Course Content
Environmental Studies
English Language and Linguistics
Private: BA English
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What is Literature?

Learning Outcomes

Upon the completion of this unit, the learner will be able to:

  1. have an understanding about literature
  2. identify the various forms of literature
  3. get a comprehensive idea about the different genres of literature
  4. show familiarity with some major literary works


Being a student of literature, you may have, at many times, wondered what literature actually is, and what it comprises. There are many definitions and answers to these questions.

Many critics have defined literature in many ways, and you may have got confused, as each person defines it in his own way. One may answer the question as a means of magic that helps one to escape from the real world. But, is it all what literature is? No. No, in the sense that all literature is not imaginative, or fictional. There can be fictional as well as non-fictional pieces of literature. From the poems of William Wordsworth – “Daffodils,” or of Robert Frost – “The Road Not Taken,” that we have learnt in our school days, or the novel series, Harry Potter or Twilight, that we may have read in leisure, or the journals that we read to get information, to “The Hare and the Tortoise” story that our grandparents might have narrated to us at bedtime, all belong to the wonderful world of literature. The world of literature is very vast, wide, infinite and enchanting. Welcome to the world of literature!

Key words

oral, written, visual, poetry, prose, fiction, non-fiction, drama


The word “literature” is derived from the Lat-in word litteratura, which means, “writing formed with letters.” To define literature is a very hard task. The definition of literature is constantly changing and evolving. It is de-fined as, “written works, especially those con-sidered of superior or lasting artistic merit” (Oxford Dictionary). It is the writings of the past civilizations as well as the present that will stay as the voice and life of the people that lived through the time. It comprises the views, opinions, and interests of the people who lived during a period. It has its manifesta-tions in folk tales, poetry, songs, pamphlets, biographies, novels, essays and articles. The main genres of literature are poetry, prose, drama, fiction and nonfiction.


Forms of Literature

  • Oral Literature – Literature that is passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth.
    E. g., The ballads that were sung by the bards during the ancient periods.
  • Written Literature – Literature that is in manuscript and printed form.
    E. g., The poems of William Wordsworth or the novels of Dan Brown.
  • Visual Literature – Literature that is meant to be performed before the people or the audience.
    E. g., The plays of Shakespeare performed on the stage, or movies.

1.1.1 Genres of Literature Prose – It is a representative form of language, which makes use of grammatical forms and mode of utterance that is free of any rhythmic struc-ture. While there exists disputes regarding the composition of prose, the simplicity of its structure has made it possible to use it in nor-mally uttered dialogues. Its simplicity and loosely defined structure have led to its adoption for the majority of spoken dia-logue, scientific discourses as well as in the composition of fictional works. It is the form of language commonly used in newspapers, journals, movies, and writings on history, philosophy, science and law.

Fiction – It is the kind of prose that deals completely or partially, with information or incidents that are not real, but rather imaginary. Even though it is an important genre of literature, it can also denote theatrical and cinematic works. Fiction differs from non-fiction in many re-spects. However, the main difference is that while fiction is primarily imaginative, non-fic-tion deals completely with facts or events that have really happened, or descriptions of real places or things, observations, etc. Fiction is usually read for pleasure.

The different kinds of fiction are:

