Definition of Digression

While reading a narrative, a reader comes across several sudden interruptions in the main action of the story, which provides him background information, establish his interest, describe character’s motivation and build suspense, etc. These interruptions are called digressions. A digression is a stylistic device authors employ to create a temporary departure from the main subject of the narrative to focus on apparently unrelated topics, explaining background details. However, after this temporary shift, authors return to the main topic at the end of the narrative.

Examples of Digression Literature

Example 1

Homer is one of the earliest users of digression during Grecian period. He uses digressions in Iliad to provide the readers with a break from the main narrative, offering background information and enhancing verisimilitudes of the story. For instance, in the book eleven, he uses a small digression when Agamemnon encounters brothers Hippolokhos and Peisandros in a battle. They come to Agamemnon as suppliants. He reminds them that their father once denied emissaries of Menelaos. Homer employs it as a short interlude that provides the readers a serious fact about the nature of rivalries and the beginning of war.

Example 2

J. D. Salinger’s novel, The Catcher in the Rye, is rich with digressions. Many thought patterns of Holden Caulfield in the novel seem to be straying from the main topic, and hence unrelated. He constantly uses digressions throughout the story. However, these digressions are relevant and important for the main topic, as they allow readers to get insight into this character. For instance, his statements about the intelligence of his sister, followed by description of how carefully she listens, reveal Holding’s concerns. Another example of digression is his tension about the nuns. Although he enjoyed discussion, he was worried about his being asked whether he is a Catholic or not. This shows his insight into his tension for being judged morally and ethically, and his associations with moralists, who look down upon those who hide such realities from them.

Example 3

If it did not come strictly within the scope and bearing of my long-considered intentions and plans regarding this prose epic …to leave the two old gentlemen sitting with the watch between them long after it grew too dark to see it… I shall not enter into any such digression in this place: and, if this be not a sufficient reason for this determination, I have a better, and indeed, a wholly unanswerable on, already stated; which is, that it forms no part of my original intention to do so…

(Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens)

Dickens launches a lengthy discussion to show how plot is progressing. Above-mentioned excerpt is a perfect instance of breaks and digressions in the story, reminding the readers this is not a real story but a novel that keeps a distance between readers and characters.

Example 4

Homer’ Odyssey also contains several interludes and digressions that take the readers away from the main action of the story. Despite that, these digressions are thematically connected to the main narrative, namely Odysseus’ journey to home and his several encounters during this journey. The poem’s style ranges from comic and conversational to pithy, compact, and abstruse. For instance, the poem uses similes, comparing one event or action to another situation or happening in an elaborate or extended manner such as poet compares a squid clings to a rock to Odysseus holding to his boat.

Function of Digression

The main purpose of this device is to provide a description of characters, background information, establish interest and create suspense for the readers. However, these functions vary from author to author. Some use it to provide scholarly background, while some others use it to prevent confusion of illusions in a narrative. Another function is to emphasize or illustrate an idea through anecdotes or examples and establish a channel through which authors satirize a person or place. Besides these, many authors fear that if they do not digress from the main topic, naïve readers might not be able to differentiate between the reality and the fiction. The reason is that some topics are closer to reality such as poverty, strained relationships and crime, etc. Hence, they use it to put a check on their audience’s sympathetic identification with certain characters.

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