What Is a Paradox in Writing? Learn About the Differences Between Literary Paradox and Logical Paradox With Examples

Written by MasterClass

Jun 6, 2019 • 3 min read

This sentence is a lie. This self-referential statement is an example of a paradox—a contradiction that questions logic. In literature, paradoxes can elicit humor, illustrate themes, and provoke readers to think critically.


What Is a Paradox?

The word “paradox” derives from the Greek word “paradoxons,” meaning contrary to expectation. In literature, a paradox is a literary device that contradicts itself but contains a plausible kernel of truth.

For example, in Oscar Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan, the character Lord Darlington says: “I can resist everything except temptation.” Wilde uses the contradicting ideas in this statement to illustrate the character’s inability to resist temptation.

Paradox shares similar elements with two other literary terms: antithesis and oxymoron. The terms are related but serve different functions in literature.

  • An antithesis is a figure of speech that juxtaposes two contrasting ideas. Unlike paradoxes, antitheses focus on the opposition of the opposing ideas. Neil Armstrong’s statement when he stepped on the moon in 1969 is a good example of an antithesis: “That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” The pairing of the small steps and giant steps accentuates the significance of the event—but there is no contradiction between the two ideas.
  • An oxymoron is the conjunction of two words with meanings that contradict each other. While a paradox is the opposition of ideas or themes, an oxymoron is a contradiction merely between words. An example of oxymoron in literature can be found in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In the balcony scene, Juliet exclaims that Romeo’s departure is “sweet sorrow.”

What Is the Difference Between a Literary Paradox and a Logical Paradox?

All paradoxes can be circuitous. However, there are two types of paradoxes that are defined by whether or not they can be resolved.

  1. A logical paradox is a contradiction that defies logic and is considered unresolvable. The Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea is credited for devising several famous logical paradoxes. In “Achilles and the Tortoise,” Zeno posits that motion is nothing but an illusion. If a tortoise were to get a head start in a footrace with Achilles, the tortoise would hold a lead since Achilles, fast as he might be, would have to continually close the distance between them.
  2. A literary paradox is a contradiction that resolves to reveal a deeper meaning behind a contradiction. In John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 11,” the poet states: “Death, thou shalt die.” Initially, this line appears not to make sense. After all, how can death die? But it can be interpreted to mean that the fear of imminent death does not exist in heaven.

4 Examples of Paradox in Literature

Paradoxes can serve many different functions in literature, from revealing truths about characters and planting clues for the reader to from expressing themes and adding humor. Below are a few examples of paradoxes in literature:

  1. In William Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet, the titular character says, “I must be cruel to be kind.” How can someone be both cruel and kind? This is a good example of how a paradox can add depth to characters: Hamlet believes that by killing Claudius, he is ultimately doing the right thing by avenging his father’s murder.
  2. In George Bernard Shaw’s play Man and Superman, the protagonist Jack Tanner says, “The golden rule is that there are no golden rules.” This paradox upends the basic principle of treating others as you would like to be treated and illustrates Shaw’s personal contempt for convention.
  3. Oscar Wilde’s use of paradoxes in The Importance of Being Earnest add comedic effect. The ingenue character Cecily Cardew says, “To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.” The paradox expresses that posing is unnatural, but keeping up the appearance of being natural is also an act.
  4. In Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll uses paradoxes to define the rules of the nonsensical world and to add humor. In one passage, the March Hare asks Alice if she wants more tea, despite the fact she hasn’t had any tea: “‘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.’”

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