  1. Fairy Tale – Hope you have read the story of the young girl, who was mistreated by her cruel step-mother and stepsisters. Remember her go-ing to dance at a ball, in her pumpkin chariot wearing her glass shoes and winning the heart of the prince? Whose story was that? Yes, of Cinderella! And, where did you read it? In your Fairy Tales collection! Yes, this is a fairy tale, and do you know what a fairy tale is? A fairy tale is a story, often meant to be read by children, that presents astonishing, unbeliev-able, and imaginary characters like fairies, elves, gnomes and magicians. They are also tales of kings, queens, princes and princesses, often in supernatural settings, and the settings are usually magical worlds. “Snow White” and “Thumbelina” are other examples of fairy tales.
  2. Mythology – We know that the picture displayed below is of the Kurukshetra war. Can you identify the characters in the picture? Lord Krishna and Ar-juna. As both the Pandavas and the Kauravas were very dear to him, Krishna had vowed not to take up any weapon during the war. His sole responsibility in the dharmayudhdha was to act as Arjuna’s charioteer. The Kurukshetra war, and the story of Krishna depicted in The Mahabharata are familiar to most Indians, as they belong to Indian mythology. So, what is mythology?
    It is a collection of myths or stories about spe-cific persons, especially gods and goddesses, about cultures, religions or any groups with shared beliefs and rituals. Mythologies have been a great source of inspiration for many novelists, poets, and dramatists.. The stories about the twelve labours of Hercules and of Prometheus are examples of mythologies.
  3. Legend – Robin Hood used to rob the rich and donate them to the poor and the needy. Although the story of Robin Hood and his gang was written by Howard Pyle, it was based on a popular story of a person who once lived in England. Similar fictional characters have been created by many writers. It is a story about the heroic deeds of historical figures who lived at a par-ticular time. Legends are based on real facts, and they present real situations. King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table is the best example.
  4. Novel – “Please sir, I want some more.” Have you heard this somewhere? Yes, it is Oliver’s plea for more soup. Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist is the story of the young orphan at the work-house, realistically portraying the suffering of the downtrodden in a class-conscious Victo-rian society. The novel ends where Oliver be-comes rich by inheriting a fortune. Let us have a glance at what a novel is. A novel is a long narrative, which presents a story of imaginary characters, incidents and settings. It presents a connected sequence of events. The word, “novel” derived from the Italian word novella, means “new.” The main elements in a novel are plot, character, conflict, setting and theme. The major types of novels are:

❖ Prose romances
❖ Realistic fiction
❖ Gothic novel
❖ Picaresque novel
❖ Epistolary novel
❖ Domestic novel
❖ Regional novel
❖ Historical novel
❖ Psychological novel

e.Novella –It is a narrative, almost similar to that of a novel, but different in terms of its length. A novella is longer than a short story, but shorter than a novel. D.H. Lawrence’s The Man Who Died is a good example of a novella.

f. Short Story – It is a work of fiction that is shorter than a no-vella. Its main focus will be on a single event or incident, and has a smaller number of char-acters. A short story can mostly be read in a single sitting. “The Postmaster” by Rabin-dranath Tagore, “An Astrologer’s Day” by R.K. Narayan, “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut and “Gooseberries” by Anton Che-kov are examples of famous short stories.

g. Fable – The wolf, in the disguise of a sheep, is able to stroll into the pasture and eat the sheep. Later, the wolf itself is slaughtered by the shepherd, mistaking it for a sheep. What is the message you get from this story from Aesop’s Fables? Seek to do harm and harm will come to you! So, what do you think is a fable? Yes, it is a story with animals as its main characters with a moral lesson. Although highly philosophi-cal, it is simple enough to be understood by small children. Another example is the fable of the hare and the tortoise.

h. Parable

The multitude that had gathered around Je-sus was delivered the Parable of the Sower. In his parable, Jesus described a sower who went out to sow seeds. Some seeds fell on the stony path, and were consumed by the birds. Some fell on the rocky areas, where the seeds sprouted quickly but perished as they did not have deep roots. . Some seeds fell where thorny plants grew, and when they sprouted they were choked. Some seeds fell on good soil, and hence they produced good crops. People of all ages, including young children, may benefit from the short and simple sto-ries that Jesus told to the people of his time to convey morals. These stories are known as parables. Parables are brief moralistic stories, in prose or verse, explicating one or more les-sons or ideologies. The difference between a fable and a parable is that the fable uses ani-mals as characters, whereas human beings are the characters in parables.

i. Allegory – Animal Farm by George Orwell is a novel about revolution and authority. It examines issues of authoritarianism, the perversion of ideas, and the influence of language through the story of a group of farm animals that revolt against the owner of the farm. Such a story can be called an allegory. It is a story in which the characters, things, or incidents have hidden or symbolic meanings. It is meant for teaching or explaining things, or moral principles.


