Wit often uses paradoxes and clever turns of phrase in order to surprise and please the reader. Traditionally, the ability to create witty statements has been seen as a trait of high intelligence. It is valued highly throughout history. Today, it’s commonly found in all forms of literature, even reaching political speeches and more formal writing.
Definition of Wit
Wit is the use of clever statements, sarcasm, irony, and other humor-based statements in order to pass judgment on a situation and make the listener/reader laugh. These statements are usually insightful in a clever and unusual way. They can mark out a speaker’s intelligence and be used to prove one’s insight into a situation. Witty statements are usually not planned and therefore seen as even more impactful.
Examples of Wit in Literature
Pride and Prejudice is Austen’s most famous novel and a great example of wit. One character, in particular, Elizabeth’s father, Mr. Bennet, is known for his witty statements. These are often filled with sarcasm and irony. Consider this quote from the beginning of the novel:
You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They’ve been my old friends these 20 years at least.
Mr. Bennet speaks these lines after his wife accuses him of having no sympathy for her nerves. By using this phrase, he’s showing his insight into her habits and the continual stress of her “nerves” that he’s had to deal with for 20 years. They have a very particular marriage, and Mr. Bennet is well aware of the quirks he’s had to put up with. By referring to her nerves as his “old friends,” he’s also informing the reader of how well he knows his wife. Another good example is this quote:
An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.
In this section, Mr. Bennet is telling his daughter, Elizabeth, that she should do whatever her heart is telling her to. She can marry Mr. Collins or not. It’s her choice, and she shouldn’t feel like she’s being forced into it. He uses humor and his good-natured wit to do so.
Explore Jane Austen’s poetry.
The Importance of Being Ernest by Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde’s best-loved play, The Importance of Being Ernest, is a wonderful example of how writers use wit to create a pleasing story. The play is filled with clever statements and one-liners that are easy to remember. Consider the following lines as an example of wit in Act I.
Nothing will induce me to part with Bunbury, and if you ever get married, which seems to me extremely problematic, you will be very glad to know Bunbury. A man who marries without knowing Bunbury has a very tedious time of it.
Algernon uses these lines when he’s responding to Jack’s plan to kill off his imaginary brother after Jack suggests Algernon kill “Bunbury.” The two are engaged in a conversation about living deceptive, double lives. Jack is trying to make a new kind of life for himself with his intended, Gwendolyn, where he won’t need to have two sides of himself.
Explore Oscar Wilde’s poetry.
“A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift
In Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” the writer uses sarcasm, satire, and wit to create a memorable plan to improve the famine in Ireland. He suggests that the poorest families sell their children as a source of food for the wealthy English. Throughout, he uses his wit to mock the English who pretend to care about the crisis but never do anything about it. Consider this quote from the literary work:
I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for the landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.
He uses the phrase “devoured most of the parents” as a way of alluding to the English landowner’s control of Irish resources and livelihoods. They’ve metaphorically destroyed the men and women of the country, so it’s only right that they “have the best title to the children” as well.
Read Jonathan Swift’s poetry.
Why is Wit Important?
Wit is an important literary device depending on how and when it’s used. In some literary works, wit does not have a place. But, in others, it’s critical to the reader’s enjoyment of the work. It can be found in everything from poetry to essays and can easily make readers laugh and provide a new layer of depth. This literary device is often used to show off the writer’s or a specific character’s intelligence.
Some related words are banter, quip, raillery, and joke.
A witty saying is a clever, well-timed comment that’s meant to make people laugh.
It is insightful humor used by the author in their narration or worked into a character’s dialogue.
Many examples can be found in Jonathan Swift “A Modest Proposal” as he suggests that the English eat the Irish children who can’t be fed.
Wit is used quickly and cleverly. It’s important to pay attention to the conversation and time one’s comments well. They should be insightful and original.
Related Literary Terms
- Lampoon: a type of satire in which a person or thing is attacked unjustly. They can be found in prose and verse.
- Satire/Satirical Comedy: are used to analyze behaviors to make fun of, criticize, or chastise them in a humorous way.
- Snark: a sarcastic comment. It is a combination of the words “snide” and “remark.”
- Sarcasm: a type of verbal irony that expresses contempt, mocks, or ridicules.
- Black Humor: a literary device that’s used in all forms of literature in order to discuss taboo subjects in a less distressing way.
- Comedy: a humorous and entertaining genre of literature, film, and television.
- Watch: How to be the funniest person in the room
- Listen: How to be witty and charming
- Watch: Mr. Bennet’s Best Banter