently and drive the story forward.

Genre

We speak of genres intuitively, for example, when we say, 'I love watching sci-fi shows' or 'I am craving a detective story.' But ,have you ever wondered how genres are formally understood in literary studies?

A genre refers to a set of conventions that informs your reader of the general attributes of your story.

Broadly speaking, a genre makes a promise to a reader which it must then live up to. How, you ask? Well, imagine you are picking up a book from the 'romance' section. You would likely expect the book to involve characters falling in love. You might also expect some common romance tropes such as fake dating (when a couple fakes a relationship but falls in love in the end) or enemies-to-lovers (when characters who hate each other end up being lovers). The tropes that are included within a text are often determined by the genre in which the author is writing. The genre also influences the characters, themes, tones, settings, and action of a story. It would be unusual, for example, for a Romance novel to have a foreboding, dark setting such as an old, decrepit, haunted manor house in which a murder was committed. On the other hand, some authors may choose to purposefully defy these tropes.

Here's a list of some of the common genres:

Narrator

The story that is told to you is hardly ever objective. The author's own biases and opinions can also find a way into the narrative. Often, an author who is hyper-aware of their biases would be careful to exclude them from the narrative. These techniques are commonly realised through the narrator. The narrator could be a character within a story, an unnamed figure, or simply a voice whose presence is never explicitly made known.

The narrator refers to the voice that conveys the story to the reader or audience. This may or may not be a character in the story. The 'narrative voice' is developed by the author to serve a purpose. For example, a humorous narrator might narrate a grim story in a way that makes you laugh out loud.

A narrator is a stylistic element that significantly influences the reading of a story. Narrators can be funny, depressed, unreliable, and they can even voice their innermost thoughts without a filter as one would in a stream-of-consciousness text.

'He smiled understandingly–much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey' (F. Scott Fitzgerald, chapter 3, The Great Gatsby, 1925).

In the quote above from The Great Gatsby, we've got ourselves a first-person narrator – Nick Carraway. If you read this quote, you can get a lot of information, not only about Gatsby, but also about the kind of person Nick is. Here, Nick sees the man up close for the first time and is seemingly entranced by him. Although he feels confident in Gatsby's presence, he remains aware of the fact that his impression of Gatsby is only the impression that Gatsby wants him to have.

As an exercise, try figuring out what else you could tell about Nick through his narrative voice.

Plot

The plot refers to the sequence of events in a story. Usually, the plot tends to follow the cause-and-effect principle that unfolds as the reader continues reading.

It would be a massive 'spoiler' if you were given a plot of a book or a movie here, wouldn't it? Here's a fun fact instead: a board game genre called 'Dungeon Crawler' (including the famous Dungeons and Dragons) consists of all the above-mentioned elements: character, genre, action, narrator, and.... you guessed it – a plot! The plot drives the events of the game and encourages the characters (played by the players) to take certain actions.

Think about how much of the 'plot' you would give away when you want to convince a friend to read a book or watch a movie. What are the most interesting parts of a plot that would give just enough information to persuade someone to read or watch something without spoiling them?

Setting

Let's do an exercise together. Think about a Victorian lady who also works as a private investigator as a side hustle. With those two statements, you are likely able to pinpoint the geographical location, time period, costumes, and aesthetics of where the story is set. This is the setting.

The setting is, quite literally, the time and place (or space) where the story is set. It layers the story with the conventions of the time period and location, adding cultural aspects, aesthetics, language, and character types that would influence the story.

'The road to Manderley lay ahead. There was no moon. The sky above our heads was inky black. But the sky on the horizon was not dark at all. It was shot with crimson, like a splash of blood. And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea' (Daphne du Maurier, chapter 27, Rebecca, 1938).

In the quote above, the narrator describes the estate of Manderley towards the end of the novel, when is up in flames. The fire lends a sense of finality and destruction to the once imposing estate. Interestingly, Manderley is closely associated with the titular character, Rebecca, whose death the many characters seem to be dealing with, and whose presence (or absence) is keenly felt at Manderley, showing you just how important the setting is.

