15 Understatement Examples in Literature  

An understatement that means the presentation of something lesser than something actually is. It is an interesting literary device used by the writers and poets alike in their fiction or nonfiction and poetries. It is the opposite of overstatement, exaggeration, and even hyperbole, and is used almost in an ironic sense or to replace litotes. Some of the best understatements used in literature are as follows.

Example #1

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

“O most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not nor it cannot come to good,
But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue.”

Although the above lines make it clear that the situation is far from normal, the use of “not good” in the last line shows that Hamlet’s act of holding his tongue may make it even worse. Therefore, the situation is highly grave yet he calls it ‘not good’ which means the situation for him seems just below normal and not as grave as the scandalous marriage of his mother has made it.

Example #2

Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I graduated from New Haven in 1915, just a quarter of a century after my father, and a little later…

The above statement shows how Fitzgerlad has made a lighthearted comment through his third-person narrator that it is just a little later though it is not that little as almost a quarter of a century is not just a short time. He talks about 25 years of education to make light of the years of his hard work. Also, making the situation light-hearted seems a good point to show his artistic skills.

Example #3

Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney

“There inside the hall,
Danes lay asleep, earls who would
soon endure
a great reversal” (1279-81).

These lines are taken from Beowulf. It is interesting to note that Seamus Heaney has rendered them in English, showing the use of understatement. It is not clear whether it was used in the original text or not. It shows that all were sleeping in the hall to endure a reversal in the fortune of the earls though it is the same for all of them. The great reversal is, however, not so great, for it is even graver as they would be facing death at the hands of Grendel.

Example #4

A Farewell to Arms by Earnest Hemingway

The American news was all training camps. I was glad I wasn’t in a training camp. The baseball news was all I could read and I did not have the slightest interest in it. A number of papers together made it impossible to read with interest. It was not very timely but I read at it for a while. I wondered if America really got into the war, if they would close down the major leagues. They probably wouldn’t. There was still racing in Milan and the war could not be much worse.

By putting both the war and the major leagues in one statement, Hemingway has used this understatement to lessen the heaviness and gravity of war. He is of the view or seems to be of the view that war is not as serious a business as baseball is and the Americans are adept at doing this. This is a beautiful use of understatement to take war lightly.

Example #5

Beloved by Tony Morrison

Men who knew their manhood lay in their guns and were not even embarrassed by the knowledge that without gunshot fox would laugh at them. And these “men” who made even vixen laugh could, if you let them, stop you from hearing doves or loving moonlight. So you protected yourself and loved small. Picked the tiniest stars out of the sky to own; lay down with head twisted in order to see the loved one over the rim of the trench before you slept.

The above example is quite ironic that the men are not aware of the gunshots, it seems an understatement that Toni Morrison has used for hunting men and she declared it a sign of manhood. This is a good use of understatement that continues until the end of this dialogue.

Example #6

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

I wish some well-fed philosopher, whose meat and drink turn to gall within him, whose blood is ice, w hose heart is iron, could have seen Oliver Twist clutching at the dainty viands that the dog had neglected. I wish he could have witnessed the horrible avidity with which Oliver tore the bits asunder with all the ferocity of famine. There is only one thing I should like better – and that would be to see the philosopher making the same sort of meal himself, with the same relish.

The entire passage can be considered an understatement. The overall suggestive use of a philosopher and the bread and butter shows that a philosopher could not be busied with such a mundane matter. He should rather be engaged with other important issues of metaphysical issues. So, this entire passage shows the use of an effective understatement.

Example #7

To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvel

The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.

The above example discusses the graveness of the situation with seriousness. However, these lines are suggestive of the frivolity of enjoyment that the poet recommends that his beloved enjoys until the moment of the death when there is only privacy and nothing else, making this another perfect example of an understatement.

Example #8

Fire and Ice

I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Although the poet has discussed a grave issue that is the end of the world, using fire and ice to suggest that both are equally valid when it comes to the end of the world. Therefore, it is rather an understatement. It is not such a frivolous issue to be put into poetry in such a light-hearted manner. It is a serious issue that must be dealt with the same seriousness.

Example #9

Afternoon in School — The Last Lesson by DH Lawrence

And shall I take
The last dear fuel and heap it on my soul
Till I rouse my will like a fire to consume
Their dross of indifference, and burn the scroll
Of their insults in punishment? – I will not!
I will not waste myself to embers for them,
Not all for them shall the fires of my life be hot,
For myself a heap of ashes of weariness, till sleep
Shall have raked the embers clear: I will keep
Some of my strength for myself, for if I should sell
It all for them, I should hate them –
– I will sit and wait for the bell.

This stanza of “Afternoon in School” is an interesting piece about the school and the last lesson. The poet’s opinion that he would wait for the bell shows that the last lesson is a highly critical and grave issue for him when he used to go to school, and the afternoon used to arrive at the usual time. However, the use of understatement at the end shows the importance that the poet has attached to this specific event in his school years.

Example #10

Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Although no statement seems to belittle Ozymandias here, the last sentence shows that it connects the necessary dots and makes the picture complete. The bragging of Ozymandias is now lying wasted in the plains of sand stretched miles away. Therefore, these lines show the use of understatement spread over several lines. The irony in these lines is quite clear.

Example #11

Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Although there is no such line that does not show understatement, for the entire novella is an understatement in itself as it turns out that the protagonist has transformed into a vermin. Therefore, this downgrading of a human being from the seat of a hero to an anti-hero or even below that is an understatement as well as irony.

Example #12

Tell Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe

I loved the old man I think it was his eye… I made up my mind to take the old man’s life and thus rid myself of the eye forever.

These lines occur in the short story of Edgar Allen Poe in which he has shown the inner thoughts of his anonymous narrator who narrates it to his interlocuters that he has killed the old man, not due to enmity. He also states that it is not that the old man has committed any wrong against him or that he has made him suffer. In fact, it is just his eye that has made him to kill the old man. This is an interesting understatement that only Edgar Allen Poe could have written.

Example #13

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

I believe it is a very pleasant state, sir. I have had very little experience of it myself up to the present. I have only been married once. That was in consequence of a misunderstanding between myself and a young person.

Lane is talking to Algernon about the matters relating to marriage. She tells him that she is married only once which seems quite a lighthearted comment. However, if explored deeper, it seems that the comments have touched on a very serious issue that is of marriage. Therefore, this understatement makes the readers think twice about its gravity and the seriousness of the person speaking this dialogue.

Example #14

Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album by Philip Larkin

In short, a past that no one now can share,
No matter whose your future; calm and dry,
It holds you like a heaven, and you lie
Unvariably lovely there,
Smaller and clearer as the years go by

The use of understatement in these lines is clear that on the one hand, the past holds a person like heaven, while it is lying like a human being, looking small and clear. This contrast shows the use of understatement by Larkin.

Example #15

Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade by Kurt Vonnegut

All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I’ve changed all the names.

In the above example, the use of understatement is quite suggestive, unimportant words for such a grave issue show that Vonnegut is an expert in writing as he has tried to mitigate the seriousness of the issue at hand. Hence, this is the best use of understatement to make the matter light and easy to digest.