juxtaposition definition: what is juxtaposition in literature

Juxtaposition Definition: What is Juxtaposition in Literature?

Juxtaposition occurs any time a writer places multiple ideas or images next to each other, without drawing a clear relationship between them. It is, in other words, the art of encouraging inference, because juxtaposition encourages the reader to draw their own conclusions about the relationships between different things.

Juxtaposition is a wildly underrated tool in the writer’s toolbox. If you want to write multifaceted stories or poems with depth and intrigue, this common literary device helps writers develop ideas, themes, and nuances in their work.

What is juxtaposition? How does it operate? This article studies the purpose of juxtaposition in literature, demonstrating how writers create engaging, interpretable texts. Along the way, we’ll examine literary juxtaposition examples across different genres of literature.

Let’s start by defining what this device is and isn’t. What is juxtaposition?

Juxtaposition Definition

Juxtaposition refers to the close placement of contrasting ideas, images, or entities, with the intent of highlighting the contrast between those entities. In other words, it is the implied comparison of distinct ideas, creating space for the reader to understand and interpret the text.

Juxtaposition is an implied comparison of distinct ideas.

Two Examples of Juxtaposition

This is much easier demonstrated than defined. Consider the following excerpt from The Idiot by Elif Batuman:

“I kept thinking about the uneven quality of time—the way it was almost always so empty, and then with no warning came a few days that felt so dense and alive and real that it seemed indisputable that that was what life was, that its real nature had finally been revealed. But then time passed and unthinkably grew dead again, and it turned out that that fullness had been an aberration and might never come back.”

In this passage, the narrator, Selin, juxtaposes two types of time: periods when time moves swift and full, in which everything seems alive and meaningful, and periods in which time slogs on in its slow and steady emptiness.

Careful consideration of the text prompts the reader to ask more questions. Like: how can one meaningfully fill the “dead” time? How does one manage to feel alive when life itself doesn’t feel that way? Have people always felt like this, or is it a product of modern society? Is the real nature of our lives defined by the full periods, or the quiet, quotidian ones?

These sorts of questions and observations are essential to engaging with complex texts, and are brought about directly because of juxtaposition.

We will look at more juxtaposition examples later in this article, but here’s one more. The novel The Double by Fyodor Dostoevsky follows Mr. Golyadkin, a minor civil servant whose position is being replaced by a man with the exact same name and physical image.

Golyadkin senior, the protagonist, is honest, trustworthy, and well-intentioned, but he comes off as awkward, pretentious, and vapid. Golyadkin junior, the double, is backstabbing and dishonorable, but because he is socially adept and unctuous, he is able to flatter his way, quickly, through high society.

It is easy to see the juxtaposition of these two people as black and white: Golyadkin senior is a good person, and Golyadkin junior is bad. But juxtaposition encourages us to think with nuance, rather than with binaries. There is something to be said about Golyadkin senior’s self-important innocence, and the way he tries to weaponize his self-pity, making it everyone else’s problem. Golyadkin junior, meanwhile, is certainly a self-interested backstabber, but he is also trying to survive in a bureaucratic game designed for unctuousness.

The juxtaposition of these two halves pushes the reader to question absolutes like “right and wrong,” as there is, indeed, no black and white answer to abstract problems like this.

Before we move on to some juxtaposition examples in literature, let’s briefly clarify what juxtaposition is not.

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Antithesis vs. Juxtaposition

Antithesis is a device in which two completely contradictory ideas are placed side by side. We actually use antithesis often in everyday speech, such as “get busy living or get busy dying,” or the phrase “go big or go home.” In these idioms, two opposing ideas directly abut one another.

Antithesis is, in essence, a form of juxtaposition. However, antithesis does not require nearly as much interpretation, since the two juxtaposed items are polar opposites. An easy distinction is that antithesis relies on concrete binaries, whereas juxtaposition is open to nuance.

Antithesis vs. juxtaposition: antithesis relies on concrete binaries, whereas juxtaposition is open to nuance.

