Essential Literary Elements, Part 1

Here at eNotes, we’re constantly reading and trying to figure out the myriad meanings found within our favorite texts. One of the ways we try to better understand what’s going on is to refresh ourselves on the many literary elements found in works across literary genres. Let’s look at four essential literary elements in Part 1 of this ongoing series.

What Is Alliteration?

Alliteration is the repetition of sounds in the same location across consecutive word groups. It most commonly applies to consonants that appear at the beginnings of words. The examples below all show alliteration in several classic texts.

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,

Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven”

The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew, The furrow followed free:

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes

A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;

William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

What Is Allusion?

An allusion is a passing reference to another literary work, historical text or event, myth, legend, song, etc. The reference is not explained, which means allusions draw on shared knowledge between the writer and the reader. The examples below all show allusion in several classic texts.

The wild garden behind the house contained a central apple-tree […]

James Joyce’s Araby

A big dog ran by like a shadow.

Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party

I am going to unexplored regions, to ‘the land of mist and snow;’ but I shall kill no albatross;

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

What Is Foreshadowing?

Foreshadowing is when someone or something in the text hints at later events in the story. Sometimes foreshadowing can be subtle, and sometimes it can be more obvious. The examples below all show foreshadowing in several classic texts.

He wanted to show that fate ruled people’s lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow.

W.W. Jacob’s The Monkey’s Paw

Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero. That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that never entered his head.

Jack London’s To Build a Fire

Then come and dine with me, and after meat,

We’ll canvas every quiddity thereof;

For ere I sleep I’ll try what I can do:

This night I’ll conjure tho’ I die therefore.

Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus

What Is Imagery?

Imagery has several distinctive meanings, but in general, all refer to concrete parts of a literary work instead of abstract ones. This means that a narrow definition of imagery is a visual description of objects or scenes; however, a broader meaning of imagery includes all the references to sensory perception that a text evokes. The examples below all show imagery in several classic texts.

Blue waves whitened on a cliff,

Soaring fire that sways and sings,

Sara Teasdale’s Barter

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Gerard Manley Hopkins’s Pied Beauty

To have bitten off the matter with a smile, 

To have squeezed the universe into a ball 

To roll it toward some overwhelming question,

T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock


For more essential literary elements, check out our Part II of this series.