Diatribes are used to criticize someone, an idea, or something. These are strongly worded, sometimes violent, pieces of writing that can, if the writer wants them to, feel like rants. Diatribes are used to point out failures, weaknesses, inaccuracies, and other negatives about a subject. This might be someone’s choices, an idea someone suggests, an action they take, an object, institution, and more.
It’s possible to write a diatribe about anything. Sometimes, especially if the diatribe is particularly harsh, its critiques may not be helpful or impactful. The suggestions might be drowned out by the way they’re delivered. In some instances, the word “diatribe” is used as a pejorative, suggesting that someone has gone overboard in their criticism and has become overly emotional.
Definition of Diatribe
A diatribe is a long, angry speech directed at something or someone the speaker is disappointed or unhappy with. Depending on the context of a story or paper, a diatribe could be given in regard to anything the speaker or writer is interested in. For example, in an essay, the writer might deliver a diatribe against someone else’s research or another idea they see as incorrect. In a piece of creative writing, a character might give a diatribe after they’re betrayed by another, see an injustice they can’t let go of, or when they want to make their opinion quite clear about another’s actions. There are many more possibilities as well.
Examples of Diatribes
The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
There is a famous example of a diatribe in Joseph Conrad’s masterpiece, The Heart of Darkness. It is based around the forced labor of African men and women and the treatment they suffered at the hands of Europeans. In the novel, characters like Marlowe are sympathetic towards the suffering they observed and spoke clearly about it. For example, in these lines:
They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force–nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind –as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness.
If the reader thought the speaker was going to pull back and not address precisely what’s going on, they continue with the following lines to ensure nothing is missed:
The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.
This is an example of someone speaking out and describing what they see as an injustice in the world. It’s a diatribe against the way a specific group is treated and is meant to influence the readers to see the situation similarly.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Another famous diatribe comes from Shakespeare’s well-loved tragedy, Hamlet. In the play, Laertes presents a diatribe against Hamlet while speaking to Ophelia. He warns her not to get involved with him or give into his courting.
For Hamlet and the trifling of his favour,
Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood,
A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting,
The perfume and suppliance of a minute; No more . . .
Think it no more;
Laertes uses words like “trifling” and “favour” to suggest that Hamlet’s advances are temporary. His affections, Laertes things, will change. He adds onto this saying:
Fear it, Ophelia, fear it, my dear sister,
And keep you in the rear of your affection,
Out of the shot and danger of desire.
The chariest maid is prodigal enough,
If she unmask her beauty to the moon:
Virtue itself ‘scapes not calumnious strokes:
The canker galls the infants of the spring,
Too oft before their buttons be disclosed,
And in the morn and liquid dew of youth
Contagious blastments are most imminent.
Be wary then; best safety lies in fear:
Youth to itself rebels, though none else near.
Laertes, and Polonius who add to this diatribe later, both believe that Hamlet is just toying with Ophelia. Polonius tells her not to “believe his vows, for they are brokers / Not of that dye which their investments show.”
Explore William Shakespeare’s poems.
Why Do Writers Use Diatribes?
Writers use diatribes when they want a character to show off their full range of emotions. They can be used in a wide variety of situations and be received quite differently by the reader. In the Hamlet example, readers will likely find themselves torn between what Laertes and Polonius have to say and what they already know about Hamlet. While in The Heart of Darkness example, Conrad leaves little room for doubt in regard to the treatment of Africans by colonialists. The novel presents the evidence that’s then skillfully reinforced by the words of the diatribe.
In another example, a writer might craft a diatribe in order to share their personal opinion on a situation. This is common in opinion pieces published and journals and magazines, as well as in some essays. There are also occasions, such as in academic papers, where a diatribe is inappropriate.
Related Literary Terms
- Literary Argument: the argument of a piece of literature is a statement towards the beginning of a work that declares what it’s going to be about.
- Bias: undue favor or support to a particular person, group, race, or one argument over another.
- Logos: use of logic to create a persuasive argument in writing.
- Pathos: an appeal made by the writer to the audience’s emotions in order to make them feel something.
- Repetition: an important literary technique that sees a writer reuse words or phrases multiple times.
- Realism: a literary movement that portrays everyday life exactly how it is.
- Read: The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
- Read: Hamlet by William Shakespeare
- Watch: Learn English Words—Diatribe