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Anticlimax in Literature: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

One may have ruined your last trip to the movies, but anticlimaxes have also been leaving their marks on literature for centuries. Come learn more about these lackluster finishes in this lesson and see their effects in some literary examples!

Major Letdown: Anticlimax Defined

Do you remember a time when you were really disappointed? Maybe your friend got you really excited about the huge homecoming parade, but you arrive to find only two floats and a few disinterested marchers? Perhaps your friend really thought it would be something special, or maybe he was just pulling your leg. Either way, when this happens in literature it's known as an anticlimax, which describes the revelation of something trivial following the anticipation of something significant.

The term 'anticlimax' can be used as a figure of speech to refer to a sentence that builds-up to an expectedly profound or otherwise significant end, but that fails to deliver anything of the sort. A good example of this single-sentence anticlimax comes from Mark Twain: 'The holy passion of Friendship is of so sweet and steady and loyal and enduring a nature that it will last through a whole lifetime, if not asked to lend money.' In this instance, the reader might expect the sentence to end with the expression of friendship's eternal loyalty; however, Twain finishes by devaluing the relationship compared to our love of money.

We might be more familiar with this term in relation to entire literary scenes and plots. Nevertheless, anticlimaxes still serve to devalue their subjects in the same way. Like your friend raving over the parade, authors guilty of anticlimax may imagine that their subjects really are as significant as they initially portray them to be. In 1728, Alexander Pope used the Greek word bathos ('depths') to describe this sort of failed goal toward significance. He noticed that - whether authors mean to fail in their intentions or whether the devaluation is inadvertent - anticlimactic scenes and plots often produce a humorously absurd effect. However, an anticlimax can also be used deliberately for its innate shock value, surprising readers with the true insignificance of what's being discussed. If you'd like to see these methods of using anticlimax in action, just keep reading to get a few examples!

Examples of Anticlimax

Simon Lee: The Old Huntsman

This poem by William Wordsworth is a perfect example of what Pope would call 'bathos.' Throughout the piece, Wordsworth attempts to build great sympathy in the reader for the fate of Simon Lee. The poet mentions the huntsman's intense loneliness, extreme poverty, and poor health. On the subject of Simon's health, though, Wordsworth falls a bit short of pulling our heartstrings when we're expected to harbor such great pity over swollen ankles!

'But, oh the heavy change!--bereft

Of health, strength, friends, and kindred, see!

Old Simon to the world is left

In liveried poverty.

His Master's dead--and no one now

Dwells in the Hall of Ivor;

Men, dogs, and horses, all are dead;

He is the sole survivor…

Few months of life has he in store

As he to you will tell,

For still, the more he works, the more

Do his weak ankles swell.'

The Rape of the Lock

We weren't supposed to laugh at the hardships of Wordsworth's huntsman, but his condition does not come off quite as seriously as the poet intended. On the other hand, Alexander Pope himself frequently employs bathos to very intentional comic effect. His The Rape of the Lock is a mock epic, meaning it parodies the elevated language and themes of classical epics (i.e. Homer's Odyssey) by applying them to something as trivial as a lover stealing a lock of hair. This of course makes Pope's entire work and others like it anticlimactic since the anticipation of the overarching plot is resolved in insignificance. However, Pope also fills The Rape of the Lock with smaller instances of bathos, such as the opening to Canto III, where the scene of Hampton Court Palace is supposed to evoke various stately goings on, but ends up being a spot for the Queen to take her tea.

'There stands a structure of majestic frame,

Which from the neighb'ring Hampton takes its name.

Here Britain's statesmen oft the fall foredoom

Of foreign Tyrants and of Nymphs at home;

Here thou, great Anna! whom three realms obey.

Dost sometimes counsel take -- and sometimes Tea.'

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