Literary Terms

Reading Comprehension
Ongoing Activity
Grades 6–12
Language Arts, History, Performing Arts
Small Group, Individual, Entire Class, Oral Presentation, Writing


  • Students will understand basic literary terms from Travels with Charley and be able to provide specific definitions and examples.
  • Students will be able to use/show literary terms in their own writing.
  • Students will be able to successfully pass quizzes based on definitions /examples of literary terms.


It is important for students to be able to understand, define, and apply literary terms for any piece of literature they encounter. In their notebooks, students should keep a growing bank of literary terms associated with the book.

Materials Needed/Preparation

  • Copies of Travels with Charley
  • Dictionaries (online or print)
  • Students’ notebooks

Estimated Time

Learning and applying literary terms is an ongoing activity. The amount of time spent is at the discretion of individual teachers.


  • After the teacher has introduced initial terms, as appropriate (see below), students should be able to not only define the terms but point out specific examples of each from the book itself. They should place these initial terms/examples in their notebooks. Teachers should be careful not to give away plot elements when providing examples. There are two examples for each of the initial literary terms: 1) actual examples from Travels with Charley (to be provided as that point in the story is reached) and 2) a more general example (to be used for initial discussions).
  • Beyond the initial examples provided from Travels with Charley, students are expected to provide their own specific examples.
  • Pointing out such examples can be done in pairs or threes in front of the class. For more creative students, such examples can be acted out. For example, __.
  • The students in the audience will take notes and later be tested on the terms. This is an initial list of terms that should be learned early on during the course of the book.

Preliminary Literary Terms for Travels with Charley

All page number references are from the 1997 Penguin Books edition.


Giving human traits (qualities, feelings, actions, or characteristics) to non-living objects (things, colors, qualities, or ideas).

  • General Example: The wind danced into the room.
  • Travels with Charley Example: “The Darkness crept down…” (47)


The act or an instance of placing two or more things side by side.

  • General Example: Judy went to the mall with her friends who loved to frequent the clothing shops. Judy much preferred the bookstores.
  • Travels with Charley Example: “Attitudes toward strangers crop up mysteriously. I was downwind from the camp and the odor of their soup drifted to me. Those people might have been murderers, sadists, brutes, ugly apish subhumans for all I knew, but I found myself thinking ‘What charming people, what flair, how beautiful they are. How I wish I knew them.’ And all based on the delicious smell of soup” (51).


Something that represents something else by association, resemblance, or convention, especially a material object used to represent something else.

  • General Example: The American flag. (See Symbolism for details.)
  • Travels with Charley Example: Steinbeck continues to describe diners that are sterile and plastic; he uses these descriptions as symbols for the changes brought on by consumerism and urbanization.


When the author provides hints of what may happen later in the story.

  • General Example: In a play, the main character in the first act might show the audience he has a pistol by placing it in his pocket. Later, in the third act, he is attacked and is able to defend himself with the pistol.  
  • Travels with Charley Example: “Beyond my failings as a racist, I knew I was not wanted in the South. When people are engaged in something they are not proud of, they do not welcome witnesses. In fact, they come to believe the witness causes the trouble” (188).


A comparison of generally unlike objects using “like” or “as.”

  • General Example: His fingers were like tree branches.
  • Travels with Charley Example: “I know now she was a mouse-haired, freckle-nosed, scabby-kneed little girl with a voice like a bat and the loving kindness of a gila monster…” (121)


A direct comparison of generally unlike objects NOT using “like” or as.”

  • General Example: His fingers are the tree branches that scraped the side of the house.
  • Travels with Charley Example: “And it was true what I had said to Johnny Garcia – I was the ghost… When I went away I had died, and so became fixed and unchangeable” (156).


A problem or unresolved issue in a story.

  • General Example: Judy wants to finish her homework, but her friend wants her to go to the mall. Judy is confused about what to do.
  • Travels with Charley Example: Steinbeck and Charley at the U.S./Canada border (67-68).


A turning point in the story. A book can have several climaxes, especially an episodic book like Travels with Charley.

  • General Example: Judy goes to the mall, without doing her homework, and runs into her English teacher who asks about her work.
  • Travels with Charley Example: “I know exactly where and when it [Steinbeck’s journey] was over. Near Abingdon, in the dog-leg of Virginia, at four o’clock of a windy afternoon, without warning or good-by or kiss my foot, my journey went away and left me stranded far from home” (208).


The solution to conflicts presented in a story.

  • General Example: Judy, being smart and time efficient, is able to do both her homework and go to the mall.
  • Travels with Charley Example: When Steinbeck kicks his racist hitchhiker out of Rocinante (205).  


