Definition of Juxtaposition
Juxtaposition is a literary device that implies comparison or contrast. Writers create juxtaposition by placing two entities side by side to create dramatic or ironic contrast. Juxtaposition is a form of implied comparison in that there is no overt comparison or inference on the part of the writer. This allows the reader to discern how the paired entities are similar or different. The effect of this literary device is a more profound understanding of contrast and creating a sense of fate or inevitability in the comparison.
For example, in the movie adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, filmmakers effectively juxtapose black and white film with bright technicolor to showcase the differences between Kansas and Oz. Though Oz is bright, colorful, and whimsical compared to the harsh gray of Kansas, Dorothy realizes that her home in Kansas is where she belongs and is happy. The juxtaposition of such contrasting places highlights the inevitable decision that Dorothy must make about returning to home and reality.
Common Examples of Juxtaposition
Writers use juxtaposition for rhetorical effect by placing two entities side by side in order to highlight their differences. These divergent elements can include people, ideas, things, places, behaviors, and characteristics. Here are some common examples of entities that are juxtaposed for artistic effect:
- light and darkness
- acceptance and isolation
- youth and experience
- wealth and poverty
- Beauty and ugliness
- virtue and vice
- family and outsiders
- wisdom and foolishness
- familiar and strange
- passion and apathy
- good and evil
- urban and rural
- warmth and cold
- modern and antiquated
- courage and cowardice
- male and female
- jealousy and trust
- civilization and nature
- free will and fate
- forgiveness and revenge
Famous Examples of Juxtaposition in Novels and Stories
- East Egg and West Egg in The Great Gatsby
- Individual thought and groupthink in 1984
- wealth and poverty in The Prince and the Pauper
- land and sea in Moby Dick
- human and animal instinct in Life of Pi
- kindness and selfishness in Cinderella
- Lennie (innocent) and George (jaded) in Of Mice and Men
- Muggle and wizard worlds in Harry Potter Series
- frontier and civilization in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
- freedom and confinement in To Kill a Mockingbird
Difference Between Juxtaposition and Foil
It can be difficult to distinguish between juxtaposition and foil as literary devices. In fact, foil is a a form of juxtaposition. Both of these devices are based o n implied comparisons created by the writer. However, foil is limited to juxtaposition of characters.
As a literary device, foil specifically refers to contrasts between characters within the same narrative. A writer uses juxtaposition of two characters as foil in order to emphasize their disparate qualities or character traits. For example, in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Cal and Aron are brothers and foils for each other. Their characters are juxtaposed to showcase the differences in their natures, as Cal is dark and secretive while Aron is delicate and beloved.
Juxtaposition, as a literary device, is not limited to characters. With juxtaposition, any entities such as ideas, places, and things, can be placed side by side to invite comparison and create ironic effect.
Writers can achieve a great deal when they juxtapose two elements. By putting two entities side by side, writers invite the reader to compare and contrast, considering the relationship between the elements with closer scrutiny. Juxtaposition can have the effect of absurdity or humor, or create a link between elements and images that appear unrelated until they are paired.
Writers can also reveal truths about a character through contrasting their traits with another, to achieve a foil. Juxtaposition can demonstrate that one idea or element is better when compared to another, and often readers gain greater understanding of nuances of traits or concepts through juxtaposition.
It’s important for writers to understand that there must be a sense of logic and intention in juxtaposing two entities within a narrative or poem. As a literary technique, juxtaposition is more than simply putting one entity beside another and inviting the reader to make a comparison between them. There must be meaning in the juxtaposition so that some aspect of the literary work becomes more significant to a reader.
Examples of Juxtaposition in Literature
Juxtaposition, or the technique of comparison and contrast, appears in all forms of artistic expression. In literature, juxtaposition is an effective literary device in that readers gain greater meaning through measuring the tension of similarities and differences between two paired elements.
Here are some examples of juxtaposition in literature and how this literary device adds to the value of literary works:
Example 1: Naming of Parts (Henry Reed)
This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.
In Reed’s poem, the poet juxtaposes the stages of breaking down and naming parts of a military rifle with naming parts of springtime. In this stanza, the safety-catch of a gun and its release is juxtaposed with fragile blossoms. This juxtaposition allows the reader to consider any similarities and contrasts between releasing a weapon’s safety-catch and fragile blossoms. The differences are obvious, so Reed may appear to have created an incongruous juxtaposition. However, there is a logic to the implied comparison in that releasing the safety-catch on a gun allows bullets to fly from it, just as blossoms might be released and fly from a tree.
The juxtaposition of the parts of a weapon and parts of springtime create a dramatic effect of tension between death and destruction and rebirth and renewal. By simply pairing these two entities side by side in the poem, Reed allows the reader to compare and contrast man-made technology meant to end life and nature’s capability of restoring and beginning life.
Example 2: The Joy Luck Club (Amy Tan)
I opened up the Schumann book to the dark little piece I had played at the recital. It was on the left-hand
page, “Pleading Child.” It looked more difficult than I remembered. I played a few bars, surprised at how
easily the notes came back to me.
And for the first time, or so it seemed, I noticed the piece on the right-hand side. It was called “Perfectly
Contented.” I tried to play this one as well. It had a lighter melody but with the same flowing rhythm and
turned out to be quite easy. “Pleading Child” was shorter but slower; “Perfectly Contented” was longer but
faster. And after I had played them both a few times, I realized they were two halves of the same song.
In this chapter of Tan’s novel, a daughter is trying to understand her mother’s actions towards her as a child while simultaneously coming to terms with her mother’s absence in death. The mother and daughter juxtaposition creates a foil for the narrative in many ways, particularly in that the daughter considers herself to be American and the mother considers herself Chinese. In addition, the juxtaposition of the daughter’s older, more experienced self and the memory of her childhood self encourages the reader to consider more fully how time can change someone’s perspective and understanding of people and memories.
In this passage, the daughter opens the piano book to find two musical pieces juxtaposed. As she plays each piece, the daughter explores the similarities and differences between them. This implicitly invites the reader to compare and contrast these pieces, although not musically. Instead, through the juxtaposition of the song titles, their musical descriptions, and the daughter’s reactions to playing them, the reader is able to compare and contrast the daughter’s relationship with her mother and the mother’s relationship with the daughter. This is significant in allowing the reader to explore meaning and understanding in the story, just as the daughter’s character attempts to do as well.
Example 3: Animal Farm (George Orwell)
Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.
In his allegorical tale of the Russian Revolution and the nation’s transformation from a czarist regime to a communist state, Orwell juxtaposes many elements and themes to showcase the significance and meaning of historical events and political theory. In this passage, the animals witness the juxtaposition of the pigs and men at the end of the story.
Rather than resulting in a stark contrast, the juxtaposition of the pigs and men instead brings about an inability among the “outside” animals to distinguish between them. This has a dramatic effect in terms of the narrative, since the pigs were the original leaders of the revolution on the farm and intended, in the beginning of the literary work, to differentiate themselves as much as possible from the men they believed to be their oppressors.
In addition to the ironic effect of this juxtaposition of pigs and men, the “creatures outside” are juxtaposed with the pigs and men inside. This additional layer of juxtaposition is effective use of the literary device because it invites the reader not to compare and contrast the men with the pigs, but instead to compare and contrast the men and pigs (oppressors) with the outside animals (the oppressed). By utilizing juxtaposition, Orwell effectively demonstrates the link between power and its consequences, for those who possess it and those who don’t.