Definition of Adynaton

Adynaton is from a Greek word adunaton, which means impractical or impossible. It is a rhetorical device that is a form of hyperbole in which exaggeration is taken to a great extreme where it seems impossible. In other words, when hyperbole is magnified to such extent that it is completely impossible to occur, it is called adynaton. Ideas are exaggerated in order to emphasize.

Adynaton and Hyperbole

Adynaton is a kind of hyperbole. However, it is an extreme form of hyperbole. When hyperbole goes to an extreme level, which is completely impossible to happen in reality, it is called adynaton. It is presented as an exaggerated comparison or contrast.

Examples of Adynaton from Literature

Example #1

Had we but world enough, and time
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.

(To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell)

This coyness, lady, were no crime.” – saying that a lady’s “coyness” is a crime is clearly an adynaton since no lawmaker will be sane enough to pass a law to criminalize coyness.

Till the conversion of the Jews – many had made predictions about the Jews converting to Christianity. Such predictions have been made by many for centuries now. Yet, just like how the predicted dates of the end of the world have come and gone the conversion of the Jews have not happened and is showing no sign of happening.

Example #2

Whence is that knocking?
How is’t with me when every noise appals me?
What hands are here? ha! They pluck out mine eyes.
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand?
No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas in incarnadine,
Making the green one red….

(Macbeth by William Shakespeare)

In the following lines, an effective use of adynaton is evident. The tragic hero “Macbeth” feels guilty after having murdered King Duncan. He feels regret that even the big oceans cannot wash the king’s blood from his hands.

Example #3

I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,

I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry

And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky….

(As I Walked Out One Evening by W.H. Auden)

Adynaton is very clear in the highlighted lines, as the poet expresses his love by overstating that till China and Africa meet, salmon sings in the street and the ocean is folded and hung up to dry. These are extreme exaggerations, which are impossible in real life.

Example #4

Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate,
anything, of nothing
first create!
heavy lightness, serious vanity,
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms

Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,
Still-waking sleep
, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this.
Dost thou not laugh?

(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)

In the following excerpt, Romeo compares his love to several things. He intermingles love with hatred, mixes up beautiful things with ugly, hot with cold, dark with bright and so on. He also calls love as a fighting love and loving hate. These are too much exaggerations of love.

Function of Adynaton

Adynaton is used to create exaggeration in order to emphasize some point. The basic purpose of using adynaton is to draw the attention of the audience by overstating some thing or idea.

Adynaton examples were found in literary pieces written as early as the Classical and Medieval periods. However, examples of adynaton were seen in folklore, drama and fiction of the modern age. In everyday conversations, the function of adynaton is to create amusing effects by highlighting an idea.It is employed both for comic as well as serious purposes. By using extravagant statements, the poets and writers make the ordinary human feelings extraordinary.

In addition, adynaton develops comparisons and contrasts in literature. It happens when one point is overstated over the other.

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