Discussion Topic

Examples of verbal irony, understatement, and hyperbole in Mark Twain's "Corn-Pone Opinions."


In "Corn-Pone Opinions," Mark Twain employs verbal irony, understatement, and hyperbole effectively. Verbal irony is seen when Twain sarcastically praises conformity. Understatement occurs when he downplays the influence of public opinion on individual beliefs. Hyperbole is used when he exaggerates the extent to which people mimic others' opinions, suggesting they abandon personal thoughts entirely.

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What are some examples of verbal irony in Mark Twain's "Corn-pone Opinions"?

In the introduction of "Corn-pone Opinions," Twain describes Jerry, a "delightful young black man—a slave—" and then goes on to introduce verbal irony in claiming "I believed he was the greatest orator in the United States and would some day be heard from." Twain was well aware of the racism and systemic discrimination that would prevent men like Jerry from being "heard from" in America.

In writing this essay, Twain is calling out his readers for their conformist behavior. His assertion "broadly speaking, there are none but corn-pone opinions" is another use of verbal irony because Twain himself is offering a decidedly nonconformist opinion in pointing out why people behave as if it is necessary to conform to prosper in life.

A third utilization of verbal irony occurs when Twain avers "self-approval is acquired mainly from the approval of other people." This observation is oxymoronic and underpins Twain's overall argument in the essay. He is calling for his audience to become independent thinkers and actually reject the phenomenon of valuing one's thinking by how closely it parallels that of the majority.

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What examples of understatement and hyperbole are in Mark Twain's "Corn-Pone Opinions"?

Understatement and hyperbole are literary devices used to comically emphasize certain points in a text in two contrasting ways. Understatement means to take a significant event and minimize its importance, such as by calling a life-threatening injury a "little scratch." Understatement may be used by a speaker who wants to divert attention away from an event, such as a leader downplaying the severity of a situation so as not to frighten people. It can also be used for comic effect when it is clear that the situation is more significant than the words being used. One example of understatement in Mark Twain’s "Corn-Pone Opinions" is when Twain describes a slave named Jerry that used to give elaborate speeches while he was supposed to be cutting wood from his master’s woodpile. Twain describes Jerry as a “great orator” but did not become famous for his speeches because “in the distribution of rewards, he was overlooked.” This is an example of understatement because Jerry was more than “overlooked”: He was enslaved and oppressed and had no realistic chance of becoming famous for his speech and thoughts. Another example of understatement to consider is Twain saying he would always remember the day because it was “deeply impressed upon” him by his mother, implying that she beat him for listening to Jerry when she had forbidden him to spend time with the man.

Hyperbole is a literary device in which, instead of minimizing a situation as in understatement, a fact or idea is exaggerated to the point of absurdity. Hyperbole can be used to demonstrate how ridiculous an idea is or to shock or frighten people into belief or action. In the case of “Corn-Pone Opinions,” Mark Twain uses hyperbole to show how willing people are to take on opinions of others and how rarely people think for themselves. He gives an extreme example from fashion: “if Eve should come again . . . and reintroduce her quaint styles,” suggesting that people will wear anything that they see other people wearing, even if it is outrageous or inappropriate. From literature, he gives the example of historical fiction, popular at the time of his essay, and claims that in the past “nobody read them, and the rest of us conformed,” an exaggeration to illustrate the point that they were unpopular.

Mark Twain’s essays are well-known for their humor, often for their use of satire to illustrate his point. Understatement and hyperbole are two literary devices that are frequently used in satire. The comic minimization or exaggeration of a less extreme event draws the reader’s attention to an idea that they might not have taken note of on their own. The author uses these devices to shape the reader’s thinking about an idea and create humorous effects in the story.

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What examples of understatement and hyperbole are in Mark Twain's "Corn-Pone Opinions"?

When Twain describes his admiration for the speaking ability of Jerry, the slave, Twain says that Jerry never became famous, and observed that "in the distribution of rewards he was overlooked." This is a fine example of understatement. Jerry was a slave, so of course he was "overlooked" when it came to recognition of his talents. Twain was often very critical of society, and in this essay he has more than one satirical target: slavery is one, but he doesn't linger on this point.

Twain uses humorous hyperbole to make the point that too many people fail to think for themselves, preferring to hop on metaphorical bandwagons and go along with the thinking of others. He goes so far as to say that Jerry believed there was never a firsthand opinion, and he concurs when he states, "It may be that such an opinion has been born somewhere, at some time or other, but I suppose it got away before they could catch it and stuff it and put it in the museum." In other words, he believes that if a firsthand opinion may have existed at some point in time, there is no evidence of it.

