Examples Of Meiosis In Literature

Definition of Meiosis

In literature, Meiosis is a figure of speech whereby an item is represented as being less in value or importance than its reality; this is usually in irony or making a joke. This rhetorical device was originated from the Greek word “meioo”, which means to “lessen” or “make small”.

Meiosis seeks to reduce the significance or magnitude of the topic. It is also used to draw attention to the actual importance or even the fact that something is serious, which creates the contrasting sense. Meiosis are typically taken deliberately, with the intent of stating less than what is actually meant. It is also used very effectively in a written and spoken language.

Importance of Meiosis

Meiosis is a significant literary device. It enables the writer to deliver his or her messages with a twist. By deliberately underplaying a subject, the authors opens the eyes of the people to the actual value of the subject matter in question in a more subtle manner. This enriches the overall meaning of a given text by putting in certain depth and versatility.

Meiosis is also important in engaging the readers. It challenges them to read beyond the line. Besides, this technique is employed as an element of joke, as the over-explanations of serious circumstances in formal language are amusing. Overall, meiosis improves the sentimental and stylistic quality of literary pieces.

Examples of Meiosis in Literature


“Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare

“No, ’tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door; but ’tis enough, ’twill serve: ask for me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man. I am peppered, I warrant, for this world. A plague o’ both your houses!”

Mercutio, being fatally wounded tries to dodge the ominous predictions of the Friar, by claiming that his wound is not as deep or wide as a well and a church door respectively, but deadly enough to kill him. One classic example of the use of meiosis is found in the play, when Mercutio says ‘ ‘tis enough, ‘twill serve’ to indicate that his injury is not serious, though of course, it is a death wound. This understatement underlines the contradiction of what is to come, the death, contributing to the play’s sad humor and besides considering the verdict a strong emotional statement is made.


“A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift

“I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.”

The excerpt uses the literary device of meiosis in the sense that understatements are used with a view of presenting something in an opposite way. Meiosis literally allows the writer to make gross, outrageous suggestion, and give them, in the indirect manner of understatement, an everyday look.

The writer narrates and lists the numerous ways to prepare infants as delicious and wholesome food, as if it were a normal menu. This is actually a satire, which highlights how savage and inhuman is the proposal of the writer.

This is fairly amusing and perhaps intentional; this understatement is meant to magnify the offensiveness of the suggestion that the Irish people might resort to cannibalism due to their extremities, as a method of critiquing the horribly unfair treatment of the Irish people by the British.


“The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway

But man is not made for defeat,” he said. “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.

The use of meiosis has been depicted in this novel. Santiago is the protagonist of the novel. Thus, when telling the stranger that he may be destroyed but not defeated, Santiago underestimates and practically dismisses the idea of physical destruction in favor of the victory of the spirit and pride. This simple phrase sums up the novella’s message of determination perfectly.


“Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

At the very beginning of the play, Austen uses meiosis. The understatement is the reduction of intricate social relations to a common truth that almost everybody might perceive as logical. Such an application of meiosis leads to a tone of ironically touching story of social rank marriage and relations portrayed in the novel.

See also: Examples of Maxim in Literature


The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” by Mark Twain

Tom appeared on the sidewalk with a bucket of whitewash and a long-handled brush. He surveyed the fence, and all gladness left him and a deep melancholy settled down upon his spirit. Thirty yards of board fence nine feet high. Life to him seemed hollow, and existence but a burden.

Here, meiosis is used to call attention to Tom’s hyperbolized sense of hopelessness. When Twain says ‘life seemed hollow, and existence but a burden’, he pokes fun at Tom, demonstrating how the boy would easily consider a simple assignment as the toughest job in the world and a terrible burden to bear. This is an understatement where Tom puts even a simple task in large sentences that seem to convey the impression that it is a tough task for him; this is where Tom’s youthful drama is seen.


“Catch-22” Joseph Heller

“He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt.”

Meiosis is employed by Heller in Catch-22. It is an attempt to depict the illogical and senseless nature of the character’s predicament. By stating that he will live forever or die in the attempt, the character philosophically plays down the fact that this objective is impossible and contradictory. This understatement is carried out with the purpose of stressing on the novel’s aspects of the Absurd and the irrationality of war.

See also: Examples of Melodrama in Literature

Difference Between Meiosis, Litotes, and Understatement


Meiosis implies a conscious intention to lower the degree, diminish the subject in question, and is widely used in ironic or comical context. Instead, it seeks to indicate a higher activity, value, or significance of the subject as of lesser importance.


Litotes is a particular subtype of understatement, which has to do with the conveying of a positive statement by affirming the absence or negation of its contrary. The following is the last and a common form of understatement which employs double negative to produce a mild mannered statement. For instance, when a person uses the phrase ‘not bad’ to convey the latter meaning, that is an example of litotes.


Understatement is the general term used in the broader sense of anything that systematically makes something appear to be lesser or of lesser significance as compared to what it actually is. It is used to play down a subject and unlike meiosis it does not attempt to achieve the effect of humor. Understatement can serve different purposes, such as, apologizing, showing good manners or when used in irony, the author sets up a contrast with what really is.

Literary Terms Related to Meiosis

1- Irony

Irony is used to convey a certain message. It involves the use of words that are offensive. This technique is used either to joke or to stress a certain point. For instance, when someone says that he is fine when he is actually not well. Meiosis often uses the presence of irony where a seemingly unimportant matter is described in phrases that down play it but in reality is very important.


In “Pride and Prejudice”, the line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged” is ironical. The societal pressure on the wealthy men to marry is not universally acknowledged, but is presented as an understatement.

2- Hyperbole

Meiosis and hyperbole are thus antithetical in the sense that while meiosis is a figure of speech used to understatement while hyperbole is a figure of speech used to overstatement and the statements made are not to be taken literally. Whereas meiosis reduces, hyperbole enlarges, and this may be for quite a contrast or just for humor.


In “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, the statement “I haven’t had a bite to eat in forever” is a hyperbole. It exaggerates the time since the character last ate.

Examples Of Meiosis In Literature
Examples Of Meiosis In Literature

Meiosis is a kind of imagery in the literature, which is used purposefully to understate the event, action or object to achieve contrast, irony and humor. Meiosis tends to diminish subjects’ significance.

The technique also makes subjects more important than they appear to be. This device adds versatility and class to the style of literary pieces, which in return improves their creativeness.

By explaining the meaning of Meiosis, Litotes and Understatement, it would be easier to understand how different authors may underestimate importance to different outcomes.

Moreover, as a practical value of the lesson giving an understanding of various types of the related literary terms like irony and hyperbole which helps adding to the general appreciation of the features of the rhetorical devices significance in literature.

Thus, despite the fact that people continue inventing and applying new and new things, meiosis still persists as one of the most powerful and influential tools available to writers who use it as an effective means of conveying the meaning, inspiring certain emotions, and attracting the reader’s attention with an he help of the art of understatement.

This is because it continues to remain relevant in literature despite the literary trends due to the effectiveness it displays in elaborating the narratives.

See also: Literary Devices That Start With M

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