Definition of Paradox

When used as a literary device, a paradox is the juxtaposition of a set of seemingly contradictory concepts that reveal a hidden and/or unexpected truth. The paradox may be hard or even impossible to believe, yet usually the contradiction can be reconciled if the reader thinks about the juxtaposition more deeply. In literature, paradoxes can usually be classified either as situational or rhetorical. For example, if characters find themselves in difficult to reconcile circumstances, this would be a situational paradox (see Example #4 below), whereas if a character makes a seemingly anomalous statement, this would be rhetorical paradox (see Example #3).

There are many different paradox definitions, depending on the field in which it is used. Some paradoxes of logic actually do not have a resolution, such as the liar’s paradox, which is explored below.

Common Examples of Paradox

There are many famous examples of paradox from logicians and philosophers. One of the most famous paradoxes is called the liar’s paradox, and is evident in the following sentence: “This statement is false.” Another variation of the liar’s paradox would be, “Everything I say is a lie.” In both sentences, there is an inherent impossibility presented in just a few words. Here are more examples of paradox:

  • Zeno’s Paradox: You can never get from point A to point B, as first you must travel half the distance, and then half the distance left, ad infinitum.
  • Barber Paradox: A male barber shaves all and only those men who don’t shave themselves. Does he shave himself?
  • Schrödinger’s Cat Paradox: A cat is in a box with a small amount of radioactive substance that could kill it. The cat could be either alive or dead while the box is closed; until someone opens the box to check, the cat exists in both states. (Note: Schrödinger created this thought experiment to display what he considered the absurdity of quantum mechanics).

Many famous quotes also contain paradoxes:

  • “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” -Gandhi
  • “It’s weird not to be weird.” -John Lennon
  • “Life is a preparation for the future; and the best preparation for the future is to live as if there were none.” -Albert Einstein
  • “I know one thing: that I know nothing.” -Socrates (via Plato)

Significance of Paradox in Literature

Paradoxes can be a good way to test the limits of understanding and can lead to unexpected insights. The Irish writer Oscar Wilde was particularly noted for his use of paradoxes. In The Picture of Dorian Grey, Wilde writes, “Well, the way of paradoxes is the way of truth. To test reality we must see it on the tight rope. When the verities become acrobats, we can judge them.” Authors have used paradoxes in their works for many centuries to explore certain situational complications and the extent of human judgment.

Examples of Paradox in Literature

Example #1

Before anyone crosses this bridge, he must first state on oath where he is going and for what purpose. If he swears truly, he may be allowed to pass; but if he tells a lie, he shall suffer death by hanging on the gallows there displayed, without any hope of mercy…Now it happened that they once put a man on his oath, and he swore that he was going to die on the gallows there—and that was all. After due deliberation the judges pronounced as follows: “If we let this man pass freely he will have sworn a false oath and, according to the law, he must die; but he swore that he was going to die on the gallows, and if we hang him that will be the truth, so by the same law he should go free.”

(Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra)

This excerpt from Cervantes’s masterpiece Don Quixote is a complex example of the liar’s paradox. The prisoner who crosses the bridge tells the truth, and thus the judges feel required to let him go free on account of that. If he had lied he would have been hung on the gallows, but as that was already his fate the judges reverse his fortunes by honoring his truth telling.

Example #2

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.

(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)

Shakespeare used many examples of paradox in his plays and poems, and this is just one such example. The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is based on a paradox. Juliet expresses it in this quote, that her “only love sprung from [her] only hate.” It is unexpected that love should spring from hate to the extent that it seems impossible. However, the story of Romeo and Juliet shows the deeper truth of love and hate—they are not so irreconcilable after all.

Example #3

CECILY: To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.

(The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde)

Oscar Wilde incorporated many paradox examples in his works especially for comedic effect. In this example from his play The Importance of Being Earnest, the character Cecily complains about the difficulty of keeping up the “pose” of naturalness. Of course, posing is antithetical to being natural. However, the inner truth of this statement is that being natural is sometimes a state that we have to pretend at in that it doesn’t always come easily.

Example #4

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)

The concept of a catch-22 is a paradox that is now commonly understood. Heller named this paradox in his eponymous World War II novel. It is a situation in which someone is in need of something that can only be had by not being in need of it. The two opposing needs in this situation are at odds with each other, and, as in most cases of catch-22 paradoxes, they are both completely logical. However, the two situations cancel out the possibility of either one occurring.

Example #5

In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy.

(1984 by George Orwell)

George Orwell’s futuristic dystopian novel contains many examples of paradox. The ruling party in 1984 stands by three paradoxical statements: “War is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength.” All of these paradoxes show the inner contradictions of this new society. Orwell shows, though, how the government and the citizens are able to internalize these paradoxes and make them into reality. The excerpt above describes in further detail how the Party requires everyone to believe in clearly illogical concepts.

Test Your Knowledge of Paradox

1. Which of the following statements is the best definition of paradox as a literary device?
A. A seemingly absurd or illogical set of statements that reveal an unanticipated truth.
B. Two or more statements that are irreconcilable with each other.
C. Parallel ideas that lead to a new conclusion.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following statements is an example of the liar’s paradox?
A. I have never lied.
B. The Cretans are always liars. (Spoken by a Cretan)
C. He lied to me.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following Oscar Wilde statements is a paradox?
A. I have the simplest tastes. I am always satisfied with the best.
B. All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.
C. I can resist everything except temptation.

Answer to Question #3 Show