Some readers have asked why this blog is called ‘Hyperbolit’, and what the term actually means.
As a portmanteau of the words ‘hyperbole’ and ‘literature’, ‘hyperbolit’ is a playful encapsulation of I want this blog to be and not to be.
Clearly, this blog is about literature and my views on it, but it’s also about striving to express these views in analytical, intelligent and therefore – non-hyperbolic, ways.
While hyperbole as a literary device can be the source of much humour and depth in literature (and art), its presence should be sparing in literary criticism and analysis, which is what ‘Hyperbolit’ is largely about.
Besides, our social media today is so awash with hyperbolic prose, you hardly need one more voice to add to the mountains of blatant misinformation and exaggerated claims (see what I did there?).
When hyperbole is used for good, the result is entertainment; when manipulated for bad, the result is Donald Trump, which I guess is also a kind of entertainment, albeit in a slightly darker (or oranger..) form. By the way, I’m using Trump here as a metonymy for a term he’s ironically popularised – “fake news”. After all, I’m not one for ad hominem attacks. Unlike someone. Ahem.
Actually, in Trump’s 1987 part-memoir, part-business manual The Art of the Deal, there’s the phrase ‘truthful hyperbole’, by which he means “an innocent form of exaggeration” – apparently “a very effective form of promotion”.
This, of course, is a ridiculous oxymoron, because hyperbolic statements are not truthful per se. And spouting ‘truthful hyperboles’, it appears, has always been the 47th US President’s rhetorical principle. Innocent or not, the man has shown the world what hyperbole looks like when taken to dangerous extremes.
What is hyperbole?
According to the dictionary –
Hyperbole: a way of speaking or writing that makes someone or something sound much [more or less of a quality] than they are
In literature, hyperbole is often easy to spot, but difficult to get right. For instance, if a writer uses a lot of superlatives, such as “all”, “everything”, “nothing”, “never” etc., then we can say that the passage’s register is hyperbolic.
But the line between histrionic and impactful expression can sometimes be hard to grasp: too much hyperbole, and one risks writing in a melodramatic, cringeworthy and inauthentic way; too little hyperbole, however, and the point may not get across to readers less sensitive to figurative nuances.
One of the most interesting questions that concern hyperbole is how it’s different from caricature.
What is caricature?
Caricature: a drawing or written or spoken description of someone that usually makes them look silly by making part of their appearance or character more noticeable than it really is
A trick is to look at the front page of tabloids for hyperbole (for there’s no better representation of this literary device than tabloid headlines), and the last page of newspapers for caricature – specifically, in political cartoons.
But this verbal-visual distinction is just one way of telling hyperbole and caricature apart; so in the context of poetry and prose where there’s only words to go by, how can we distinguish between them?
Notice, then, that while hyperbole could be used for either positive or negative ends, caricature is almost always pejorative in its representation.
With hyperbole, you could praise or criticise; with caricature, you mostly just mock, and you do so by magnifying your target’s distinguishing features, whether in written or artistic form.
Political caricature, while often effective for many, can also be offensive to some.
Similar to metaphor and analogy, the difference between hyperbole and caricature is also a matter of scale.
Like metaphor, hyperbole is localised, and can be expressed in just a single statement (“I’ve got all the time in the world”); like analogy, caricature is extended, and must be developed over a longer stretch of narrative as a group of descriptions about someone’s external and/or internal traits.
Examples of everyday hyperbolic expressions:
- “Isn’t he just the worst?”
- “You’re the best. Thanks!”
- “I’ve been waiting here for a lifetime. Where on earth have you been?”
- “It’s been ages since I last had an ice-cream.”
- “Literally the whole world is against me and no one will speak to me ever again.”
“Anybody right now and yesterday, anybody that needs a test gets a test.” (as we now know from various verified sources, this does not happen to be one of Mr Trump’s exercises in “truthful hyperbole”)
But enough of politics already. To illustrate how hyperbole and caricature are used for literary effect, let’s now close read Chapter 1 in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times.
Analysing the use of hyperbole and caricature in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times (1854)
As a satire of extreme utilitarianism – the belief that ‘useful’, practical concerns matter most in life, Hard Times delivers a biting social critique of Victorian England through hyperbolic descriptions and lively caricatures.
