Hyperbole in Literature: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Angela Gentry
Hyperbole, or exaggeration used to make a point, is a common and colorful technique in literature. Learn more through a comprehensive definition and multiple examples, and then test your knowledge with a quiz.

Definition

There are some mornings when we roll out of bed, look in the mirror, and wonder who let the big raccoon in the house. The dark circles under our eyes rival the hidden side of the moon, and we want nothing more than to play hooky and sleep for 72 hours. If we were asked that day how we were doing, we might say something like, 'The princess and the pea slept better than I did,' or 'I need a whole winter of hibernation to recover from last night.'

The Princess and the Pea

These responses are examples of hyperbole, or exaggeration writers use to make a point. The effectiveness of hyperbole lies in its comparison ability. They are essentially metaphors, a comparison between two things, or similes, a comparison between two things using 'like' or 'as.' Hyperbole is ridiculous or extravagant, often for comic effect or relief.

Examples

Hyperbole is common in fiction and poetry, but less so in nonfiction. We also see it throughout the history of the literary canon. Our first example comes from the wisdom literature of the Bible, Song of Solomon:

The voice of my beloved!
Behold, he comes,
leaping over the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
My beloved is like a gazelle
or a young stag.
Behold, there he stands
behind our wall,
gazing through the windows,
looking through the lattice.
My beloved speaks and says to me:
'Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
and come away,
for behold, the winter is past;
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth,
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
The fig tree ripens its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
and come away.

Song of Solomon 2:8-13

Spring

An expression of ardent and deep love, this selection depicts hyperbole as the extravagant literary technique described above. The woman speaks to her beloved and compares the wonderful time of promise and hope in their relationship to springtime. Winter is past. She even declares that 'the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land,' meaning a time of peace has come for their entire land. This would be especially poignant for a people whose lives and history had been characterized by war. This is hyperbole because it elevates their relationship and exaggerates it by comparing it to natural elements and peace in an entire kingdom.

Let's turn to fiction for another popular example of hyperbole:

'Well now, one winter it was so cold that all the geese flew backward and all the fish moved south and even the snow turned blue. Late at night, it got so frigid that all spoken words froze solid afore they could be heard. People had to wait until sunup to find out what folks were talking about the night before.'

- Paul Bunyan in the folktale 'The Blue Ox'

What's interesting about hyperbole is that there is a certain level of untruth to a truth. In other words, a writer will use overstatement in order to communicate a truth. In the case above, it truly is cold in the story, but Paul Bunyan so wants to express how very cold it is, that he uses figurative language, language that contains or uses metaphors and figures of speech, to paint a picture of what's impossible. Geese cannot fly backward. The snow doesn't turn blue, and words don't freeze.

Because of this mixture of truth and untruth, it is more uncommon to find examples of hyperbole in nonfiction, but it's not altogether impossible. Take a look at this excerpt from Joan Didion's book, 'The Year of Magical Thinking':

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