While the setting is important in all texts, this is particularly the case for Gothic novels, as the setting influences the plot significantly, with the castle, manor, or estate often taking a life of its own and framing the atmosphere for the action.

Literary Elements and techniques

So, what can you do with all of these literary elements? Glad you asked! Once you have an understanding of the many types of literary elements, you are equipped to deconstruct a story. This means that you can identify specific aspects of a story that appeal to readers, and why these aspects may have been chosen by an author over others when composing the story. The literary elements add literary value to the book and are often the difference between what makes a good or bad story.

Literary Elements - Key takeaways

  • Literary elements are the building blocks of a story.
  • There are numerous literary elements such as action, character, genre, narrator, plot, and setting.
  • All literary elements influence the reading of a story.
  • There are different types of characters that make up a story, including the antagonist and the protagonist.
  • Genres refer to the conventions that a story may adhere to so that it can meet the expectations of the reader.
  • The plot refers to the sequence of events in a story.
  • The setting is the time and place where the events of the story take place.

Frequently Asked Questions about Literary Elements

Like most other tales, a folktale would consist of action, characters, setting, plot, themes and also follow the genre conventions of a folktale.

The most common 7 literary elements include: action, character, genre, plot, setting, narrator, and themes.

Literature, or literary texts, include literary elements. Some of the most common ones are: action, antagonist, character, conflict, genre, mood, narrator, plot, protagonist, setting.

Yes, dialogue is a literary element. It can be used as a stylistic device that adds immediacy to the text, and immerses the reader into the conversation and the scene. The dialogue also helps the reader follow the communication between two characters, which may influence the story.

Literary elements are the building blocks of a story. A writer must consider the various literary elements and weave them together to form an interesting, appealing narrative.

Final Literary Elements Quiz

Question

What is a protagonist?

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Answer

A protagonist is the main character in a work of literature. The protagonist plays an active role in the plot of the story. The reader follows the protagonist’s journey most closely in comparison to other characters.  

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Question

What is an example of a protagonist?

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  • The Great Gatsby (1925): Jay Gatsby
  • The Handmaid’s Tale (1985): Offred
  • Romeo and Juliet (1597): Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet
  • Macbeth (1606): Lord Macbeth

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Question

What is a female protagonist called?

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A female protagonist is called a 'heroine'.

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Question

What is a protagonist in a story?

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A protagonist is the main character in a work of literature. The protagonist plays an active role in the plot of the story. The reader follows the protagonist’s journey most closely in comparison to other characters.  A protagonist is a driving force in the story. It is the protagonist whose attempts at pursuing a goal are followed most closely. 

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How do you create your own protagonist?

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  • Give your protagonist a mixture of traits so they are complex in the way humans are. Avoid giving them moral extremes.

  • Make your protagonist relatable. What characteristics do you see in yourself or others that you think readers will have common ground with?

  • Add stakes to your protagonist’s story! Create an ‘all or nothing’ situation. Readers need to feel like the protagonist has to keep pushing forward with their progress. At the same time, the quest or the protagonist’s development must feel achievable

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What are the three most common types of protagonists?

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The three most common types of protagonists are heroes, antiheroes and false protagonists.

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What is a hero?

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Traditionally, a hero is a type of protagonist who does heroic acts

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What is an antihero?

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An antihero is a type of protagonist who has characteristics that are not typically associated with a traditional hero

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What is a false protagonist?

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A false protagonist refers to a protagonist which readers assume is the main character in a text. The writer later switches to another protagonist, who one can assume is the true protagonist.  

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What is the opposite of a protagonist?

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An antagonist is the opposite of a protagonist

Antagonists can be seen as an obstacle to the protagonist. With this in mind, the antagonist does not always have to be a character. It could be an idea or concept, or something more similar to an institution.  

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What are synonyms for 'protagonist'?

