The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Anecdote: A brief account of some interesting or entertaining and often humorous incident. Lacking the complexity of the short story, an anecdote simply relates a particular episode or event that makes a single point. Since an anecdote is supposed to be true, the incident described and the point made by the anecdote are typically more important than how the anecdote is told — that is, the artistry or style of the telling. Anecdotes frequently relate an incident in a particular person’s life that reveals a character trait.

EXAMPLES: The story about George Washington and the cherry tree, which reveals Washington’s honesty and the importance of telling the truth. When his father asked him who chopped down the cherry tree, Washington supposedly replied “I cannot tell a lie” and told the truth, even though he expected to be punished for his actions.

In Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim (1900), a pathetic guano exporter named Chester tells Marlow, the novel’s narrator, a story about Holy-Terror Robinson, a man once shipwrecked on an island with six other men who was subsequently found alone, “kneeling on the kelp, naked as the day he was born, and chanting some psalm-tune or other.” “Cannibal?” Chester asks suggestively. This darkly humorous anecdote suggests that morality and civilized behavior may succumb to the survival instinct.

At the beginning and end of many episodes of his classic television show Seinfeld (1989—98), comedian Jerry Seinfeld appeared on stage in a comedy club, telling anecdotes that related to the plot of the episode. This device made it difficult to tell whether the comedian’s stand-up routine distilled “real-life” incidents and situations — or whether his show elaborated dramatically on humorous stories.