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


Anticlimax: Rhetorical descent, usually sudden, from a higher to a lower emotional point — from a topic or tone with greater drama or significance to one with less impact or importance. Anticlimax typically results in the disappointment or even reversal of expectations.

Anticlimax may be used intentionally, usually for comic effect, or it may be unintended, the result of authorial ineptitude. When an unintentional descent from the lofty to the trivial or even ridiculous occurs while the writer is trying to achieve the sublime, the effect is known as bathos.

EXAMPLES: The last ten chapters of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) — chapters in which Huck arrives at Aunt Sally Phelps’s place, is joined by Tom Sawyer, and goes along with Tom’s ridiculously and needlessly elaborate plans to rescue the runaway slave Jim — are often said to be anticlimactic.

In the following passage from Isabel Allende’s La casa de los espiritus (The House of the Spirits) (1982), Clara’s anticlimactic response reduces her husband’s angry tirade to a pathetic outburst:

He shouted like a madman, pacing up and down the living room and slamming his fist against the furniture, arguing that if Clara intended to follow in her mother’s footsteps she was going to come face to face with a real man, who would pull her pants down and give her a good spanking so she’d get it out of her damned head to go around haranguing people, and that he categorically forbade her to go to prayer meetings or any other kind and that he wasn’t some ninny whose wife could go around making a fool of him. Clara let him scream his head off and bang on the furniture until he was exhausted. Then, inattentive as ever, she asked him if he knew how to wiggle his ears.

By contrast, the following sentence from a Knight Ridder News Service dispatch (1995) is probably unintentionally anticlimactic: “The crime bill passed by the Senate would reinstate the Federal death penalty for certain violent crimes: assassinating the President; hijacking an airliner; and murdering a government poultry inspector.”