I. What is Juxtaposition?
Juxtaposition (pronounced juhk-stuh-puh–zish–uh-n) is the placement of two or more things side by side, often in order to bring out their differences. Imagine a man walking a well-groomed dog on a pink leash on one hand and a rough Rottweiler on a spiked collar on the other hand. The juxtaposition could be shocking, humorous, or just plain strange. Regardless, this literary term calls attention to two distinctly different things by placing them right beside one another, or juxtaposing them.
All’s fair in love and war
In this familiar adage, love and war, two opposite concepts, are placed beside one another. The juxtaposition of love and war serves to show that despite how different the two are, both are characterized by a lack of rules or guidelines.
II. Examples of Juxtaposition
Finally, notice how this example describes a butler’s life:
A butler spends his days in a beautiful mansion dressed in a tuxedo, but returns home to a closet-sized apartment in a rundown part of town.
Example 1 juxtaposes two settings: a wealthy person’s mansion and a poor butler’s apartment. Such juxtaposition serves to highlight just how different the butler’s quality of living is from his employer’s.
Consider this examples of a juxtaposition in attitude:
A waitress is remarkably rude and impatient with a doting couple. She is extremely kind, though, to a quiet man who is eating alone with a book.
Here, the juxtaposition is of the waitress’s attitude towards certain customers. Her rudeness to a couple followed by kindness to a single man implies that she is jealous of the couple and empathetic to the single man, as she herself is either single or unhappy in a relationship. Because such different attitudes are in close proximity, the meaning behind them is magnified.
III. The Importance of Using Juxtaposition
Juxtaposition is an important literary term in that it highlights contrasts between two things but also invites comparisons. This device can be used to fully illustrate a character in a novel, complicate a poem’s subjects, or convince an audience to feel a certain way about the subjects.
For example, consider the waitress if her actions had not been juxtaposed. Simply shown being rude to a couple, she would be viewed as bitter and impatient. When her attitude is juxtaposed with her kindness towards a single man, though, her character is more well-rounded and understandable.
Juxtaposition can be used to consider universal ideas such as love and war. On the other hand, juxtaposition is often used in comedy as two largely different things placed in the same place can result in funny and strange situations.
IV. Examples of Juxtaposition in Literature
Juxtaposition is an important device in literature as it encourages the reader to make comparisons otherwise ignored or unapparent. It can serve to highlight certain characteristics of subjects, to make different subjects more alike, or to challenge the typical perspective on a subject.
For a short and simple example of juxtaposition, read Joseph Bruchac’s poem “Prints”:
a century past
is like looking
at your own
until someone else
with a stranger’s eye
looks close and says
In this poem, Bruchac juxtaposes two points of view. First, he invites the reader to consider looking at oneself and how difficult it is to recognize oneself by certain details and characteristics. Then, he remarks on how much better a stranger is at recognizing these details in you. With this juxtaposition, Bruchac challenges the common notion that we know ourselves well with the argument that strangers may see us more truly or clearly than we see ourselves.
V. Examples of Juxtaposition in Pop Culture
Juxtaposition is useful in pop culture as it complicates compositions, mixes up songs, and shapes characters’ development. As is true for literature, juxtaposition can be used for both serious and comedic means.
For an example of comedic juxtaposition, watch the trailer for Pixar’s animated film Up:
Carl Fredricksen is old, curt, and jaded. Russell is young, full of energy, and naïve. Russell wants to connect, whereas Fredricksen wants to be left alone. The juxtaposition of these two characters is funny, a cause of conflict in the movie, and ultimately, a reason for Fredricksen to lighten up and open his heart to the youngster.
For another example of juxtaposition, consider the French versus English narration in this Nike ad:
The French narrator speaks quickly and frequently, whereas the English narrator speaks rarely, simply, and with an unexcited voice. The juxtaposition of the two narrations serves to add a comedic touch to this already absurd ad.
For an example of juxtaposition in music, listen to Icelandic band Sigur Rós’s song “I Gaer”:
The most dramatic point of juxtaposition occurs at 55 seconds. The song begins with a light, mysterious mixture of xylophone-like instruments which are then abruptly interrupted by dramatic, powerful and roaring heavy-metal guitars and noise. The juxtaposition strikes listeners, interrupting the calm with a storm of sound.
VI. Related Terms: Juxtaposition vs. Foil
A foil is a character who has qualities that are opposite or contrasting to another character in a creative piece. Foils are used to highlight the uniquely different characteristics in one another. If foils sound like juxtaposition, it is because they are a specific type of juxtaposition. Just as squares may be considered rectangles but rectangles may not be considered squares, all foils are juxtapositions, but not all juxtapositions are foils. A juxtaposition may be between characters in the form of a foil, but it may also be between places, things, or ideas. Here are a few examples of foils versus juxtapositions:
God and Satan
Heaven and hell
In this classic example, God and Satan symbolize good and bad, and exhibit purely opposite characters. Heaven and hell, symbolic of paradise versus suffering, are equally opposite but are settings rather than characters. For this reason, they would be considered a juxtaposition rather than foils.
Harry Potter and Voldemort
Hogwarts and the outside world
In this example from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Harry and Voldemort may be considered foils as they are opposites competing for good versus bad in the wizard world. Hogwarts, where Harry goes to school, is juxtaposed to the outside world as it is a place of open magic and strangeness versus the outside world which is void of magic and ordinary.
As is shown in the above examples, foils are a type of juxtaposition. They apply specifically to characters who highlight differences in other characters.
VII. In Closing
Juxtaposition is a literary term which places different elements side by side in order to emphasize their differences, reveal surprising similarities, or explore a unique relationship between the two. It challenges us to reconsider and discover elements typically kept apart by placing them in contact with one another.