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Cutting words and fiery phrases with invectives

Roopa Banerjee

In fiction writing, writers use a wide array of literary devices to express emotions, create compelling characters, and enhance the narrative. One such powerful literary device is invective, which allows writers to unleash scathing criticism or vehement disapproval of individuals, ideas, and institutions.

The word invective traces its roots to the Latin invectivus, which means abusive or insulting. It is characterised by its strong, censorious language and often uses hyperbole to express disapproval and disdain.

Writers use invective to evoke strong emotional response in readers and to develop complex characters, generate conflict, illuminate societal issues, and heighten dramatic tension within the narrative.

William Shakespeare used invectives very effectively in all his plays. For example in The Tragedy of King Lear: “A knave, a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave… and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mongrel …” Strong condemnation!

Another example is in A Counterblast to Tobacco written by James IV — “A custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black, stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.”

Likewise, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain uses invective to tackle themes of racism and social injustice. Through the character of Pap, Huck Finn’s abusive and racist father, Twain uses invective to depict deplorable racism and discrimination.

Pop culture has many examples of invective. In the TV series, Game of Thrones, Tyrion Lannister, portrayed by Peter Dinklage, showcases invective through witty comments. Tyrion’s ability to verbally spar with other characters demonstrates his intelligence, sarcasm, and defiance in a world driven by power struggles.

Sometimes, invective is used with irony, in a humorous tone as in the Hollywood movie The Devil Wears Prada. In this film adaptation of Lauren Weisberger’s novel, Miranda Priestly, played by Meryl Streep, employs invective to intimidate and criticise her subordinates. Miranda’s biting remarks, delivered with precision, use invective to convey power dynamics and establish her authority.

Self-evidently, this literary device should be used with utmost care. When employed recklessly and without leash, invective can turn good literature into hate filled manuscript. Invective, by its nature, employs strong language and insults, which can offend or alienate readers. It may create a negative reading experience and reinforce stereotypes or biases if directed towards certain groups or individuals.

Invective can also sometimes be misinterpreted or misunderstood. Readers may not grasp the intended tone or context, leading to confusion or unintended consequences. Finally, constant exposure to invectives throughout a narrative can be emotionally exhausting for readers and dampen the reading experience.

In short, while invective is a potent literary device, writers must exercise caution and be aware of its disadvantages.

Here are five literary works that have effectively used invective. Who are the authors of these books?:
1. A Clockwork Orange
2. American Psycho
3. Catch-22
4. Moby-Dick
5. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

1. Anthony Burgess
2. Bret Easton Ellis
3. Joseph Heller
4. Herman Melville
5. Hunter S. Thompson

Also read: Exchange words with hypallage

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