what is the function of a title?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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There are several important functions of the title of a work of literature.  

1. A good title is intriguing.  Often the title of a work is the first step to the actual publishing of a literary work.  For, if it interests the publisher, he/she will examine the manuscript.  In addition, a good title will hook readers. Often writers include a cultural allusion in their titles which draws the readers' attention.  For this reason, there are thousands of books that have lines from Shakespeare, famous poets, etc. as titles of their works.  For example, John Steinbeck's book "The Winter of Our Discontent" alludes to lines from Shakespeare's play, Richard III:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York;
And all the clouds that low'r'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
[Richard The Third Act 1, scene 1, 1–4]

2. The title is part of the overall impression for the literary work. For, instance, another of Steinbeck's novels, East of Eden, clearly creates a strong effect as it alludes to the Biblical conflict of brothers.  Such a title instantly communicates to potential readers.

3. The title sets a tone and creates an expectation.  In yet another example of John Steinbeck's novels, The Grapes of Wrath is a title that Steinbeck's wife thought of because its tone. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech for this great novel, Steinbeck declared,

....Furthermore, the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit—for gallantry in defeat—for courage, compassion, and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally-flags of hope and of emulation.

His title, The Grapes of Wrath, an allusion to the lyrics of The Battle Hymn of the Republic as well as a Biblical allusion to Revelations, certainly is a rally-flag of hope just as is his novel about the fraternity of men working together to defeat poverty and isolation.  Also, Mrs. Steinbeck suggested this title to counter-act the negative comments about her husband's "Red socialist ideas" in using this Christian allusion.

A champion of the workers' movement, Steinbeck himself said

I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this [the Great Depression and its effects].....I've done my damndest to rip a reader's nerves to rags."

So, his title creates an expectation of his theme of hope.

4.  A title should convey the appropriate genre of the novel, including the time period.

With Steinbeck's East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath there is a universality created, a novel with historical overtones, and one for all-time is suggested. These suggestions are, indeed, appropriate to Steinbeck's works. 





phrase that is part of the culture, suggesting ideas


User Comments

chrisyhsun's profile pic

chrisyhsun | Student, College Freshman | (Level 1) Salutatorian

Posted on

Titles can serve a variety of functions depending on the purpose of the work. They range from direct to ambiguous. Direct titles often give precise and accurate descriptions on the work they lead up to. You see this with biographies a lot (generally the title in some way relates to the subject the biography discusses) and more formal works such as research papers. This is also sometimes used with works such as poems with very brief titles that only point to the subject of the poem. On the other end of the spectrum, there are lots of novels which bear titles that are one-worded and hard to comprehend. This may be a single word that relates to the plot of the book, in which case the title functions as a hook (like the ones we learned about in English class for our essays) - drawing readers in out of curiosity.

Whether the title is serious, comical, or just plain random, though, all titles serve one basic function - to draw in the reader. This can be out of intellectual need or curios pursuit.