Definition of Diatribe

Diatribe is a violent or bitter criticism on something or someone. It is a rhetorical device used as a verbal attack against a person, group, institution, or a particular behavior. Merriam Webster defines diatribe as “an angry and usually long speech or piece of writing that strongly criticizes someone or something.” Its purpose is to point out the follies and weaknesses of something or someone. However, if the focus of criticism diverts from targeting the main object, it may become negative or destructive criticism on account of its harshness.

Examples of Diatribe from Literature

Example 1

Joseph Conrad’s narrative Heart of Darkness is based on forced labor of subjugated Africans as well as mistreatment and beating by European colonialists, which serve as an adequate diatribe of imperialism and colonialist countries. The tone of this account is sympathetic toward Africans, while Marlowe describes the imperialists as “conquest of the earth” which is “not a pretty thing.” Further, he uses severe criticism terming it a “robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale” and Europeans “grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got.”

Example 2

Trofimov appears a stronger person in act II of Anton Chekov’s Cherry Orchard, and also the only person who speaks out the words of wisdom. In one of the scenes, Trofimov and Lopakhin begin quarrelling, needled by Lopakhin’s remarks about his status as “eternal student” and flirtation with Anya. Thereby Trofimov launches diatribe against Lopakhin and Russian intelligentsia, as they failed to improve the social conditions of deprived people by saying, “The vast majority of those intellectuals whom I know seek for nothing, do nothing, and are at present incapable of hard work. They call themselves intellectuals, but they use “thou” and “thee” to their servants, they treat the peasants like animals, they learn badly, they read nothing seriously, they do absolutely nothing, about science they only talk, about art they understand little…”

Example 3

In the chambers of Polonius, Laertes counsels Ophelia to rebuff the advances of Prince Hamlet. Laertes uses diatribe by explaining Hamlet as, “For Hamlet and the trifling of his favor,/Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood,/A violet in the youth of primy nature,/ Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting.” Meanwhile, Polonius enters and launches his own diatribe about the topic going on between Laertes and Ophelia, saying, “Do not believe his vows, for they are brokers/ Not of that dye which their investments show.” He calls Prince Hamlet a robust who is just playing with her feelings.

Example 4

In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift attacks humanity. Swifts not only uses satire but also a diatribe against the follies of human learning aristocracy, royalty, government of England, the dominant Whig Party, war with France. He criticizes the failure and flaws of humanity to develop its order, reason and harmony. His first voyage represents a commentary on moral state and political events of England. For instance, Swift describes Lilliputians as six inches in height, displaying smallness and pettiness symbolic of human institutions like state and church and Lilliputian Emperor represents English King George I.

Example 5

Geoffrey Chaucer has employed bitter criticism in his collection of stories, The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer attacks Monk violently by saying that though his duty is to serve churches and people, instead he takes an interest in hunting and riding most of the times. Then comes friar, a clergyman whose duty is to hear confessions of the people, but he has married several women in the town which he describes as, “He hadde made ful many a marriage/ Of yonge women at his owene cost.” Similarly, Chaucer criticizes other characters such as a nun, the Prioress, the Wife of bath, the Parson, the Summoner and the Pardoner.

Function of Diatribe

Diatribe sharpens the critical faculty of writers. It also enables the readers to understand and access a work how it could have a powerful effect on their lives. Diatribes or bitter criticisms appeal to multiple readers in different ways due to their conflicting interpretations and comparisons about the objects criticized. In addition, diatribe makes the readers aware of good and bad qualities of the objects and persons in question. Besides, it is very common in literary works, politics, and everyday speech.

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