Rhetoric, broadly defined, is the art of persuasion through the manipulation of language – both written and spoken. The passage below, taken from chapter nine of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, provides some useful examples of rhetorical devices in action.
Dear Lanyon – You are one of my oldest friends; and although we may have differed at times on scientific questions, I cannot remember, at least on my side, any break in our affection. There was never a day when, if you had said to me, ‘Jekyll, my life, my honour, my reason, depend upon you,’ I would not have sacrificed my left hand to help you. Lanyon, my life, my honour, my reason, are all at your mercy; if you fail me tonight I am lost. You might suppose, after this preface, that I am going to ask you for something dishonourable to grant. Judge for yourself.
At this stage of the novel, Jekyll has written to one of his oldest friends, Hastie Lanyon, with whom he shares a mysteriously strained relationship. Jekyll has chosen his words carefully in order to persuade Lanyon to offer his assistance, which he claims to desperately need. The three rhetorical devices that I’ll focus on are listed below.
- Euphemism: a mild or vague expression that is used in place of one that is unpleasant or offensive.
- Hyperbole: a purposeful exaggeration.
- Parallelism: components in a sentence, or sentences, that are grammatically the same or similar.
‘we may have differed at times on scientific questions’ (euphemism)
At the start of the letter, Jekyll alludes to differences in scientific opinion between himself and Lanyon. The euphemism implies that the disagreement between the two men is relatively minor – nothing much to worry about. Indeed, Jekyll is quick to highlight that, despite their professional differences, he nonetheless feels unbroken affection for the man he counts as one of his oldest friends. However, Lanyon’s view on the matter couldn’t be more different. In fact, he feels so strongly about these differences that he says in chapter six that he regards Jekyll as dead. Jekyll, of course, is aware of this animosity and so he chooses to understate their disagreements in an attempt to avoid exacerbating the situation further.
‘There was never a day when … I would not have sacrificed my left hand to help you’ (hyberbole)
Jekyll cleverly changes the tone of the letter in the second sentence. He uses hyperbolic language to dramatically emphasise the lengths he would go to in order to help Lanyon in a time of need. Such an emotive declaration of support is designed to signal that Jekyll’s loyalty and devotion to Lanyon are beyond doubt.
‘Jekyll, my life, my honour, my reason, depend upon you,’… Lanyon, my life, my honour my reason, are all at your mercy’ (parallelism)
Here, Jekyll repeats his words from the second sentence in the third, creating a delicate lexical balance. Crucially, however, instead of pledging support, he pleads for it. This parallelism not only has the effect of amplifying the wretchedness of Jekyll’s situation, but makes that wretchedness all the more memorable to the Lanyon – the man upon whom he is relying to deliver salvation.
A while ago, I put together a simple worksheet based on the extract. You can access it by clicking here. Students should identify the five rhetorical devices listed, make annotations, and then prepare to feedback. Standard stuff.
Thanks for reading –
Find my blog post on Top 5 Teaching Resources for Jekyll and Hyde here
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