Definition of Contrast

Contrast is a rhetorical device through which writers identify differences between two subjects, places, persons, things or ideas. Simply, it is a type of opposition between two objects highlighted to emphasize their differences.

It comes from a Latin word, contra stare, meaning to stand against. Usually though not always, writers use phrases and words to indicate a contrast such as but, yet, however, instead, in contrast, nevertheless, on the contrary and unlike, etc. for instance, E. B White in his novel, Stuart Little, brings a contrast between Stuart and other babies as using unlike as it goes here; “Unlike most babies, Stuart could walk as soon as he was born.”

Types of Contrast

  • Point-by-point Contrast – In this type of contrast, writers deal with a series of features of two subjects, and then present their contrast, discussing all points successively.
  • Subject-by-subject Contrast – In this type of contrast, a writer first discusses one subject thoroughly and then move on to another.

Contrast Examples from Literature

Example 1

To begin with the differences: Lenin was cruel, which Gladstone was not; Lenin had no respect for tradition, whereas Gladstone had a great deal; Lenin considered all means legitimate for securing the victory of his party, whereas for Gladstone politics was a game with certain rules that must be observed. All these differences, to my mind, are to the advantage of Gladstone, and accordingly Gladstone on the whole had beneficent effects, while Lenin’s effects were disastrous.

(From “Eminent Men I Have Known, Unpopular Essays” by Bertrand Russell)

In this example, Russell presents a point-by-point contrast between two persons, Vladimir Lenin—a Russian communist revolutionary and William Gladstone—a British Liberal politician. By the end, author gives his favor to Gladstone than Lenin.

Example 2

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;

(Sonnet 130, William Shakespeare)

In the first five lines of this poem, Shakespeare employs a number of contrasts to lay emphasis on her beloved’s qualities. He contrasts her to the sun, coral, snow and wire. Simply, he wants to convey the idea that his woman is though not extraordinary yet substantial.

Example 3

Charles Dickens in the very first chapter of his novel, A Tale of Two Cities, presents a sweeping background of events and forces that shape the characters’ lives later on. In its first paragraph, he begins to share a dual theme, as he compares and contrasts the ideas of “best” and “worst” of times, “light” and “darkness” and then “hope” and “despair.” These contrasting ideas reflect images of good and bad that would recur in situations and characters in the entire novel. Dickens makes contrast between two countries, England and France. Both countries experience very different and very similar situations simultaneously. The differences, he compares are concepts of justice and spirituality in each country.

Example 4

William Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet, is about contrasts of love and hate. This tragic play embodies contrast of love and hate in different ways, as we see love of two lovers, Romeo and Juliet, whereas their families are at war and hate each other. However, love of these lovers forbids this war. Characters in this play also contrast each other. Romeo and Juliet, though both are lovers, are different too such as Romeo is impulsive and dependent, while Juliet is organized, brave and practical. Montague’s marriage is successful, while Capulet’s is not. Along with a steady contrast in characters, we notice contrast in mood, theme and action of the play as well.

Function of Contrast

Writers address a number of features and characteristics of two subjects, persons, places and events by contrasting them from one point to another. While the major purpose of contrast is to elucidate ideas and clear their meanings, the readers can easily understand through this device what is going to happen next. Through opposite and contrasting ideas, writers make their arguments stronger which become memorable for readers due to emphasis placed on them. In addition, contrasting ideas shock the audience, heighten drama and produce balanced structures in literary works.

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