Oxymoron Vs. Juxtaposition

An oxymoron is when two contradictory words are combined into a phrase. A Shakespearean example of this is a “wise fool”—on the surface, it seems impossible for a fool to be wise, but careful consideration of these words might spotlight the nuances in both words.

An oxymoron operates similarly to a juxtaposition, but is not always one. We can consider “wise fool” to be a juxtaposition, because the phrase encourages us to consider the limitations of each word. Can wisdom be foolish? Can a fool be wise?

However, an oxymoron like “unbiased opinion” would not be a juxtaposition. All opinions are biased; this phrase does not generate an implied comparison, because “unbiased” is modifying the noun “opinion” in a narrow, uninterpretable way.

So, an oxymoron is a juxtaposition when two contrasting words are placed side by side in a nuanced, thought-provoking way. Since many phrases, like “false truth” or “big little lies” do not generate new and interesting relationships between words, many oxymorons are not juxtapositions.

That said, an oxymoron can be turned into a juxtaposition, if the phrase is expanded into a thought-provoking comparison. For example, “big little lies” could be expanded into “the big lies are predictable; the little lies are lethal.”

Oxymoron vs. juxtaposition: an oxymoron is a self-contradictory phrase, whereas juxtaposition is a nuanced comparison of dissimilar ideas. Some oxymorons can double as juxtapositions.

Incongruous Juxtaposition Definition

Lastly, let’s look at a special form of this device: incongruous juxtaposition.

Also known as the juxtaposition of incongruous features, incongruous juxtaposition refers to the placement of two surprisingly different entities next to each other, often for humorous effect. The emphasis here is on surprising: incongruous juxtaposition should situate two or more ideas/images that really do not belong together.

Incongruous juxtaposition definition: the placement of two surprisingly different entities next to each other, often for humorous effect.

You will see this device employed most often in satire. For example, consider the Onion article “Indoor Cat Wouldn’t Last A Day In The High-Octane World Of Street Racing.” The title alone is an incongruous juxtaposition: when one thinks about an indoor cat, they will never associate that cat with high-octane street racing.

Literary Juxtaposition Examples

The following juxtaposition examples all come from published works of literature, most of which were written by contemporary authors.

Juxtaposition in Poetry

Excerpt of “Shapechangers in Winter” by Margaret Atwood

Every cell
in our bodies has renewed itself
so many times since then, there’s
not much left, my love,
of the originals. We’re footprints
becoming limestone, or think of it
as coal becoming diamond. Less
flexible, but more condensed;
and no more scales or aliases,
at least on the outside. Though we’ve accumulated,
despite ourselves, other disguises:
you as a rumpled elephant—
hide suitcase with white fur,
me as a bramble bush. Well, the hair
was always difficult. Then there’s
the eye problems: too close, too far, you’re a blur.
I used to say I’d know you anywhere,
but it’s getting harder.

Retrieved here. 

Part of a much longer poem about aging and love, this excerpt juxtaposes youth and old age very cleverly through the line “less flexible, but more condensed.” Imagery like “footprints becoming limestone” or “coal becoming diamond” underscore this juxtaposition, offering two very different ways to understand aging: one is a fossil, the other is a piece of beautiful stone. The result is a multifaceted examination of old age: it certainly has its difficulties, like beginning to not recognize your lover. But, it also brings wisdom and experience, which lend themselves to a more meaningful life.

Excerpt from “in the event i become some unrecognizable beast” by Aurielle Marie

reader, it is so simple:
i am a tender bird
parading as this vulture.

i love things unto their very bone
& yet have always
held grief a fragile vein
or deprived myself its honey.

Retrieved here. 

There are two interesting juxtapositions here: the tender bird & the vulture, and love & grief. Obviously, these juxtaposition examples are interrelated, and the implication is that the bird holds love while the vulture holds grief. But, since the vulture is a costume that the tender bird dons, we start to understand the speaker as someone who dresses up as a predator to avoid the grief of love, thus losing out on the “honey” of love itself.

