Antithesis is the use of two contrasting or opposite elements or ideas in a sentence, stanza or story. Authors use antithesis in literature to establish a relationship between two ideas or characters. They may also use the device as part of a description, to drive a point, as a figure of speech or to be ironic or satirical.
Antithesis in Poetry
In “Passing Time,” Maya Angelou uses antithesis in the second and third stanzas when she refers to the “beginning” and “end” of time. At the end of the second stanza, she writes about a “certain end,” but contrasts the idea with a “sure beginning” at the end of the third stanza. Indian poet Shantideva uses antithesis in the first and third lines of the poem “All the Joy the World Contains” when he writes: “All the joy the world contains…/All the misery the world contains.” In the second line, Shantideva writes about “wishing happiness for others,” but in the fourth line, he expresses “wanting pleasure for oneself.”
Antithesis in Fairy Tales
Fairy tales often present antithetical characters or situations. “Snow White” by the Brothers Grimm has the characters Snow White and the wicked Queen. Snow White is a young woman who is kind, modest, optimistic and generous. The Queen is a witch who is jealous, vain, evil, old and unkind. The story of “Cinderella” is similar as Cinderella is modest, hard-working and beautiful. She’s treated poorly by her step-sisters and step-mother, who are ugly, selfish and lazy. In the story of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” Jack is small and poor while the giant is big and surrounded with wealth. In Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid," the Little Mermaid lives under the sea while the prince she loves lives on land.
Antithesis in Books
In the book “The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time,” Douglas Adams writes, “We notice things that don't work. We don't notice things that do. We notice computers, we don't notice pennies. We notice e-book readers, we don't notice books.” Examples of antithesis in this statement are the things that do work and things that don’t work, as well as the characters seeing e-book readers, but not books. “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens starts out: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” In this opening paragraph, Dickens uses antithesis, for example, when he talks about good and bad times, an age of wisdom and foolishness, a season of light and darkness, hope and despair, having everything and nothing, and going to heaven or “the other way.”
Examples from the Bible
In the fifth chapter of the Book of Matthew, Jesus presents antitheses throughout the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:17, Jesus says that he’s not going to abolish the law, but will fulfill it. Verses 21 through 26 discuss remedying anger with reconciliation instead of revenge. In verses 31 and 32, Jesus talks about a faithful marriage and adultery. Verses 33 to 37 have the antitheses of breaking and keeping promises, and “Yes” or “No” answers. Jesus presents an antithetical situation in verses 38 to 42 when he says to “turn the other cheek” instead of retaliating against an offender. In verses 43 to 47, examples of antithesis include love and hate, neighbors and enemies, the righteous and unrighteous, and evil and good.