Denotation Examples in Literature

Definition of Denotation

Denotation is contrasted with connotation, which refers to the cultural, emotional or associative meanings attached to a word. For example, the connotations of “dog” could include loyalty, friendship, protection etc. These are meanings associated with dogs rather than part of the literal definition.

Common Examples of Denotation

Here are some common examples of words and their denotations:

  1. Dog – The literal definition of a domesticated carnivorous mammal (Canis familiaris) that is often kept as a pet.
  2. Tree – The denotation is a woody perennial plant with a single usually elongated main stem generally with few or no branches on its lower part.
  3. House – The denotation is a building that serves as living quarters for one or a few families.
  4. Brave – The strict dictionary definition is ready to face and endure danger or pain; showing courage.
  5. Blue – Its literal meaning is of the color blue. Specifically, the color intermediate between green and violet in the visible spectrum.
  6. Clock – The denotation is an instrument for measuring and showing time, specifically by mechanical, electrical, or electronic means, typically in a circular case with a numbered dial and moving hands or pointer.
  7. Run – The literal definition is to move with quick steps so that both feet may be momentarily off the ground at once.

Denotation Examples in Literature

Example#1

“This Is Just To Say” by William Carlos

“I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox
and which
you were probably saving for breakfast
Forgive me they were delicious so sweet
and so cold”

The poem provides a straightforward example of using words based on their literal denotations. When the writer says “plums”, he means literally the fruit – plums. Other words like “eaten”, “icebox”, “breakfast”, “delicious”, “sweet” and “cold” are also used in their most basic dictionary-definition senses. There is no deeper meaning or connotation implied in words like “plums”, “icebox”, or “cold” – they simply denote their literal meanings. The poem relies on the reader picturing actual tangible things.

Example#2

“Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte

“I remembered that the real world was wide, and that a varied field of hopes and fears, of sensations and excitements, awaited those who had courage to go forth into its expanse, to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils.”

The writer uses words that denote their literal and dictionary definitions to communicate her message. For example: ‘World’ simply means the earthly state of human existence. ‘Wide’ here just means physically expansive. ‘Field’ denotes an open land area and ‘varied’ means having diversity or variety.

Likewise, ‘hopes’, ‘fears’, ‘sensations’ and ‘excitements’ all carry their standard meanings without metaphor or embellishment. The same goes for ‘courage’, ‘go forth’, ‘expanse’, ‘seek’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘life’. These words stick to their literal connotations.

She uses the language primarily based on denotative meanings. Bronte creates immediacy and straightforward expression. The reader can directly visualize the tangible things she describes. The words mean exactly what they denote in the dictionary, which allows the passage to resonate more straightforwardly.

Example#3

“My Name is Red” by Orhan Pamuk

“I was born in the city of Amasya, the Cappadocia of the Pontus, in the year 938 of the Prophet’s Hegira, two years before Istanbul’s conquest by Sultan Mehmet. I departed this world in Istanbul, the almighty capital of the Ottoman sultans, in the year 1002, just as thousands of the faithful streamed into the mighty domed cathedral mosque that our padishah had recently caused to be constructed over ancient Byzantium’s main church, Aya Sofia.”

In this excerpt, the proper nouns carry literal, dictionary-definition denotative meaning. For example: “Amasya” refers to the actual city in Turkey. “Cappadocia” and “Pontus” denote specific literal regions. “Istanbul” indicates the real city previously called Byzantium.

“Prophet’s Hegira”, “Sultan Mehmet”, “Ottoman sultans”, “padishah”, and “Byzantium” also stick to factual, historical denotations with no extra connotation. The same goes for actual places like “Aya Sofia” and objects like “domed cathedral mosque”.

By relying on literal dictionary definitions for proper nouns related to settings and eras, Pamuk creates vivid specificity. The reader can clearly visualize the real-world items, locations and figures denoted to establish a tangible setting. This use of denotation over potential symbolism allows historical realism.

Example#4

“Emma” by Jane Austen

“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”

Austen uses words primarily based on their literal denotational meanings to describe the title character. Words like “handsome”, “clever”, “rich”, “comfortable”, “happy”, “unite”, “best”, “blessings”, “existence”, “lived”, “world”, “distress”, and “vex” all carry their standard dictionary definitions.

For example, “handsome” simply means physically attractive, “rich” means having a lot of money or assets, and “comfortable” denotes a sense of ease and relaxation. None of the words stray from their definitional meanings for the sake of metaphor, imagery, or connotation. Austen relies on the literal meanings to clearly depict Emma as prosperous and contented.

Example#5

“Romeo and Juliet” by Shakespeare

“What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun. Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon, Who is already sick and pale with grief,”

Romeo uses the words “sun” and “moon” based on their literal astronomical meanings to compare Juliet to the sun. The terms “sun” and “moon” denote their objective, scientific definitions – the sun as the star at the center of our solar system, and the moon as Earth’s natural satellite. Romeo relies on the reader understanding these basic denotations of the solar objects.

When he addresses Juliet as the “sun”, he is using the literal properties of the sun – its bright, shining radiance – as a metaphorical point of comparison. Same with the “envious moon”, pale in the light of the sun. This allows an effective, vivid imagery.

So in summary, Romeo uses “sun” and “moon” in their fundamental denotations as clear astronomical terms. The words carry no extra connotation or embellishment. Their literal meaning as reference points in the sky allows Romeo to eloquently compare Juliet to the most brilliant celestial body from a standpoint of clarity and scientific denotation.

Example#6

“Mirror” by Sylvia Plath

“I am silver and exact.
I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.”

Sylvia Plath uses denotative language to establish the mirror’s precise, objective nature. The adjectives “silver” and “exact” reflect literal dictionary meanings – composed of silver, and precisely accurate. “Silver” denotes the actual metal, while “exact” means strict precision without deviation.

“Swallow” is also used denotatively, meaning to completely take something in. The mirror reflects without bias – it accepts and shows images impartially.

Words like “unmisted” demonstrate further factual denotation – not clouded or obscured. The mirror provides clarity, like an undistorted lens.

So by relying on the literal, primary meanings of words like “silver”, “exact”, “swallow”, and “unmisted”, Plath emphasizes the mirror’s cold impartiality. It strictly reflects reality as is. The language has an immediate, tangible sense from sticking to clear definitions over connotation. This allows the mirror’s emotionless objectivity to emerge vividly.

Related Terms

Connotation

The associated or secondary meanings of a word, in contrast to its denotation (literal meaning). Connotations are ideas or feelings that a word invokes beyond its dictionary definition. For example “home” connotes comfort, family, nostalgia.

Figurative language

Language using figures of speech such as metaphors, similes, and personification as opposed to literal meanings. Figurative language relies more on connotative meanings rather than clear-cut denotations. For example “she floated across the stage” uses the verb “floated” figuratively rather than literally.

Denotation Examples in Literature
Denotation Examples in Literature

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