Hyperbole, as a literary technique, is defined as an intentionally exaggerated description, comparison, or exclamation meant to further the writer’s important themes or make a specific impact on a reader. More often than not, in literature when used as a figure of speech, a hyperbolic statement is not meant to be taken literally. It is there for emphasis only.
The word itself originates from the Ancient Greek ‘huperbolḗ’. It is a device present in rhetoric, oratory and poetry. The former, rhetoric, is the art of persuasion that studies the capacity of a writer or speaker to persuade/motivate audiences. In this context, hyperbole is sometimes seen in definitions along with the word “auxesis,” meaning “growth”. This word is connected to rhetorical analysis and can refer to a number of different ways of growing an argument. For example, a hyperbolic statement, a climax, or a repetition of arguments, known as amplificatio.
Hyperbole in Common Speech
Sometimes hyperbolic statements are obvious and when used, strike the listener as unusual. But, more often than not, hyperbole crops up in common speech without the speaker or listener noticing. For example, if someone says “I could sleep for days” or “I’m starving”. These phrases, when analyzed, are obvious exaggerations of the truth. But, they are used in order to make a larger point. If someone said “I could sleep for 8 hours” rather than “day,” the impact of the statement is greatly decreased.
Hyperbole in Literature
When it comes to the written word, hyperbole is pushed to its limit. With an artistic license, writers have crafted complex, baffling, and often amusing hyperbolic statements that are more often than not, not meant to be taken seriously. It’s a rhetorical device that helps the user make a point they wouldn’t otherwise be able to. Literal language, which is drawn from reality without exaggeration or embellishment wouldn’t be enough in these circumstances.
Context is of the utmost importance when using hyperbole. Depending on the setting and emotional landscape a poem or a specific line of verse takes place, a hyperbole can come across quite differently. They can be, as stated above, used humorously in order to reiterate the strangeness of a situation, the actions of an unusual character, or an odd confluence of events. Hyperboles can also help to depict much darker scenes as well. Moments of distress, fear and terror can be conveyed quite clearly through exaggerated statements that in other situations would not make sense or would seem overwrought.
Examples of Effective Hyperbolic Statements
Let’s consider William Wordsworth’s ‘A Character’. This five stanza poem speaks on the moral character of a segment of mankind in relation to the feelings a speaker has for the intended listener. Towards the end of the poem, after using several other poetic techniques, Wordsworth uses a hyperbolic statement in the third line of the last stanza:
This picture from nature may seem to depart,
Yet the Man would at once run away with your heart;
And I for five centuries right gladly would be
Such an odd such a kind happy creature as he.
The phrase “And I for five centuries right gladly would be” is a clear hyperbolic expression. He suggests that he would be content for five hundred years if he could spend them with the intended listener of ‘A Character’.
Another more recent example can be found in Isabel Dixon’s ‘Plenty’. This poem is eight stanzas long and describes the relationships a speaker had while she was a child and how she interprets them now that she is an adult. In the fourth stanza, while speaking about the passage of time in combination with a lack of basic household goods, she says:
Even the toilet paper counted,
and each month was weeks too long.
Her mouth a lid clamped hard on this.
The phrase, “each month was weeks too long” helps the reader understand how desperate the speaker felt. She channels her mother’s experience, tapping into the misery of months without money or proper nourishment for her children.
One final example, in a very different piece of poetry, is ‘Television’ by Roald Dahl. This poem speaks on themes of childhood and entertainment. The poem describes in outrageous detail the dangers of television and what a parent can do to save their child. Dahl’s speaker uses hyperbolic statements to reflect on the dangers of watching too much TV. They range from a child’s brain-melting to losing the desire to understand the world. For example, lines thirty-one though thirty-three:
HIS BRAIN BECOMES AS SOFT AS CHEESE!
HIS POWERS OF THINKING RUST AND FREEZE!
HE CANNOT THINK — HE ONLY SEES!
In combination with the capitalization of these lines, as well as the exclamation points, the hyperbolic expressions in ‘Television’ seek to convince a child’s parents not to let their kid watch TV.