Definition of Anecdote

An anecdote is a very short story that is usually interesting or amusing, and concerns real people and real incidents. Anecdotes are often humorous, but also often impart a deeper truth. They are not the same as a joke because the purpose is not just to evoke laughter.

The word anecdote comes from an Ancient Greek biographer who wrote an unpublished book called Ἀνέκδοτα, or Anekdota (which means “unpublished” or “not given out”). This biography included many short stories from the private life of the Byzantine Court of Justinian I. Thus, though the original word had nothing to do with stories, the definition of anecdote derived from the idea of very brief accounts used to illustrate a point.

Common Examples of Anecdote

We tell anecdotes all the time to one another. There are also many famous anecdotes that get passed down through the generations that concern famous people (such as the Ancient Greek scientist Archimedes shouting “Eureka!” when discovering how to solve a problem measuring volume after stepping into a bath). With the advent of the internet, there are even more channels for sharing anecdotes, such as the popular website called “Humans of New York,” which posts pictures of people with inspiring anecdotes about their lives. We can also see anecdotes in advertising, such as lottery winners sharing their success stories. Here are some examples of anecdotes about famous writers:

  • Tolstoy was a great pacifist and was once lecturing on the need to be nonresistant and nonviolent towards all creatures. Someone in the audience responded by asking what should be done if one was attacked in the woods by a tiger. Tolstoy responded, “Do the best you can. It doesn’t happen very often.”
  • Goethe once wrote a very long letter to one of his friends. In the end he added a postscript explaining: “I am very sorry for sending you such a long letter but I did not find enough time to write a shorter one.”
  • One day during a lecture tour, Mark Twain entered a local barber shop for a shave. This, Twain told the barber, was his first visit to the town.
    “You’ve chosen a good time to come,” he declared.
    “Oh?” Twain replied.
    “Mark Twain is going to lecture here tonight. You’ll want to go, I suppose?”
    “I guess so…”
    “Have you bought your ticket yet?”
    “No, not yet.”
    “Well, it’s sold out, so you’ll have to stand.”
    “Just my luck,” said Twain with a sigh. “I always have to stand when that fellow lectures!”

Significance of Anecdote in Literature

While most examples of anecdote are about actual people who really did or said the things in question in the anecdote, there are also some anecdote examples in literature. Authors may choose to have their characters tell one another anecdotes for many reasons. The characters may want to inform the other characters about something that has happened for the same reason the rest of us tell anecdotes: to entertain and/or inform. Authors also may use anecdotes to illustrate their own theme or impart wisdom or humor to the audience.

Examples of Anecdote in Literature

Example #1

“I’ll tell you a family secret,” she whispered enthusiastically. “It’s about the butler’s nose. Do you want to hear about the butler’s nose?”

“That’s why I came over to-night.”

“Well, he wasn’t always a butler; he used to be the silver polisher for some people in New York that had a silver service for two hundred people. He had to polish it from morning till night, until finally it began to affect his nose ——”

Things went from bad to worse,” suggested Miss Baker.

“Yes. Things went from bad to worse, until finally he had to give up his position.”

(The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald)

In the above excerpt from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, the character of Daisy wants to tell Nick Carraway a story. Though Daisy doesn’t finish the anecdote in a completely fulfilling way, there are several underlying meanings behind this brief story. The entire theme of the novel is class and class mobility in the United States. Nick pretends not to care (and thus responds with the sarcastic ““That’s why I came over to-night.”) The anecdote works to illustrate Fitzgerald’s theme, as well as provide a cautionary tale; being a silver polisher perhaps was a higher station than being a butler. However, by wanting to be higher than his state, the man has to give up his position and become a butler forever.

Example #2

Having been bound in chains and left to die in the basement (there were basements in Meridian) by his new father, who disliked him, and secretly kept alive on raw field peas by a passing farmer who heard his cries for help (the good man poked a bushel pod by pod through the ventilator), Dill worked himself free by pulling the chains from the wall. Still in wrist manacles, he wandered two miles out of Meridian where he discovered a small animal show and was immediately engaged to wash the camel. He traveled with the show all over Mississippi until his infallible sense of direction told him he was in Abbott County, Alabama, just across the river from Maycomb. He walked the rest of the way.

(To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)

This anecdote comes from Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird. The character of Dill tells Scout and Jem the above story, which turns out not to be true. However, Dill has gone to lengths to tell this story to give a legitimate reason for leaving, when it turns out that he just doesn’t feel loved or wanted by his parents. Scout realizes that she has no idea how this could feel, knowing that she is essential and needed in her family. Thus, Harper Lee uses this anecdote to allow Scout to understand one aspect of her life a little better.

Example #3

Every year, the end of summer
lazy and golden, invites grief and regret:

suddenly it’s 1980, winter buffets us,
winds strike like cruelty out of Dickens. Somehow
we have seven horses for six stalls. One of them,

a big-nosed roan gelding, calm as a president’s portrait
lives in the rectangle that leads to the stalls. We call it
the motel lobby. Wise old campaigner, he dunks his

hay in the water bucket to soften it, then visits the others
who hang their heads over their dutch doors. Sometimes
he sprawls out flat to nap in his commodious quarters.

That spring, in the bustle of grooming
and riding and shoeing, I remember I let him go
to a neighbor I thought was a friend, and the following

fall she sold him down the river. I meant to
but never did go looking for him, to buy him back…

(“Jack” by Maxine Kumin)

Not all anecdote examples are found in prose; some, like the one above in Maxine Kumin’s poem “Jack” can be found in poetry. In this poem, the narrator recalls a horse she once used to own named Jack and feels regret and nostalgia over having not saved him from an unknown fate. The anecdote illustrates the central emotion and tone of the poem.

Test Your Knowledge of Anecdote

1. Which of the following statements is the best anecdote definition?
A. A drug which counteracts a poison.
B. A brief account that is often witty or interesting.
C. A piece of evidence used in scientific trials.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Why might an author choose to use an anecdote example in his or her work of literature?
A. To amuse or inform the audience, or to explore a theme of the novel or poem.
B. To annoy the audience.
C. To frustrate the audience by providing an obscure reference or abstruse digression.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following quotes from George Bernard Shaw is an example of an anecdote?
A. “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
B. “Youth is wasted on the young.”
C. The celebrated dancer Isadora Duncan once wrote to George Bernard Shaw declaring that, given the principles of eugenics, they should have a child together.
“Think of it!” she enthused. “With my body and your brains, what a wonder it would be.”
“Yes,” Shaw replied. “But what if it had my body and your brains?”

Answer to Question #3 Show

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