The definition of antithesis is “a contrary or opposite opinion, concept, or characteristic.” So, the sun may be the antithesis to the moon, the devil may be the antithesis to God, and a conservative may be the antithesis to a liberal.
In a less obvious sense, however, the concept of antithesis is widely used in literature and film. In fact, it’s a rhetorical device used to paint a picture without obviously stating that one character is against the other. It develops a certain tension within the plot that draws the reader or moviegoer in.
You can find antithesis examples in your favorite books and movies. You’ll also find antithesis used as a literary device, intended to persuade the audience to feel a certain way. Ready to enter onto a pathway of opposites?
Antithesis in Literature and Film
Some of the most treasured authors of all time relied heavily upon antithesis. In fact, it’s one of the best ways to develop a conflict, paving the way to a resolution. It also allows the “good guy” to develop some strength in character and fight back against evil forces.
Here are some notable examples of antithesis in literature and film:
- In Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, Marcus Brutus and Mark Antony were painted in opposite colors. Interestingly, the contrast isn’t stark. Shakespeare takes a more subtle approach to antithesis here, portraying Brutus as an honorable - yet slightly naive - man. Antony, too, was an honorable man, but he possessed a certain ruthlessness and ambition that Brutus was lacking.
- In A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, we read the line: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Here, Dickens epitomized the very idea of antithesis. How can anything be both good and bad? In truth, life is always a simultaneous balance of the two.
- In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling, Dumbledore and Voldemort engage in a fiery and electric battle of the ages. They are both powerful wizards, with Dumbledore coming down on the side of good and Voldemort coming down on the side of evil.
- In Paradise Lost by John Milton, he writes that it is “better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.” Surely, that assertion is debatable, but Milton is making a valid point that it may be better to be in power, even if it’s in the darkest depths of the netherworld, than to serve at the feet of another.
- In The Chronicles Of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, Aslan and the White Witch are constantly at odds with one another. Aslan represents the side of good, whereas the White Witch comes down on the side of evil, sometimes even being compared to Satan in literature reviews.
- In An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope, he write, “To err is human; to forgive divine.” This line is painting a striking image and driving a point home. Mistakes are a part of what it means to be human. However, if you want to elevate yourself to a status higher than humankind, you’ll have to learn to forgive one another.
- In Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Snow White and the Wicked Witch are at odds throughout the entire film. Snow White wanted to be kind and helpful to her fellow man, while the Wicked Witch wanted to poison her with an apple, thus taking away her beauty and charm.
- The whole of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is based upon antithesis. From a very “big picture” standpoint, Belle is the quintessence of beauty and the Beast is the epitome of ugliness. However, even though they’re initially presented as polar opposite, they still find a way to each other. And what is the Beast’s reward in the end? His beastliness is turned into beauty.
- We must conclude with the master of rhetoric, the venerable William Shakespeare. In Hamlet, he writes, “Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice.” What’s the opposite of talking? Listening. True to form, Shakespeare found a far more illustrative way to drive that simple point home.
Antithesis in Speech and Advertising
Speakers throughout the ages have employed certain figures of speech as a means of persuasion. Sometimes, they use similes. Sometimes, they use metaphors or allusion. Indeed, even antithesis can fall into their speeches as a way to sway a crowd. And, of course, what would the world of advertisement be without a bent for persuasion? An antithesis can be used to portray the importance of a certain product or idea.
Take a look at a few noteworthy examples for historic moments and marketing campaigns.
- “That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” - Neil Armstrong
- "We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools." - Martin Luther King, Jr.
- "Everybody doesn't like something, but nobody doesn't like Sara Lee." - Sara Lee advertising slogan.)
- “Unlike short-sighted, egocentric humans, God "sees with equal eye" the fall of a hero and a sparrow, the destruction of an atom or a solar system.” - Alexander Pope.
- “Speech is silver, but silence is gold.” - Source unknown
- "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here." - Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address
- "I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dryrot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time." - Jack London
- "Love is an ideal thing, marriage a real thing." - Goethe
- “Money is the root of all evil: poverty is the fruit of all goodness.” - Source unknown
- “Patience is bitter, but it has a sweet fruit.” - Aristotle
- “Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful.” - Samuel Johnson
- “Folks who have no vices have very few virtues.” - Abraham Lincoln
- "All the joy the world contains / Has come through wishing happiness for others. / All the misery the world contains / Has come through wanting pleasure for oneself." - Shantideva
Antithesis in Music
Song lyrics are, in the end, a form of poetry. And poetry is ripe with rhetorical devices, including antithesis. How better to paint a picture or tug on a heartstring than with an illustrative play on words? Let’s take a look at a few song lyrics that have employed this device:
- It rained all night the day I left,
The weather it was dry,
The sun so hot,
I froze to death,
Susanna, don’t you cry.
- Oh Susanna! by Stephen Foster
- You’re easy on the eyes
Hard on the heart.
- You’re Easy on the Eyes by Terri Clark
- I close my eyes so I can see
I burn a fire to stay cool
Shut the door so I can leave
- Shut the Door by Fugazi
- And even though the sun is shining
Well, I feel the rain.
- Even in the Quietest Moments by Roger Hodgson
- It's never too soon.
It's never too late.
- Quicksand by Bethany Joy Lenz
- Give me some sunshine
Give me some rain
Give me another chance
I wanna grow up once again.
- Give Me Some Sunshine by Swanand Kirkire
Antithesis and Contrast
Antithesis can be used in many different contexts. The common thread is that it contains two contrasting ideas. Those two contrasting ideas are stacked against one another to create a sort of tension, paint a picture, or drive home an important idea.
The next time you’re writing a story or working on a persuasive piece, see if you can incorporate an example of antithesis into your work. By drawing out the bad and highlighting the good, you can create a piece worthy of acclaim.