Paralipsis (also spelt as paralepsis) emphasizes that one thing while claiming not to care about or be thinking about that very thing. This deliberate technique is a way of making the reader come to exactly the conclusion the writer wants them to without them having to state the thing outright. The writer or speaker might even directly suggest they don’t care about the thing they really are interested in.
Definition of Paralipsis
Paralipsis comes from the Greek “paraleipein,” meaning to “omit.” It is an interesting literary device that sounds more complicated than it actually is. It’s easy to find examples of this device in literature as well as in everyday conversations. It occurs whenever someone wants to mention something but rather than directly describing it, they talk around it. It should be so obvious, through their allusions, that they don’t need to say it directly.
Examples of Paralipsis in Literature
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
In this famous history play, Shakespeare tells the story of the murder of Caesar by his friend, Brutus, and the surrounding plot. There is a very famous example of paralipsis in the play that readers may already be familiar with. Mark Antony is speaking about Caesar at his funeral, something that he was allowed to do only if he didn’t mention the leader’s murders. Rather than directly talking about them or what happened to Caesar, he alludes to the murder within the following lines of Act III Scene 3:
Have patience, gentle friends, I must not read it.
It is not meet you know how Caesar loved you.
You are not wood; you are not stones, but men;
He goes on to say that the people listening are “men,” and hearing Caesar’s will would “inflame you.” Adding onto this, he says that he’d never speak ill of “Brutus and Cassius” as they are “honorable men.” Through this statement, it’s clear that Antony means exactly the opposite of what he’s saying. He’d rather “wrong” himself and the dead than wrong “such honourable men.” The following lines bring in Caesar’s will again and the fact that he “must” not read it. By suggesting it, he’s provoking the public’s interest instead.
Discover poetry from William Shakespeare.
A Modest Proposal by Johnathan Swift
In this famous satirical essay, Swift suggests that the English, who are continually claiming about famine and overpopulation in Ireland (without ever doing anything about it), eat the Irish children whose parents can’t feed them. The following passage is from the middle of the essay. In it,
Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: Of taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound: Of using neither clothes, nor houshold furniture, except what is of our own growth and manufacture: Of utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury: Of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming in our women.
By mentioning these things and brushing them off, Swift is putting them into the reader’s mind. The passage goes on for a while longer, bringing in other things one should “talk” to him of. These include “Of introducing a vein of parsimony, prudence and temperance” and “Of being a little cautious not to sell our country and consciences for nothing.”
Explore Johnathan Swift’s poetry.
Othello by William Shakespeare
Unsurprisingly, there is more than one example of paralipsis in Shakespeare’s oeuvre. In Othello, there is a good example in Act III Scene 3. Iago speaks first, saying:
Did Michael Cassio, when you wooed my lady,
Know of your love?
Othello: He did, from first to last.
When dost thou ask?
Iago: But for a satisfaction of my thought.
No further harm.
Here, Iago is working to plant the seeds of doubt about Desdemona in Othello’s mind. He is alluding to what Cassio knew about Othello’s relationship with Desdemona. By dismissing it as though it doesn’t matter, he is actually emphasizing the fact that it matters very much to him. He’s also using paralipsis to suggest that there is more going on between Desdemona and Cassio than Othello is aware of. This terrible treachery leads to a horrible outcome and the deaths of both Othello and Desdemona, the latter at the former’s hand.
Read the 154 sonnets Shakespeare wrote.
“The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe
In this chilling short story by Edgar Allan Poe, the writer describes an interaction between Fortunato and Montresor and the former’s unfortunate end. The following lines are found in the short story and can serve as an interesting example of paralipsis:
It must be understood that neither by word nor deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. I continued, as was my wont, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was the thought of his immolation.
In these dark lines, Montresor describes his treatment of Fortunato. He gave him a “smile” that showed his “good will.” When in fact, he intends to show him no goodwill and is leading him towards his death. When the reader explores this passage, despite the fact that Fortunato is saying and doing seemingly good things, it’s clear that he has a very different goal in mind.
Read Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry.
Why Do Writers Use Paralipsis?
Writers use paralipsis when they want to emphasize something without directly addressing it. They can ignore whatever the “thing” is they actually want to talk about, and hopefully, it will be so obvious that the reader thinks of it anyway. By suggesting that Brutus and Cassius are honorable men and saying he talks about what Caesar would’ve wanted, Mark Antony is ensuring the crowd starts to consider the matter more deeply.
Some writers use paralipsis when they want to address something but also don’t want the responsibility for having done so. This will keep them from having to back up a specific claim or be called out for critiquing someone.
Related Literary Terms
- Amplification: a rhetorical device that’s used to improve a sentence or statement with additional information.
- Antiphrasis: a rhetorical device that occurs when someone says the opposite of what they mean, but their true meaning is obvious.
- Sarcasm: a type of verbal irony that expresses contempt, mocks, or ridicules.
- Enumeration: a rhetorical device that occurs when a writer chooses to list out items, events, ideas, or other parts of a story/setting.
- Mood: the feeling created by the writer for the reader. It is what happens within a reader because of the tone the writer used in the poem.
- Irony: occurs when an outcome is different than expected. It is possible for one situation to strike one reader as ironic and another not.
- Juxtaposition: a literary technique that places two unlike things next to one another.