Definition of Anticlimax

An anticlimax is a conclusion that is unsatisfying because is does not meet the expectations that the narrative has been building toward. Some anticlimax examples occur because the solution to a problem is so trivial or comes without the protagonist using any of his or her skills. This can be the case in some deus ex machina examples, where a sudden and unexpected ending happens without the protagonist having to do anything special. Also, some anticlimax examples occur when the protagonist dies before having reached his or her goal, thus disappointing the hopes and expectations of the reader.

An anticlimax is similar to a climax in that it occurs at the height of tension in a narrative. However, a climax is a turning point which begins to solve the main conflict in a satisfying way, whereas an anticlimax is a turning point that is unsatisfying. The word anticlimax comes from the Greek prefix anti-, meaning “against,” and the word climax, which means “ladder” or “staircase.” Thus, though the definition of anticlimax is not directly opposite that of climax, it does show that the story line does not fully reach the same heights that a well thought out climax would.

Difference Between Anticlimax and Bathos

As literary concepts, anticlimax and bathos are quite similar. Bathos occurs when there is a sudden change in the tone in a scene. Generally, bathos examples are ridiculous and used either humorously (in Monty Python skits) or unintentionally (such as in amateur writing). Therefore, bathos can be considered anticlimactic on a small scale. We can find bathos examples when the tone seems to suggest a serious nature of the scene and then a line dispels the seriousness of that scene, thereby often disappointing the reader’s expectations. Similarly, anticlimax examples are found at the height of the narrative and disappoint the reader. Bathos occurs in sentences and small parts of scenes, while anticlimax occurs in the grander narrative arc.

Common Examples of Anticlimax

There are some notables examples of anticlimax from films, such as in the following:

  • Signs: The aliens that have come to take over planet Earth turn out to be unable to touch water and all die without need of human intervention.
  • Kill Bill 2: Uma Thurman’s character has been trying to get revenge on Bill for two whole movies. She is able to take him down easily without a protracted fight at the end of the second movie.
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail: A film set in medieval Europe ends with a police car arresting King Arthur and Lancelot. Clearly this anticlimax is meant to be humorous, unlike the other two examples.

Significance of Anticlimax in Literature

Generally, authors try to avoid disappointing their readers. There is a certain unspoken contract that is formed between writer and reader in every book. The author tries to set up certain situations emotionally and plot-wise so that ultimately there will be a payoff for the reader at the end of the book. The reader trusts that this will be the case. Thus, when there is an anticlimax example in a book it not only disappoints the reader’s expectations, it’s also a breakdown of that trust between writer and reader.

However, there are a few cases in which an author may choose to use anticlimax strategically. The main reason is for comedic purposes. When the reader is expecting something big to happen and then it is trivial, this can be humorous in the right situations (i.e., a book that is already clearly comedy). An author may also choose to set up one anticlimax, which then leads to the actual climax.

Examples of Anticlimax in Literature

Example #1

BORACHIO: Sweet prince, let me go no farther to mine answer:
do you hear me, and let this count kill me. I have
deceived even your very eyes: what your wisdoms
could not discover, these shallow fools have brought
to light: who in the night overheard me confessing
to this man how Don John your brother incensed me
to slander the Lady Hero, how you were brought into
the orchard and saw me court Margaret in Hero’s
garments, how you disgraced her, when you should
marry her: my villany they have upon record; which
I had rather seal with my death than repeat over
to my shame. The lady is dead upon mine and my
master’s false accusation; and, briefly, I desire
nothing but the reward of a villain.

(Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare)

William Shakespeare used an anticlimax example in his comedy Much Ado About Nothing in that the bad guy Borachio suddenly repents for his villainy and stops anything else bad from happening. This is a case in which the anticlimax sets up the climax later on, which, befitting a Shakespearean comedy, is happy. It is perhaps unsurprising that Shakespeare used an anticlimax in a play with the title “Much Ado About Nothing”—this title foreshadows the fact that the characters are upset about trivial matters.

Example #2

Few months of life has he in store
As he to you will tell,
For still, the more he works, the more
Do his weak ankles swell.
My gentle Reader, I perceive,
How patiently you’ve waited,
And now I fear that you expect
Some tale will be related.

O Reader! had you in your mind
Such stores as silent thought can bring,
O gentle Reader! you would find
A tale in every thing.
What more I have to say is short,
And you must kindly take it:
It is no tale; but, should you think,
Perhaps a tale you’ll make it.

(“Simon Lee: The Old Huntsman” by William Wordsworth)

In his poem “Simon Lee: The Old Huntsman,” William Wordsworth tries to set up empathy for the eponymous old man at the center of the narrative. However, in trying to show how aged the man is, Wordsworth writes the lines “the more he works, the more / Do his weak ankles swell.” This hardly seems like a tragic enough illness to warrant the reader’s sympathy. Furthermore, Wordsworth then disappoints his readers even more by saying that those expecting a tale to transpire in this poem will not find one. Wordsworth avers that, “What more I have to say is short, / And you must kindly take it.” This is unsatisfying for those expecting a story.

Example #3

I spread out my fingers, and the dark berries glisten in the sun. I give Peeta’s hand one last squeeze as a signal, as a good-bye, and we begin counting. “One.” Maybe I’m wrong. “Two.” Maybe they don’t care if we both die. “Three!” It’s too late to change my mind. I lift my hand to my mouth, taking one last look at the world. The berries have just passed my lips when the trumpets begin to blare.

(The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins)

The end of Suzanne Collins’s first novel of The Hunger Games trilogy is arguably an example of anticlimax. The main characters of Katniss and Peeta are about to eat poisonous berries, which will end their lies as well as the success of the hunger games themselves. Right in time, the governing party intervene (thus, this is an example of deus ex machina). The novels then ends in an unsatisfying way in which it’s unclear what will happen to the heroes of the story. Collins does do this intentionally, however, in order to set up a cliffhanger so that readers will want to move on to the second and third books in the trilogy.

Test Your Knowledge of Anticlimax

1. Which of the following statements is the best anticlimax example?
A. The height of the narrative arc which resolves everything in a tragic way.
B. A turning point in the narrative that is unsatisfying and disappointing to the reader.
C. An unfortunate turn of events that sadden the protagonist.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: B is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. Why might an author choose to use an example of anticlimax?
A. For humorous purposes.
B. To represent that disappointments that happen in life.
C. To frustrate the reader.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: A is the correct answer. Generally, authors don’t intentionally choose to write anticlimaxes if they can help it.[/spoiler]

3. Which of the following scenarios is an example of anticlimax in a movie?
A. The man and woman who are clearly meant for each other but haven’t realized their feelings until the end of the movie finally kiss.
B. After months of struggling, an underdog team plays their rivals in a championship and heroically win in the final seconds of the game.
C. There is creepy music playing and the protagonist inches towards a cellar door where he hears strange noises. When he opens it, a cat walks out. Nothing else is there.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: C is the correct answer.[/spoiler]