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What examples of understatement and hyperbole are in Mark Twain's "Corn-Pone Opinions"?

Mark Twain is certainly a master of the use of hyperbole and understatement, and in this short essay, he makes extensive use of both of these techniques both for humour and to underline his point. Even the most cursory review of this essay reveals the presence of plenty of examples of both of these literary techniques, and so let us have a look at the beginning of the first paragraph to identify some examples.

Fifty years ago, when I was a boy of fifteen and helping to inhabit a Missourian village on the banks of the Mississippi, I had a friend whose society was very dear to me because I was forbidden by my mother to partake of it.

A great example of understatement could be considered to be the description of a friend, "whose society was very dear to me because I was forbidden by my mother to partake of it." The bathetic element in this sentence adds great humour to this phrase, as we are led to believe this friend is "dear" to Twain for more noble and laudable reasons than that which follows.

You might like to consider the following example of hyperbole as Twain continues to establish his point:

I am persuaded that a coldly-thought-out and independent verdict upon a fashion in clothes, or manners, or literature, or politics, or religion, or any other matter that is projected into the field of our notice and interest, is a most rare thing -- if it has indeed ever existed.

The end comment, that raises doubts as to whether logical formulations have ever existed in the history of man clearly indicates that this is an exaggeration for effect, deliberately trying to provoke his readers with this statement. This is of course Twain's typical style.

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What examples of understatement and hyperbole are in Mark Twain's "Corn-Pone Opinions"?

Like many of his other writings, Mark Twain’s essay “Corn-Pone Opinions” effectively uses the technique of understatement.  Understatement appears in a number of different places in the essay, including the following:

  • Early in the essay, Twain describes a boyhood friend of his – who happened to be a slave – by saying that in the world’s “distribution of rewards he was overlooked.” This is a highly ironic and understated way to call attention to the youth’s condition of enslavement. Instead of writing a long paragraph denouncing slavery and showering pity and sympathy on this black youth, Twain quickly mentions that he was a slave and then just as quickly moves on.  The brief reference comes as a shock, especially in light of all the praise of the youth that precedes it. Twain lulls us into assuming that the black youth was his equal – his “friend” – and then quietly but firmly reminds us that true friendship between blacks and whites was impossible at the time. The brief reference to slavery shames us more than an impassioned harangue might have done.
  • Later, Twain mentions that a particular lesson was “deeply impressed” upon him by his mother -- “Not upon my memory, but elsewhere.” This is an understated – and therefore all the more comic way – of saying that his mother smacked his rear end. Twain’s understated way of communicating this idea is funny for several reasons: (1) it is original; (2) it plays cleverly with the idea of being deeply “impressed”; (3) it is humorously polite and decorous.
  • Even later, when discussing how easily and quickly humans take up and discard styles in clothing (as in many other things), Twain humorously comments,

If Eve should come again, in her ripe renown, and reintroduce her quaint styles--well, we know what would happen. And we should be cruelly embarrassed, along at first.

The understated reference to Eve’s “quaint styles” – meaning her nakedness – is far funnier than if Twain had said “If Eve should come again, in her nakedness.” The understatement is inventive; it comically implies that Twain is far too polite ever to write the word “nakedness”; and it is a kind of joke between Twain and the reader.  We know the idea he has in mind, so he doesn’t need to state it openly. Indeed, stating it openly would be either crude or obvious or both. Instead, Twain compliments our intelligence by implying that we know what he means without his having to openly state his meaning.

  • Similarly comic in its understatement is Twain’s assertion that in literature,

Shakespeare is a standard, and fifty years ago we used to write tragedies which we couldn't tell from--from somebody else's . . . .

There would have been no humor here if Twain, instead of writing “from somebody else’s,” had instead openly and plainly written “from Shakespeare’s.” In the latter case he would have been making an obvious accusation of plagiarism.  Instead, by writing “from somebody else’s,” it is as if he winks at the reader and implies “You know what I mean; I don’t have to spell it out for you and, besides, I am too well-mannered to do that in any case.”

  • Finally, one more case of understatement is worth mentioning.  When Twain writes that “some authority or other” helped to make prose simpler and clearer, he clearly alludes to himself, but his understatement comically implies his modesty, refinement, and humility.

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