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What Is the Role of Connotation in Literature?

By Bobby R. Goldsmith
Updated May 23, 2024
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Connotation in literature occurs when the language used indicates an emotional or empathetic dimension to the literal meaning of a word or idea. Connotation is one of two words — connotation and denotation — that describe a property that is fundamental to language. Denotation is the literal meaning of a word or phrase. One cannot consider the connotative implications of a word or phrase without understanding what the word or phrase means literally. Connotation in literature allows a deeper level of meaning to be given to the idea in question.

The relationship between denotation and connotation in literature allows for the formation of idioms and other figures of speech. Denotation provides the literal meaning of a word or phrase. For example, the phrase "bite of an apple," literally means a single bite out of a single piece of fruit. The connotation of the phrase "bite of an apple" may include a number of other elements, including the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. Likewise, the apple may be a metaphor for life and the bite for action, making the phrase mean "live life to its fullest" or "seize the day."

Connotation in literature provides the basis for metaphor, simile, and other abstract linguistic constructs. Without a method for giving ideas meaning beyond the literal, there would be no way to compare abstract and concrete concepts. Connotation is a part of the study of linguistics called semiotics. Semiotics is the study of the symbols that allow humans to communicate, regardless of language or culture. All words in any language are metaphors, with connotation giving the metaphor a broader meaning.

There are numerous examples of connotation in literature. For example, in Thomas Wolfe's famous quote "You can't go home again" the word "home" connotes a meaning far beyond the literal interpretation of a house or even a home. The "home" referred to in the quote refers to the past, the "home" in which a person grew up in. To consider the phrase denotatively robs it of all emotional weight and meaning.

In Milton's Paradise Lost, a more complex connotative meaning is derived from the use of Greek and Roman mythological forms and concepts, including the form of the poem itself. As an epic poem, the form of Paradise Lost implies that the story is itself mythical in some sense. Greek and Roman mythology focused on the highest order of divinity for both inspiration and subject matter. Milton's intent in invoking this connotation through form is to give the narrative a deeper dimension than the literal story itself. As such, connotation does not need to imparted through words, it can be created through various literary elements as well.

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