Juxtaposition is a literary technique that places two unlike things next to one another. These could be disparate ideas, characters, descriptions, places, or countless other examples. This is done in order to develop a comparison between the two and therefore further a specific mood, tone, attitude, or atmosphere.
This device is used by writers in order to convey their characters in clearer, and greater, detail. It can help flush out someone’s personality and the reasoning behind why they do what they do. In the best examples, it helps a reader understand how a character interprets and compares with what’s going on around them. The lighthearted characteristics of one person might be juxtaposed against a dreary setting or visa versa. A reader can consider what this says about the person and where they are.
It is also used in order to foreshadow coming events or allude to other states of minds or events in the past. For instance, if a place that seems cheery is also said to have a tint of darkness, a reader can interpret this to mean that there is more to the scene than immediately meets the eye. They should expect some sort of revelation or a connection to other happenings that change one’s perspective.
Purpose of Juxtaposition
This technique is used to surprise the reader. It can complicate a narrative or character, encouraging the reader to engage on a deeper level with what is occurring in the prose or verse text. The comparisons that a writer can draw between two or more subjects, forces, ideas, or places can come together and form a very vivid world for the reader to explore. It can even connect two concepts that might otherwise seem separate.
Examples of Juxtaposition in Poetry
Example #1 Joining the Colours by Katharine Tynan
‘Joining the Colours’ by Katharine Tynan was published during World War I and speaks the lives and actions of Irish soldiers joining Britain in the fight. This short and impactful poem uses juxtaposition as one of its most important techniques. It depicts the soldiers moving through the streets of the city, marching together, happily, in parade. The young men are described innocently. They do not know what is in store in the future. Take a look at these lines from a speaker who is very aware of what war will bring:
With tin whistles, mouth-organs, any noise,
They pipe the way to glory and the grave;
Foolish and young, the gay and golden boys
Love cannot save.
In this stanza, which is the third of the poem, the speaker addresses the young boys as “gay and golden”. They’re happy, optimistic and at the height of their young lives. They have no idea that they are heading for “the grave”. There is nothing that can save them. Their destinies, which are dark and unavoidable, are juxtaposed against their moods as they walk toward them.
Example #2 A Prodigal by Elizabeth Bishop
In ‘A Prodigal’ Elizabeth Bishop follows the life of the “prodigal son”. The poem, which was inspired bu the Biblical story and by Bishop’s own struggles with alcoholism, focuses on the period of time in which he was living with pigs in a bar. His existence is outwardly miserable but there are moments of beauty and hope for the future. This is where juxtaposition becomes important. It is one of the techniques that this poem hinges upon. Take a look at these lines from the first stanza:
But sometimes mornings after drinking bouts
(he hid the pints behind the two-by-fours),
the sunrise glazed the barnyard mud with red
the burning puddles seemed to reassure.
And then he thought he almost might endure
his exile yet another year or more.
In these lines, he is recovering from another bout of drinking and looking out of his hovel at the “sunrise” as it “glazed…the barnyard mud with red”. These “burning puddles” were reassuring at a time when nothing felt right or good. He knew then that everything was not lost and that he’d be able to make ti through his exile. In fact, but the en dog the poem, also due to the sun, he decides that it’s time for him “to go home”.