A string of words beginning with the same consonant.

  • General Example: Susie sold seashells by the seashore.
  • Travels with Charley Example: “…pen scratches I put down on perishable paper” (84).


The use of vivid or figurative language to describe objects, actions, or ideas.

  • General Example: Judy, dressed in blue jeans, a blue tee-shirt with the logo “Love rules,” and orange Converse high top tennis shoes with mismatched red and blue shoelaces, entered the mall. She felt as if she was the Queen of the Mall.
  • Travels with Charley Example: “In colors of rose and lavender and purple it moved and pulsed against the night, and the frost-sharpened stars shone through it” (39).


A manner of expression: how a character or writer says what he/she says.

  • General Example: Judy, when confronted by mall police for suspected theft, said, “You don’t know me. I ain’t no thief!”
  • Travels with Charley Example: “But now I heard the words, bestial and filthy and degenerate” (195). Steinbeck shows his contempt for the “Cheerleaders.”


The writer's attitude toward the material and/or readers. Tone may be playful, formal, intimate, angry, serious, ironic, outraged, baffled, tender, serene, depressed, etc.

  • General Example: Judy, nervous and sweating bullets, felt the world closing in on her as the cop questioned her.
  • Travels with Charley Example: “On the edge of sleep, a new sound jerked me awake, the sound of footsteps, I thought, moving stealthily on gravel.”


A repeating theme or event.

  • General Example: Judy tells the story (to anyone who will listen) about her encounter with the mall police almost daily.
  • Travels with Charley Example: Steinbeck continues to get lost in cities.  


The moral or message of a story. (See Plot and Theme.)

  • General Example: Judy now realizes that false accusations occur, and she decides to forgive the mall police.
  • Travels with Charley Example: A trip or a journey has a life of its own, it takes you rather than you taking it.


A main character or “hero” of a story. Because Travels with Charley is not a novel, different protagonists can be found in different scenes in the book.

  • General Example: Judy realized after her “false arrest” that not everyone is bad; she remained an honest and law-abiding person.
  • Travels with Charley Example: Ruby Bridges, the “littlest Negro girl you ever saw” who integrated the school in New Orleans (189-196).


Usually the character (maybe even considered a “villain”) who opposes the protagonist.

  • General Example: The mall police officer who questioned Judy was unfair and assumptive.
  • Travels with Charley Example: The “Cheerleaders” (189-196).

Magic realism

A narrative technique that blurs the distinction between fantasy and reality.

  • General Example: After being freed, Judy saw herself rising into the air and landing upon a cloud of relief.
  • Travels with Charley Example: Steinbeck and Charley have a conversation on pages 168-169.

Episodic Book

A book with related incidents and characters, parts of which that are self-contained and can be read alone.

  • General Example: Judy’s experiences, taken alone, or all together, provide related incidents.
  • Travels with Charley Example: Steinbeck is on a journey across America and back. Each scene is a separate experience, but together they make up his journey.

Post Activity/Takeaways/Follow-up

Post Activity

  • Teachers are encouraged to have students “act out” ongoing scenes from Travels with Charley to show their understanding of literary terms.


  • This activity helps students to learn and understand literary terms in an interactive, fun way. This can supplement or replace using a traditional Literature textbook approach.


  • A final test of all literary terms, with students’ examples, is encouraged.


  • Teachers should regularly check students’ notebooks to ensure they are including examples of ongoing literary terms. They will also be regularly tested on literary terms.

California State Content Standards Met

  • Performing Arts: Theatre Content Standards 6-12
  • ~Artistic Perception: 1
  • ~Creative Expression: 2
  • ~Historical and Cultural Context: 3
  • ~Connections, Relationships, Applications: 5

Common Core State Standards Met

  • Reading Standards for Literature 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1,2
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4,5,6
  • ~Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 9
  • ~Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity: 10
  • Reading Standards for Informational Text 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1,3
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4,5,6
  • Writing Standards 6-12
  • ~Text Types and Purposes: 3
  • ~Production and Distribution of Writing: 4,5
  • ~Research to Build and Present Knowledge: 7
  • ~Range of Writing: 10
  • Speaking and Listening Standards 6-12
  • ~Comprehension and Collaboration: 1
  • Language Standards 6-12
  • ~Conventions of Standard English: 1,2
  • ~Knowledge of Language: 3
  • ~Vocabulary Acquisition and Use: 4,5,6
  • Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1,2
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4,5
  • Writing Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects 6-12
  • ~Production and Distribution of Writing: 4,5
  • ~Research to Build and Present Knowledge: 7

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