Adynaton: Definition, Usage, and Examples

Adynaton: Definition and Usage

An adynaton derives from the Greek word "adunaton," meaning "impractical" or "impossible." It serves as a rhetorical device that takes exaggeration to such an extreme level that it becomes utterly implausible. Essentially, adynaton is a form of hyperbole magnified to the point of impossibility. It employs exaggerated comparisons or contrasts to emphasize a particular point or idea.

Adynaton and Hyperbole

Adynaton is a subset of hyperbole, distinguished by its extreme nature. While hyperbole involves exaggeration, adynaton takes it to an extreme level where the exaggeration is so unrealistic that it borders on the impossible.

Examples of Adynaton in Literature

Example #1: "To His Coy Mistress" (By Andrew Marvell)

"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."

In these lines, the statement that a lady's "coyness" is a crime is a clear adynaton, as no legal system would criminalize coyness. The reference to "the conversion of the Jews" also employs adynaton, as it involves a prediction that has not come to pass.

Example #2: "Macbeth" (By William Shakespeare)

"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's statement that even the vast oceans cannot wash the blood from his hands serves as an effective use of adynaton, emphasizing his intense guilt.

Example #3: "As I Walked Out One Evening" (By W. H. Auden)

"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 …"

In this excerpt, extreme exaggeration is used to express the depth of the poet's love, with references to continents meeting, rivers leaping over mountains, and stars behaving like geese, all of which are impossible scenarios.

Example #4: "Romeo and Juliet" (By William Shakespeare)

"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's comparisons of love to contradictory elements like "feather of lead" and "bright smoke" exemplify adynaton in his expression of intense emotions.

Function of Adynaton

Adynaton serves the purpose of exaggeration to emphasize a point or idea. It captures the audience's attention by presenting extreme statements that are memorable and thought-provoking. Whether used for comic effect or to convey serious emotions, adynaton adds depth and impact to literary works, making ordinary feelings and situations extraordinary through extravagant language.

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