Adynaton a literary device similar to hyperbole. It’s an exaggeration that is stretched to the absolute extreme. The proffered scenario is impossible.
This device is in use when a writer makes a comparison that is completely impossible or unfeasible. This exaggeration is most commonly used when the writer is trying to draw attention to something. It is usually applied for emphasis. There are other occasions, as with hyperbole, in which it is used for the simple joy and pleasure of the words. A reader can find these examples most easily within children’s literature.
The adynaton comes from the Greek “adunaton,” meaning impractical or impossible.
Examples of Adynaton in Literature
Example #1 Macbeth by William Shakespeare
It is often the case when seeking out the most powerful examples of any literary device that a reader should turn to Shakespeare. Within his works, the Bard used language in ways that have been admired for centuries. There are several, some series and some comedic, examples of adynaton within his dramatic works. For instance, take this quote from Macbeth:
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand?
This question comes from Act 2, Scene 2. In it, Macbeth has just murdered King Duncan. The death brings up feelings of guilt that surprise him. He’s unsure how to deal with these emotions and the blood on his hands is there as a symbol of those emotions. With this example of adynaton, Macbeth expresses his inability to escape his actions. There is no force that can wash his hands clean, not even the oceans. But, he adds afterward, there is enough blood on his hands to turn the ocean red. This secondary example reads:
No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.
Example #2 Henry IV Part II by William Shakespeare
Another great example from the works of William Shakespeare comes in Act 1, Scene 2 of Henry IV Part II.
Prince your master, whose chin is not yet fledge—I will
sooner have a beard grow in the palm of my hand than he
shall get one off his cheek, and yet he will not stick to say
his face is a face royal.
There is a very humorous and successful example adynaton in the second line of the excerpt. The speaker, one of Shakespeare’s best known comic characters, Falstaff, is addressing a page. Falstaff is making fun of the page’s master. He teases him, from a distance, about his youth and inability to grow a beard. This suggests that he’s not manly enough to do so.
Example #3 The Bible Matthew 19:24
The very famous line from this passage of the Bible is a memorable and successful example of this literary technique. Take a look at the line below:
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
Here, the speaker is suggesting that it is completely impossible for a “rich man to enter” into heaven. It is compared through the use of adynaton to a camel going through the head of a needle. This ridiculous conception emphasizes the importance, in the context of Christianity, to rid oneself of wealth if one seeks out the “kingdom of God”.
Example #4 As I Walked Out One Evening by W.H. Auden
In this poem, the poet expresses his love for the indented listener of these lines. He addresses her, calling her dear, and using an example of adynaton to show her how much. Take a look at this excerpt from the poem:
I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,
I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky […]
In this passage, he tells her that he loves her till the continents of China and Africa come together and “the river jumps over the mountain”. These, along with several other lines from this expert are complete impossibilities. Therefore, the listener should know there is nothing that would keep him from loving her.