I. What is an Antithesis?
“Antithesis” literally means “opposite” – it is usually the opposite of a statement, concept, or idea. In literary analysis, an antithesis is a pair of statements or images in which the one reverses the other. The pair is written with similar grammatical structures to show more contrast. Antithesis (pronounced an-TITH-eh-sis) is used to emphasize a concept, idea, or conclusion.
II. Examples of Antithesis
That’s one small step for a man – one giant leap for mankind. (Neil Armstrong, 1969)
In this example, Armstrong is referring to man walking on the moon. Although taking a step is an ordinary activity for most people, taking a step on the moon, in outer space, is a major achievement for all humanity.
To err is human; to forgive, divine. (Alexander Pope)
This example is used to point out that humans possess both worldly and godly qualities; they can all make mistakes, but they also have the power to free others from blame.
The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did (Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address)
In his speech, Lincoln points out that the details of that moment may not be memorable, but the actions would make history, and therefore, never entirely forgotten.
Antithesis can be a little tricky to see at first. To start, notice how each of these examples is separated into two parts. The parts are separated either by a dash, a semicolon, or the word “but.” Antithesis always has this multi-part structure (usually there are two parts, but sometimes it can be more, as we’ll see in later examples). The parts are not always as obvious as they are in these examples, but they will always be there.
Next, notice how the second part of each example contains terms that reverse or invert terms in the first part: small step vs. giant leap; human vs. divine; we say vs. they do. In each of the examples, there are several pairs of contrasted terms between the first part and the second, which is quite common in antithesis.
Finally, notice that each of the examples contains some parallel structures and ideas in addition to the opposites. This is key! The two parts are not simply contradictory statements. They are a matched pair that have many grammatical structures or concepts in common; in the details, however, they are opposites.
For example, look at the parallel grammar of Example 1: the word “one,” followed by an adjective, a noun, and then the word “for.” This accentuates the opposites by setting them against a backdrop of sameness – in other words, two very different ideas are being expressed with very, very similar grammatical structures.
To recap: antithesis has three things:
- Two or more parts
- Reversed or inverted ideas
- (usually) parallel grammatical structure
III. The Importance of Verisimilitude
Antithesis is basically a complex form of juxtaposition. So its effects are fairly similar – by contrasting one thing against its opposite, a writer or speaker can emphasize the key attributes of whatever they’re talking about. In the Neil Armstrong quote, for example, the tremendous significance of the first step on the moon is made more vivid by contrasting it with the smallness and ordinariness of the motion that brought it about.
Antithesis can also be used to express curious contradictions or paradoxes. Again, the Neil Armstrong quote is a good example: Armstrong is inviting his listeners to puzzle over the fact that a tiny, ordinary step – not so different from the millions of steps we take each day – can represent so massive a technological accomplishment as the moon landing.
Paradoxically, an antithesis can also be used to show how two seeming opposites might in fact be similar.
IV. Examples of Verisimilitude in Literature
Forgive us this day our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. (The Lord’s Prayer)
The antithesis is doing a lot of work here. First, it shows the parallel between committing an evil act and being the victim of one. On the surface, these are opposites, and this is part of the antithesis, but at the same time they are, in the end, the same act from different perspectives. This part of the antithesis is basically just an expression of the Golden Rule.
Second, the antithesis displays a parallel between the speaker (a human) and the one being spoken to (God). The prayer is a request for divine mercy, and at the same time a reminder that human beings should also be merciful.
All the joy the world contains has come through wanting happiness for others. All the misery the world contains has come through wanting pleasure for yourself. (Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva)
The antithesis here comes with some pretty intense parallel structure. Most of the words in each sentence are exactly the same as those in the other sentence. (“All the ___ the world contains has come through wanting ____ for ____.”) This close parallel structure makes the antithesis all the more striking, since the words that differ become much more visible.
Another interesting feature of this antithesis is that it makes “pleasure” and “happiness” seem like opposites, when most of us might think of them as more or less synonymous. The quote makes happiness seem noble and exalted, whereas pleasure is portrayed as selfish and worthless.
The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong (Jack London, Credo)
The opening antithesis here gets its punch from the fact that we think of living and existing as pretty similar terms. But for London, they are opposites. Living is about having vivid experiences, learning, and being bold; simply existing is a dull, pointless thing. These two apparently similar words are used in this antithesis to emphasize the importance of living as opposed to mere existing.
The second antithesis, on the other hand, is just the opposite – in this case, London is taking two words that seem somewhat opposed (waste and prolong), and telling us that they are in fact the same. Prolonging something is making it last; wasting something is letting it run out too soon. But, says London, when it comes to life, they are the same. If you try too hard to prolong your days (that is, if you’re so worried about dying that you never face your fears and live your life), then you will end up wasting them because you will never do anything worthwhile.
V. Examples of Verisimilitude in Pop Culture
Everybody doesn’t like something, but nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee. (Sara Lee pastry advertisement)
This classic ad uses antithesis to set up a deliberate grammatical error. This is a common technique in advertising, since people are more likely to remember a slogan that is grammatically incorrect. (Even if they only remember it because they found it irritating, it still sticks in their brain, which is all that an ad needs to do.) The antithesis helps make the meaning clear, and throws the grammatical error into sharper relief.
What men must know, a boy must learn. (The Lookouts)
Here’s another example of how parallel structure can turn into antithesis fairly easily. (The structure is noun-“must”-verb.) The antithesis also expresses the basic narrative of The Lookouts, which is all about kids learning to fend for themselves and become full-fledged adults.
Shut Your Mouth and Open Your Eyes (the band “AFI” – album title)
The antithesis here is a juxtaposition of two different actions (opening and shutting) that are actually part of the same sort of behavior – the behavior of somebody who wants to understand the world rather than be the center of attention. It’s basically a restatement of the old adage that “those who speak the most often have the least to say.”
VI. Related Terms
Antithesis is basically a form of juxtaposition. Juxtaposition, though, is a much broader device that encompasses any deliberate use of contrast or contradiction by an author. So, in addition to antithesis, it might include:
- The scene in “The Godfather” where a series of brutal murders is intercut with shots of a baptism, juxtaposing birth and death.
- “A Song of Ice and Fire” (George R. R. Martin book series)
- Any one of a number of common expressions, including:
- Heaven and Hell
- Mountains and the sea
- Dead or alive
- “In sickness and in health”
Antithesis performs a very similar function, but does so in a more complicated way by using full sentences (rather than single words or images) to express the two halves of the juxtaposition.
Here is an antithesis built around some of the common expressions from above
- “Sheep go to Heaven; goats go to Hell.”
- “Beethoven’s music is as mighty as the mountains and as timeless as the sea.”
- “In sickness he loved me; in health he abandoned”
Notice how the antithesis builds an entire statement around the much simpler juxtaposition. And, crucially, notice that each of those statements exhibits parallel grammatical structure. In this way, both Juxtaposition and parallel structures can be used to transform a simple comparison, into antithesis.