Litotes Examples In Literature

Litotes is a figure of speech that uses understatement to emphasize a point by stating a negative to affirm a positive. In simpler terms, litotes make a description more noticeable by denying its opposite. This technique is popular in both everyday speech and literature.

Definition of Litotes

Litotes occur when a writer or speaker uses a negative statement to express a strong affirmation. Instead of saying something is good, you might hear someone say, “It’s not bad.” This doesn’t literally mean it is just above bad; it emphasizes that something is quite good without saying it directly.

Common Examples of Litotes

  1. It’s not uncommon – Means it’s common
  2. Not unlike – Means it is like
  3. Not the worst idea – Means it’s a good idea
  4. Not a bad singer – Means the person can sing well
  5. Not too shabby – Means something is quite good or well done
  6. He’s not unkind – Means he is kind
  7. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility – Means it could very likely happen
  8. She’s not unfamiliar with – Means she knows well
  9. That’s not a small feat – Means it’s a big achievement
  10. He’s not without skill – Means he is skilled
  11. It’s not impossible – Means it’s possible
  12. They’re not strangers – Means they know each other
  13. I don’t disagree – Means I agree
  14. It wasn’t a minor success – Means it was a major success
  15. Not inexperienced – Means experienced

Difference Between Litotes and Euphemism

Litotes and euphemisms both change how we might perceive a statement, but they do it differently. Euphemisms soften a harsh or offensive statement. For example, saying “passed away” instead of “died.” Litotes, on the other hand, strengthen a statement through understatement, like saying “He’s not a bad actor” to mean “He’s a good actor.”

Examples of Litotes In Literature

Example#1

“Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen

“Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien; and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year. The gentlemen pronounced him to be a fine figure of a man, the ladies declared he was much handsomer than Mr. Bingley, and he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening, till his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud, to be above his company, and above being pleased; and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend.”

Through the example of Mr. Darcy’s character, the writer employs a hint of litotes to portray the defiant, independent, and peculiarly arrogant nature of the protagonist.

When it’s noted that “not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him,” Austen uses this understatement to highlight how significantly Darcy perceives the arrogance and aloofness. Despite the wealth and handsome appearance, these traits make him less appealing and cannot be compensated for by his fortune.

This litotes emphasizes the social values of the time, where personal qualities often weighed as heavily as financial status in social standing and approval.

Example#2

“1984” by George Orwell

“In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not only the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality, was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense. And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right. For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity is constant? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable—what then?”

Orwell uses litotes to make a witty statement with the phrase, “The heresy of heresies was common sense.” Here, he downplays the inhumanity of subjecting people’s thoughts to the decision of the Party by calling common sense-a human capacity to judge and reason-the worst form of a heretic. 

The Party’s sentence shows the use of litotes in as it addresses reversals of logic where simple truths become forbidden sins of the State. 

Thus, Orwell’s way of showing this is to make ordinary sense become only one sort of heresy which keeps inserting how significant the regime matters of manipulation and control on every aspect of human belief and knowledge is.

Example#3

“Macbeth” by William Shakespeare

“Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind. I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on the other—”

Macbeth is taking a pause and questions the killing of King Duncan and his moral standings. Through the litotes, “I have no spur / To prick the sides of my intent, but only / Vaulting ambition,” the author reveals that Macbeth has an internal struggle. 

Despite the fact that for the murder of Duncan he has no ‘spur’ to pin his actions on besides just too excessive ambition, Macbeth freely acknowledges that he does not have a rightful cause to carry out this murder. This understatement deepens the complexity of his motivations.

It reveals his awareness of the moral weight of his contemplated deed yet his acknowledgment that his ambition alone pushes him toward this act.  This type of the verbal irony will not only call attention to his wavering but also strongly point out the evil fundament of his irresponsibility.

Example#4

“The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway

“He did not say that because he knew that if you said a good thing it might not happen.”

Hemingway with the help of litotes demonstrates to the reader that the old fisherman is a superstitious person and he is a eternal optimist. Throughout the traveling the old man avoids to talk about how things would have ended as he believes doing so might jinx his chances. 

The shedding “He did not say that, because he knew that if you said that good thing will not happen” slightly signifies his belief that acknowledging good fortune may ironically lead to its opposite. It is litotes denoting his practical approach to hope and expectations and honoring his experience, abuse, and honor for which he was known during many years of sailing with his crew.

Example#5

“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” by Mark Twain

“Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”

The writer uses litotes to make his friends feel and think that whitewashing the fence is an enjoyable and rare opportunity. This particulars infer by Tom when he says, “I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it”, which in fact means there is no reason to disliking something (whether boring or not). 

These contrasting features are also taking us to the fact that Tom was not just a sneaky person but rather a cunning and charming person who worked out ways to make something that was usually boring interesting, likewise, through his persuasive powers. 

This use of litotes reflects Twain’s ability to inject humor and cleverness into Tom’s character. It makes the scene memorable and engaging.

Literary Terms Related to Litotes

I- Understatement

Understatement is when a writer or speaker intentionally makes a situation seem less important or serious than it is. Litotes are a form of understatement that uses negation to emphasize a positive statement indirectly.

II- Irony

Irony involves saying one thing but meaning another, often the opposite. Litotes can be ironic if the difference between what is said and what is meant is sharp enough to be noticeable. For example, saying “It’s not a big deal” in a situation that is actually very important.

See also: Literary Devices That Start With L

Understanding litotes helps in appreciating the subtlety and strength of language in both written and spoken forms. This figure of speech adds depth to literature by allowing authors to emphasize truths in a quiet but powerful way.

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