Aphorism in Literature: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

''The truth is you don't know what is going to happen tomorrow. Life is a crazy ride, and nothing is guaranteed.'' - Eminem. What do Eminem and great writers have in common? They both know how to spit some sweet aphorisms - concise expressions of ideas or principles. In this lesson you'll read some other examples and test your newfound knowledge with a quiz.


Even if you've never listened to rap or tried to read one of the classics of literature, you've certainly encountered aphorisms. An aphorism is just a short expression of a big idea about life. If you've opened a fortune cookie, you've probably read an aphorism, like this one, 'The world may be your oyster, but that doesn't mean you'll get its pearl.' In just a few words, this quote tells the reader a lesson about life, that you have nearly limitless possibilities, but not all of them lead to a great reward.

Once aphorisms get circulated enough, they're accepted as a regular part of the language. For instance, the expression 'Don't count your chickens before they hatch' started as an aphorism, but it has become so common, that it is now more properly considered to be an adage. An adage is just an aphorism that gets passed through history as a regular part of the language.


While characters sometimes state aphorisms, it's often the authors who like to pass on a bit of witty insight in the form of an original aphorism. Mark Twain was famous for his aphorisms, either spoken by characters in his novels or by the man himself. For instance, Twain once wrote, 'A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody has read.' In 14 words Twain skewers the literary world. Here's another Twain gem, 'Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn't.'

Characters or the narrators of books can deliver aphorisms as well. In Tolstoy's classic Anna Karenina, the narrator begins the book by saying, 'All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.' The idea is that there are many ways for families to fail, but only by avoiding all the negative possibilities can they succeed. That's deep!

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