These might be more or less important background details, peripheral issues, depictions of characters’ interests and motivations, as well as anything that might build suspense. A digression can be beneficial to the story as a whole, or it might have a negative impact on how the reader follows the plot.
In the examples below, there are instances in which digressions reveal the emotional depths of a character, additional information about their pasts, broader historical details, and contemporaneous activities. Les Misérables is one of the best examples included below in that so much of the novel is taken up by information that has nothing to do with the central conflict or even Paris.
The word “digression” comes from the Latin “digressio,” meaning “a going away” or “departing.” Digressions are stylistic choices that the writer uses to temporarily step away from the story’s central conflict or plot. They are used to provide readers with more information than they previously had. Digressions are beneficial when they help the reader better understand a character’s motivations, how they ended up in a specific situation or anything that makes them care more about what happens in the next pages of the novel.
Sometimes, depending on how the digression is written, a reader might find themselves disappointed to be taken away from the central conflict. But, usually, after reading through whatever the digression is, the conflict is far more interesting. The authors also return to the main point of the story after the digression is finished. In the worst cases, the digressions add nothing to the story. So little, in fact, that readers could skip them without missing out on details that change the story.
Examples of Digression in Literature
The Catcher in the Rye contains several interesting examples of how digressions might be used. They are especially impactful in this novel due to the general unreliability of the narration. The main character, Holden, is emotional, impulsive and sees the world through a very particular lens that’s often clearly distorted by prejudice.
One of the best examples of this comes when Holden gets distracted from what he’s doing and starts talking/thinking about his sister, Phoebe. She’s the only person in his life that he sees as honest. The following lines are used to describe her:
You should see her. You never saw a little kid so pretty and smart in your whole life…I mean she’s had all A’s ever since she started school…You’d like her. I mean if you tell old Phoebe something, she knows exactly what the hell you’re talking about.
She’s smart, pretty, and genuine, he says. Holden admires her, perhaps as a young person he could never be. His love for her is at its strongest and clearest at the end of the novel when he watches her ride the carousel.
Throughout The Handmaid’s Tale, the author depicts Offred’s central conflict—with Gilead and her own imprisonment as a handmaid. She also spends time making digressions into the past. She depicts Offred’s life and experiences before her rights were taken away. In these passages, readers hear about her husband, her child, and her career, all things she’s no longer allowed to have in Gilead.
Explore Margaret Atwood’s poetry.
Iliad and Odyssey by Homer
These two classics of Greek literature both contain examples of digressions. In the former, readers can find numerous smaller adventures that take the main character, Odysseus, away from his central problem—getting home. For example, the famous encounter with the cyclops. In this passage, Homer describes Odysseus and his shipmates stumbling upon an island on which they could hear the sound of bleating goats. They ate to their heart’s content and fell asleep. When they work up, they saw the enormous cyclops, Polyphemus, who decided he’d like to eat the Greeks. They eventually escape, only to get sidetracked several more times before making it home.
In the Iliad, there are several interesting digressions. They provide readers with more information about the characters, the gods, and their various personalities. The digressions help readers fully understand who these people are and why they’re involved in the war.
Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
In Hugo’s masterpiece, Les Misérables, there are a huge number of digressions. According to Wikipedia, almost 1/4th of the novel is taken up by didactic arguments and displays of Hugo’s knowledge. These parts of the novel do not advance the plot but do illuminate the characters’ worlds. For example, Hugo speaks about the Paris ewers, poverty, religious orders, and more. These digressions can be hundreds of pages and are equally loved and hated by readers, but they are fundamental parts of the novel.
Why Do Writers Use Digression?
Writers use digressions in order to create thoughtful descriptions of characters. They can also give important (or less so) background information, create suspense, and ensure that the reader has a connection to the characters in the story. Without the latter, they won’t care how the conflict plays out. In some forms of writing, a digression can be used to provide didactic information. These are educational passages required for understanding the broader subject being discussed.
Related Literary Terms
- Allegory: a narrative found in verse and prose in which a character or event is used to speak about a broader theme.
- Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
- Prose: a written and spoken language form that does not make use of a metrical pattern or rhyme scheme.
- Cliffhanger: a narrative device that’s used to end a story abruptly before an action or segment the plot is concluded
- Coherence: refers to the properties of well-organized writing. This includes grammar, sentence structure, and plot elements.
- Plot: a connected sequence of events that make up a novel, poem, play, film, television show, and other narrative works.
- Read: Homer’s Iliad
- Read: The Handmaid’s Tale Historical Context
- Read: The Catcher in the Rye Characters