A juxtaposition (JUHK-stuh-puh-ZI-shuhn) is a side-by-side comparison of two things, such as settings, characters, or ideas.
Characterization, physical appearance, morality, ideology, and personal history are just a few of the narrative elements that can be juxtaposed. These items are typically put in parallel to highlight differences, convey a message, or evoke a certain effect. Juxtapositions can be explicit, directly made by the narration or a character, but they can also be subtle details that readers must observe to form their own conclusions.
The word juxtaposition stems from the Latin juxta, meaning “near.” When combined with the English position, the resulting compound word means something akin to “near place” or “near placement.”
Examples of Juxtaposition
Juxtaposition requires placing two things side by side. This close proximity accentuates any differences, and that informs the reader’s understanding.
- “He was kind, considerate, and empathetic—nothing at all like his traitorous brother.” This comparison of brothers serves two purposes. It contributes to characterization by establishing personality traits of each sibling. It also establishes them as foils, and through the description of the former, readers can infer that the latter is cruel, selfish, and callous.
- “The dark house, with its overgrown garden and boarded windows, was a blight on the rest of the neighborhood, dotted with picturesque houses boasting verdant lawns and clean windows that gleamed in the sun.” This sentence contrasts the first house’s state of disrepair against its well-maintained neighbors, suggesting that there’s something other about this particular home. Whether it’s a case of haves versus have-nots or something more sinister, the contrast arouses the reader’s suspicions.
People tend to seek understanding through comparison, which makes juxtaposition a useful reasoning tool that appears in everyday speech. It also forms the crux of several proverbs and idioms that use comparisons to make their point.
- “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander” contrasts the goose and the gander as individuals while asserting that what’s good for one is good for all.
- “Better late than never” elevates being late over never arriving or occurring to convey the idea that the former is preferable to the latter.
- “It’s not rocket science” pits the subject (“it”) against rocket science, an incredibly complex field of study, to communicate that the subject is not that complicated.
Types of Juxtaposition
Juxtaposition is a sort of umbrella literary technique, meaning it encompasses several, more specific kinds of contrasts. The most common are foils, antitheses, and oxymorons.
These are characters whose personalities, backgrounds, or ideas contrast with one another. Juxtaposing foils highlights their differences, which often lends greater depth or understanding to each character’s personality or motivation. Several characters in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby serve as foils to each other, such as wealthy millionaire Tom Buchanan and working-class mechanic George Wilson.
This is the contrast between two opposites. The human tendency to define through contrast makes antithesis a powerful technique, as it helps readers understand something by defining its opposite. Antithesis is exemplified by the first paragraph of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, which lays the setting’s starkly conflicting ideals side by side to emphasize the sociopolitical tensions in Europe during the French Revolution.
This literary device is a contradiction. Where other comparatives use juxtaposition to find contrast between two things, an oxymoron juxtaposes two ideas that already seem to conflict or even contradict each other. Some examples include phrases like “deafening silence” and “alone together.”
The Functions of Juxtaposition
Juxtaposition in media can work much the same way as a pros and cons list—it can organize thoughts and aid decision-making processes.
For example, a writer may place a morally just character beside a morally corrupt character to underscore the former’s goodness against the latter’s depravity. Putting these characters in close proximity throws the good character’s traits into sharper relief. Such juxtapositions can convey characterization, facilitate character development, and emphasize details that help readers distinguish between characters.
Writers also use juxtaposition for the following reasons:
- Examine traits, ideas, or actions that readers might otherwise miss
- Explore the relationship between two things, such as abstract concepts
- Inject humor into the narrative or otherwise influence its tone or atmosphere
- Assert that one idea is better than another through comparison
Consider the Force in the Star Wars franchise. This ubiquitous energy field is repeatedly delineated into light and dark sides, pitting them against the other. The dark side of the Force is corrosive, stoked by fear, anger, and hatred. In contrast, the light side is associated with peace, compassion, and selflessness. Much of the story’s conflict stems from the characters’ struggle to defy the seductive dark side and remain in the light, making this thematic juxtaposition an important catalyst in terms of plot and character development.
Juxtaposition in Other Media
Examples of juxtaposition appear in many forms of media. It lends itself well to visual media like photography, animation, and live action.
