Aporia is a figure of speech where a speaker or writer poses a question. This question expresses doubt or confusion and more often than not appears as a rhetorical question. It is usually in regards to what characters, or people in general, should do in one situation. In some cases the “doubt” the speaker expresses is genuine, other times it is only used as a stimulant to encourage the reader down a specific path of consideration. The audience should be engaged, thinking about the same situation that the character (presumably) is.
Aporia can appear as a statement or a question. It shows up in both written and spoken language.
History of Aporia
The word Aporia comes from the Ancient Greek meaning “without passage”. But, as with most words, the meaning has changed over time. It can also be defined as “an impasse” or “puzzlement”. Lovers of language can find other varying definitions depending on if their focus is philosophy or rhetoric.
In philosophy, this term has been used since the days of Plato and Aristotle. It can be found in a variety of their works as well as in texts by other important philosophical writers like Derrida.
Examples of Aporia
Example #1 Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Some of the most famous words that Shakespeare ever wrote are a prime example of aporia. Hamlet’s soliloquy, the passage that begins with the famous question, “To be or not to be,” provides the reader with an opportunity to question the very nature of life. He addresses the audience, but he is, in reality, considering his own life and what he is going to do next. Here a selection from the soliloquy to read over:
To be or not to be-that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep-
No more-and by a sleep to say we end
He asks the question and then dives into a series of sub-questions that address different topics that might arise.
Example #2 Sonnet 43: How do I love thee? by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
One of Browning’s most popular sonnets, ‘How do I love thee?” uses aporia in the first line. She addresses her lover, her husband, Robert Browning, and uses the rhetorical question as a way to stimulate a dramatic monologue around the ways she loves him. Take a look at the first six lines of the poem:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
The speaker poses the question and then tells the reader, and the intended listener, that she’s going to count the ways. From the initial doubt inherent in the question, she clears everything up by describing the depths of her love and how far her soul can reach.
Example #3 The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot
In this final example, a reader can look to T.S. Eliot’s most famous poem, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. In this poem, which was finished around 1910, was written in the form of a dramatic monologue. Within it, Eliot crafts a serious of questions and the entire text is filled with doubt and uncertainty. Take a look at these lines from the centre of the poem:
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
These lines are only a small selection of those centred around the question of “would it have been worth while”. He repeats this phrase, in different structures, throughout the text. Considering the past, what he has done, and what he hasn’t. This is a reply complex poem that is dedicated to an examination of the mind of a modern man. This person is a victim of his own time, emotionally immature and bordering on neurotic. It is though Prufrock, the poem’s speaker, that the reader gains insight into the mind of man. He struggles with love for a woman he can’t approach and his thoughts fight him, trying to bring him around to rational conclusions.