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Synonyms for 'protagonist' are:

  • Lead.
  • Proponent.
  • Principal/lead/central character/figure/player.

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What is an antagonist?

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An antagonist is a character, idea, concept or institution that opposes and ‘antagonises’ the protagonist, also known as the main character. The antagonist is traditionally villainous but not always. An antagonist does not always have to be a character. An antagonist could be an idea or concept

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Question

Is an antagonist a villain?

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One type of antagonist is a villain. However, an antagonist is not always a villain, as they do not always have to have villainous traits or do villainous actions. Their aims may simply be in opposition to the main character's aims, but that does not mean their aims are typically villainous. 

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Question

What is an antagonist in a story?

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In a story, an antagonist antagonises the protagonist, also known as the main character. 

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Question

Who are the protagonist and antagonist?

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A protagonist is the main character in a story. An antagonist is a character, idea, concept or institution that creates conflict in a story. This provokes the protagonist to react and make decisions and this drives their story forward.

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What is the purpose of an antagonist?

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The purpose of an antagonist is to provoke the protagonist. The antagonist creates a point of conflict that the protagonist fights against. 

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How do you develop an antagonist?

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To develop an antagonist, it is important to base the antagonist’s character on the protagonist’s character. Consider how you can show the contrast between the two. 

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What is an example of an antagonist in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813)?

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The antagonist in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) is Mr. Darcy. Darcy is an example of a conflict-creator type of antagonist because he does not have traits that can typically be considered evil. His character, however, does not align with the protagonist Elizabeth Bennet’s attitudes in life. 

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What is an example of an antagonist in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843)?

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The antagonist in Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol (1843) is Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge is an example of when the protagonist is their own antagonist. It is his nature of being an unpleasant, mean man that creates the conflict of his behaviours leading to a fate of dying having lived a miserable life.  

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What is an example of an antagonist in George Orwell's 1984 (1949)?

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The antagonist in George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) is Big Brother/The Thought Police. The overarching threat is Big Brother, which represents the heavy surveillance that citizens live under. Big Brother is not a person but a concept, so note that antagonists do not always have to be a character. The other, more direct and immediate antagonist in the novel is The Thought Police. 

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What is an example of an antagonist in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations (1861)?

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The antagonist in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (1861) is Miss Havisham. Miss Havisham works against protagonist Pip’s attempts at winning over his love, Estella. As the antagonist, Miss Havisham creates conflict by preventing Pip from obtaining his wish.  

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What are the types of antagonists?

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The four types of antagonists are the villain, the conflict-creator, inanimate forces, and the protagonist as their own antagonist.

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Question

Explain the type of antagonist: the villain.

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Answer

The villain is an antagonist that does evil actions or/and has typically evil or unfavourable opinions and moral attitudes. 

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Question

Explain the type of antagonist: the conflict-creator.

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The conflict-creator may not necessarily have traits that are seen as traditionally evil. This type of antagonist may have characteristics or do actions that are in opposition to the protagonist's goals or attitudes.

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Explain the type of antagonist: inanimate forces.

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Inanimate forces as an antagonist refer to an idea or concept and not a character. This could also refer to nature as an antagonist. 

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Question

Explain the type of antagonist: the protagonist as the antagonist.

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Answer

The antagonist of the text is the protagonist themselves. The protagonist is the cause of conflict. This conflict is usually an internal struggle the protagonist has with themselves.

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Question

What is an unreliable narrator?

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Answer

An unreliable narrator is a narrator whose account of events must be questioned by the reader. The narrator’s credibility is put into question once you have identified that their account of events may not be factually true.  

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What makes a narrator unreliable?

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There are a series of factors that can make a narrator unreliable. These include but are not limited to:

  • deteriorating mental state.

  • lack of maturity- the narrator could be too young to accurately recall events.

  • Deliberately misguiding readers with a false narrative.

  • Being under the influence of mind-altering substances such as drugs or alcohol.

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How do you tell if a narrator is reliable or unreliable?

