Definition of Overstatement
Overstatement is an act of stating something more than it actually is in order to make the point more serious or important or beautiful. In literature, writers use it as a literary technique for the sake of humor, and for laying emphasis on a certain point. For instance, when in his poem “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” Wordsworth reports daffodils as, “stretched in never-ending line.” In fact, he is not saying this statement literally; rather he is merely using overstatement to add emphasis on the long line of daffodils.
Overstatement Examples from Literature
In Mark Twain’s short story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, there are several instances of overstatement. For instance, when Simon Wheeler narrates his stories concerning Jim Smiley, Wheeler makes claim that Jim was a gambler and he probably would, “… foller that straddle-bug to Mexico but what he would find out where he was bound for and how long he was on the road.” It further states about a bull pup of Jim Smiley and Andrew Jackson that,
“his underjaw’d begin to stick out like the fo’castle of a steamboat, and his teeth would uncover, and shine savage like the furnaces.”
“It is, indeed, amazing to contemplate so vast a vacuity. One thinks of the interstellar spaces, of the colossal reaches of the now mythical ether. Nearly the whole of Europe could be lost in that stupendous region of fat farms, shoddy cities and paralyzed cerebrums: one could throw in France, Germany and Italy, and still have room for the British Isles. And yet, for all its size and all its wealth and all the “progress” it babbles of, it is almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert.”
(From The Sahara of the Bozart by H.L. Mencken)
Mencken presents evidence to show his disdain against Southern region of U.S. He berates it for its paucity of cultural, artistic and intellectual attainment and therefore calls it as Sahara Desert, which is culturally dead.
O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the check of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear.
(From Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)
Romeo is praising Juliet’s beauty by using light exaggeration. Here, playwright uses metaphor to get this job done by saying Juliet is like a burning light that gives light to torches and like a glowing jewel that shines against African cheeks.
“A man can have a belly you could house commercial aircraft in and a grand total of eight greasy strands of hair, which he grows real long and combs across the top of his head so that he looks, when viewed from above, like an egg in the grasp of a giant spider, plus this man can have B.O. to the point where he interferes with radio transmissions, and he will still be convinced that, in terms of attractiveness, he is borderline Don Johnsons.”
(From Revenge of the Pork Person by Dave Barry)
In this instance, author is overstating by making a silly comparison between a man’s belly with different other things.
Flannery O’Connor in one of his short stories, Parker’s Back, uses overstatement by writing as,
“And the skin on her face was thin and drawn tight like the skin on an onion and her eyes were gray and sharp like the points of two ice picks.”
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
(From I wandered lonely as a cloud by William Wordsworth)
In this example, poet exaggerates the beauty of his beloved and says if he had enough time, he would keep on complimenting her all body parts even for a bazillion years, which is quite impossible.
Function of Overstatement
Writers use this literary technique intentionally to create certain effect. Mostly, it helps to lay emphasis on some point. In prose, its purpose is to create humor and emphasis. When writers want to emphasize a point, they overstate it or exaggerate it. While in poetry, its purpose is to make comparisons and create images. Poets also use it for emphasizing a contrast between two things by stating one idea as normal and another with overstatement.