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A paradox is used in literature when a writer brings together contrasting and contradictory elements that reveal a deeper truth.

This may be a piece of unexpected information, or something that would otherwise have remained hidden had not the paradox asserted itself. A paradox is usually something that seems impossible but isn’t once the reader spends more time digging into what the writer has presented. This literary device is employed when the writer wants the reader to try looking at a situation from a new perceptive. This should help them see events, people, objects, or ideas in a different and even revelatory way. 

Paradox pronunciation: pair-ah-docks
Paradox literary definition and examples

Paradox Definition

A paradox is something that seems impossible and contradictory at first but, upon closer analysis, makes sense. It can even provide readers with needed information to understand a story of a real-life situation.

When an author creates a paradox on purpose, they’re trying to engage the reader on a deeper level. They do not present the information the reader needs on the surface. Instead, the reader is asked to dig deeper and try to uncover something more meaningful in the present contradiction or seeming impossibility. While paradoxes might seem complicated at first, they are actually quite common. Below, readers can find a few often-used examples of paradoxes. 

Common Examples of Paradoxes 

  • The more you give, the more you get. 
  • The pen is mightier than the sword. 
  • The enemy of my enemy is my friend. 
  • Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. 
  • Less is more. 
  • The only constant is change. 

Examples of Paradoxes in Literature 

Animal Farm by George Orwell 

In this famous satirical novel, Orwell presents the story of a farm on which the animals rebel and take over their lives from their human overlords. At first, the revolution seems like a step in the right direction, with all animals now entitled to freedom. But, Orwell took this narrative in a familiar direction, mimicking the events of the Russian Revolution. Before long, the pigs, who saw themselves as superior to the working animals took over. They made rules and controlled all the other farm animals through fear. One of those rules is: 

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. 

Here, Orwell presents readers with a paradox. At first, it seems impossible. If all “animals are equal,” then one can’t be “more equal.” What becomes clear on further analysis is that the pigs don’t really believe all animals are equal. They’re willing to say it in order to make the other creatures feel heard, but they are going to maintain their rule. 

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare 

In this famous history play, Shakespeare tells the story of Julius Caesar’s murder by Brutus and the repercussions of that act. The play focuses primarily on the latter, his conspiracy, and what kind of leader Caesar was. The following lines are from Act II Scene 2 and provide readers with an example of a paradox: 

Cowards die many times before their deaths.

The valiant never taste of death but once.

Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,

It seems to me most strange that men should fear,

Seeing that death, a necessary end,

Will come when it will come.

Here, Caesar asserts that cowards die many times before ether deaths, and it’s only the brave who experience death once. Here, he’s comparing cowardice and dishonor to death, something that the brave and valiant won’t ever face. Instead, the latter will meet their death head-on and only once. It seems impossible at first, but when one digs into the quote, Caesar is making a powerful statement about bravery and fear. 

Explore William Shakespeare’s poetry. 

Tuft of Flowers by Robert Frost 

In this thoughtful poem, Robert Frost explores loneliness and togetherness. His speaker comes to the conclusion that no matter how alone he might feel in one moment, he never truly is. He’s always connected to other people through the things around him. Consider these lines: 

But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,

And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;


‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,

‘Whether they work together or apart.’

Men, Frost says, are “together” whether they “work together or apart.” He comes to this revelation while mowing and considering the history of the objects around him and the feeling of a kindred spirit. The paradox of working “together “ and “apart” is quickly resolved when readers spend time considering what Frost is trying to say. It’s a paradox itself that is at once inspiring and uplifting. If one believes it, then they need not ever feel alone again. 

Read Robert Frost’s poems. 

Why Do Writers Use Paradoxes? 

Writers use paradoxes in order to make their readers think more deeply about a situation. The previous examples show that while paradoxes might seem daunting at first when once one spends some time with them, they make sense and can be quite fulfilling. They’re a clever way of depicting a different kind of situation. When used well, such as in Julius Caesar, readers should find them compelling and creative. They can elevate one’s writing to another level. 

  • Metaphysical Poetry: marked by the use of elaborate figurative languages, original conceits, paradoxes, and philosophical topics.
  • Metaphor: used to describe an object, person, situation, or action in a way that helps a reader understand it without using “like” or “as.”
  • Ambiguity: a word or statement that has more than one meaning. If a phrase is ambiguous, it means multiple things.
  • Moral: the meaning or message conveyed through a story.
  • Plot: a connected sequence of events that make up a novel, poem, play, film, television show, and other narrative works.
  • Antiphrasis: a rhetorical device that occurs when someone says the opposite of what they mean, but their true meaning is obvious.
  • Realism: a literary movement that portrays everyday life exactly how it is.

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