Glossary Home Literary Device


Juxtaposition is a literary technique that places two unlike things next to one another.

Juxtaposition brings together disparate ideas, characters, descriptions, places, and more. This is done in order to develop a comparison between the two and therefore further a specific mood, tone, attitude, or atmosphere. Juxtaposition 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. 

Juxtaposition pronunciation: juhx-tah-puh-zish-un

Juxtaposition definition and examples


Definition and Explanation of Juxtaposition

Juxtaposition is used by writers in order to depict their characters, the events occurring around them, and their actions and emotions, in clearer and greater detail. It can help clearly define someone’s personality and the reasons 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 vice versa. A reader can consider what this says about the person and where they are.


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 about 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 the 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, 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 it 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”. 

Read more poetry by Elizabeth Bishop.


Juxtaposition or Antithesis?

These two terms are often compared to one another and sometimes used mistakenly. Antithesis is a type of juxtaposition that is more limited. It involves opposites as juxtaposition does, but the two things that are contrasted are clear opposites, so much so that stating the fact might not be necessary. These examples also use a specific parallel grammatical structure. One of the most commonly cited examples involves the lines Neil Armstrong spoke when he walked on the moon: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” The use of “small step” and “giant leap” is an example of antithesis.


Juxtaposition or Oxymoron?

Both of these terms are examples of figures of speech in which two different things are connected. An oxymoron occurs when two ideas are paired together to reveal something deeper and more important. These examples are often short and more obvious than examples of juxtaposition. For instance, the commonly cited line from Romeo and Juliet in which Juliet says ” parting is such sweet sorrow.” The combination of “sweet” and “sorrow” creates an oxymoron. She’s emphasizing how it’s possible to feel both things at once.


Why Do Writers Use Juxtaposition?

Writers use this technique to surprise the reader and keep them interested in a particular passage of writing or the broader narrative they’re crafting. Juxtaposition can complicate a narrative or character and therefore encourage 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. Without examples of juxtaposition, a lot of passages would fall flat and lack the complexity that the real world has.


Related Literary Terms

  • Oxymoron: a kind of figurative language in which two contrasting things are connected together.
  • Analogy: an extensive comparison between one thing and another that is very different from it.
  • Irony: occurs when an outcome is different than expected. It is very possible for one situation to strike one reader as ironic and another not.


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