Definition of Antithesis

Antithesis is the use of contrasting concepts, words, or sentences within parallel grammatical structures. This combination of a balanced structure with opposite ideas serves to highlight the contrast between them. For example, the following famous Muhammad Ali quote is an example of antithesis: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” This is an antithesis example because there is the contrast between the animals and their actions (the peaceful floating butterfly versus the aggressive stinging bee) combined with the parallel grammatical structure of similes indicated by “like a.” Ali is indicating the contrasting skills necessary to be a good boxer.

Difference Between Antithesis and Juxtaposition

Antithesis is very similar to juxtaposition, as juxtaposition also sets two different things close to each other to emphasize the difference between them. However, juxtaposition does not necessarily deal with completely opposite ideas—sometimes the juxtaposition may be between two similar things so that the reader will notice the subtle differences. Juxtaposition also does not necessitate a parallel grammatical structure. The definition of antithesis requires this balanced grammatical structure.

Common Examples of Antithesis

The use of antithesis is very popular in speeches and common idioms, as the inherent contrasts often make antithesis quite memorable. Here are some examples of antithesis from famous speeches:

  • “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.” –John F. Kennedy Jr.
  • “We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” –Barack Obama
  • “Decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent.” –Winston Churchill
  • “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” –Abraham Lincoln

Significance of Antithesis in Literature

Antithesis can be a helpful tool for the author both to show a character’s mindset and to set up an argument. If the antithesis is something that the character is thinking, the audience can better understand the full scope of that character’s thoughts. While antithesis is not the most ubiquitous of literary devices, some authors use antithesis quite extensively, such as William Shakespeare. Many of his sonnets and plays include examples of antithesis.

Examples of Antithesis in Literature

Example #1

HAMLET: 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 by William Shakespeare)

Arguably the most famous six words in all of Shakespeare’s work are an example of antithesis. Hamlet considers the important question of “to be, or not to be.” In this line, he is considering the very nature of existence itself. Though the line is quite simple in form it contrasts these very important opposite states. Hamlet sets up his soliloquy with this antithesis and continues with others, including the contrast between suffering whatever fortune has to offer or opposing his troubles. This is a good example of Shakespeare using antithesis to present to the audience or readers Hamlet’s inner life and the range of his thinking.

Example #2

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)

The opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities employs many different literary devices all at once. There are many examples of antithesis back-to-back, starting with the first contrast between “the best of times” and “the worst of times.” Each pair of contrasting opposites uses a parallel structure to emphasize their differences. Dickens uses these antithetical pairs to show what a tumultuous time it was during the setting of his book. In this case, the use of antithesis is a rhetorical device that foreshadows the conflicts that will be central to the novel.

Example #3

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

(Catch-22 by Joseph Heller)

In Joseph Heller’s classic anti-war novel Catch-22, Heller uses a specific type of humor in which antithetical statements show the true absurdity of war. This very famous quote explains the concept of the “Catch-22,” which became a popular idiomatic expression because of the book. In fact, this example is not so much an antithetical statement but instead an antithetical situation. That is to say, the two possible outcomes for Orr are opposite: either he’s deemed crazy and would thus not be forced to fly any more combat missions, or he’s sane and then would indeed have to fly them. However, the one situation negates the possibility of the other, as only a sane man would be clear-headed enough to ask not to fly more missions.

Example #4

This case is not a difficult one, it requires no minute sifting of complicated facts, but it does require you to be sure beyond all reasonable doubt as to the guilt of the defendant.

(To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)

In Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is a lawyer representing Tom Robinson. Atticus presents the above statement to the jury, setting up an antithesis. He asserts that the case is not difficult and yet requires the jury to be absolutely sure of their decision. Atticus believes the case to have a very obvious conclusion, and hopes that the jury will agree with him, but he is also aware of the societal tensions at work that will complicate the case.

Test Your Knowledge of Antithesis

1. What is the correct antithesis definition?
A. Using two very similar concepts and showing their subtle differences.
B. Setting up a contrast between two opposite ideas or phrases in a balanced grammatical structure.
C. Using words to convey an opposite meaning to their literal sense.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. What is the difference between antithesis and juxtaposition?
A. They are exactly the same device.
B. They are completely different literary devices.
C. Antithesis parallels opposite concepts, while juxtaposition sets up a comparison and contrast between two concepts that can be either similar or different.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following quotes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth contains an example of antithesis?

WITCHES: Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air.


MACBETH: Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand?


WITCHES: Something wicked this way comes.

Answer to Question #3 Show

4. Which of the following quotes from Heller’s Catch-22 contains an example of antithesis?
A. There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Surely so many counties can’t all be worth dying for.
B. He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up was to come down alive.
C. You’re inches away from death every time you go on a mission. How much older can you be at your age?

Answer to Question #4 Show


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