Happy and sad. Light and dark. Wisdom and foolishness. When you compare two elements to highlight their differences (or, at times, surprising similarities), it’s called juxtaposition—and it’s a powerful tool in a range of art forms.
In this guide, we dive into everything you need to know about this tool, from juxtaposition definitions to juxtaposition examples in kinds of art, from literature to photography. Plus, get a few tips on how to incorporate this literary device into your own writing.
What Is Juxtaposition?
The definition of juxtaposition is the placement of two things side by side for comparison, typically to highlight the contrast between the two elements—although sometimes to point out striking similarities. While some instances of juxtaposition may happen by chance, it’s often intentionally used to serve a particular purpose, such as to further a theme, set a mood, or generate suspense, irony, humor, or sadness. Writers may also use juxtaposition to aid in character development by, for example, comparing one person’s traits against another’s.
While primarily a literary technique, juxtaposition can be a powerful tool in other art forms as well, including paintings and photography.
Examples of Juxtaposition
Common examples of juxtaposition—which could be applied in a range of different art forms—include light and darkness, wealth and poverty, good and evil, civilization and nature, and warmth and cold. Placing the individual items in these pairs close together, whether in words or on a canvas, highlights their stark differences.
Juxtaposition in Art
Living In Reality by Mikayla Lapierre
Mikayla Lapierre is the artist behind Side Dimes, a collection of pieces that mash up the old and the new. Specifically, she presents 17th and 18th-century women with pop art references, like 3D glasses, bubblegum bubbles, AirPods, and more.
Object by Meret Oppenheim
Using contrasting textures, artist Meret Oppenheim aimed to create disturbing and humorous pieces of sculptural art. In this example, a teacup should be ceramic—but instead, it’s covered in fur, resulting in an unsettling juxtaposition between the two materials.
Juxtaposition in Literature
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
“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, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way….”
In the very first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens uses several instances of juxtaposition—wisdom and foolishness, light and darkness—to illuminate the disparities between the social classes during the French Revolution.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
“Chicken and chunks of orange cooked in a cream sauce laid on a bed of pearly white grain, tiny green peas and onions, rolls shaped like flowers, and for dessert, a pudding the color of honey. I try to imagine assembling this meal myself back home. Chickens are too expensive, but I could make do with a wild turkey. I’d need to shoot a second turkey to trade for an orange. Goat’s milk would have to substitute for cream. We can grow peas in the garden. I’d have to get wild onions in the woods.”
In this passage, main character Katniss compares the abundance of a feast at the wealthy Capitol to the scarcity of food she commonly encountered in her home district. Author Suzanne Collins uses this to paint a picture of the stark differences and inequality between the Capitol and the 12 districts.
Juxtaposition in Poetry
The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
This famous poem contrasts two literal paths, but the symbolic meaning reveals a deeper juxtaposition—the decision between two different choices. One (“the one less traveled”) is clearly the more difficult option, while the other is the easier road.
Do Not Go Gentle Into That Dark Night by Dylan Thomas
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Throughout Dylan Thomas’s poem, you see the juxtaposition between light and dark, which represent life and death. He continuously appeals to the reader that you should not simply accept death, but fight against it.
Juxtaposition in Photography
This photo highlights the contrast between the moving train against the static buildings behind it. The train becomes a soft blur, while you can see every line, brick, and detail in the buildings.
A scene from Belfast, Ireland, this photo showcases the sharp contrast between a bright red brick building and the metallic, scale-like exterior of the Titanic Belfast. The composition of the photo brings the buildings together, almost like they are overlapping, but in reality, they are actually spread far apart.
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How to Use Juxtaposition in Writing
Juxtaposition is a powerful literary tool to enhance your writing and elicit a strong emotional response from your readers. Consider these tips for how to use juxtaposition in writing:
- Use juxtaposition to showcase the different sides of a character: Characters shouldn’t be one-dimensional, so use contrast to show multiple sides of their personalities. For instance, someone may be soft-spoken but highly opinionated.
- Use juxtaposition to compare two different characters: Alternatively, you can use two contrasting characters to highlight the differences between them. For example, one might be a careful planner, while the other is bold and free-spirited.
- Use juxtaposition to enhance your setting: Using contrast can make your writing less predictable. While you might expect two characters to break up in a stoic setting, like on a front porch, for example, try instead placing them somewhere lively and loud, like the middle of a concert.
The Long and Short of It
As you can see from these juxtaposition examples, highlighting contrasting elements in your writing, photography, or art can make your work stand out from the rest. It’s black and white: a juxtaposition is a tool you should consider using in your art.
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