A photograph of a baby with their grandparent may juxtapose youth and old age while drawing a connection between generations. Color contrasts can express visual symbolism, with light colors often signifying goodness and dark colors suggesting evil.
Dissonance—a clashing juxtaposition between disharmonious things—can affect a story’s tone or convey a message. Stanley Kubrick’s films make great use of mood dissonance, particularly his adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, in which a scene of violence unfolds to the tune of “Singing in the Rain.” The discomfiting juxtaposition between brutal action and joyous music serves to stoke the viewer’s unease.
Lyrical dissonance is another application of juxtaposition. Listen to a song like REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine).” The track’s peppy, upbeat tempo sharply contrasts with the lyrics, which describe apathy amid rising doom.
Juxtapositions between sound and image can also be used to humorous effect, such as in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. When the Baby Herman character is introduced, he speaks in the gruff, gravelly voice of a 50-year-old man, which belies his puerile appearance.
Juxtaposition also has value beyond fiction, particularly as a tool of reasoning or persuasion. Nonfiction authors or speech writers may juxtapose the politics of two different leaders or governments to make a point or broaden a reader’s perspective, for example.
Examples of Juxtaposition in Literature
1. Dylan Thomas, “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.
The poem associates light with life and night with death, and the juxtaposition of these images reveals further associations between life and vitality as well as death and passivity.
2. Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games
The Hunger Games is a dystopian novel set in Panem, where political power is consolidated in the wealthy Capitol, which oversees 12 districts that exist in varying degrees of poverty. Upon traveling to the Capitol for the first time, protagonist Katniss Everdeen befriends Cinna. As the two share a meal together, Cinna presses a button to bring forth an extravagant spread of food:
Chicken and chunks of orange cooked in a cream sauce laid on a bed of pearly white grain, tiny green peas and onions, rolls shaped like flowers, and for dessert, a pudding the color of honey. I try to imagine assembling this meal myself back home. Chickens are too expensive, but I could make do with a wild turkey. I’d need to shoot a second turkey to trade for an orange. Goat’s milk would have to substitute for cream. We can grow peas in the garden. I’d have to get wild onions in the woods.
Katniss concludes that not even “days of hunting and gathering” back home would result in a meal that could match this display. This contrast between scarcity and abundance and effort and ease emphasizes the inequity between the rich Capitol and Katniss’s poverty-stricken home.
3. Studs Terkel, The Good War
Terkel’s historical book about World War II, comprised of interviews from people who lived through or experienced the war firsthand, incorporates juxtaposition into its very structure. The second World War is often remembered as a “good war,” but these interviews challenge this belief by presenting personal accounts that explore the war’s impact on culture, society, politics, and government.
While the book as a whole exists to contrast individual realities against a popular idea, Terkel also creates a series of smaller contrasts by placing certain accounts near each other. For example, Robert Lekachman reflects:
It was the last time that most Americans thought they were innocent and good, without qualifications.
That same section also transcribes an interview with Dellie Hahne, who remarks:
The good war? That infuriates me. Yeah, the idea of World War Two being called a good war is a horrible thing. I think of all the atrocities. I think of a madman who had all this power. I think of the destruction of the Jews, the misery, the horrendous suffering in the concentration camps.
By organizing the interviews in this way, without offering any commentary himself, Terkel creates a series of deliberate, nuanced juxtapositions that encourage readers to form their own conclusions.
4. William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Hamlet’s plot kicks off after Claudius secretly murders his brother then marries his widowed sister-in-law, Gertrude. The circumstances of this marriage are unsettling, and Claudius admits as much in Act 2:
Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen,
Th’ imperial jointress to this warlike state,
Have we—as ’twere with a defeated joy,
With an auspicious and a dropping eye,
With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage,
In equal scale weighing delight and dole—
Taken to wife.
Claudius juxtaposes “mirth in funeral” with “dirge in marriage” to assure the court that he shares their mixed feelings: he’s as saddened by his brother’s death as he is happy about his marriage. By acknowledging the court’s concerns, Claudius is trying paint his actions as reasonable. Ultimately, these contradictions alert readers to his insincerity.
Further Resources on Juxtaposition
In this video, Oregon State University Poet-in-Residence David Biespiel teaches students what juxtaposition is and how to identify it in poetry and prose.
This article details three ways aspiring writers can use juxtaposition to enhance their writing.