Diatribe is a literary tool employed to criticize and mock at an individual, group, establishment, behavioral pattern, or abstract idea. Typically, diatribe is expressed verbally in the form of a long speech given by a real person or fictional character. However, this tool can also be implemented in a literary piece as part of a hero’s inner monologue.
Regarding composition and potential topics, diatribe doesn’t present any requirements in front of a writer, as it can be dedicated to any subject he or she sees fit and there aren’t any mandatory structural elements limiting his or her creative freedom.
The term itself originates from Ancient Greece and can be traced back to the word “diatribē”, which is loosely translated as “conversation” or “pastime”. Originally, diatribe existed as a separate rhetoric genre that was introduced by Bion of Borysthenes in the 3rd century BC. Cynic philosophers defined it as a short sermon on a relevant moral subject that was typically presented in the form of a discussion with an imaginary opponent.
Philosophers like Horace, Juvenal and Menippus helped spread this genre to Rome, where it came into active use in Christian literature. Over time, diatribes lost their position as a genre and became fragments of larger works such as pamphlets and treatises.
Due to the fact that a diatribe heavily criticizes and mocks at a certain subject, it is frequently mistaken for a caricature. However, the latter is mostly found in descriptive writing pieces and illustrations. Besides, while a caricature does serve to ridicule an idea or person, it’s based on exaggerating their existing features for a comic effect which is uncommon for a diatribe.
Another term that is commonly confused with this tool is satire. The first key difference between these two literary devices is that satire ordinarily exists in written form, while a diatribe is expressed verbally. Additionally, even though both terms deal with criticism, satire represents a broader entity, as it can use diatribe among other tools to achieve its goal.
The primary purpose of a diatribe is to uncover and highlight weaknesses, shortcomings, and faults of a person or institution. Due to its aggressive nature, this device oftentimes diverges from objective criticism and transforms into a destructive berating of the subject at hand. Writers who create diatribes tend to contradict themselves and respond to those contradictions with new arguments, thus creating the illusion of a discussion.
This literary device is distinguished by its accusatory nature, usage of vivid imagery, an inclusion of various rhetorical devices, and a mix of a serious and mocking tone. This tool also actively employs similes, analogies, and examples, while frequently referencing myths and proverbs that help the author support his or her expressed thesis.
Diatribe can perform a vast array of functions, as it represents one of the primary tools writers use to criticize ideas and society in non-fiction works. Furthermore, authors use this device in literary pieces to express either their own worldview or the views possessed by one of their characters. The inclusion of a diatribe allows a writer to deepen the reader’s understanding of the work and possibly change or shape his or her stance on a certain issue.
Pieces that include diatribes always deeply resonate with the reader because of the rich inclusion of rhetorical tools, controversial statements, and precise analogies. As a result, this device can be commonly found not only in literary works but also both in speeches given by politicians and in everyday conversations.
Several examples of diatribes in literature can be found in “Notes from Underground” by F. Dostoyevsky. The entire novella is written in the form of a diary of the Underground Man who heavily criticizes the society of his time, its values, as well as the ideas of “love”, “marriage”, “career”, and “wealth”. Due to the negative character traits of the protagonist and the existential undertone of the piece, Dostoyevsky’s choice of expressing his criticism in a diatribe allowed the Underground Man to become one of the most influential “anti-heroes” in the history of literature.
Another literary piece that is rich with diatribes is William Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair”. Over the course of the novel, several characters give speeches berating either a specific character or an element of society based on their worldview and values. Most notable diatribes include the ones given by John Osborne and Becky Sharp. Additionally, the narrator himself personally addresses the reader while criticizing the state of British society described in the work. However, in the narrator’s case, the diatribes are oftentimes “softened” due to the fact that he sympathizes with the characters and asks the reader not to judge them harshly.