What Is Juxtaposition? Learn About Juxtaposition in Writing With Examples

Night and day. Darkness and light. Good and evil. These concepts all exist so strongly in our minds as opposing forces because we have learned, over time, that one, simple idea can be better understood with the introduction of its opposite. After all, what is darkness if not the absence of light, and vice versa? Why might we associate darkness with negativity and connect light to the positive? The answer lies in our understanding of Juxtaposition.

Juxtaposition, the comparing and contrasting of two elements placed closely together in a work, invites readers to draw meaning from the dissimilarity presented.

What is Juxtaposition?

Juxtaposition is, essentially, ​the comparison and contrast of two elements placed closely together in a work to highlight their differences​. It is within these differences that readers can find a deeper meaning, making it a popular technique utilized in countless literary works, films, and art. Writers incorporate juxtaposition into their work quite frequently; once familiar with the term, one will start to notice how common it really is within the artistic world. Elements that are often juxtaposed by writers include:

  • light and darkness
  • warmth and cold
  • good and evil
  • beauty and ugliness
  • wealth​ ​and poverty

Why is Juxtaposition Used?

When writers place two differing elements side-by-side in a text, they're opening the readers' eyes to the relationship that might exist between these elements, as well as what this relationship means when considering the overall context. When viewing juxtaposition as a literary technique, it's important to note that the goal of the writer is not to simply encourage the reader to compare and contrast two ideas, but, rather, ​seek out the meaning that​ ​emerges​ ​from​ ​the​ ​dissimilarity​ and apply it to the story, certain characters, or other aspects of the literary work.

Consider Cinderella:

In the famous fairy tale, the kind, charismatic nature of the main character, Cinderella, is juxtaposed with the cruel, mean-spirited step sisters and step mother. By placing the good-natured protagonist in a family full of spiteful antagonists, the positive qualities of the main character are further emphasized.

Recognizing Juxtaposition

Now that we have a basic definition of Juxtaposition, let's take a look at some sentences that use this technique:

  • All's​ ​fair​ ​in​ ​love​ ​and war.​ Typically, love and war are not two things that we would relate to one another. Through this use of juxtaposition, though, we can see a common ground between them. The message here is that, in both love and war, anything goes.
  • Beggar's can't be choosers.​ The opposite functions of this sentence are begging and choosing. The message communicated is that those who are desperate enough to beg for something cannot also have say in the end result or the decision made.
  • "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."​ Perhaps the most famous takeaway from JFK's inaugural address is when he utilizes juxtaposition to call American citizens to action. Instead of asking for help from their country, JFK advises people to offer their services to their country and contribute to the greater good. Arguably, he's contrasting selfishness with selflessness, encouraging the U.S. people to be more selfless than selfish.

Note:​ Juxtaposition does not only belong to the world of literature. Films will often employ juxtaposition to communicate messages about the characters or alternate elements of their story.

Juxtaposition for Humor

It's also important to note that writers might incorporate juxtaposition in their work to add humor to the story. Think about the Pixar film "Up". In this movie, the main character is a cranky old man with little patience for anything that displeases him. He soon finds himself stuck with an energetic and precocious boy scout, creating a comical dynamic between the two characters throughout the movie.

Examples of Juxtaposition in Literature

Juxtaposition is often abundant in works of literature, poetry, and drama. Lets take a look at a few well-known examples in which juxtaposition is brilliantly executed by the writer.

“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.”

(Charles Dickens, ​A Tale of Two Cities​)

  • A Tale of Two Cities.​ In the opening lines of Charles Dickens' ​A Tale of Two Cities,​ Dickens layers several juxtaposing ideas on top of one another, creating a rather mysterious tone and drawing the reader in to the story right off the bat. How could it be the ​best​ of times while simultaneously being the ​worst​? This complex opening to his novel foreshadows the overarching theme of the story and references an ongoing struggle between freedom and oppression, love and hatred, and good and evil.
  • The Great Gatsby.​ Several juxtaposition examples can be found throughout ​The Great Gatsby,​ but Fitzgerald puts particular emphasis on the contrast between the upper and lower classes. Gatsby builds a world of lavishness and wealth in West Egg for the woman he's in love with, yet there remains an uglier, much more impoverished part of town called "Valley of Ashes" that highlights a stark separation between the wealthy upper class and the poor lower class. This also contributes to yet another largely prevalent theme in Fitzgerald's novel: the juxtaposition between realism and idealism.
  • Othello.​ Shakespeare's ​Othello​ is a drama in which the bigoted perspective of characters toward Othello's interracial relationship with Desdemona is highlighted. Several lines throughout the play juxtapose Othello's dark skin with Desdemona's light skin, which ultimately communicates a heavy moral judgment about the nature of their relationship. Othello's dark skin is, from the perspective of other characters in the play, indicative of the darkness that he casts over Desdemona's lightness, thus ruining her innocence. The villainous Iago refers to Othello as an "old black ram" and Desdemona as a "white ewe" in one particular example of this harsh juxtaposition.
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