Digression (parekbasis in Greek, egressio, digressio and excursion in Latin) is a section of a composition or speech that is an intentional change of subject. In Classical rhetoric since Corax of Syracuse, especially in Institutio Oratoria of Quintilian, the digression was a regular part of any oration or composition. (An oratorical discourse should have five sections: prelude, narration, argumentation, digression and conclusion. But, the place of digression is not fixed, so it can come before or after argumentation). After setting out the topic of a work and establishing the need for attention to be given, the speaker or author would digress to a seemingly disconnected subject before returning to a development of the composition's theme, a proof of its validity, and a conclusion. This use of the digression is still noticeable in many sermons: after the topic, the speaker will introduce a "story" that seems to be unrelated, return to the subject, and then reveal how the story illustrates the speaker's point. A schizothemia is a digression by means of a long reminiscence. Cicero was a master of digression, particularly in his ability to shift from the specific question or issue at hand (the hypothesis) to the more general issue or question that it depended upon (the thesis). As was the case with most ancient orators, Cicero's apparent digression always turned out to bear directly upon the issue at hand. During the Second Sophist (in Imperial Rome), the ability to guide a speech away from a stated theme and then back again with grace and skill came to be a mark of true eloquence.
In literature, the digression (no to be confused with subplot) was a substantial part of satiric works of the 18th century. Works such as Jonathan Swift's A Tale of a Tub, Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy and Diderot's Jacques le fataliste et son maître made digressiveness itself a part of the satire. Sterne's novel, in particular, depended upon the digression, and he wrote, "Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; -- they are the life, the soul of reading; -- take them out of this book (Tristram Shandy) for instance, -- you might as well take the book along with them." This use of digression as satire later showed up in Thomas Carlyle's work. The digression was also used for non-satiric purposes in fiction. In Henry Fielding's The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, the author has numerous asides and digressive statements that are a side-fiction, and this sort of digression within chapters shows up later in the work of Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Herman Melville, Victor Hugo and others. The novels of Leo Tolstoy, J.D. Salinger, Marcel Proust, Henry Miller, Milan Kundera and Robert Musil are also full of digressions.
In late twentieth-century literature (in postmodern fiction), authors began to use digressions as a way of distancing the reader from the fiction and for creating a greater sense of play. John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman and Lawrence Norfolk's Lemprière's Dictionary both employ digressions to offer scholarly background to the fiction, while others, like Gilbert Sorrentino in Mulligan Stew, use digression to prevent the functioning of the fiction's illusions.
- Ross Chambers, Loiterature. University of Nebraska Press, 1999.
- Maurice Laugaa, 'le théâtre de la digression dans le discours classique' in Semiotica IV, 1971.
- Randa Sabry, Stratégies discursives, Editions de E.H.E.S.S., Paris, 1992. (known as the best historical and theorical study on the digression in literature and rhetoric. Written in French but still unavailable in English)
- Christine Montalbetti & Nathalie Piegay-Gros, la digression dans le récit, Bertrand-Lacoste, Paris, 1994. (summary book for students)
- Pierre Bayard, Hors-sujet : Proust et la digression, Editions de Minuit, Paris, 1996.
See also