What Does Cacophony Mean
In general, cacophony refers to a mixture of inharmonious, harsh and jarring sounds. As a literary device, cacophony refers to the deliberate use of unmelodious, harsh, dissonant sounds in a line or sentence. Cacophony is the opposite of euphony. Euphony is the use of melodious, pleasant sounds in a line or sentence.
Cacophony is mainly created by using explosive consonants like p,b,d,t,g,k and hissing sounds like s, sh, and ch. For example, look at the sentence “Breakers crashed onto jagged rocks and clawed the sands with brutal strikes, pummeling the beach.” The use of b, p, j,c creates a discordant effect in this sentence. Writers also use onomatopoeia to reflect the unpleasant sounds created by an unpleasant source. For example, Robert Frost uses the phrase ‘The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard.” in his poem ‘Out Out’. These unmelodious words are used to describe the saw that acts as the source of destruction.
Cacophony is often used as a device to describe a discordant or conflicting situation using discordant sounds. The repeated use of such unmelodious sounds let the readers imagine the unpleasantness of the situation. Although cacophony is commonly used by poets, it is not an uncommon tool for novelists and playwrights as well. The examples below will help you to understand the function of this literary device better.
Examples of Cacophony
“And being no stranger to the art of war, I have him a description of cannons, culverins, muskets, carabines, pistols, bullets, powder, swords, bayonets, battles, sieges, retreats, attacks, undermines, countermines, bombardments, sea-fights…”
This description from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels describes the brutishness and ugliness of war. Swift has deliberately created unmelodious and jarring sounds using consonants like p, b, and c to emphasize the horrors of the war.
“He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay with one leg bent beneath him, his jaw in his throat, his face neither expressive nor inexpressive. One eye was shut. The other was a star-shaped hole.”
This excerpt found in the story “The Man I Killed” from The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien also describes the horrors of the war. In this particular example, the narrator gives a short description of a dead man. He uses many jarring words and phrases like ‘leg bent beneath’, ‘jaw in his throat’, ‘star shaped hole’. These words also create a shocking and horrifying image in the readers’ mind.
‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,an
And the mome raths outgrabe.’
This nonsense poem found in Lewis Carol’s novel “Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There” is created using a mixture of harsh, unmelodious words. Alice, the protagonist, upon hearing this poem, says that this poem fills her head with confusing ideas. Thus, this introduces confusion and perplexity.
“Hear the loud alarum bells–
Brazen bells! What tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
In the startled ear of night
How they scream out their affright!
Too much horrified to speak,
They can only shriek, shriek,
Out of tune,”
The above example from Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem ‘The Bells’ imitate the sounds of bells. The poet uses jarring, discordant sounds to create the effect of alarm bells whose sound typically terrify people.
“Out, damned spot! Out, I say!—One, two. Why, then, ’tis time to do ’t. Hell is murky!—Fie, my lord, fie! A soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?”
The above dialogue is said by Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s famous play Macbeth. Lady Macbeth is slowly descending into madness in this part of the play. Therefore, Shakespeare uses cacophony to reflect the severe mental distress of Lady Macbeth.