My Antonia


Willa Cather

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My Antonia: Hyperbole 2 key examples

Definition of Hyperbole
Hyperbole is a figure of speech in which a writer or speaker exaggerates for the sake of emphasis. Hyperbolic statements are usually quite obvious exaggerations intended to emphasize a point... read full definition
Hyperbole is a figure of speech in which a writer or speaker exaggerates for the sake of emphasis. Hyperbolic statements are usually quite obvious exaggerations... read full definition
Hyperbole is a figure of speech in which a writer or speaker exaggerates for the sake of emphasis. Hyperbolic statements... read full definition
Book 1, Chapter 7
Explanation and Analysis—Rattlesnakes:

In this passage from Book 1, Chapter 7, Cather uses hyperbole and visual imagery to describe the rattlesnake that the child Jim later kills. Sizing up the snake, Jim says:

He was not merely a big snake, I thought—he was a circus monstrosity. His abominable muscularity, his loathsome, fluid motion, somehow made me sick. He was as thick as my leg, and looked as if millstones couldn’t crush the disgusting vitality out of him. He lifted his hideous little head, and rattled.

The hyperbolic language used to describe the snake as a "circus monstrosity" emphasizes the serious danger that Jim will shortly face. However, it also captures something of his childish sense of wonder and exuberance as he tells the story: all snakes might seem enormous to a young boy. Millstones are huge lumps of rock used to pulverize grain to make flour. The idea that these couldn’t destroy the snake further exaggerates both its size and Jim’s sense of its invincibility. The exaggerated language used to describe the snake's "abominable muscularity" and "thickness" serves to inflate the snake to the size of a dragon in Jim's mind, adding to the spectacle of the story.

Cather's visual and auditory imagery is just as vivid as her hyperbole in this passage. The reader’s gets a sense of Jim’s focus becoming increasingly tight and strained as the snake begins to move and make noises. Its "little" head on that enormous body is uncanny and threatening, especially as both Jim and Ántonia know that its teeth are full of deadly venom. Because of the intensity of the language used to describe the snake's size and power, its rattling seems almost insignificant in comparison. Its audible warning to stay away is subtle, but its physical presence is overtly terrifying.

Book 2, Chapter 14
Explanation and Analysis—The Plough, the Sun:

In Book 2, Chapter 14, Cather uses visual imagery and hyperbole when describing Jim’s departure from the rural ways of his prairie childhood. This scene also foreshadows the changes soon coming to Black Hawk and the life of the prairie settlers:

On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share—black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.

Cather paints a vivid picture of this farm tool silhouetted against the light. She describes its black shadow as "picture writing on the sun,” giving the reader a clear picture of its black shape on a bright white background. This image of a tool used regularly in 19th-century prairie life branded on the sun underlines how important the traditions of his Nebraska childhood are to Jim. It also foreshadows how rural farming traditions and Nebraska life are inscribed as “picture writing” on his character.

Cather further emphasizes the plough’s importance by representing it as being bigger than life, "heroic in size." This language is hyperbolic, since a plough is large but not enormous. But for the younger Jim in this moment, it takes up the entire sun, black against blinding light. The plough symbolizes the grueling work and the community efforts of the people of Black Hawk, so it literally looms large in Jim’s childish imagination. The image also suggests a sense of permanence and constant presence as it’s encapsulated in the sun: farm work is as much a part of Nebraska life in this novel as sunlight.

However, when Jim leaves for college, the plough and everything it symbolizes ceases to play nearly such a big part in his everyday existence. When he returns in the latter part of the novel, he finds his hometown almost unrecognizably modernized. His memories are all that remain. As Cather always aligns descriptions of light with change, depicting the plough as a stamp on the sun like this foreshadows the passing of the agricultural traditions Jim remembers in favor of more modern techniques.

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