A dichotomy (die-CAHT-oh-me) can be any kind of division between two entities. The division could be physical, spiritual, philosophical, economical, or psychological. The entities can be two individuals, two groups of people, one person versus a group of people, or even two elements of a single person’s character at odds with each other.
The word dichotomy comes from ancient Greek, meaning “division into two parts.” Scholars started using the term in the 17th century, but the concept has been present in stories since before the written word. Think of the good versus evil dynamic in the biblical Garden of Eden or civilization versus barbarism in The Epic of Gilgamesh.
Why Writers Use Dichotomy
Literarily speaking, dichotomies represent two opposing forces that engender a story’s conflict. The clear delineation of the protagonist versus the antagonistic presence—whether external or internal—allows readers to understand the line that the story is drawing. This is most obviously represented in stories where the protagonist represents goodness and morality, while the antagonist represents evil and immorality.
Dichotomies are therefore essential to stories because, oftentimes, a story without conflict will not hold readers’ attention.
In a false dichotomy, or a false dilemma, a strict opposition is presented without any alternatives; it implies a matter is either black or white with no gray areas. A writer might devise a false dichotomy to put before a character as a test, as within the hero’s journey.
In the fifth season of the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a magic key is transformed into a new character, Dawn, to hide it from the season’s main antagonist and avoid a catastrophic event. At a critical moment, Dawn is wounded, and the event is triggered: a dimensional portal is opened. Protagonist Buffy is presented with a false dichotomy: sacrifice Dawn to close the portal and prevent Hell on Earth or save Dawn and endanger all humankind. This is resolved when Buffy realizes she can sacrifice herself and save both Earth and Dawn, thus eliminating the false dichotomy.
Dichotomy vs. Juxtaposition
These two literary devices are similar, as they both make a comparison between two things. However, in juxtaposition, the comparison shows how the two opposing forces are the same.
A recognizable use of juxtaposition comes from buddy cop films. In this genre, two seemingly unlike characters are put together, much to their mutual chagrin. As the story progresses, the pair discovers they’re not as different as they initially seemed. In fact, by the film’s conclusion, they make each other better. This is exemplified by the Mel Gibson and Danny Glover-led Lethal Weapon series.
Dichotomy in Film
Dichotomy’s importance to storytelling extends beyond the literary world. It is necessarily prevalent in TV shows and movies as well. The presence of a dichotomy is often the very factor that draws in audiences. No one would want to see a movie where the love interests immediately see each other’s appeal or lifelong foes become friends within the first 10 minutes.
Based on the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, Disney’s animated movie Mulan concerns Fa Mulan, a young woman who defies convention and tradition to protect her father and seize her destiny. The film’s dichotomy is between individuality and tradition. As a woman in a patriarchal society, Mulan is told her usefulness only comes from her potential to be a good wife. Her intellect and strong personality are not seen as valuable. When she presents herself as a man to protect her father from war, even though she is in disguise, it is the first time she can be her true self. When she is found out, rather than being the end to her story, the reveal allows her to show the world who she really is. In the end, Mulan reconciles the dichotomy of individuality versus traditional roles, and she brings honor to her family and herself.
Examples of Dichotomy in Literature
1. The Egyptian Myth of Set and Horus
Set, god of war and chaos, is the patron of Upper Egypt; his nephew Horus, the sky god and defender of order, is the patron of Lower Egypt. Set kills Osiris—his brother and Horus’s father—out of jealousy and usurps his throne. When Horus is strong enough to challenge Set for the throne, a tribunal of gods meets to settle the disagreement.
Sun god Ra says Horus is too young, but the other gods of the tribunal rule in favor of Horus assuming his father’s seat. However, Horus is forced to compete with Set in several battles to prove his mettle. After decades of this, Set is defeated, Horus takes the throne, and the Southern and Northern kingdoms are unified.
The myth presents a dichotomy of ideas: what is the right way to unify two nations? Set believed it was through deceit and violence, whereas Horus believed in upholding tradition and peace. Ultimately, it is the honorable path to rule that won out.
2. Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Dickens’s classic tale about the French Revolution revolves around the titular two cities: the tumultuous Paris and the relatively calm London. Already, the story exists in a dichotomy: two opposing settings. Then, the novel’s introduction is a laundry list of dichotomies:
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 […]
Finally, the narrative of A Tale of Two Cities has two thematic dichotomies: rich versus poor and light versus dark. Dickens characterizes the rich as the antagonists, as the French Revolution was a fight to tear down the aristocracy, and the poor as the heroic protagonists. The novel’s end resolves this dichotomy when a rich character sacrifices himself to save a poorer man.
3. Alice Walker, The Color Purple
The novel’s protagonist, Celie, deals with an internal dichotomy: the passive attitude she must maintain to survive as a Black woman in a white patriarchal society versus the anger she feels after a lifetime of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. She believes her only options are living a life where she endures abuse and poor self-esteem, all so she can raise her children, or death. However, because of her faith, she cannot choose death.
It is not until Celie encounters a free-spirited woman named Shug that she begins to question her faith and the value of gender roles. Shug encourages Celie to think about God in her own way, and allows Celie to find personal fulfillment and happiness in life.
Further Resources on Dichotomy
K.M. Weiland shows how dichotomous characters make for compelling writing, using examples from popular film and literature.
“The Extremes of Conflict in Literature: Violence, Homicide, and War,” a chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Perspectives on Violence, Homicide, and War, explores the different levels of human conflict through the lens of violence and why these toxic dichotomies are so compelling to readers.