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Antithesis in Literature: Definition & Examples of Antithesis

Muhammad Rafiq is a freelance writer, blogger, and translator with a master's degree in English literature from the University of Malakand.

What is antithesis?

What is antithesis?

Definition of Antithesis

The word antithesis is a figure of speech wherein two seemingly contrasted ideas are put together in a single statement using parallel grammatical structure. It may be a contrast of ideas, words, phrases, clauses or sentences. The purpose of antithesis is to make the reader better understand the point the author is trying to convey to the readers. For example, in these quotations, the ideas as well as the words are totally opposite to each other.

Man proposes; God disposes.
Speech is silver, but Silence is Gold.

The word propose is the opposite of the word dispose. Similarly, the word speech is the opposite of the word silence. Moreover, parallel grammatical structures have been used in both these quotations. The structure of the first clause in each quotation is similar to the second clause in each quotation. That’s why; it is a parallel grammatical structure.

Examples in Literature

The following examples taken from poetry and novels will make you understand the literary device antithesis:

Antithesis' Example #1

In literature, Shakespeare has widely used antithesis in his plays. In Hamlet, the very beginning line of the soliloquy, To be or not to be……. is an antithesis. Hamlet is confused and doesn’t know what to do. He is on the horns of dilemma as to whether he should commit suicide or not. The ideas of life and death are opposite to each other. That’s why; it is an antithesis.

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them:

(Hamlet, Act III, Scene I)

Another antithesis is found in the very next lines, wherein he says whether he should suffer the pangs of his fortune or to rebel against the troubles. These are the contrasting ideas put together in this soliloquy.

Example # 2

John Milton’s famous epic, Paradise Lost, offers an excellent example of an antithesis. While discussing the expulsion of Satan from Heaven, Lucifer argues that it is better for him to rule in Hell than to serve in Heaven. The word serve and reign are opposite to each other. That’s why; it’s an antithesis.

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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.

(Paradise Lost, Book I, Lines 258-63)

Example # 3

In Hamlet, Polonius uses many antitheses in his speech while advising his son. He says:

Give every man thy ear but few thy voice.
Take each man’s censure but reserve thy judgment.

(Hamlet, Act I, Scene III)

The phrases give thy ear and give thy voice are juxtaposed. That’s why; it is an antithesis.

Example # 4

One of the best examples of antithesis is found in Charles Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities. In this excerpt, there are many examples of antithesis. Best of times is the opposite of worst of times, age of wisdom is the opposite of age of foolishness, epoch of belief is the opposite of epoch of incredulity, season of light is the opposite of darkness, spring of hope is the opposite of the winter of despair, and lastly, everything is the opposite of nothing.

"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…"

(A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens)

Example # 5

Samuel Johnson’s novel, Rasselas, contains a very beautiful antithesis. In this excerpt, the sentence, Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures, is an antithesis. The ideas as well as the words in this particular sentence are contrasted with each other. The word celibacy is the opposite of the word marriage. That’s why; it is an antithesis.

"To live without feeling or exciting sympathy, to be fortunate without adding to the felicity of others, or afflicted without tasting the balm of pity, is a state more gloomy than solitude; it is not retreat but exclusion from mankind. Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures."

(Rasselas by Samuel Johnson)

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