Antithesis (ann-TIH-thuh-suhs), put simply, means the absolute opposite of something. As a literary term, it refers to the juxtaposition of two opposing entities in parallel structure. Antithesis is an effective literary device because humans tend to define through contrast. Therefore, antithesis can help readers understand something by defining its opposite.
Antithesis comes from the Latin word, via Greek, for “to place against.” It was first used in English in the 1520s as rhetorical term, but the concept goes back at least as far as Aristotle, who believed an argument could be strengthened by illustrating it with contrast.
Examples of Antithesis
- “Spicy food is heaven on the tongue but hell in the tummy.” The concepts of heaven and hell are opposites—the former being very pleasant and ideal, the latter being highly undesirable. This antithetical statement is using these concepts to convey that spicy food is delicious, but it can lead to an unfortunate digestive reaction.
- “I’m either an impressive vegetarian or a disappointing vegan.” On the scale between vegetarianism and the stricter veganism, the speaker’s current diet lies somewhere in the middle. So, while a vegetarian might applaud their efforts, a vegan might berate them for being so lax.
- “Psychiatrists write prescriptions, therapists prescribe writing.” This example includes a humorous inversion to explain the difference between psychiatrists and therapists. The former prescribes medicine to address mental issues on a biological level, while the latter might suggest a more psychologically focused approach, like journaling, as a way of easing mental stress.
Antithesis vs. Other Comparative Terms
Dichotomy is a division between two entities, whereas antithesis pits two opposing entities against each other. For example, the colors black and white are considered opposites, but they are not in opposition; they can’t be in conflict nor do they cancel each other out. The concepts of war and peace, on the other hand, are at odds and can’t be reconciled.
An oxymoron is a contradiction in terms, but unlike antithesis, these terms are working together. The basic oxymoron construction is a word + an antonymic modifier, and the two essentially function as a single unit. For example, calling something a “minor crisis” is an oxymoron because minor implies something insignificant, while crisis means it requires immediate attention. Based on this, an oxymoron can’t be a component of antithesis because the point of the latter is to pit two things against each other.
Where antithesis is a verbal or written opposition, a foil is a literary opposition, usually embodied by a character in a narrative. For example, Draco Malfoy can be considered Harry Potter’s foil in the Harry Potter series because where Harry is honorable and loyal, Draco is somewhat corrupt and unfaithful.
Antithesis Outside of Literature
A common theme in American popular music is the difference between the middle and lower classes. In “Men of Good Fortune” by Lou Reed, the singer describes all the things rich men can do that poor men cannot:
Antithesis is common in political speeches, particularly when it comes to the underrepresented pushing for equitable policies. In Malcolm X’s famous “Ballot or the Bullet” speech, he discusses how America was built by Black and indigenous people for white people’s benefit, saying, “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; the rock was landed on us.”
Examples of Antithesis in Literature
1. Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
This classic tale of love and sacrifice features the French Revolution as its backdrop. In this tumultuous era, where the differences between the haves and the have-nots was at its starkest, Dickens illustrates the antithetical concepts that existed simultaneously:
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 […]
2. William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice
At the beginning of this romantic comedy, chatty lout Gratiano wants to understand why his friend Antonio is so down—and why anyone would ever be down at all:
And let my liver rather heat with wine
Than my heart cool with mortifying groans.
Gratiano is implying that he’d rather experience life through a chemically altered (and therefore unreliable) lens than face any ordeals, even though they would be truer to reality.
3. John Milton, Paradise Lost
Milton’s epic poem explores many facets of the Christian bible and belief systems—including the concept of free will. When Lucifer, once one of God’s brightest angels, is cast into Hell, he says, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” This leads the reader to question whether anyone is truly free, though ultimately the Bible’s core argument is that willingly giving over control to God is what will leads to a happy life.
Further Resources on Antithesis
MasterClass’s How to Use Antithesis in Your Writing course is a concise guide on the mechanics of antithesis and when to use it.
This excerpt from Hegel for Beginners by Lloyd Spencer is a handy introduction to antithesis as a component of dialectics (a system for pursuing truth by way of logical argument).