AP English Literature: Literary Devices You Should Know For Your Exam

AP English Literature is all about – as the name implies – literature! Thus, the exam will expect you not only to understand books and other pieces of literature, but also be able to analyze them and know how the author uses certain literary devices to portray the story, develop characters, and portray themes and symbols. There are thousands upon thousands of different devices, but here we’re going to go over some major ones you may see and then some more obscure ones and then give some basic examples of each.

Common Literary Devices for AP English Literature

⏰  Anachronism: A character in a novel set in the 19th century time travels from the 21st century and brings modern technologies and/or ideas.

  • ⭐️  It is important to understand that many anachronisms unintentionally occur, due to a lack of research from the author. Thus, when analyzing anachronisms, it is important to determine whether it was intentionally done.

💕  Apostrophe: A character/speaker addresses life itself by speaking to it.

  • ⭐️  Apostrophe tends to frequently be found in poetry, although it can also appear in novels and plays.
  • ⭐️  Example: In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet cries out “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” because she is addressing someone who, at least to her, is not present

📖  Epigraph:  In a novel, typically at the beginning, a quote from another work is printed.

  • ⭐️  Epigraphs may be pulled from a variety of sources. They tend to come from poems, novels, and plays, but could also originate from songs or movies. Interestingly, some epigraphs are printed in another language and translated, as appropriate.

🖋️  Hubris: A character is warned by an oracle that they will die a destructive death if they do not heed the warning signs. The character does not listen and is led to their downfall.

  • ⭐️  Hubris tends to predominate in the tragedy genre and in Greek plays, though it does occasionally appear in novels.
  • ⭐️  Example: In The Odyssey, Odysseus’ hubris nearly gets him killed when he gives up his identity to Polyphemus, leading to Poseidon trying to kill him

📝  Parenthetical phrase/idea: A sentence physically which sets apart important details.

  • ⭐️  Despite the name, parenthetical phrases/ideas do not need to use parenthesis – it could use dashes.

🎭  Persona: Set by characterization, the story is told by a unique personality.

  • ⭐️  Persona is not the same as the author, as they can hold different views and perspectives.

🍃  Realism: The hardships of middle-class life are exposed through a novel.

  • ⭐️  Realism helps explore the occurrences of everyday life without idealization.
  • ⭐️  Realism can be seen in full swing in pieces of literature during the 19th century, especially in the works of authors like Charles Dickens and Henrik Ibsen.
  • ⭐️  In fact, some of Ibsen’s plays such as A Doll’s House and Ghosts were so provocative in their realistic content that they were scandalized by local newspapers.

🌎  Regionalism: A novel takes place in England during the Black Plague.

  • ⭐️  Regionalism can make a novel difficult to read as vernacular language is usually employed to portray setting.

🌸  Romanticism: The beauty of a novel’s environment predominates over the hardships occurring in the region.

  • ⭐️  Romanticism originated after the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment. It focused on idealism and the unconventional, a stark contrast from earlier periods.
  • ⭐️  Note: Romanticism is not equal to beauty! Beauty and emotion are definitely big aspects of romanticism, but romanticism is also seen in the opposite direction, such as in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Fun Fact: Frankenstein is also considered the first sci-fi novel)

📚  Zeugma: “I lost my keys and my temper.”

  • ⭐️  This is grammatically strange and less obvious to spot unless you are looking for it. As you can see, the sentence above has a defining phrase connecting both parts, making it a representation of zeugma.

Those are the major ones that you will see on the AP Exam. To be able to really flex on the readers, these literary devices are more obscure, but awesome to know!

Obscure Literary Devices

💐  Anadiplosis = When the same word or phrase is used at the end of one sentence or clause and the beginning of the next sentence or clause.

🌸  Anaphora = Repetition or a word, phrase, or clause at the beginning of two or more sentences in a row.

🍃  Aptronym = When a person’s name is particularly suited to their personality or occupation.

🌹  Asyndeton = Where conjunctions are omitted in a series of words, phrases or clauses.

🌻  Epizeuxis = The repetition of a word for emphasis.

🌺  Euphemism = A more agreeable or less offensive substitute for generally unpleasant words or concepts.

🌷 Exemplum = A brief tale used in medieval times to illustrate a sermon or teach a lesson.

🌴  Hypallage = Also called a “transferred epithet,” a literary device in which the syntax is jumbled up in order to make a sentence nonsensical.

🌿  Inaptronym = Where a person’s name is ironically unsuited to them.

🌾  Litotes = A particular form of understatement, generated by denying the opposite of the statement which otherwise would be used.

🌳  Metonymy = A figure of speech in which a person, place, or thing, is referred to by something closely associated with it.

🌼  Peripety = A sudden turn of events or reversal of fortunes.

🌱  Polysyndeton = The use of several conjunctions in succession for emphasis.

Hello! My name is Dylan, and I’m a junior in New Jersey! I’m a streamer, intern, and content creator for Fiveable and production manager of the Homeroom podcast!

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