All of us have little stories of funny or sobering personal experiences and have probably heard those of several others.
In this lesson, you’ll learn what makes these stories ‘anecdotes,’ as well as encounter a few examples of these brief narratives in literature!
Definition of an Anecdote
How many times have you heard your mom’s story about getting lost in the woods, or your dad’s memory of his buddy who got his tongue frozen to the flagpole? Your family may not have any tales just like those, but they undoubtedly have shared similar short stories with you in the past. That’s because the anecdote – a brief narrative involving presumably real people and events – has been helping people speak their minds for centuries.Originally, the Greek term anekdota indicated ‘unpublished works,’ and it referred to a group of accounts first collected by the Roman historian Procopius in the 6th century A.D. These decidedly personal stories depicted the questionable actions of the Emperor Justinian and the rest of the imperial family and entourage. Despite his great disdain for these people, Procopius wouldn’t have been able to publish his Secret History at the time for fear of punishment.
This usage of the term to refer to ‘unpublished’ or otherwise selectively shared tales still remains with modern anecdotes. That’s because they sometimes represent particularly embarrassing or painful memories and are frequently rather personal accounts that are transmitted orally among a select group of people.There are many types of anecdotes today, but they all serve the same purpose when used in literature. These accounts are usually brief digressions inserted into larger prose or verse narratives to help illustrate a highly specific point – much the same way they’re used in everyday conversation.
Anecdotes are so specific because they involve people (often the anecdote’s narrator or associates) and events that are usually directly related to the surrounding story. And they’re so useful in illustrating ideas because they frequently appeal to the audience through their emotions: particularly humor, fear, or empathy.We all know laughing eases tension, so humorous anecdotes can break the ice and make audiences more receptive to the point being demonstrated.
Other more cautionary tales serve to inspire a certain level of fear or reverence of the issue at hand. Some anecdotes also cause us to experience the often painful emotions (i.e. sadness and regret) of the story’s characters, helping its message become more meaningful to us. A multitude of examples exist in literature of each of these types of anecdotes, so let’s take a look at a few to get a feel for how they work in practice.
Examples of Anecdotes
Let’s take a look at some examples used in literature, starting with The Summoner’s Prologue.
Many of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales could probably be considered anecdotal, but one digression in particular fits the bill. Before the church court summoner begins his tale, he launches into a humorous anecdote responding to rude remarks made about his profession by a friar travelling in the group. He relates a story he heard of a friar who dreamed he had gone to Hell and found no other friars present. When he asked why he was the only one around, an angel showed the friar that all his brethren were there – only hidden from view deep in the Devil’s rear. Though amusing, the anecdote still demonstrates the sinfulness of friars that the summoner hopes to illustrate further in the broader context of his tale that follows.
For another example, let’s look at Heart of Darkness.While telling of his adventures through the Congo in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the protagonist Marlow steps back from his main narrative to recount the cautionary tale of Fresleven. This Danish steamboat captain who had been on the river for some time apparently felt slighted while trading with a native chief and began to beat the older man mercilessly over the cost of two chickens.
Eventually, the chief’s son sheepishly jabbed the outsider with his spear, and Fresleven died of his wounds right where the natives abandoned him. Conrad uses Marlow’s anecdote about Fresleven to highlight the madness that the jungle and the captain’s imperialistic mission there bring to those who fall prey to their own weaknesses.Finally, let’s take a look at an anecdote in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.At one point in this classic by Mark Twain, Huck’s companion Jim – a runaway slave – feels that the boy is treating him unfairly and cruelly.
To help Huck understand his perspective, Jim tells him about his daughter, Lizabeth. Before they were separated, Jim used to deal with Lizabeth sternly as an ill-behaved child. However, upon discovering that she was in fact deaf, her father must cope with the pangs of grief and regret he feels from having mistreated her. Jim doesn’t want Huck to have to experience the same feelings, so he shares this reminiscence with the boy in the hopes that it would inspire him to be more patient and understanding with himself and others.
An anecdote is a brief narrative involving presumably real people and events. The term’s Greek root (anekdota) was used to refer to the ‘unpublished works’ of Procopius collected in his Secret History. And the often deeply personal and orally transmitted nature of these stories is still reflected in anecdotes today.When used in literature, anecdotes represent digressions from a main narrative that help illustrate a certain point in a way that is directly relatable to the people and matters at hand.
This is usually achieved by appealing to the listener’s emotions, especially humor, fear, and empathy.Humorous anecdotes like that told by Chaucer’s summoner help speakers make their audiences more relaxed and receptive to their points of view. The tale of Fresleven from Heart of Darkness and other cautionary stories evoke a fear response to discourage similar behaviors. Other anecdotes, such as the one Jim relates to Huck Finn, rely on human compassion to convey their message.