A dichotomy is a literary technique that separates two things into contrasting and contradictory parts. These two opposing sides or groups complement one another while at the same time drawing attention to one another’s differences. This is a great way, and a fairly simple way, for writers to create conflict in their narratives. Without conflict, of one kind or another, stories fall flat. This might be a conflict between humankind and nature, human versus human, human versus society, or one of the several other forms. The most common type of dichotomy in literature is good and evil. One character or group will exhibit opposite character traits to the other character or group. They are necessarily opposed to one another.
Definition and Explanation of Dichotomy
A dichotomy emphasizes the differences between characters, groups, ideas, states of being, and more. It can be quite obvious, such as rich or poor, or it might be less easy to spot, like religious and non-religious. Some other common examples of dichotomies in literature are heaven and hell (related to good and evil), male and female, real and imaginary, and optimistic and pessimistic. Although these are the most common types of dichotomies, they only represent broad categories. There are endless possible conflicts a writer could imbue their story with, some of which are quite different from those listed here.
Examples of Dichotomy in Literature
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
There are several interesting dichotomies in Heart of Darkness. These include perceived savagery versus civilization, light versus dark, and more. The first of these is the most important as it is around the difference between the “civilized” imperialistic powers and the native peoples that they’re attempting to oppress and control, that the novel hinges. It becomes clearer the farther along with one move in the story that what was initially perceived as civilized is actually quite different. This novella provides readers with great insight into the way that dichotomies can be used to create a powerful message.
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens tells the story of two cities during the French Revolution, Paris, and London. These two settings create an initial, clear dichotomy that is added onto as the places are compared and contrasted. Here are a few lines from the opening of the novel that set the tone for what’s to come:
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 […]
This passage continues one for a few more lines, with the novel finally coming to the rest of the most important dichotomies of rich and poor, and light and dark. The darker elements of the novel are connected to the rich while the poor are portrayed as the heroes of the story, trying to tear down an old world to build a new one.
Beowulf by Anonymous
The most famous of the few remaining pieces of Anglo-Saxon literature is Beowulf, the story of good versus evil. Beowulf, a brave and daring hero, faces off against three monsters, focusing on Grendel, a descendent of Cain. The writer created a dichotomy by depicting the two quite differently. Grendel is pure evil, killing for personal gain and selfish reasons why Beowulf has all the character traits of a hero. He fights for the common good, in order to help others, and exhibits bravery and a strong moral compass.
In addition to the clear dichotomy between Grendel and Beowulf, there are also examples in which the technique is used in regard to imagery. For instance, light and dark. Grendel only attacks the mead hall at night where he can move in the cover of darkness.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The Color Purple is another wonderful example of how dichotomies can be used to the writer’s, and reader’s, advantage. The protagonist of the novel, Celie, struggles with a dichotomy between how she feels and how she has to act to survive as a Black woman in a white society ruled by men. On the outside, she has to display a passiveness that’s expected of a woman in her world while on the inside she’s filled with anger. She has to deal with a lifetime of abuse, of all kinds, while trying to survive in her modern world, raise her children, and figure out how to deal with her faith.
Why Do Writers Use Dichotomy?
Writers use dichotomies to present contrasts between ways of living, thinking, and acting. These help writers create conflicts in their stories, whether it’s an internal conflict, such as in The Color Purple, or a more obvious external conflict such as is depicted in Beowulf. When the good is emphasized by the bad, and vice versa, each element becomes clearer. It’s impossible to ignore Beowulf’s heroism when it is contrasted with Grendel’s darkness.
Related Literary Devices
- Juxtaposition: a literary technique that places two unlike things next to one another.
- Imagery: the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. These are the important sights, sounds, feelings, and smells.
- Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
- Antagonist: a character who is considered to be the rival of the protagonist.
- Protagonist: the main character of a story, generally considered to be the hero or the force for good.
- Hyperbole: an intentionally exaggerated description, comparison, or exclamation meant to make a specific impact on a reader.
- Exposition: the important background information that a writer includes in a story.
- Epic Poetry: a long narrative poem that tells the story of heroic deeds, normally accomplished by more-than-human characters.