Anticlimax is a literary device consisting of magnified introduction of fanciful and glorified ideas, events or things which progresses to almost nothing. The episodes abruptly take a sharp about-turn and fizzles out, resulting to a disappointing conclusion.
“The device plays on the linear nature of language (i.e., on its syntagmaticOpens in new window axis), which prevents the reader from knowing in advance what will ‘happen next.’ The text contrives to make one expect marvels and then becomes all the more astonishing when it betrays expectation. Bringing together opposite extremes is one type of surrealist image.” — (qtd. in Bernard Marie Dupriez, A Dictionary of Literary Devices: Gradus, A-Z)
Notable Examples of Anticlimax
‘Mrs. Martin: “Oh well, today I witnessed something extraordinary. Something really incredible … In the street, near a café, I saw a man, properly dressed, about fifty years old, or not even that, who … you’ll say that I’m making it up … He was tying his shoelace which had come undone”’
— (E. Ionesco, The Bald Soprano, in Four Plays. Courtesy of: Bernard Marie Dupriez, A Dictionary of Literary Devices: Gradus, A-Z)
“In a moment, the whole company was on their feet. That somebody was assassinated by somebody vindicating a difference of opinion was the likeliest occurrence. Everybody looked to see somebody fall, but only saw a man and a woman standing staring at each other; the man with all the outward aspect of a Frenchman and a thorough Republican; the woman, evidently English…..”
— Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
From the short excerpt above, you might expect that somebody was about to be killed or someone has fallen down dead, but only to find out a man and woman were standing staring at one another. This is a notable case of anti-climax ending with quite a ludicrous conclusion.
Anticlimax is prominent in riddles and conundrums:
‘know what they do with banana skins in China? They throw them away.’
Anticlimax as a Narrative Device
Anticlimax in a narrative text is a situation in a plot, in which something which might appear naturally difficult to solve is rather solved by means of something mediocre and trivial.
A suitable example in this context, is the ending of The War of the WorldsOpens in new window, where amidst the chaos of the extraterrestrial takeover of planet Earth, the aliens are defeated by the most unexpected organism: the common cold virus.
Another good example is the story of David and the Goliath in the Bible, despite Goliath appearing in such figure of a mighty giant, the manner he was defeated by David was ludicrous. Although leveraging on the Grace of God, David only made use of his sling and a piece of stone to completely destroy such a mighty giant called Goliath.
Anticlimax is a kind of surprise which consists in preparing the reader for something other than what happens. This is characterized by the gradual decline of significant ideas, either deployed deliberately or inadvertently by the speaker or writer resulting to a disappointing and ludicrous conclusion.