Excerpt from “Mural” by Mahmoud Darwish (trans. John Berger & Rema Hammami)

I am the stranger from all I was given by my language
And if I’ve given my affections to Arabic
They have surrendered me to the feminine participle
And the words when far
are a land bordering a distant star
And the words when near
are an exile
And writing is not enough for me to declare:
I found my presence filling in absence
and whenever I searched for myself I found others
and whenever I searched for them I found only myself
the stranger
Am I a crowd of one?

Retrieved from Mural

This excerpt builds an interesting relationship between “words” and “lands” through the juxtaposition of two similes. Words “when far” are a land that’s lightyears away; when close, words are a land of “exile.” Much of Darwish’s poetry explores his experiences of having fled Palestine in his childhood; while one can certainly understand the speaker’s sense of alienation with this context, the writing can also be applied to a broader immigrant and diaspora experience, as forced displacement pushes people away from their homelands, their language, and often themselves.

Juxtaposition in Literature

Excerpt from “A Love Song” by Andre Dubus

And [she’d] loved him with a passion whose deeper and quicker current through the years delighted her, gave at times a light to her eyes, a hue of rose to her cheeks; loved him, too, with the sudden and roiling passion of consolable wrath.

Retrieved from his collection Dancing After Hours.

This excerpt juxtaposes two different types of love: one of passionate delight, and one of roiling wrath. The implied comparison is that each contradictory form of love is “two sides of the same coin,” so to speak. With the inclusion of the oxymoron “consolable wrath,” this excerpt showcases the self-contradictory nature of love and its ability to manifest in many different forms.

Excerpt from “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift

The following quote is confusing without context. In brief, this is a satirical essay that suggests that the people of Ireland should start cooking their 1 year old children in order to stave off their famine. The essay includes the social, political, health, and economic benefits of such a proposal, but the point is to satirize the British empire for willfully starving Ireland.

There is likewise another great advantage in my scheme, that it will prevent those voluntary abortions, and that horrid practice of women murdering their bastard children, alas too frequent among us, sacrificing the poor innocent babes, I doubt, more to avoid the expense than the shame, which would move tears and pity in the most savage and inhuman breast.

Retrieved here.

This excerpt juxtaposes “bastard children” with “innocent babes,” with the intent of furthering the author’s argument in favor of cooking children. “Bastard children” has a rather cynical connotation: it makes the children seem wretched and useless. This is highlighted by the phrase “innocent babes,” which has a wholly different connotation, sympathizing with the plight of starving children.

The purpose of juxtaposition here is to highlight the difference between the current world and the world that the author proposes. They are “bastard children” when they must be aborted; they are “innocent babes” when their births are expensive and shameful. Waiting a year to cook these children is the most elegant solution to this shame and expense. Don’t miss the irony here: either the children aren’t born, or they’re killed at one year of age, but because of the juxtaposition, you almost miss out on this ironic twist.

Excerpt from The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence

[He] went up to his room and lay staring out at the stars of the summer night, his whole being in a whirl. What was it all? There was a life so different from what he knew it. What was there outside his knowledge, how much? What was this that he had touched? What was he in this new influence? What did everything mean? Where was life, in that which he knew or all outside him?

Retrieved here.

The last line of this excerpt is a thought-provoking juxtaposition: does life exist inside what the protagonist knows, or is life everything the protagonist hasn’t experienced? The simple answer is, both. But, what this excerpt really wants us to do is consider the relationship between life and experience: are we truly alive when we spend our days surrounded by experiences we’ve already had? Is there life without challenges, discomforts, personal growth?

The Purpose of Juxtaposition

Juxtaposition creates windows of interpretation in the text. By implying a relationship between two distinct ideas or images, the writer encourages the reader to form their own opinions and ask complex questions. The purpose of juxtaposition varies between genres—the way you employ this device in poetry will differ from how you employ it in prose and, more specifically, satire. Nonetheless, comparing and contrasting different ideas creates nuances in the text, and the effect of juxtaposition is that the writing becomes more thought-provoking and interpretable for the reader.

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