What is antithesis? Here’s a quick and simple definition:
Some additional key details about antithesis:
How to Pronounce Antithesis
Here's how to pronounce antithesis: an-tith-uh-sis
Antithesis and Parallelism
Often, but not always, antithesis works in tandem with parallelism. In parallelism, two components of a sentence (or pair of sentences) mirror one another by repeating grammatical elements. The following is a good example of both antithesis and parallelism:
The two clauses of the sentence are parallel because each starts off with an infinitive verb and ends with an adjective ("human" and "divine"). The mirroring of these elements then works to emphasize the contrast in their content, particularly in the very strong opposite contrast between "human" and "divine."
Antithesis Without Parallelism
In most cases, antitheses involve parallel elements of the sentence—whether a pair of nouns, verbs, adjectives, or other grammar elements. However, it is also possible to have antithesis without such clear cut parallelism. In the Temptations Song "My Girl," the singer uses antithesis when he says:
Here the sentence is clearly cut into two clauses on either side of the comma, and the contrasting elements are clear enough. However, strictly speaking there isn't true parallelism here because "cold outside" and "month of May" are different types of grammatical structures (an adjective phrase and a noun phrase, respectively).
Antithesis vs. Related Terms
Three literary terms that are often mistakenly used in the place of antithesis are juxtaposition, oxymoron, and foil. Each of these three terms does have to do with establishing a relationship of difference between two ideas or characters in a text, but beyond that there are significant differences between them.
Antithesis vs. Juxtaposition
In juxtaposition, two things or ideas are placed next to one another to draw attention to their differences or similarities. In juxtaposition, the pairing of two ideas is therefore not necessarily done to create a relationship of opposition or contradiction between them, as is the case with antithesis. So, while antithesis could be a type of juxtaposition, juxtaposition is not always antithesis.
Antithesis vs. Oxymoron
In an oxymoron, two seemingly contradictory words are placed together because their unlikely combination reveals a deeper truth. Some examples of oxymorons include:
The focus of antithesis is opposites rather than contradictions. While the words involved in oxymorons seem like they don't belong together (until you give them deeper thought), the words or ideas of antithesis do feel like they belong together even as they contrast as opposites. Further, antitheses seldom function by placing the two words or ideas right next to one another, so antitheses are usually made up of more than two words (as in, "I'd rather be among the living than among the dead").
Antithesis vs. Foil
Some Internet sources use "antithesis" to describe an author's decision to create two characters in a story that are direct opposites of one another—for instance, the protagonist and antagonist. But the correct term for this kind of opposition is a: a person or thing in a work of literature that contrasts with another thing in order to call attention to its qualities. While the sentence "the hare was fast, and the tortoise was slow" is an example of antithesis, if we step back and look at the story as a whole, the better term to describe the relationship between the characters of the tortoise and the hare is "foil," as in, "The character of the hare is a foil of the tortoise."
Antithesis in Literature
Below are examples of antithesis from some of English literature's most acclaimed writers — and a comic book!
Antithesis in Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities
In the famous opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens sets out a flowing list of antitheses punctuated by the repetition of the word "it was" at the beginning of each clause (which is itself an example of the figure of speech anaphora). By building up this list of contrasts, Dickens sets the scene of the French Revolution that will serve as the setting of his tale by emphasizing the division and confusion of the era. The overwhelming accumulation of antitheses is also purposefully overdone; Dickens is using hyperbole to make fun of the "noisiest authorities" of the day and their exaggerated claims. The passage contains many examples of antithesis, each consisting of one pair of contrasting ideas that we've highlighted to make the structure clearer.
Antithesis in John Milton's Paradise Lost
In this verse from Paradise Lost, Milton's antithesis drives home the double contrast between Hell and Heaven, and between ruling and serving., Satan, claims he's happier as the king of Hell than he could ever have been as a servant in Heaven. He justifies his rebellion against God with this pithy phrase, and the
Antithesis in William Shakespeare's Othello
As the plot of Othello nears its climax, the antagonist of the play, Iago, pauses for a moment to acknowledge the significance of what is about to happen. Iago uses antithesis to contrast the two opposite potential outcomes of his villainous plot: either events will transpire in Iago's favor and he will come out on top, or his treachery will be discovered, ruining him.
