Refutations are common parts of formal and informal arguments. This means that they appear in debates, everyday conversations between friends and family members, and in academic settings. In more formal settings, refutations have to fit the standards of the debate/argument. For example, one has to have genuine evidence to back up their refutation and deliver it in a professional way. This is certainly the case in a courtroom or during an official debate. In an informal setting, such as an argument over the dinner table, factual evidence can be lacking as there are no standards or rules around the conversation.
Definition of Refutation
A refutation is a contradictory response to an argument. They occur within all types of arguments and in all settings. There are several different types of refutations, related to the use of logic, evidence, emotional appeals, and more. It might be more or less appreciate to use a specific type of refutation in an argument. Those participating should either be aware of rules or be able to interpret what kind of refutation is appropriate. In literature, refutations usually take place in scripted courtroom scenes or in high-stakes debates between characters.
Examples of Refutations in Literature
The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
This play is one of the best examples of refutations in all of Shakespeare’s work. In a famous scene, the character Portia dresses herself up as a male lawyer and does her best to try to defend her side of an important argument. She tries to argue that despite agree to give her father, Shylock, a pound of flesh, Antonio should not have his blood spilled. It all depends on one’s interpretation of what “a pound of flesh” means. She takes the initiative to save Antonio’s life and is successful. Here are a few of the best-known lines from this monologue:
The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
These are the first ten lines of the longer monologue known by its first line, ‘The quality of mercy is not strained.’ Throughout this speech, Portia does her best to convince him that mercy is a quality essential to all of humankind and that giving forgiveness is something to be proud of. It is not a weakness and shouldn’t have limits.
Explore William Shakespeare’s poetry.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
To Kill a Mockingbird has one of the most famous courtroom scenes in all English-language literature. The main character’s father, Atticus argues on behalf of Tom Robinson, who he knows is innocent, but the world is ready to condemn. He is accused of attacking a woman, a crime that is highlighted by the fact that Robinson is black and the woman is white. Here is a bit of the text from that passage:
[…] We don’t know, but there is circumstantial evidence to indicate that Mayella Ewell was beaten savagely by someone who led most exclusively with his left. We do know in part what Mr. Ewell did: he did what any God-fearing, preserving, respectable white man would do under circumstances—he swore a warrant, no doubt signing with his left hand, and Tom Robinson now sits before you, having taken the oath with the only good hand he possesses—his right hand.
Here, Atticus reveals to the jury that Tom couldn’t have committed the crime he was accused of because he’s right-handed while the attacker is left-handed. Atticus uses a great example of logos, or logic, in this refutation.
Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr.
This famous letter, penned by King, was in Birmingham Jail in Alabama. He responds to a clergyman’s suggestion that he call off civil rights protests. In response, he wrote the following:
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.
King goes on to say that there are “four basic steps” in a nonviolent campaign. Listing these, he emphasizes the fact that he and those who are a part of his movement have only had to turn to demonstrations because the community has been unwilling to “engage in good faith negotiations” or solve “bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham.”
Why Do Writers Use Refutations?
Writers use refutations when they need to speak out against an opinion or suggestion they don’t believe in. They can be written in regard to real-life issues, such as in the form of King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, or they might be incorporated into fictional scenarios. To Kill a Mockingbird is a wonderful example of the latter. They are an important part of the process of having a debate or argument as both sides are heard out.
Related Literary Terms
- Argument: a piece of literature is a statement towards the beginning of a work that declares what it’s going to be about.
- Bandwagon: a persuasive style of writing that is used to convince readers of an argument or make them understand a certain perspective.
- Characterization: a literary device that is used to detail and explains the aspects of a specifically crafted character in a novel, play, or poem.
- Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
- Ad Hominem: an attack that uses irrelevant information in an attempt to discredit someone’s opinion or argument.
- Watch: The Ad Hominem Fallacy
- Listen: What is an Ad Hominem Attack?
- Watch: Debate Lesson: Refutation and Rebuttal