Explore the literary technique of juxtaposition as it uses comparison and contrast to spark meaning.
Read a thorough definition, as well as example poems, and then take a quiz to test your new expertise.
What Is Juxtaposition?
If you’ve ever been on a successful first date, it may have been successful because the person surprised you. For instance, if your first impression of a girl was that she was shy and reserved, but then she started cracking hilarious jokes when she felt at ease with you, you might have felt intrigued because your assumptions or expectations were turned upside down.
Similarly, juxtaposition in literature, or the side-by-side placement of two seemingly unrelated concepts, can ignite interest and keep a reader up all night just to see what happens next.
Juxtaposition is a literary technique that relies on comparison and contrast for its resonance with an audience.Take a look at the first paragraph from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities:‘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…
‘The novel is set in France, in the years leading up to the revolution, and continues throughout to use juxtaposition to show the discord that sparked the popular uprising that overthrew the French monarchy. In the book, when the peasantry and the aristocracy are placed side by side, a reader can truly dive into the atmosphere of the time and understand that revolution was all but inevitable.
Examples in Poetry
We can see another perfect example of juxtaposition in Dylan Thomas’ villanelle that you might remember from the 2014 sci-fi epic Interstellar, ‘Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night:’‘Do not go gentle into that good night,Old age should burn and rave at close of day;Rage, rage against the dying of the light.Though wise men at their end know dark is right,Because their words had forked no lightning theyDo not go gentle into that good night.Good men, the last wave by, crying how brightTheir frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,Rage, rage against the dying of the light.Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,Do not go gentle into that good night.Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sightBlind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.Do not go gentle into that good night.Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
‘We often think of weakness and frailty when we think of someone who is close to death, yet the speaker in this poem calls upon his father’s manhood and virility even to fight for life and put off death as long as possible. This is a juxtaposition because it places the action of rage and struggle against the action of lying down for death.Poets can also use juxtaposition to pack a punch with their raw images. Let’s check out how Patricia Smith explores the subjects of coming of age and discrimination in the poem, ‘What It’s Like to Be a Black Girl (For Those of You Who Aren’t):’first of all, it’s being 9 years old andfeeling like you’re not finished, like youredges are wild, like there’s something,everything, wrong, it’s dropping food coloringin your eyes to make them blue and sufferingtheir burn in silence. It’s popping a bleachedwhite mophead over the kinks of your hair andprimping in front of mirrors that deny yourreflection. It’s finding a space between yourlegs, a disturbance at your chest, and not knowingwhat to do with the whistles, it’s jumpingdouble dutch until your legs pop, it’s sweatand vaseline and bullets, it’s growing tall andwearing a lot of white, it’s smelling blood inyour breakfast, it’s learning to say fuck withgrace but learning to fuck without it, it’sflame and fists and life according to Motown,it’s finally having a man reach out for youthen caving inaround his fingers.
In this poem, the speaker essentially grows up before our eyes. Smith infers a rough and dangerous environment, but the juxtaposition that is particularly striking is the bodily changes the speaker experiences (‘It’s finding a space between your/legs, a disturbance at your chest’) combined with the violence of her still child-like play (‘it’s jumping double dutch until your legs pop’). We get the impression that this is all a spinning top that’s about to drop to the floor. What propels us forward in our reading is the startling contrasts.
One of the primary tropes, or figures of speech, in literature is an oxymoron, which combines contradictory terms, such as ‘cruel kindness’ or ‘burning ice.’ While not every example of juxtaposition is an oxymoron, it is common for it to be. For instance, we might encounter a villain in a story who likes to crochet or who sends cookies to his grandmother every Saturday in the post.
Juxtaposition is a literary technique that writers use to surprise and intrigue their readers by forcing comparison between two different things when they are placed side by side. It’s a device that often controls the pacing of a poem, the vividness of a given image, and the connection between diverse abstract concepts.