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What Is the Definition of Juxtaposition?
Juxtaposition means placing two things side by side so as to highlight their differences. Writers use it for rhetorical effect. Writers juxtapose divergent elements frequently: wealth and poverty, beauty and ugliness, or darkness and light. Think of Cinderella—her goodness and moral virtue are all the more clear to readers because her wicked stepsisters are there for contrast. The term “juxtaposition” comes from the blending of a Latin word, “juxta,” meaning “next,” and the French “position.”
Why Do Writers Use Juxtaposition?
When a writer juxtaposes two elements, they invite the reader to compare, contrast, and consider the relationship between those elements more closely. Usually, they do so with one of these aims in mind:
- To flesh out a character by contrasting their traits against another character, or a foil
- To explore the nuances of a trait or idea that a reader or listener might otherwise miss
- To draw a link between seemingly unrelated ideas or images
- To create absurdity or humor
- To argue that one idea or element is better than another
What Is the Difference Between Juxtaposition, Antithesis, Oxymoron, and Foil?
There are quite a few literary terms that sound like they cover similar ground to juxtaposition. However, they almost always have narrower meanings.
- Antithesis. This is a very narrow category of juxtaposition—it refers to completely opposite words placed in a parallel position to each other within a sentence. Neil Armstrong’s famous words when walking on the moon is a good example: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Learn more about antithesis here.
- Oxymoron. This figure of speech goes beyond just contrast to create a deliberate contradiction or a paradox, usually through directly adjacent words. For instance, the line “parting is such sweet sorrow” from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet invites the listener to appreciate that there are some sadnesses a person is lucky to have. Learn more about oxymoron here.
- Foil. This term is specific to the contrasts between characters. Where a writer juxtaposes two characters so as to emphasize their opposing qualities, the characters are foils of each other. One example is the tortoise and the hare from the classic fable. Learn more about literary foil here.
Examples of Juxtaposition in Literature
Writers use juxtaposition in literature, drama, and poetry. One well-known example is the opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
This whole introduction is based around the power of juxtaposition to make a reader understand the nuances of individual elements more clearly. It also asks them to consider why humans are so drawn to polarities. Additionally, the whole work juxtaposes its two main settings—Paris and London—to explore what led to the French Revolution.
Juxtaposition is also central to John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, where God and Satan are the main characters. Milton contrasts their qualities and stories to explain why God is the right authority over all things. He shows God creating heaven, hell, and Earth. By contrast, Satan is driven by arrogance, famously proclaiming: “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.”
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