Hyperbole was one of the literary devices most favored by the Elizabethan and Romantic authors; most of them dealt with exaggerated feelings and larger-than-life characters, so it’s only natural that both their similes and their metaphors were hyperbolic. Modern writers, however, would probably sound melodramatic if they used the same bloated language; so, unless they are satirical or Gothic horror writers – they usually do not. In an exciting development, however, modern magical realists tend to use even more exaggerated hyperboles than Renaissance playwrights or 19th-century novelists; but they give them an interesting spin. See of which type below.
10 Examples of Hyperbole in Literature
#1: Homer, Iliad IX.379-392 (~ 700 BC)
I loathe his presents, and for himself care not one straw. He may offer me ten or even twenty times what he has now done, nay—not though it be all that he has in the world, both now or ever shall have; he may promise me the wealth of Orchomenus or of Egyptian Thebes, which is the richest city in the whole world, for it has a hundred gates through each of which two hundred men may drive at once with their chariots and horses; he may offer me gifts as the sands of the sea or the dust of the plain in multitude, but even so he shall not move me till I have been revenged in full for the bitter wrong he has done me. I will not marry his daughter; she may be fair as Venus, and skillful as Minerva, but I will have none of her: let another take her, who may be a good match for her and who rules a larger kingdom. (tr. Samuel Butler)
In the first book of the Iliad, Agamemnon, the commander of the Greek forces at Troy, offends Achilles, his greatest warrior, by unrightfully seizing the latter’s war prize, Briseis. As a result, Achilles withdraws from the battle altogether, and the Greeks start suffering loss after loss. Desperate, Agamemnon admits his error nine books later and sends Odysseus, Ajax and Phoenix to Achilles with an apology and a bunch of presents. Achilles’ anger, however, is so overwhelming that he rejects the offer in a remarkably hyperbolic language which gradually intensifies to culminate with the claim that even if Agamemnon could offer him “gifts as the sands of the sea or the dust of the plain in multitude,” he would still be unmoved. Aristotle uses this quote in his Rhetoric (reference) not only as an example for hyperbole but also as proof in favor of his opinion that “those who are in a passion most frequently make use” of this literary device.
#2: Gospel of John 25:21 (~ 100 BC)
Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.
The Bible – especially The Old Testament – is rich with hyperbolical expressions. For example, the land of Canaan is described in Exodus 3:8 as “a land flowing with milk and honey” and Solomon is said to have made “silver as common in Jerusalem as stones, and cedar as plentiful as sycamore-fig trees in the foothills” (1 Kings 10:27). The verse above, however, comes from the New Testament: it is the last of the last canonical gospel, that of John. The idea behind it is pretty straightforward: only a small part of Jesus’ actions has been documented: no book could ever describe all of them, because, simply put, there have been so many. In the opinion of noted Bible commentator, Joseph Benson, the strangely personal “I suppose,” softens the hyperbole; “if this be one,” he adds, reminding us that even a glaring hyperbole can seem truthful to emotionally invested people.
#3: William Shakespeare, Hamlet V.1.254-256 (1603)
I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers
Could not with all their quantity of love
Make up my sum.
After the priest declares that Ophelia’s death “was doubtful” and that she may not be granted a proper Christian burial, Ophelia’s brother Laertes jumps into her grave. A second later, Hamlet, whom Laertes suspects to be the reason for Ophelia’s suicide, does the same. To justify his decision, he utters these three verses, whose meaning goes along the lines of “if Laertes has the right to do it, then I have twice the right.” Or, to use his numerical hyperbole: forty thousand times the right, since that’s precisely how many times Hamlet claims his love for Ophelia is greater than the one of her—or, for that matter, any other—brother.
#4: Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (1726)
Golbasto Momarem Evlame Gurdilo Shefin Mully Ully Gue, most mighty Emperor of Lilliput, delight and terror of the universe, whose dominions extend five thousand blustrugs (about twelve miles in circumference) to the extremities of the globe; monarch of all monarchs, taller than the sons of men; whose feet press down to the centre, and whose head strikes against the sun; at whose nod the princes of the earth shake their knees; pleasant as the spring, comfortable as the summer, fruitful as autumn, dreadful as winter: his most sublime majesty proposes to the man-mountain, lately arrived at our celestial dominions, the following articles, which, by a solemn oath, he shall be obliged to perform.
Monarchs have adorned themselves with hyperbolical titles ever since Ancient Mesopotamia. This is what—among other things—Jonathan Swift tries to mock in this exceptionally long introduction to the law which should allow Gulliver some freedom in Lilliput. Even though Lilliputians are merely one-twelfth the height of Gulliver, they don’t seem that unwilling to exaggerate how their “most mighty Emperor” is “taller than the sons of men” and how the dominions of his country span to “the extremities of the globe” even though barely “twelve miles in circumference.” Of course, neither they nor Swift stops there; by the end of the sentence, one gets the feeling that what the great Irish satirist is ridiculing here is the very nature of hyperbole, the notorious hallmark of deceptive flattery.
#5: Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818)
The murderer discovered! Good God! how can that be? who could attempt to pursue him? It is impossible; one might as well try to overtake the winds, or confine a mountain-stream with a straw.
