Definition and Examples of Anticlimax in Rhetoric

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Anticlimax is a rhetorical term for an abrupt shift from a serious or noble tone to a less exalted one—often for comic effect. Adjective: anticlimactic.

A common type of rhetorical anticlimax is the figure of catacosmesis: the ordering of words from the most significant to the least significant. (The opposite of catacosmesis is auxesis.)

A narrative anticlimax refers to an unexpected twist in the plot, an incident marked by a sudden diminishment of intensity or significance.  

From the Greek, "down a ladder"

Examples and Observations

  • "The holy passion of Friendship is of so sweet and steady and loyal and enduring a nature that it will last through a whole lifetime, if not asked to lend money."
    (Mark Twain, Pudd'nhead Wilson, 1894)
  • "In moments of crisis I size up the situation in a flash, set my teeth, contract my muscles, take a firm grip on myself and, without a tremor, always do the wrong thing."
    (George Bernard Shaw, quoted by Hesketh Pearson in George Bernard Shaw: His Life and Personality, 1942)
  • "I can't die yet. I've got responsibilities and a family and I have to look after my parents, they're completely irresponsible and couldn't survive without my help. And there are so many places I haven't visited: the Taj Mahal, the Grand Canyon, the new John Lewis department store they're building in Leicester."
    (Sue Townsend, Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years. Penguin, 2010)
  • "The Grand Tour has been a tradition of newly rich countries ever since young British aristocrats took to the Continent in the eighteenth century, picking up languages, antiques, and venereal disease."
    (Evan Osnos, "The Grand Tour." The New Yorker, April 18, 2011)
  • "Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends."
    (Woody Allen)
  • "He died, like so many young men of his generation, he died before his time. In your wisdom, Lord, you took him, as you took so many bright flowering young men at Khe Sanh, at Langdok, at Hill 364. These young men gave their lives. And so would Donny. Donny, who loved bowling."
    (Walter Sobchak, played by John Goodman, as he prepares to spread Donny’s ashes, The Big Lebowski, 1998)
  • "And as I’m sinkin’
    The last thing that I think
    Is, did I pay my rent?"
    (Jim O'Rourke, "Ghost Ship in a Storm")
  • Lost in Translation: A Deadening Anticlimax
    "Perhaps the clearest example of this sort of deadening rhetorical anticlimax in the CEB's Romans [Epistle to the Romans in the Common English Bible] is to be found at the end of chapter 8, one of the most sweeping and eloquent passages Paul ever composed. Here is what Paul wrote:
    For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, neither angels nor rulers, neither things present nor things to come, neither powers nor height nor depth, nor any other created being, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (8:38-39)
    And here is the CEB's allegedly more readable version, with subject and verb primly placed at the beginning of the sentence:
    I'm convinced that nothing can separate us from God's love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.
    Paul's sentence gathers and swells to a powerful climax that leaves 'the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord' ringing in the ears of the hearer or reader. The CEB's rendering trails off into a list that ends with the equivalent of 'etc.' This illustrates the way something terribly important can be lost in translation, even when the literal sense of the words is accurate."
    (Richard B. Hays, "Lost in Translation: A Reflection on Romans in the Common English Bible." The Unrelenting God: Essays on God's Action in Scripture, ed. by David J. Downs and Matthew L. Skinner. Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2013)
  • Kant on Anticlimax in Jokes
    "For [Immanuel] Kant, the incongruity in a joke was between the 'something' of the setup and the anticlimactic 'nothing' of the punch line; the ludicrous effect arises 'from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing.'"
    (Jim Holt, "You Must Be Kidding." The Guardian, Oct. 25, 2008)
  • Henry Peacham on Catacosmesis (1577)
    "Catacosmesis, in Latin ordo, is a meet placing of words among themselves, whereof there be two kinds, the one when the worthiest word is set first, which order is natural, as when we say: God and man, men and women, sun and moon, life and death. And also when that is first told that was first done, which is necessary and seemly. The other kind of order is artificial, and in form contrary to this, as when the worthiest or weightiest word is set last: for the cause of amplifying, which the rhetoricians call incrementum . . ..
    "The use of this first kind of order doth most properly serve to the property and elegancy of speech, and due observation of nature and dignity: which form is well represented in the civil and solemn customs of nations, where the worthiest persons are always first named and highest placed."
    (Henry Peacham, The Garden of Eloquence, 1577) 
  • The Lighter Side of Anticlimax
    "Jones was having his first date with Miss Smith and was utterly captivated by her. She was beautiful, and intelligent as well, and as dinner proceeded, he was further impressed by her faultless taste.
    "As he hesitated over the after-dinner drink, she intervened to say, 'Oh, let’s have sherry rather than brandy by all means. When I sip sherry, it seems to me that I am transported from the everyday scenes by which I may, at that moment, be surrounded. The flavor, the aroma, brings to mind irresistibly—for what reason I know not—a kind of faerie bit of nature: a hilly field bathed in soft sunshine, a clump of trees in the middle distance, a small brook curving across the scene, nearly at my feet. This, together with the fancied drowsy sound of insects and distant lowing of cattle, brings to my mind a kind of warmth, peace, and serenity, a sort of dovetailing of the world into a beautiful entirety. Brandy, on the other hand, makes me fart.'"
    (Isaac Asimov, Isaac Asimov's Treasury of Humor. Houghton Mifflin, 1971)​

Pronunciation: ant-tee-CLI-max

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Anticlimax in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Definition and Examples of Anticlimax in Rhetoric. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Anticlimax in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).