Definition of Juxtaposition

As a literary technique, the juxtaposition definition is to place two concepts, characters, ideas, or places near or next to each other so that the reader will compare and contrast them. This technique also may imply a link that is not necessarily real or to be trusted.

The word juxtaposition comes from the Latin for “side by side” with “position,” originally a French word that became standardized into English. In grammar, the use of juxtaposition is the absence of conjunctions when grouping words in a list, such as omitting the “but” or “and.”

Common Examples of Juxtaposition

Many proverbs in English include examples of juxtaposition, as the contrasts between concepts can provide a lesson.

  • What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. In this case, the female goose is a contrast to the male gander, yet what is good for one is good for the other. This means that whatever is good for an individual is for the good of all.
  • When it rains, it pours. In this case, there is a contrast of magnitude. The literal meaning is that when it rains, one can expect a downpour. The proverbial meaning is that when one thing goes right many things will go right, or, conversely, when one thing goes wrong everyone goes wrong.
  • All’s fair in love and war. Love and war are opposites, and yet this proverb shows that they have one thing in common which is that anything goes. This juxtaposition demonstrates that there is more alike between the concepts of love and war than one might originally think.
  • Better late than never. While being late is a negative thing, the possibility of something never happening or someone never arriving is much worse. Therefore, this juxtaposition puts things into perspective.
  • Beggars can’t be choosers. To beg and to choose are opposite functions, and this proverb implies that in fact one cannot be both desperate and have any choice in the decision or result.
  • Making a mountain out of a molehill. Once again, this is a juxtaposition of magnitude. A molehill is almost invisible compared to a mountain. This proverb warns not to magnify a problem that is, in fact, not such a big deal.
  • When the cat’s away the mice will play. In this contrast, the cat is an authority figure while the mice are the subservient creatures, being the natural prey of cats. This proverb means that without an authority figure watching over people will do what they want. This can be either a positive negative thing, depending on the usage (for example, it can be a positive thing to remove a repressive authorial force, yet it can be negative if chaos breaks out without order enforced).
  • You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. In this contrast between old and new, the proverb indicates that once someone has gotten either literally too old or metaphorically too stuck in a way of thinking there is no way to change that person’s mind or manners.

Difference Between Juxtaposition and Foil

The concept of the foil in literature refers to a character with whom another character (most often the protagonist) can be contrasted. A foil either has completely opposite characteristics from the main character, or is very similar and yet has one striking difference or makes one strikingly different decision. The foil character can then be a way to show what would have happened if the protagonist had made a different choice or had started off in a slightly or completely different condition. A good example of a foil character is Draco Malfoy in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. He and Harry start at school together, but, due to their different personalities and upbringings, make drastically different decisions and end up on opposite sides of the final battle.

A foil character can be seen as a special case of juxtaposition, as the definition of juxtaposition covers contrasting concepts of any type, including contrasts between characters.

Examples of Juxtaposition from Literature

Example #1

IAGO: Zounds, sir, you’re robbed! For shame, put on your gown.
Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul.
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise,
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you.
Arise, I say!

(Othello by Shakespeare)

Much of the drama in Shakespeare’s play Othello hinges on the bigoted attitudes that characters have about the interracial relationship between Othello the Moor and Desdemona, a Venetian beauty. There are several instances throughout the play that juxtapose Othello’s dark skin with Desdemona’s light skin, implying a moral judgment about the divergent natures of the two lovers. In this excerpt, the villain Iago refers to Othello as “an old black ram” and Desdemona as a “white ewe” to inflame the anger of Desdemona’s father. Though Othello was well respected in Venice before his relationship with Desdemona, the juxtaposition of his darkness with Desdemona’s lightness casts a shadow over Othello’s character and there is an assumption that he has ruined her innocence.

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)

This famous opening to Charles Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities contains many juxtaposition examples. There are many functions that these juxtapositions play. The title already sets up the idea of comparison, in that there are two cities, and indeed the entire novel is full of doubles. This passage sets up the expectation of that theme continuing, while also showing the intense struggle between love and hatred, freedom and oppression, and good and evil that lead up to the French Revolution.

Example #3

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

(Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy)

This is another famous opening line to a novel. Tolstoy posits a difference between happy families and unhappy families, and the ways in which they function. Whether the juxtaposition leads to a true statement is highly debatable, yet the quote is often repeated. This line creates the desire in the reader to know the exact way in which the unhappy family in the novel is unhappy.

Example #4

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

(“The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost)

Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” contains the literal juxtaposition of two paths, which translates into the metaphorical juxtaposition of two potential decisions. Frost regrets not being able to try both options, but ends up choosing the road that looks less traveled. Though many understand the poem to encourage readers to choose the less popular option, the poem is titled “The Road Not Taken,” meaning that the speaker still wonders what would have happened if he had made the other choice. The juxtaposition in the poem shows that one cannot have it both ways.

Test Your Knowledge of Juxtaposition

1. What is the difference between a foil and juxtaposition?
A. A foil is a way to disturb the plot, while juxtaposition moves the plot forward.
B. Juxtaposition refers to the contrast between concepts, places, or characters, while a foil is a character that contrasts only with one other character.
C. A foil has to do with character, while juxtaposition is purely a grammatical device.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: B is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. Consider the following proverb: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Why is this a juxtaposition example?
A. In this case, dogs are being personified as able to learn tricks.
B. The reverse psychology of this proverb implies that you can indeed learn new things when you’ve gotten older.
C. The contrast between old and new demonstrates the difficulty of learning new things at an old age or after getting stuck in one’s ways.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: C is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

3. What is the function of the juxtaposition of Othello’s darker skin color with Desdemona’s lighter skin color?
A. To imply that Othello is somehow evil while Desdemona is completely innocent.
B. To incite the anger of Desdemona’s father and other Venetian statesmen.
C. To create suspicion about Othello’s moral character.
D. All of the above.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: D is the correct answer.[/spoiler]