It is a type of account, narrative, or a piece of communication that proposes claims and de-scriptions that are considered by the writers to be historically accurate. Non-fiction works are read by people in order to learn things, or to get information. It is not of a complex nature like fiction since the facts are stated directly. It makes use of text features, table of contents, charts, graphs, pictures, glossary, etc.

The different kinds of non-fictional works are:

  1. Autobiography – It is the life story of a person, written by the person himself. It is written from the first-per-son point of view. It comprises memoirs, tes-timonials and historical and eye-witness ac-counts. Jawaharlal Nehru’s Autobiography, Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl and Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom be-long to the genre of autobiography.
  2. Biography – It is the life story of a person written by an-other person. It is written from a third person point of view. It is mostly about celebrated persons who have accomplished something great. It is generally written in chronological order. Helen’s Big World: The Life of Helen Keller written by Doreen Rappaport is an ex-ample.
  3. Newspaper – It is a collection of articles in printed and pub-lished versions about various current events and news. It is usually published daily or weekly. The Hindu, The Times of India¸ The Indian Express, etc. are the leading English newspapers in India.
  4. Magazine – It is a periodical publication in print, usually published on a regular schedule, consisting of diverse contents. It contains articles and il-lustrations. The Gentleman’s Magazine, first published in 1731 in London, was the first general-interest magazine.
  5. Journal – It is a publication containing articles written by researchers, professors and other experts, which focuses on particular disciplines or areas of study. It is meant to be read by aca-demicians and scholars, and not for common readers. There are specific scholarly journals for literature, science, social sciences, etc. Poetry – It is a form of art which makes use of aesthetic features of language, such as rhythm and me-tre, in order to induce meanings.

The Mahabharata is the longest poem in the world. It is an Indian epic poem, having around 1.8 million words.


  1. Narrative
    “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler, long I stood And looked down one as far as I could To where it bent in the undergrowth;” These are the lines from the poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. Read the rest of the poem. You may have also been in such a situation at some point of time, right? Yes, when you had to struggle hard to make choices, and sometimes very difficult choices. Don’t you find this poem to be like a story, a kind of poetry that narrates a story? Yes, this is the feature that makes a narrative poem dif-ferent from other kinds of poems. The entire story is narrated from the point of view and voice of the narrator or the characters. Narra-tives may be short or long dealing with simple or complicated issues. Narrative poems most-ly have a dramatic nature and are written in metrical verse. Novels, stories, epics, ballads, idylls and lyrics are the different kinds of narrative.
  2. Epic – It is a long narrative poem on a great and se-rious subject related in an elevated or grand style. Epics mostly present the adventures of heroes. The protagonist of an epic is heroical-ly larger than life, and is often the source and subject of a legend. Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey are examples of epics.
  3. Ballad – It is a long narrative poem, often in short stanzas, commonly called the ballad stanza. Ballads have been passed on from one gen-eration to the next in oral form. Ballads em-ploy refrain and incremental repetition. “The Ballad of Chevy Chase” and “The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens” are examples of ballads in English.
  4. Idyll – It is a narrative poem dealing with a scene or incident related to pastoral, rustic or rural country life. It usually employs a romantic and sweeping tone to describe things. E.g., Alfred Tennyson’s English Idylls and Other Poems, and Robert Browning’s Dramatic Idylls.
  5. Metrical Romance – It is a narrative poem which portrays the emo-tions of a person or the stages of life. In met-rical romances, the story is communicated in a simple, frank and authentic way. E.g., John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and S.T. Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
  6. Lyric – It is a type of poetry that presents the personal feelings of the speaker. Lyrics were original-ly meant to be sung with the accompaniment of a lyre. Although lyrics differ from other types of poems in lacking a rhyme scheme, it is famous for its musical quality. E.g., Emily Dickinson’s “The Heart Asks Pleasure First”, and W.B. Yeats’ “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”.
  7. Song – It is a lyric poem meant to be sung, especially with music, harmony and rhythm.
  8. Sonnet – It is a lyric poem consisting of fourteen Iam-bic pentameter lines. There are two types of sonnets – the Italian sonnet or the Petrarchan sonnet, and the English sonnet or the Shake-spearean sonnet. It is Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey who brought the sonnet form to England. The sonnets of William Shakespeare and William Wordsworth are examples of En-glish sonnets.
  9. Ode – It is a type of lyric poem admiring or prais-ing an incident or person, or illustrating nature both in rational as well as emotional terms. The Regular or Pindaric Ode is passionate while the Horatian ode is calm and medita-tive. P.B. Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”, and John Keats’“Ode on a Grecian Urn” are examples of odes.
  10. Elegy – It is a type of poem lamenting or commemo-rating the death of someone. The mood of an elegy is melancholic, contemplative and mournful. E.g., John Milton’s “Lycidas,” and Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam.”
  • Metrophobia is the fear of poetry.
  • Metromania is the compulsion to write poetry. Drama