The sentence above is uttered—there’s no way of knowing whether in shock or relief—by Victor Frankenstein, after his brother Ernest informs him that the murderer of their youngest sibling, William, has been discovered. However, Victor knows that the murderer is none other than his gruesome creature, which is why he has a hard time believing it. It would be easier—he says in the conventionally excessive language of Gothic novels—for one to run faster than the winds or keep a mountain stream in check with a straw than to catch the murderer of William. It turns out that the murderer Ernest has in mind is someone else—William’s nanny, Justine—which leads to another emphatic exclamation by Victor, speckled with two common hyperboles: “Justine Moritz! Poor, poor girl, is she the accused? But it is wrongfully; everyone knows that; no one believes it, surely, Ernest?”
#6: Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)
Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it. See what a real corner of the world it occupies; how it stands there, away off shore, more lonely than the Eddystone lighthouse. Look at it—a mere hillock, and elbow of sand; all beach, without a background. There is more sand there than you would use in twenty years as a substitute for blotting paper. Some gamesome wights will tell you that they have to plant weeds there, they don’t grow naturally; that they import Canada thistles; that they have to send beyond seas for a spile to stop a leak in an oil cask; that pieces of wood in Nantucket are carried about like bits of the true cross in Rome; that people there plant toadstools before their houses, to get under the shade in summer time; that one blade of grass makes an oasis, three blades in a day’s walk a prairie; that they wear quicksand shoes, something like Laplander snow-shoes; that they are so shut up, belted about, every way inclosed, surrounded, and made an utter island of by the ocean, that to the very chairs and tables small clams will sometimes be found adhering as to the backs of sea turtles. But these extravaganzas only show that Nantucket is no Illinois.
The tall tale is a fundamental element of American folk literature. In its essence, it is a tale related as if factual, even though obviously exaggerated. In his first description of Nantucket in the fourteenth chapter of Moby-Dick, Herman Melville borrows and reworks some of these tall tales told by the natives (and their “gamesome wights”) to describe how extraordinarily barren is the island of Nantucket (in fact, Encyclopedia Britannica informs us, even its name can be translated as “sandy, sterile soil tempting no one”). Hyperboles abound: since they are living on a sun-scorched “elbow of sand,” Nantucketers have to import even thistles and consider every blade of grass the equivalent of an oasis!
#7: Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889)
There did not seem to be brains enough in the entire nursery, so to speak, to bait a fish-hook with; but you didn’t seem to mind that, after a little, because you soon saw that brains were not needed in a society like that, and, indeed, would have marred it, hindered it, spoiled its symmetry—perhaps rendered its existence impossible.
Want to see a literary device used to its best comedic effect? Then, leave it to the master of masters: Mr. Mark Twain. In his AH/SF-satire of the notion of romantic chivalry, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, an American engineer named Hank Morgan suffers a blow to the head and is somehow transported back to Medieval England. Naturally, he knows much more than everyone else there—yes, including Merlin—which is why he is able to ridicule the not-so-very-smart inhabitants of Camelot in the manner presented in the sentence above. Apparently, as far as Twain I concerned, a Medieval society such as the one idealized by the Romantics is possible only in the absence of any shred of common sense intelligence.
#8: Flannery O’Connor, “Parker’s Back” (1965)
The skin on her face was as thin and drawn as tight as the skin of an onion and her eyes were gray and sharp like the points of two icepicks.
“Parker’s Back” is one of the eleven stories which make up Everything That Rises Must Converge, Flannery O’Connor’s posthumously published short story collection. The sentence above is part of the description O’Connor gives of the wife of the title character, a skinny woman named Sarah Ruth. So as to direct the attention of the reader to this feature of Sarah, she exaggerates it, just like a caricaturist would do in a visual representation. No wonder that caricatures are sometimes called visual hyperboles.
#9: Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)
It rained for four years, eleven months, and two days.
This is the powerful opening sentence of the sixteenth chapter of Gabriel García Márquez’s celebrated masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude. It is written in the style of magical realism which makes prominent use of hyperboles such as the one quoted here. The sentence sounds almost biblical in its exaggeration (Genesis 7:12: “And rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights”), but Márquez goes a step forward—not merely in terms of the length, but also through the use of precise numbers. We tend to accept as true precise numbers more than we believe rounded ones, and this makes Márquez’s hyperbole even more powerful and fantastical.
#10: Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990)
There was once, in the country of Alifbay, a sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name. It stood by a mournful sea full of glumfish, which were so miserable to eat that they made people belch with melancholy even though the skies were blue. In the north of the sad city stood mighty factories in which (so I’m told) sadness was actually manufactured, packaged and sent all over the world, which seemed never to get enough of it.
Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories is a children’s book—but, just like Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, it is also a work of magical realism, both authors’ trademark technique. In fact, Rushdie’s opening description of this saddest of all cities may be a hat tip to a hyperbolic account by none other than Márquez, specifically this sentence from One Hundred Years of Solitude: “the world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.” Be that as it may, it’s important to note that works of magical realism make use of absurd exaggerations and hyperboles quite often; the trick is that they don’t treat these hyperboles as hyperboles, but as factual claims, thus making them even more powerful and conspicuous.