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Illustrated Guide to Literary Elements

Paradox


Paradox Definition: an apparently contradictory statement that nonetheless expresses a true idea

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Paradox

Authors use paradoxes to prompt a reader to think about the complications that accompany characters’ dilemmas, and themes that occur in real life. Since paradoxes are both true and untrue at the same time, they are often unable to exist harmoniously together, and their existence doesn’t always allow for a smooth resolution. The existence of a paradox in a story prompts the reader to think more deeply about the contradictions and truths that exist within the paradox revealed. Sometimes it can present a dilemma for the characters; other times, it can present a dilemma for the reader’s conscience. For example, in George Orwell’s 1984, Winston works for the Ministry of Truth; however, his job consists of changing the news to fit the changes of rations, people who have been executed for treason, and promises made by Big Brother that have never been followed through. Clearly, “truth” is subjective, and defined by the government. The paradox can also reveal the complexity of a problem for the characters that adds layers and depth to both the characters’ personalities and to the plot.

Notable Examples of Paradox in Literature

  • The Ministries of Truth, Love, Peace, and Prosperity in George Orwell's 1984
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

“O serpent heart hid with a flowering face!
Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave?
Beautiful tyrant! Fiend angelical!
Dove-feathered raven, wolvish-ravening lamb!”

“Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.”

“Success is Counted Sweetest” Emily Dickinson

“I must be cruel, only to be kind.”


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