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A reliable narrator is able to give an accurate and impartial account of events. The reliable narrator's retelling of a story is not tainted by any of the characteristics of an unreliable narrator that may include but are not limited to: signs of mental instability, naivety, being under the influence of drugs and alcohol, exaggeration in their narration, and lying to themselves and others. 

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What are the 5 types of unreliable narrators?

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The 5 most common types of unreliable narrators are the madman, the liar, the picaro, the naif, the clown.

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Explain this type of unreliable narrator: the madman.

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With this type of unreliable narrator, their lack of credibility is caused by mental issues that conflict with reality

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Explain this type of unreliable narrator: the liar.

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With this type of unreliable narrator, their lack of credibility is due to the fact that they are lying. This is a common choice of an unreliable narrator and the lies can take the form of fabricated stories or lies of omission, for example. 

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Explain this type of unreliable narrator: the picaro.

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Answer

This unreliable narrator is unreliable because they have a tendency to exaggerate when recalling events.  

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Explain this type of unreliable narrator: the naif.

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Answer

This unreliable narrator is unreliable because they are very young and so cannot accurately recall events. The naif can also be unreliable because they don’t have enough experience in life in general or certain areas of life to be able to distinguish events in a factual way. 

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Question

Why is Wayne C. Booth important in the discourse about the unreliable narrator?

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Answer

Wayne C. Booth (1921-2005) was an American literary critic who first coined the term ‘unreliable narrator’ in his text The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961). Booth believed that a work of fiction does not have to represent reality or include truth all the way through the text, as are typical literary rules.

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Question

What is an example of the madman in unreliable narration and why are they unreliable?

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Answer

Narrator Alex in Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange (1962) is the madman. Alex is unreliable because he exhibits psychopathic behaviour and lies to characters, so his narration of events is not credible or factually accurate. 

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Question

What is an example of the liar in unreliable narration and why are they unreliable?


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Answer

Narrator Pi in Yann Martel's Life of Pi (2001) is the liar and therefore an unreliable narrator because he creates an alternate version of events whilst stranded on a boat. 

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Question

What is an example of the picaro in unreliable narration and why are they unreliable?


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Answer

Narrator Don Quixote in Don Quixote (1605) by Miguel de Cervantes is a picaro. Don Quixote exaggerates the events that happen during his adventures as a knight. 

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Question

What is an example of the naif in unreliable narration and why are they unreliable?

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Answer

Narrator Scout Finch in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) is a naif. Scout is a young child who is naive as she has new experiences and develops an understanding of these new experiences. 

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Question

True or false: to analyse setting in a work literature, you must first identify the type or types of setting.

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Answer

True.

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Question

What does setting mean in literature?

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Answer

Setting in literature is defined as a time frame or location in which a narrative takes place in literature. 

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What are the 3 main types of setting?

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Answer

Time, place and environment.


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Question

What is social setting in literature?

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Social setting in literature refers to the surroundings or environment that social events occur in. 

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Question

What type of setting does this quote show?

'Finally, in October 1945, a man with swampy eyes, feathers of hair, and a clean-shaven face walked into the shop.'


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Answer

Time.

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What is the importance and effect of setting in literature?

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Setting provides further background and context that shows where, when and why a certain event in the plot occurs.


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Question

How is the setting of time used in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813)?

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Answer

Pride and Prejudice (1813) is set during the Regency era where manners and social customs were important. It was vital for one to marry well to gain social status and be able to maintain one's wealth. These are key themes and ideas which characters in the novel grapple with. 

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Question

An example of a place in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813) is...

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Answer

Pemberley 

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Question

How is the outdoors an example of the setting of environment in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813)?

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Answer

In the outdoor areas of Pemberley, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth are more relaxed and don’t exhibit the same rigidity that they do in indoor, social settings. They have the freedom to be more open and expressive with their words and feelings. 

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Question

True of false: sound doesn't counts as setting in literature.

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Answer

False. 

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Question

Who of these characters are Byronic heroes?

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Answer

Severus Snape

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