Definition of Rhetorical Question
A rhetorical question is a question that is asked not to get an answer, but instead to emphasize a point. The word “rhetorical” signifies that the question is meant as a figure of speech. Though no answer is necessary for rhetorical questions, they are often used to elicit thought and understanding on the part of the listener or reader.
Rhetorical questions can work in several different ways, though the definition of rhetorical question remains the same. A rhetorical question may be intended as a challenge for which there is no answer or for which the answer is very difficult to come across. On the other hand, some rhetorical questions have such obvious answers that they are meant to emphasize how obvious the answer to a previous questions was. For example, if person A asked person B, “Are you going to John’s party?” and person B was definitely going, he might respond “Is rain wet?” Rhetorical questions can also raise doubt, such as in, “All was calm. Or was it?”
Common Examples of Rhetorical Question
There are many examples of rhetorical questions in famous speeches. Orators often use rhetorical questions to emphasize an important point or to prompt listeners to imagine the answer. One of the most famous examples of this strategy is from Sojourner Truth’s speech “Ain’t I a woman?”:
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
–Sojourner Truth, speech delivered at 1851 Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio
Rhetorical questions can also be used humorously. The character of Chandler on the TV show Friends often used rhetorical questions as his main source of humor:
Rachel: Guess what, guess what?
Chandler: Let’s see, the fifth dentist caved, now they all recommend trident?
Joey (making fun of Chandler): I’m Chandler. Could I BE wearing any more clothes?
We also use rhetorical questions in common speech, such as the following statements:
- Sure, why not?
- Who knew?
- Does it look like I care?
- Are you kidding me?
- Do birds fly?
- Is the sky blue?
Significance of Rhetorical Question in Literature
When used in literature, rhetorical questions may signify that a character is having a with himself or herself, and considering different options. In the famous speech from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet begins “To be or not to be – that is the question.” In this case, Hamlet is sincerely weighing the benefits and costs of staying alive. (Note that not all rhetorical questions end with a question mark, as in this case). Rhetorical questions may also prompt the reader to further consider different theoretical possibilities, such as in Example #4 below.
Examples of Rhetorical Question in Literature
JULIET: Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet…
(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)
Shakespeare used many rhetorical questions in his plays and poems. In these rhetorical question examples, Juliet wonders aloud the meaning of a name. She is not asking for an answer, but instead emphasizing the frustration she has that it is only a name that separates her from her greatest love.
Yossarian attended the education sessions because he wanted to find out why so many people were working so hard to kill him. A handful of other men were also interested, and the questions were many and good when Clevinger and the subversive corporal finished and made the mistake of asking if there were any.
“Who is Spain?”
“Why is Hitler?”
“When is right?”
(Catch-22 by Joseph Heller)
This example of rhetorical question is meant to highlight the absurdity of war. The character of Clevinger asks if there are any questions, and the soldiers in Yossarian’s troop ask questions for which there are no answers. They do this to irritate the men who are higher in command, but also to bring attention to the fact that nothing ever really makes sense during wartime, and the reality of their lives is just as absurd as their questions.
`Take some more tea,’ the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
`I’ve had nothing yet,’ Alice replied in an offended tone, `so I can’t take more.’
`You mean you can’t take less,’ said the Hatter: `it’s very easy to take more than nothing.’
`Nobody asked your opinion,’ said Alice.
`Who’s making personal remarks now?’ the Hatter asked triumphantly.
(Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll)
Lewis Carroll used many rhetorical devices in Alice in Wonderland, especially when Alice encounters the Mad Hatter. In this rhetorical question example, the Mad Hatter says “Who’s making personal remarks now?” to insinuate that Alice is being the rude one of the group.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
(“Harlem” by Langston Hughes)
The many rhetorical questions in Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem” ultimately ask the reader to consider the possible implications of the primary question—“what happens to a dream deferred?” The reader may consider dreams deferred in his or her own life and compare the different metaphors with their own experiences.
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.
Oh Jack, tethered in what rough stall alone
did you remember that one good winter?
(“Jack” by Maxine Kumin)
Maxine Kumin’s poem “Jack” concerns a horse she once owned. The poem describes a winter in which Jack, the horse, had everything he could want—warm stables, plenty of food. The final line of the poem in which Kumin asks, “did you remember that one good winter?” is tragic in that it shows her grief and remorse for letting him go. She is asking this question only to try to bring comfort to herself.