absolute equality, Breaking Down Satire, child slave labor, exaggeration examples, Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., hyperbole explained, satirical elements, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K le Guin, understatement, writing process
Hyperbole is one of the best ways to create a satirical message as the majority of an audience can easily understand exaggeration. This is because it is meant to generate strong feelings or effect. And there’s a good chance that hyperbole will catch a reader’s attention.
Besides, readers are attracted to this type of language because we use hyperbole in our everyday speech, especially in our youth: I’m so hungry I could eat a horse or my mom is going to kill me.
And we all have the natural tendency to exaggerate as it makes our stories funnier and more dramatic. This is how we create characters that are larger than life. We can focus on particular causes or issues without needing to delve into the far-reaching complexities of the real world. If satire does nothing else, it certainly means to make a specific point, so hyperbole is supremely helpful.
One of my favorite examples is in “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., which is probably why I teach it every semester. The themes of equality and Communism are exaggerated to create an extremely oppressed society. Forced to be the same as the lowest-common denominator, progress stalls, people are tortured, and no one bats an eye at the live execution that takes place on television.
Even better is the depiction of Harrison as a character. A behemoth at seven-foot tall with super strength and smarts and good looks that would put Thor to shame. When he chooses his Empress—after prematurely claiming his rule as Emperor by stamping his foot and threatening those in the TV studio—the two of them dance and leap to the touch the ceiling, and defy gravity by hovering there for minutes, kissing.
Well, this exaggeration serves two purposes: one, to indicate how even in an oppressed society, evolution will still create strong offspring to advance a species. No dictatorship can squash this completely. And two, to show how when grace, intelligence, and beauty are suppressed, any hint at true talent will seem miraculous. This plays well into his overall message that absolute equality is not possible.
On the other side, understatement expresses an idea with less strength than expected. Again, we use these often in our daily lives: I’ll be there in one second or this won’t hurt one bit.
This creates a casual or offhanded message about something quite serious.
Once again, I gleam an example from the stories I teach in class, this time in “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin. She goes to great length to establish a utopia. In fact, she takes half the story to convince us that this place, Omelas, can exist, which sets up her message well.
In one last ditch effort to make believers out of us, she casually gives us the image of a naked child in a basement closet, festering in his excrement, barely eating, and shown no kindness. He is the trade that the people make for their luxuriously happy lives. And he’s shown to us in an offhanded way that tells the audience how the people need to think of him in order to maintain said happiness.
The understatement comes in how much focus she imparts on the people and their needs and psyches rather than the child’s and creates a perfect metaphor for first-world problems verses third-world problems, how societies are built off of stomping on others, like the trend of companies utilizing overseas sweatshops and child slave labor to provide us with cheap and easily accessible products. (By us, I’m speaking personally as a lower-middle-class American). In fact, one of my favorite examples is Apple, who put nets around their Chinese factories to keep workers from killing themselves. I’m sure if you do a quickie internet search, you’ll find more examples of this than you can stomach for the companies you buy from, which is why I advocate for voting with your dollar.
Okay, that’s hyperbole/exaggeration and understatement and a great way to launch this year’s focus on satirical elements and tools.
I hope you join me next month for satirical violence.
In the meantime, leave me your favorite hyperbolic or understated expressions and examples in the comments below.