It is a literary form primarily designed for the theatre and is accompanied by dialogue and performance. It presents fictional, or non-fic-tional elements, or incidents through perfor-mance. Dramas can be performed on stage, through films, or through radio. They are also known as plays, and the writers are known as playwrights. A closet drama is intended to be read rather than performed. Lord Byron’s Manfred is a typical example.

The plays of Sophocles and the plays of Wil-liam Shakespeare are classical dramas, where-as Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill is an example of a modern play.

  1. Historical – It is a play meant to be enacted on the stage, having historical plot and settings. E.g., Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra.
  2. Comedy – It is a play meant to be enacted on the stage, having a plot with a happy ending. E.g., Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.
  3. Tragedy – It is a play meant to be enacted on the stage, having a plot with a tragic ending, culminat-ing in the death of the main characters. E.g., Oedipus Rex written by Sophocles.


  • Literature – written, oral, visual
  • Different types of literature – prose, poetry and drama
  • Prose – fiction and non-fiction
  • Fiction – fairy tale, mythology, legend, novel, novella, short story, fable, parable, allegory
  • Non-fiction – Autobiography, biography, newspaper, magazine, journal
  • Poetry – Narrative – Epic, ballad, idyll, metrical romance, lyric, song, sonnet, ode, elegy
  • Drama – Historical, Comedy, Tragedy

Objective Questions

  1. Which form of literature originated first?
  2. Give an example of a historical play.
  3. What does the term literature mean?
  4. What is a story that uses animals as characters, and has a moral lesson called as?
  5. What is a poem about rustic life called?
  6. What is a poem lamenting the death of someone called?
  7. What is mythology?
  8. Movies are examples of which form of literature?
  9. Name the genre of poetry that communicates personal and emotional feelings.
  10. Give an example of an oral form of literature.
  11. What is a poem of 14 lines called ?
  12. What is a narrative shorter than a novel, but longer than a short story called?
  13. What is the life story of a person written by someone else called?
  14. What is a play having characters from history called?


  1. Oral
  2. Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra.
  3. Writing formed with letters
  4. A fable
  5. An idyll
  6. Elegy
  7. The story of gods and goddesses
  8. Visual
  9. Lyric
  10. Ballad
  11. Sonnet
  12. Novella
  13. Biography
  14. Historical play



Suggested Readings

  1. Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Heinle, 1999.
  2. Bate, Jonathan. English Literature: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford UP, 2010.
  3. Hudson, William Henry. An Introduction to English Literature. Rupa, 2015.
  4. Rainsford, Dominic. Studying Literature in English: An Introduction. Rout-ledge, 2014.
  5. Rees. R.J. English Literature: An Introduction for Foreign Readers. Macmil-lan, 1973.