Antithesis occurs when two contrasting ideas are put together to achieve a desired outcome.
The two opposites are accompanied by a parallel structure used to help unite the two phrases. When this rhetorical device is used, the reader should immediately become aware that this line is of particular importance. It allows the writer to emphasize something they know needs to be said to the best possible effect.
A common example is: “You are easy on the eyes, but hard on the heart.” With this phrase, anyone should be able to come to the conclusion that the “you” in these lines is someone the speaker cares for, thinks is attractive, but is also often emotionally hurt by. Through the use of this structure, one is also able to break down complex feelings into something easier to understand.
Definition of Antithesis
Parallelism is an important part of antithesis. The structure of the words around the contrasting ideas is usually identical, at least in part. This allows the juxtaposed words to be as powerful as possible.
The word “antithesis” comes from the Greek “anithenai,” meaning “to oppose.”
Examples of Antithesis in Literature
Paradise Lost by John Milton
In John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost,’ there is a great example of antithesis in the first book. Satan was up in Hell, imprisoned alongside a fiery lake, and he uses these words:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n
While speaking to Beelzebub, he says that it’s better to “reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.” Through this clever turn of phrase, he’s suggesting that he’d rather fulfill his role as “the devil” and control his own destiny than be under God’s thumb in Heaven. It’s important to remember when considering this quote that Satan was cast out of Heaven for questioning God. He craves the leeway his position in Hell affords him.
Read more John Milton poems.
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens’ famous novel, A Tale of Two Cities, has a wonderful example of antithesis at the beginning of the first chapter. Here is an excerpt from the novel that demonstrates, in several different ways, how the device might be used.
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.
The examples of antithesis are seen through the bolded words. “Best” contrasts with “worst” and “everything” with “nothing.” Through the use of this technique, Dickens is able to highlight the different perspectives and conflicts that are going to arise in the following pages.
This excerpt is also a good example of how parallel structures are used. He says, “It was the best of times” and “it was the worst of times.” The phrase “it was the” is used in both instances. The same can be said for the following example in which he uses “it was the age of” to refer to “foolishness” and “wisdom.”
Explore Charles Dickens’ poetry.
Community by John Donne
In this lesser-known Donne poem, the poet includes the following lines:
Good we must love, and must hate ill,
For ill is ill, and good good still;
But there are things indifferent,
Which we may neither hate, nor love,
But one, and then another prove,
As we shall find our fancy bent.
He presents “love” alongside “hate” in addition to “good” alongside “ill.” By showing the reader both sides, he’s able to emphasize why “we” love what we love and why we hate what we hate. He goes on, stating that, in contrast, it is a matter of choice whether one hates or loves the “things indifferent.”
Read more of John Donne’s famous poems.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
The famous soliloquy from Hamlet is a good example of how antithesis can be used. In the “To be or not to be” speech, he uses the following lines:
To be or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
In the first lines of this excerpt, he presents “to be or not to be” as an example of antithesis. The two opposites hinge on the use of “or” in-between them. As the passage goes on, Shakespeare uses antithesis again with “to suffer” or “to take arms.”
Discover William Shakespeare’s poetry.
Antithesis and Juxtaposition
Antithesis is similar to juxtaposition in that they are both concerned with opposites and contrasting terms. When two ideas are juxtaposed, they are placed next to one another but not necessarily to create a relationship between the two. They may not have a more important meaning other than to add interest to the text.
Antithesis and Oxymoron
Antithesis is also often confused with an oxymoron. The latter occurs when two words that contradict one another are placed together in order to reveal a deeper truth. For example, “sweet sorrow” or “living dead.” These are stand-alone statements in which two words that don’t seem to belong together are placed next to one another and then make sense.
In contrast, antithesis does not usually use two contrasting words next to one another. They’re usually more spread out, playing into the importance of parallelism.
Related Literary Terms
- Oxymoron: a kind of figurative language in which two contrasting things are connected together.
- Juxtaposition: a literary technique that places two unlike things next to one another.
- Simile: a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”.