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Distortion occurs when writers twist an idea or thing. It is exaggerated or altered in a way that makes it appear different from reality.

This might be done to present that thing in a negative light or to simply rework it in a new way. Often, distortion has a negative connotation when it comes to the news media, academic writing, and opinion articles. Images, thoughts, situations, and actions can also be distorted. 

Distortion prounciation: deh-store-shun

Distortion definition and examples


Definition of Distortion 

In order to distort ideas and things in some new way, writers use various other literary devices. Often, satire is at the forefront. It can be used alongside symbolism, personification, and types of figurative language in order to surprise and intrigue the reader. In some situations, distorting a situation or action can make readers see it in a new light and perhaps see it more clearly. This is due to the fact that things are often already distorted through the various lenses people see the world with. If someone readily sees things in an optimistic light, distorting a situation might help them see the negative sides of it.


Examples of Distortion in Literature 

Animal Farm by George Orwell 

Animal Farm is a famous example of distortion being used in literature. Orwell crafts a chilling and disturbing narrative of farm animals overthrowing their human owners and putting a new, equally repressive society into place. These animals are distorted through personification and anthropomorphism. Additionally, since the inspiration for this novel and its events came from the Russian Revolution, one can also consider the distortion of political leaders to farm animals. Here is one of the most famous quotes from the novel: 

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

Here, the pig’s abuse and distortion of language are on full display. They are doing whatever they can to control the other farm animals. This kind of “logic” is a perfect example of distortion in the novel. 


1984 by George Orwell

Orwell’s 1984 is another great example of how distortion can be used to further a message. In the case of this novel, Orwell includes the distortion of language by the Party. They’re continually removing words from the English language and replacing them with Newspeak. This new language is a way of narrowing the possible thoughts the citizens of Oceana can have. If you can’t think it, you can’t do it. Here is an excerpt from the novel in which one character is speaking about the purpose of Newspeak: 

Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. . . . The process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead.

The creation of Newspeak is yet another way that the Party is degrading the little freedoms which still exist in the world of 1984. 

Explore George Orwell’s best books. 


Catch-22 by Joseph Heller 

Throughout Catch-22, Joseph Heller uses distortion, created through the use of irony and satire, to craft an anti-war message. He distorts justice, bravery, patriotism, and sanity. Some of the most famous passages have to do with the latter as the characters come to terms with what they see as sane behavior and what the world sees. Here are a few lines from the novel that demonstrate Heller’s use of distortion:

Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he would have to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.

In these lines, which can be found in Chapter 5, the reader can experience how words can be distorted in order to confuse an issue. 


A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift

In Swift’s A Modest Proposal, he uses distortion in order to share a message in regard to Ireland. He suggests something outrageous and twisted in order to draw attention to the very real issue of famine in the country. Here are a few lines from the very well-known satire: 

I am assured by our merchants, that a boy or a girl, before twelve years old, is no saleable commodity, and even when they come to this age, they will not yield above three pounds, or three pounds and half a crown at most, on the exchange; which cannot turn to account either to the parents or kingdom, the charge of nutriments and rags having been at least four times that value.

Swift suggests that the British eat the Irish children. By doing so, they’ll be solving a “problem” they can’t seem to find a solution to. 

Explore Jonathan Swift’s poetry.


Why Do Writers Use Distortion? 

Distortion is used in novels, short stories, advertising, speeches, and sometimes in poetry. Depending on the writer’s content, it’s used to put emphasis on a certain point, distort someone’s actions for another’s benefit, change a situation so that it feels different than it truly was, or make another broader point about that same situation. There are many different ways, including humorous ones, that the literary device might come into one’s writing. It should be noted, though, that some types of distortion are unwanted and harmful. 


Related Literary Terms 

  • Genre: a type of art, literary work, or musical composition that is defined by its content, style, or a specific form to which it conforms.
  • Symbolism: the use of symbols to represent ideas or meanings. They are imbued with certain qualities, often only interpretable through context.
  • Surrealism: refers to a movement of literature, art, and drama in which creators chose to incorporated dreams and the unconscious and fuse reality and pure imagination.
  • Dystopia: is the opposite of a utopia. It is an imagined place or community in which the majority of the people suffer.


Other Resources 

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