In this passage, the simple word "either" functions as a cue for the reader to expect some form of parallelism, because the "either" signals that a contrast between two things is coming.
Antithesis in William Shakespeare's Hamlet
Shakespeare's plays are full of antithesis, and so is Hamlet's most well-known "To be or not to be" soliloquy. This excerpt of the soliloquy is a good example of an antithesis that is not limited to a single word or short phrase. The first instance of antithesis here, where Hamlet announces the guiding question ("to be or not to be") is followed by an elaboration of each idea ("to be" and "not to be") into metaphors that then form their own antithesis. Both instances of antithesis hinge on an "or" that divides the two contrasting options.
Antithesis in T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets"
In this excerpt from his poem "Four Quartets," T.S. Eliot uses antithesis to describe the cycle of life, which is continuously passing from beginning to end, from rise to fall, and from old to new.
Antithesis in Green Lantern's Oath
Comic book writers know the power of antithesis too! In this catchy oath, Green Lantern uses antithesis to emphasize that his mission to defeat evil will endure no matter the conditions.
While most instances of antithesis are built around an "or" that signals the contrast between the two parts of the sentence, the Green Lantern oath works a bit differently. It's built around an implied "and" (to be technical, that first line of the oath is an asyndeton that replaces the "and" with a comma), because members of the Green Lantern corps are expressing their willingness to fight evil in all places, even very opposite environments.
Antithesis in Speeches
Many well-known speeches contain examples of antithesis. Speakers use antithesis to drive home the stakes of what they are saying, sometimes by contrasting two distinct visions of the future.
Antithesis in Patrick Henry's Speech to the Second Virginia Convention, 1775
This speech by famous American patriot Patrick Henry includes one of the most memorable and oft-quoted phrases from the era of the American Revolution. Here, Henry uses antithesis to emphasize just how highly he prizes liberty, and how deadly serious he is about his fight to achieve it.
Antithesis in Martin Luther King Jr.'s Oberlin Commencement Address
In this speech by one of America's most well-known orators, antithesis allows Martin Luther King Jr. to highlight the contrast between two visions of the future; in the first vision, humans rise above their differences to cooperate with one another, while in the other humanity is doomed by infighting and division.
Antithesis in Songs
In songs, contrasting two opposite ideas using antithesis can heighten the dramatic tension of a difficult decision, or express the singer's intense emotion—but whatever the context, antithesis is a useful tool for songwriters mainly because opposites are always easy to remember, so lyrics that use antithesis tend to stick in the head.
Antithesis in "Should I Stay or Should I Go" by The Clash (1981)
In this song by The Clash, the speaker is caught at a crossroads between two choices, and antithesis serves as the perfect tool to express just how confused and conflicted he is. The rhetorical question—whether to stay or to go—presents two opposing options, and the contrast between his lover's mood from one day (when everything is "fine") to the next (when it's all "black") explains the difficulty of his choice.
Antithesis in "My Girl" by the Temptations (1965)
In this song, the singer uses a pair of metaphors to describe the feeling of joy that his lover brings him. This joy is expressed through antithesis, since the singer uses the miserable weather of a cloudy, cold day as the setting for the sunshine-filled month of May that "his girl" makes him feel inside, emphasizing the power of his emotions by contrasting them with the bleak weather.
Why Do Writers Use Antithesis?
Fundamentally, writers of all types use antithesis for its ability to create a clear contrast. This contrast can serve a number of purposes, as shown in the examples above. It can:
Whatever the case, antithesis almost always has the added benefit of making language more memorable to listeners and readers. The use of parallelism and other simple grammatical constructions like "either/or" help to establish opposition between concepts—and opposites have a way of sticking in the memory.
Other Helpful Antithesis Resources