Below are what I have come up with so far of important terms and definitions that are extremely useful to know for the M.A. exam. The majority of the definitions I took from the Oxford English Dictionary. For extended information of other terms and phrases, especially the time periods, I actually turned to Wikipedia. With that being said, it is definitely worth looking up these words in more than one place, not only to gain as much understanding as possible, but also to check definitions against each other.
Adventure – An unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity. A daring and exciting activity calling for enterprise and enthusiasm.
Autobiography – An account of a person’s life written by that person.
Bildungsroman – A novel dealing with one person’s formative years or spiritual education.
Chivalry (chivalric) – The medieval knight system with its religious, moral, and social code. The combination of qualities expected of an ideal knight, especially courage, honor, courtesy, justice, and a readiness to help the weak. Courteous behavior, especially that of a man toward a woman.
Comedy – A play characterized by its humorous or satirical tone and its depiction of amusing people or incidents, in which the characters ultimately triumph over adversity. According to Aristotle, comedy is a dramatic imitation of men worse than average that had a favorable ending.
Doppelganger – An apparition or double of a living person.
Drama – A play for theater, radio, or television.
Early Modern Era – Follows the late Middle Ages. Spans the period after the later Middle Ages through the beginning of the Age of Revolutions.
Epic – A long poem, typically one derived from ancient oral tradition, narrating the deeds and adventures of heroic or legendary figures or the history of a nation.
Essay – a short piece of writing on a particular subject.
Fiction – Literature in the form of prose, especially short stories and novels that describes imaginary events and people.
Fugitive Slave Act – Fugitive slave acts that were passed in the U.S. in 1793 and 1850 to provide for the return of slaves who escaped from one state into another. The law mandated that government officials must help with the capturing and returning of slaves that mostly escaped to the free states of the north from the slave states of the south. This was enacted in order to protect the property of slave owners.
Genre – A category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter. I try to keep this and theme separated in my mind by remembering that a genre is a noun, while a theme is usually an adjective.
Gothic – A genre or mode of literature that combines elements of both horror and romance.
Heroic Couplet – A traditional form of English poetry, commonly used for epic and narrative poetry; it refers to poems constructed from a sequence of rhyming pairs of iambic pentameter lines. The rhyme is always masculine. Use of the heroic couplet was first pioneered by Geoffrey Chaucer.
History – 1. The study of past events, particularly in human affairs; 2. The whole series of past events connected with someone or something; 3. A continuous, typically chronological, record of important or public events or of a particular trend or institution.
Horror – A thing causing a feeling of fear, shock, or disgust. A literary of film genre concerned with arousing feelings of horror.
Humanism – An approach that focuses on human values and concerns. Affirms the notion of human nature.
Iambic Pentameter – A commonly used metrical line in traditional verse and verse drama. The term describes the particular rhythm that the words establish in that line.
Medieval – of or relating to the Middle Ages.
Middle Ages – A period of European history from the 5th century to the 15th century. The Middle Ages follows the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and precedes the Early Modern Era.
Mode – An employed method or approach, identifiable within a written work. Often used incorrectly when speaking of genre (guilty as charged).
Modernism – A style or movement in the arts that aims to break with classical and traditional forms. A movement toward modifying traditional beliefs in accordance with modern ideas, especially in the Roman Catholic Church in the lat 19th and early 20th centuries. A revolt against the conservative values of realism. Rejects tradition and reprises, incorporates, rewrites, revises, and parodies in new forms. Rejection of the all-powerful Creator God in favor of the abstract, unconventional, largely uncertain ethic brought on by modernity.
Narrative – A spoken or written account of connected events; a story.
Novel - A fictitious prose narrative of book length, typically representing character and action with some degree of realism.
Panoramic – With a wide view surrounding the observer; including all aspects of a subject.
Petrarchan Sonnet – A verse form that typically refers to a concept of unattainable love. It was first developed by Francesco Petrarca. They depict the addressed lady in hyperbolic terms and present her as a model of perfection and inspiration.
Picaresque - a popular sub-genre of prose fiction which is usually satirical and depicts, in realistic and often humorous detail, the adventures of a roguish hero of low social class who lives by his wits in a corrupt society.
Play – A dramatic work for the stage or to be broadcast.
Poetry – Literary work in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm; poems collectively or as a genre of literature.
Post-Modernism – A late 20th century style and concept in the arts, architecture, and criticism that represents a departure from modernism and has at its heart a general distrust of grand theories and ideologies as well as a problematic relationship with any notion of “art.”
Prose – Written or spoken language in its ordinary form, without metrical structure.
Realism – The doctrine that universals or abstract concepts have an objective or absolute existence.
Restoration – English literature written during the historical period between 1660-1689 which was roughly homogenous and centered on the celebration or reaction to the restored court of Charles II.
Romance – A style of heroic prose and verse narrative that was popular in the aristocratic circles of High Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Fantastic stories about marvel-filled adventures, often of a knight errant portrayed as having heroic qualities, who goes on a quest.
Satire – The use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.
Science Fiction – A genre of fiction dealing with imaginary but more or less plausible (or at least non-supernatural) content such as future settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, aliens, and paranormal abilities.
Slave Narrative – A literary form which grew out of the written accounts of enslaved Africans in Britain and its colonies, including the US, Canada, and Caribbean nations.
Sonnet – A poem of 14 lines using any of a number of formal rhyme schemes, in English, typically having ten syllables per line.
Southern Gothic – A subgenre of Gothic fiction unique to American literature that takes place exclusively in the American South. It resembles its parent genre in that it relies on supernatural, ironic, or unusual events to guide the plot. Also uses these tools to explore social issues and reveal the cultural character of the American South. The Southern Gothic style employs the use of macabre, ironic events to examine the American South.
Speech – A forma address or discourse delivered to an audience.
Spenserian Sonnet – A variant of the sonnet, named after Edmund Spenser, in which the rhyme scheme is abab, bcbc, cdcd, ee.
Theme – An idea that recurs in or pervades a work of art of literature.
Tragedy – A play dealing with tragic events and having an unhappy ending, especially one concerning the downfall of the main character. Aristotle states it is a work that imitates men better than average and ends unfavorably.
Tragicomedy – A play or novel containing elements of both comedy and tragedy.
Transcendentalism – A protest against the general state of culture and society, and in particular, the state of intellectualism and the doctrine of the Unitarian church. The core beliefs include an ideal spirituality that transcends the physical and empirical and is realized only through the individual’s intuition, rather than through the doctrines of established religions.
Treatise – A written work dealing formally and systematically with a subject.
Utopian Fiction – Genre of literature that explores social and political structures. Involves the creation of the ideal world, or utopia, as the setting for the work. Dystopian would be the opposite.
Verse – Writing arranged with a metrical rhythm, typically having a rhyme.