This is evident in the way the novel begins in medias res, with Mr Gradgrind, the superintendent of the school, proclaiming his pedagogical ‘philosophy’ of teaching “nothing but Facts” –
‘NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!’
This is a textbook moment of what it means to speak in hyperbole. The torrent of superlatives – “nothing”, “alone”, “everything”, “only”, “ever”, “any” – reflects the uncompromising, absolute nature of Mr Gradgrind’s ideology – facts are the only thing that’s worth our attention in life.
To Gradgrind, anything one can’t see, measure or justify the use and value of is not worth wasting time on. Art, literature, emotions, spirituality – that’s all down the drain in Gradgrind’s book!
As a proponent of literary learning, then, I find the superintendent to embody my idea of the worst educator ever – and that’s not a hyperbolic statement…
How is caricature reflected in literature?
Then, Dickens shifts from portraying Gradgrind’s speech to describing his appearance, which yields a brilliant, vivid example of caricature:
The scene was a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a school-room, and the speaker’s square forefinger emphasized his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster’s sleeve. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s square wall of a forehead, which had his eyebrows for its base, while his eyes found commodious cellarage in two dark caves, overshadowed by the wall. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s mouth, which was wide, thin, and hard set. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s voice, which was inflexible, dry, and dictatorial. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s hair, which bristled on the skirts of his bald head, a plantation of firs to keep the wind from its shining surface, all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie, as if the head had scarcely warehouse-room for the hard facts stored inside. The speaker’s obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, square shoulders, – nay, his very neckcloth, trained to take him by the throat with an unaccommodating grasp, like a stubborn fact, as it was, – all helped the emphasis.
Recall that caricature involves amplifying a specific – usually physical – feature. In cartoons, the illustrator would disproportionately enlarge said feature (e.g. Trump’s hair is always the most prominent feature in political cartoons); in literature, the writer may achieve this same effect by excessively repeating this feature as part of his/her descriptions.
The adjective that’s most repeated in relation to Mr Gradgrind’s appearance is “square”. The speaker (Mr Gradgrind) possesses not only a “square forefinger”, but also a “square wall of a forehead”, “square legs”, “square shoulders”, and he even wears a “square coat”. The ‘squareness’ of his appearance reveals the rigidity of his worldview, the inflexibility of his personality, and more broadly, the cookie-cutter uniformity of mind that Victorian English education instilled in children back then.
The part about Gradgrind’s hair is also the stuff of great caricature (what is it with hair and its potential as fodder for mockery?!)
The character’s scalp, while mostly bald, is portrayed as an unpleasant, bulging plot of land, a “shining surface… all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie”, and its scant tufts of hair are compared to “a plantation of firs”.
There’s a sense of the grotesque and the arid here, which says a lot about Gradgrind’s likeability as a character (or lack thereof).
Dickens takes the mickey, too, when he hyperbolises Gradgrind’s scope of knowledge with the metaphor of brain as warehouse in the phrase “the head had scarcely warehouse-room for the hard facts stored inside”.
This is clearly a sarcastic dig at his character’s obsession with fact-based learning – an educational approach which does very little save for turning a child’s mind into an overstocked inventory of information.
The way this very short chapter ends underscores the power of hyperbole in satire –
‘In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!’
The speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.
What’s happening here?
Basically, Mr Gradgrind, the schoolmaster, and a “third grown person – presumably a school teacher – are examining their students, who are arranged in neat rows and compared to “the inclined plane of little vessels… arranged in order”.
The laboratorial imagery is apt, given Gradgrind’s preference for fact-based subjects like the sciences, but it also reminds us that these adult ‘educators’ are simply using the children as experimental subjects for their utilitarian approach to pedagogy.
Treated like ‘vessels’, the children are forced “to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim”, which suggests a suffocating mode of instruction that only cares about stuffing brains with information, sans regard for empathy, understanding and interpretation.
And there you have it: the difference between hyperbole and caricature, brought to you by the master of hyperbole himself, Charles Dickens – all in one bite-sized chapter.
I hope this clarifies!
To find out more about other important literary devices, check out my posts below:
- What’s the difference between form and structure?
- What’s the difference between personification, anthropomorphism and pathetic fallacy?
- How to understand obscure reference in literature: your guide to allusion
- How to write awesome analysis on sound in poetry: your guide to alliterative, assonance and consonance
- And more!