Antithesis

Definition of Antithesis

Antithesis, literal meaning opposite, is a rhetorical device in which two opposite ideas are put together in a sentence to achieve a contrasting effect.

Antithesis emphasizes the idea of contrast by parallel structures of the contrasted phrases or clauses, i.e. the structures of phrases and clauses are similar in order to draw the attention of the listeners or readers. For example:

“Setting foot on the moon may be a small step for a man but a giant step for mankind.”

The use of contrasting ideas, “a small step” and “a giant step”, in the sentence above emphasizes the significance of one of the biggest landmarks of human history.

Common Examples of Antithesis

Some famous antithetical statements have become part of our everyday speech and are frequently used in arguments and discussions. Below is the list of some antithetical statements:

  • Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice.
  • Man proposes, God disposes.
  • Love is an ideal thing, marriage a real thing.
  • Speech is silver, but silence is gold.
  • Patience is bitter, but it has a sweet fruit.
  • Money is the root of all evils: poverty is the fruit of all goodness.
  • You are easy on the eyes, but hard on the heart.

Examples of Antithesis in Literature

In literature, writers employ antithesis not only in sentences but also in characters and events. Thus, its use is extensive; below are a few examples of antithesis in literature:

Example #1

The opening lines of Charles Dickens’ novel “ A Tale of Two Cities” provides an unforgettable example of antithesis:

“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 contrasting ideas, set in parallel structures, markedly highlight the conflict that existed in the time which was discussed in the novel.

Example #2

In Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” we notice antithesis in characters of “Mark Antony” and “Marcus Brutus”. Brutus is portrayed as a “noblest of Romans” close to Caesar and a person who loved Rome and Caesar. Antony, on the contrary, is shown as a man with evil intentions of harming Caesar and taking charge of Rome. These antithetical characters highlight the conflict in the play.

Example #3

Alexander Pope in his “An Essay on Criticism” says:

“To err is human; to forgive divine.”

Fallibility is a trait of humans and God, his creator, is most forgiving. Through these antithetical ideas, Pope reveals the basic nature of human beings. He wants to say that God is forgiving because his creation is erring.

Example #4

We find antithesis in John Donne’s poem “Community”:

“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.”

Two contrasting words “love” and “hate” are combined in the above lines. It emphasizes that we love good because it is always good and we hate bad because it is always bad. It is a matter of choice to love or hate things which are neither good nor bad.

Example #5

John Milton in “Paradise Lost” says:

“Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.”

The contrasting ideas of “reign”/ “serve” and “Hell”/ “Heav’n” are placed in a sentence to achieve an antithetical effect.

Function of Antithesis

A literary device like antithesis uses words to convey ideas in different ways from the common words and expressions of daily life. Thus, it conveys meaning more vividly than ordinary speech. When contrasting ideas are brought together, the idea is expressed more emphatically.

As a literary device, antithesis makes contrasts in order to examine pros and cons of a subject under discussion and helps to bring forth judgment on that particular subject.

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1 comment for “Antithesis

  1. Margerie
    January 11, 2014 at 9:27 pm

    I can’t believe you forgot to include Antigone! I think it is the best example of antithesis. Creon and Antigone are both doing what they believe in, but it just so happens that each thinks the other is wrong and their beliefs come into direct conflict with one another. Antigone stays faithful to ritual of the gods, while Creon stays faithful to the law of man; so they are both faithful to something, but they do not go together, they are similar opposites. 

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