Definition of Antithesis
Antithesis is a literary device that refers to the juxtaposition of two opposing elements through parallel grammatical structure. The word antithesis, meaning absolute opposite, is derived from Greek for “setting opposite,” indicating when something or someone is in direct contrast or the obverse of another thing or person.
Antithesis is an effective literary and rhetorical device, as it pairs exact opposite or contrasting ideas by utilizing parallel grammatical structure. This helps readers and audience members define concepts through contrast and develop understanding of something through defining its opposite. In addition, through the use of parallelism, antithesis establishes a repetitive structure that makes for rhythmic writing and lyrical speech.
For example, Alexander Pope states in An Essay on Criticism, “To err is human; to forgive divine.” Pope’s use of antithesis reflects the impact of this figure of speech in writing, as it creates a clear, memorable, and lyrical effect for the reader. In addition, Pope sets human error in contrast to divine forgiveness, allowing readers to understand that it is natural for people to make mistakes, and therefore worthy for others to absolve them when they do.
Examples of Antithesis in Everyday Speech
Antithesis is often used in everyday speech as a means of conveying opposing ideas in a concise and expressive way. Since antithesis is intended to be figure of speech, such statements are not meant to be understood in a literal manner. Here are some examples of antithesis used in everyday speech:
- Go big or go home.
- Spicy food is heaven on the tongue but hell in the tummy.
- Those who can, do; those who can’t do, teach.
- Get busy living or get busy dying.
- Speech is silver but silence is gold.
- No pain, no gain.
- It’s not show friends; it’s show business.
- No guts, no glory.
- A moment on the lips; a lifetime on the hips.
- If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail.
Common Examples of Antithesis from Famous Speeches
Antithesis can be an effective rhetorical device in terms of calling attention to drastic differences between opposing ideas and concepts. By highlighting the contrast side-by-side with the exact same structure, the speaker is able to impact an audience in a memorable and significant way. Here are some common examples of antithesis from famous speeches:
- “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” (Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have a Dream”)
- “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” (Abraham Lincoln “The Gettysburg Address”)
- “‘Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.'” (Edward Kennedy quoting Robert F. Kennedy during eulogy)
- “We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom, symbolizing an end as well as a beginning, signifying renewal as well as change.” (John F. Kennedy “Presidential Inaugural Speech”)
- “You see, for any champion to succeed, he must have a team — a very incredible, special team; people that he can depend on, count on, and rely upon through everything — the highs and lows, the wins and losses, the victories and failures, and even the joys and heartaches that happen both on and off the court.” (Michael Chang “Induction Speech for Tennis Hall of Fame”)
Examples of Proverbs Featuring Antithesis
Proverbs are simple and often traditional sayings that express insight into truths that are perceived, based on common sense or experience. These sayings are typically intended to be metaphorical, and therefore rely on figures of speech such as antithesis. Proverbs that utilize antithetical parallelism feature an antithesis to bring together opposing ideas in defined contrast. Therefore, antithesis is effective as a literary device in proverbs by allowing the reader to consider one idea and then its opposite. It also makes for lyrical and easily remembered sayings.
Here are some examples of proverbs featuring antithesis:
- Cleanliness is next to godliness.
- Beggars can’t be choosers.
- Easy come, easy go.
- Hope for the best; prepare for the worst.
- Keep your friends close; keep your enemies closer.
- Like father, like son.
- Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
- An ounce of protection is worth a pound of cure.
- Be slow in choosing, but slower in changing.
- Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.
- If you can’t beat them, join them.
- Keep your mouth closed and your eyes open.
- One man’s junk is another man’s treasure.
- Out of sight, out of mind.
- Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Utilizing Antithesis in Writing
As a literary device, antithesis allows authors to add contrast to their writing. This is effective in terms of comparing two contrasting ideas, such as a character’s conflicting emotions or a setting’s opposing elements. In literature, antithesis doesn’t require a pairing of exact opposites, but rather concepts that are different and distinct. In addition, since antithesis creates a lyrical quality to writing through parallel structure, the rhythm of phrasing and wording should be as similar as possible. Like most literary and rhetorical devices, an overuse of antithesis will create confusion or invoke boredom in a reader as well as make the writing seem forced.
Examples of Antithesis in Literature
Antithesis is an effective literary device and figure of speech in which a writer intentionally juxtaposes two contrasting ideas or entities. Antithesis is typically achieved through parallel structure, in which opposing concepts or elements are paired in adjacent phrases, clauses, or sentences. This draws the reader’s attention to the significance or importance of the agents being contrasted, thereby adding a memorable and meaningful quality to the literary work.
Here are some examples of antithesis in well-known works of literature:
Example 1: Hamlet (William Shakespeare)
Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.
In Shakespeare’s well-known play, he utilizes antithesis as a literary device for Polonius to deliver fatherly advice to his son before Laertes leaves for France. In these lines, Polonius pairs contrasting ideas such as listening and speaking using parallel structure. This adds a lyrical element to the wording, in addition to having a memorable and foreboding impact on the characters and audience members with the meaning of each line.
Despite the attempt by Polonius to impart logical thinking, measured response, and wise counsel to his son through antithesis, Laertes becomes so fixated on avenging his father’s death that his actions are impulsive and imprudent. Polonius’s antithetical words are not heeded by his son, resulting in the death of several characters including Hamlet and Laertes himself.
Example 2: Paradise Lost (John Milton)
Here at least
We shall be free; the Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.
In Milton’s epic poem, he explores the Fall of Satan as well as the temptation and subsequent Fall of Man. This passage is spoken by Satan after he has been condemned to Hell by God for attempting to assume power and authority in Heaven. Satan is unrepentant of his actions, and wants to persuade his followers that Hell is preferable to Heaven.
Satan utilizes antithesis in the last line of this passage to encourage his rebellious followers to understand that, in Hell, they are free and rule their own destiny. In this line, Milton contrasts not just the ideas of Hell and Heaven, but also of reign and servitude as concepts applied to the angels, respectively. Pairing these opposites by using this literary device has two effects for the reader. First, Satan’s claim foreshadows his ability to use his words describing independence to tempt Eve, resulting in her and Adam’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Second, this antithesis invites the reader to consider Satan’s thought-process and experience to gain a deeper understanding of his motives in the poem.
Example 3: Fire and Ice (Robert Frost)
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
In his poem, Frost utilizes antithesis to contrast fire and ice as elements with devastating and catastrophic potential to end the world. Frost effectively demonstrates the equal powers for destruction of these elements, despite showcasing them as opposing forces. In this case, the poet’s antithesis has a literal as well as figurative interpretation. As the poem indicates, the world could literally end in fire as well as ice. However, fire and ice are contrasting symbols in the poem as well. Fire represents “desire,” most likely in the form of greed, the corruption of power, domination and control. Conversely, ice represents “hate” in the form of prejudice, oppression, neglect and isolation.
The presence of antithesis in the poem is effective for readers in that it evokes contrasting and powerful imagery of fire and ice as opposing yet physically destructive forces. In addition, the human characteristics associated with fire and ice, and what they represent as psychologically and socially destructive symbols, impacts the reader in a powerful and memorable way as well. Antithesis elevates for the reader the understanding that the source of the end of the world may not be natural causes but rather human action or behavior; and that the end of the world may not be simply destruction of the earth, but rather the destruction of humankind.