What Is Juxtaposition? | Definition & Examples

Rhetoric updated on  May 31, 2024 4 min read

Juxtaposition is placing two objects, images, or ideas side by side to create a certain effect or make a point. The fact that two things are placed together highlights their differences and similarities, creating contrast. Juxtaposition is common in literature, visual arts, and public speaking.

Juxtaposition example
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 [...]

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

What is juxtaposition?

Juxtaposition is a literary device in which a writer places two elements near or next to each other without explicitly telling us what their relationship is. Instead, the reader must draw their own conclusions about the relationship between different elements. Juxtaposition can involve ideas, themes, characters, or images.

In the previous example, the opening paragraph from A Tale of Two Cities is a juxtaposition of contrasting ideas that immediately sets the tone and background of the story: the sociopolitical tensions in Europe during the French Revolution. In addition, the title itself implies a juxtaposition of the novel’s two main settings, Paris and London.

Juxtaposition may involve polar opposites, like good and evil, light and darkness, etc.; however, this is not always the case. In literature, juxtaposition can be more subtle and can involve placing seemingly unrelated elements next to each other to highlight their unexpected connections. Alternatively, juxtaposition can be found in the contrast between a character’s inner thoughts and external actions.

Why do writers use juxtaposition?

Depending on the genre, writers use juxtaposition to achieve various effects:

  • Emphasis. Juxtaposition is about more than just creating contrast. Its main goal is to use that contrast to highlight the differences between ideas, images, or characters. As a result, certain aspects or themes stand out.
  • Depth. Juxtaposition invites the reader to interpret the relationships between ideas or characters. By comparing and contrasting ideas, the reader becomes more engaged with the text, asks questions, and discovers layers of meaning they might have missed otherwise.
  • Characterization. Writers often employ juxtaposition for character development. By placing characters’ contrasting traits side by side or putting them in contrasting situations, the author reveals different aspects of their personalities.
  • Persuasion. Juxtaposition can be used as a rhetorical tool to strengthen an argument. Writers or speakers place contrasting images or ideas together to draw attention to specific points, elicit an emotional response, and encourage critical thinking. By doing so, they can influence their audience, for instance, to feel empathy or engage in social justice issues.

Juxtaposition examples

In the play Julius Caesar by Shakespeare, Marc Anthony uses juxtaposition to turn the crowd against Brutus and convince them that killing Caesar was a dishonorable crime.

Juxtaposition example
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.

In his speech at Caesar’s funeral (Act 3, Scene 2), Marc Anthony tries to sway the people of Rome by highlighting the contrasting characters of Caesar and Brutus. He juxtaposes his own experience (“he was my friend, faithful and just to me”), as well as Caesar’s noble actions and feelings, against Brutus’ view that he was a tyrant driven by self-interest.


Traditional Japanese short-form poems known as haiku typically feature the juxtaposition of two images, which is intended to prompt the reader to reflect on them.

Juxtaposition example
An old pond!
A frog jumps in—
the sound of water.

In this haiku by Matsuo Bashō, the stillness of the old pond and the sudden disturbance caused by the frog jumping in create a juxtaposition between silence/serenity and movement/sound.

Similar literary devices

Juxtaposition is related to the following literary devices:

  • Antithesis is a form of juxtaposition involving concrete binaries, like night and day, love and hate, etc. This is usually done within a parallel grammatical structure, as in the example “To be or not to be, that is the question.” Whereas juxtaposition requires some interpretation, antithesis is obvious.
  • A foil is a character whose actions or traits serve as a contrast to another character, usually the protagonist, to emphasize the differences between them. For example, Joker is a foil to Batman because they represent opposite qualities like chaos and order. By juxtaposing these characters, the author accentuates their qualities.
  • A oxymoron is a figure of speech that focuses on contradictory terms within a phrase, such as “parting is such sweet sorrow.” The combination of contradictory ideas like pleasure and pain conveys a new complex meaning that would be hard to express in a single word.

Do you want to know more about common mistakes, commonly confused words, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.


Idioms

Parts of speech

Fallacies

Diamond in the rough

Irregular verb

Slippery slope fallacy

Idioms

Gerund

Sunk cost fallacy

Piece of cake

Infinitive phrase

Red herring fallacy

Better late than never

Infinitive

Appeal to authority fallacy

Salt of the earth

Adverb

Circular reasoning fallacy


Frequently asked questions about juxtapositions

What is the difference between juxtaposition and contrast?

Juxtaposition and contrast are both literary techniques involving the presentation of differences, however they cannot be used interchangeably.

  • Juxtaposition refers to the deliberate placement of two or more things side by side for comparison or contrast. This can include words, images, or characters, and the purpose is to draw attention to specific aspects of the work.
  • Contrast, on the other hand, is a broader term that refers to the noticeable differences between two things. It can be intentional or accidental and can be achieved through various means including, but not limited to, juxtaposition-like descriptions.

In short, juxtaposition is the intentional placement of things next to each other to highlight their relationship (similarity or difference), whereas contrast is a broader term referring to the observable differences between things, whether they are juxtaposed or not.

What is the difference between juxtaposition and contrast?

The following words are near synonyms for juxtaposition in the sense of “placing two things close together for comparison, contrast, or other literary effects”:

  • comparison
  • contrast
  • closeness
  • proximity

What is the difference between juxtaposition and an oxymoron?

Juxtaposition and oxymorons are both literary devices that involve contrasting elements; however, they differ in scope and function.

  • In juxtaposition, a writer places two or more ideas, characters, or images side by side to highlight the differences and similarities between them. The interpretation of this relationship is up to the audience. A juxtaposition can span one line or an entire story, depending on the contrasted elements.
  • An oxymoron, on the other hand, involves combining two words or ideas with opposing meanings. Unlike juxtaposition, an oxymoron always involves a degree of contradiction within the combination of terms.

In other words, juxtaposition is about placing elements so as to compare them, while an oxymoron involves the deliberate combination of contradictory terms.

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Kassiani

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex information into easily accessible articles to help others.

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