Definition of Contrast

A contrast in literature is any difference between two or more tangible or abstract entities, such as characters, settings, opinions, tones, and so on. Contrast generally involves a juxtaposition of two unlike things in order to showcase their differences.

The word “contrast” came originally from the Latin words contra- and stare, meaning “against” and “stand,” respectively. The definition of contrast developed in the seventeenth century as a term in find art, in which it meant to use juxtaposition to bring out differences in color and form.

Common Examples of Contrast

Many famous speeches includes examples of contrast to make their points. We can see some of these contrasts in the following quotes:

The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states-red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.

—Barack Obama, Keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

—Martin Luther King, Jr., “I have a dream” speech

We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills.

—Winston Churchill, “We shall fight on the beaches” speech

Some nursery rhymes incorporate contrast examples to make them memorable, such as the following ones:

Jack Sprat could eat no fat.
His wife could eat no lean.
And so between them both, you see,
They licked the platter clean.

This little piggy went to market,
This little piggy stayed home,
This little piggy had roast beef,
This little piggy had none.
This little piggy went wee, wee, wee
All the way home!

Significance of Contrast in Literature

There are many reasons that an author might want to use contrast in a work of literature. In some cases, especially in the quotes from speeches above, contrast is actually used to unite concepts. The contrasts in these speeches show the wide range of experience and how, in fact, there is no permanent separation from one seemingly different thing and another.

Some poets use elaborate contrasts to create an overall conceit or argument. A surprising analogy was devised between two things to get the reader to consider them afresh. Poets also might show that two things that seemed similar are, in fact, quite different. The literary use of contrast is opposite to the device of simile.

Examples of Contrast in Literature

Example #1

ROMEO: But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.

(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)

Romeo compares his love Juliet to the sun, and uses that metaphor to contrast her to “the envious moon.” In this lovely excerpt from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet we see the type of contrast that works to heighten the beauty of the speaker’s beloved.

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 – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

(A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens)

Charles Dickens’s opening paragraph in his novel A Tale of Two Cities is a famous example of contrasts. He uses many antithesis examples to show how confusing the time in question was. The contrasts lead the reader to believe that a range of experiences could be found in the two cities in this era, depending on someone’s background. It could either be the best of times for many different reasons laid out, or the worst of times. Similar to the speeches above, the contrasts in this paragraph help to create a wider sense of the setting.

Example #3

From his first memory Cal had craved warmth and affection, just as everyone does. If he had been an only child or if Aron had been a different kind of boy, Cal might have achieved his relationship normally and easily. But from the very first people were won instantly to Aron by his beauty and his simplicity. Cal very naturally competed for attention and affection in the only way he knew—by trying to imitate Aron. And what was charming in the blond ingenuousness of Aron became suspicious and unpleasant in the dark-faced, slit-eyed Cal. And since he was pretending, his performance was not convincing. Where Aron was received, Cal was rebuffed for doing or saying exactly the same thing.

(East of Eden by John Steinbeck)

The brothers Cal and Aron in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden represent a modern interpretation of the Biblical brothers Cain and Abel. Just as with the two original brothers, Cal and Aron are opposite each other. As shown above, Aron is a beautiful, blond, charming child and Cal is “dark-faced” and “slit-eyed.” The contrast between them leads to many difficulties for both boys, and the differences in their characters will put them on different life paths.

Example #4

You might belong in Gryffindor,
Where dwell the brave at heart,
Their daring, nerve, and chivalry
Set Gryffindors apart;

You might belong in Hufflepuff,
Where they are just and loyal,
Those patient Hufflepuffs are true
And unafraid of toil;

Or yet in wise old Ravenclaw,
if you’ve a ready mind,
Where those of wit and learning,
Will always find their kind;

Or perhaps in Slytherin
You’ll make your real friends,
Those cunning folks use any means
To achieve their ends.

(Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling)

When new students arrive at the wizarding school Hogwarts they are greeted by a Sorting Hat, which puts them in one of four houses. As J. K. Rowling writes above in the first installment of the Harry Potter series, the hat explains the four houses: Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin. There are many contrasts between the houses themselves and what kind of people are usually placed in these houses. Though the houses serve to provide a peer group for Hogwarts students, later on the Sorting Hat advises to do away with houses so as to erase the boundaries that separate the students.

Test Your Knowledge of Contrast

1. Which of the following statements is the best contrast definition?
A. A comparison between two similar things to show how they are alike.
B. A juxtaposition between two things that are dissimilar.
C. A method of standing against something.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: B is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. Which of the following statements is true?
A. Contrast is used to make value judgments about how one thing is good and another thing is bad.
B. Contrast examples are not found in literature prior to the seventeenth century.
C. Contrast is opposite to simile.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: C is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

3. Which of the following lines from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet contains an example of contrast?


JULIET: My only love sprung from my only hate!
Too early seen unknown, and known too late!
Prodigious birth of love it is to me,
That I must love a loathèd enemy.


JULIET: O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name.



MERCUTIO: I am hurt.
A plague o’ both your houses! I am sped.
Is he gone and hath nothing?

[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: A is the correct answer.[/spoiler]