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What Does Exigency Mean in Literature?


Literary characters may urgently feel the need for action; such situations, which demand someone’s immediate attention, are examples of exigency, according to Webster’s New World College Dictionary. In literature, exigency may explain not only characters’ actions but also an author’s motivation to write in the first place.

A Reason to Write

Literary exigency begins even before the author writes. Rhetorician Lloyd Bitzer called exigency “an imperfection marked by urgency,” the reason someone is moved to write or speak out, explains Monmouth College professor Lee McGaan. The injustice of slavery, for instance, prompted abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe to write her novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Not all exigencies are political, however. An author might choose to write because she perceives an artistic exigency, a story that needs to be told. Acclaimed author Joan Didion explains this as a motivation to impose herself on the world.

A Reason to Act

Within a literary work, characters might experience exigencies, or “pressing needs,” a synonym suggested by Webster’s New World College Dictionary. Why does Hamlet feel the need to investigate his father’s death and expose his uncle’s crimes? Early in the play, the ghost of Hamlet’s father asks the prince to avenge his murder, a request that spurs Hamlet’s actions and, in turn, much of the play’s plot. The exigency in “Hamlet,” then, is Hamlet’s sense of urgency that he must expose the crime and avenge his father. Other characters experience exigencies, such as Laertes’ motivation, much later in the play, to avenge his own father’s death at Hamlet’s hands.

About the Author

Jennifer Spirko has been writing professionally for more than 20 years, starting at "The Knoxville Journal." She has written for "MetroPulse," "Maryville-Alcoa Daily Times" and "Some" monthly. She has taught writing at North Carolina State University and the University of Tennessee. Spirko holds a Master of Arts from the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-on-Avon, England.

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