Paradox — Definition and Examples in Writing

Literature is filled with complexities, contradictions, and ambiguity, but that’s what makes them interesting to the average reader. Imagine if narratives and other forms of writing were nothing but simple sentences with literal meanings. Where’s the fun in that? Literature exists to allow one’s mind to wander in a world of creativity. Adding hidden meanings to a work is what makes the reading experience enjoyable. Thus, the main purpose of figurative language and literary tools is to provide pleasure.

However, the confusing nature of literature can sometimes take a toll on readers. There’s always the likelihood of building misinterpretations when readers fail to catch the deeper messages conveyed by the author. This is common among literary pieces that use paradoxes. While paradoxes help keep readers intrigued, they can sometimes cause conflict within one’s mind if not properly understood.

What is a Paradox?

A paradox is a figure of speech that can seem silly or contradictory in form, yet it can still be true, or at least make sense in the context given. This is sometimes used to illustrate thoughts or statements that differ from traditional ideas. So, instead of taking a given statement literally, an individual must comprehend it from a different perspective. Using paradoxes in speeches and writings can also add wit and humor to one’s work, which serves as the perfect device to grab a reader or a listener’s attention.

But paradoxes can be quite difficult to explain by definition alone, which is why it is best to refer to a few examples to further your understanding.

Examples: 

“A time traveler goes back in time to murder her great-grandmother.”

If you analyze the situation carefully, you’ll realize how paradoxical it is in nature. For one, does the time traveler know that without her great-grandmother, she wouldn’t even exist in the present times? Whatever her reasons were clearly blinded her of the circumstance at hand. Like this example, a paradox can often turn an unfortunate event into something comedic.

“Nobody goes to the mall anymore — it’s too crowded.”

If nobody goes to the mall anymore, then why would it be crowded? It makes no sense that a place would be filled with people if everyone thinks the same way as the speaker. However, if the speaker’s idea of “nobody” means “none of our friends”, then the statement above would not be paradoxical.

Another good paradox example is in the famous television show House. Here, Dr. House is a rude, selfish, and narcissistic character who alienates everyone around him, even his own colleagues. However, he is also a brilliant doctor who is committed to saving lives. Regardless of his mean exterior, Dr. House is a moral and compassionate man who cares about his patients. The paradox here is how the character strives to save people’s lives despite his ruthless personality and behavior.

Literary Paradox vs. Logical Paradox

There’s a key difference between a literary and logical paradox. For starters, if a meaning of a statement is contradictory in a manner that may not be resolved into something sensible, then it cannot be considered as logical.

“I must be cruel only to be kind.” (Hamlet, III.IV.181)

This line from Hamlet is an example of a literary paradox. It is apparent that cruel and kind are two opposing personalities. While upon further inspection one may argue that in some way, you must exhibit cruelty to show a level of kindness, there is still no logical contradiction to support this statement. But in a way, the idea of Hamlet possessing a cruel and kind character is loosely paradoxical as well.

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To put it simply, a literary paradox uses language figuratively to create a different and unexpected meaning. A logical paradox, on the other hand, is hopelessly contradictory despite the speaker’s attempt to use the language nonsensically to make it appear meaningful.

Difference between Paradox and Oxymoron

Most people tend to confuse a paradox with an oxymoron, and it’s not hard to see why. Most oxymoron examples appear to be compressed version of a paradox, in which it is used to add a dramatic effect and to emphasize contrasting thoughts. Although they may seem greatly similar in form, there’s are slight differences that set them apart.

A paradox may consist of a statement or a group of statements with opposing definitions, while an oxymoron combines two contradictory terms to form a new meaning. But because an oxymoron can play out with just two words, it is often used to describe a given object or idea imaginatively. As for a paradox, the statement itself makes you question whether something is true or false. It appears to contradict the truth, but if given a closer look, the truth is there but is merely implied.

Common Paradox Examples

Here are some of the most popular paradoxical expressions used in everyday speech:

  1. If there’s one thing that I know, it’s that I don’t know anything at all.
  2. The final rule you need to remember is to ignore all rules.
  3. The second sentence is false. The first sentence is true.
  4. This statement is a lie.
  5. I am a compulsive liar.

Based on the examples given, it is apparent how paradoxes have the ability to turn a serious statement into something witty.

Paradox in Writing

From poetry to literature, and from speeches to song lyrics, paradox helps add color to any form of writing to keep readers and listeners engaged. This can either create humor or express confusion among an audience due to its absurdity. Paradoxes serve as an effective literary tool used to test the limits of one’s understanding. This can then lead to unexpected insights, which is why some of the most famous authors in history have used paradoxes in their works.

“I can resist anything but temptation.” – Oscar Wilde

This well-known quote by Oscar Wilde is a clear example of a paradox. It shows how a statement can seem truthful, yet fail to meet the basic standards of our common sense. Like other types of figurative languages, such as onomatopoeic words and hyperbole expressions, paradoxes allow authors to explore the complications of literary writing to challenge the extent of human judgment.

Example #1 – Romeo and Juliet

Alas, that love, whose view is muffled still,
Should, without eyes, see pathways to his will!
Where shall we dine?—O me! What fray was here?
Yet tell me not, for I have heard it all.
Here’s much to do with hate but more with love.
Why, then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
O anything, of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness! serious vanity!
Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this…”

The lines highlighted in bold text indicate the paradoxes found in Shakespeare’s tragic masterpiece. The first paradox is found in the first two lines of this passage, in which Romeo expresses his longing for a love that is “blind” to see the path to fulfill his heart’s desires. The second paradox emphasizes the central theme of the play: the concept of love and hate colliding. The third paradox conveys Romeo’s exasperation over how something so beautiful could create such a mess. Finally, the last paradox portrays Romeo’s feelings of sorrow over an unrequited love.

Example #2 – Cruel to Be Kind

“You’ve gotta be
Cruel to be kind in the right measure,
Cruel to be kind it’s a very good sign,
Cruel to be kind means that I love you,
Baby, you’ve gotta be cruel to be kind…”

In this example, singer Elvis Costello borrows a well-known phrase from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to craft his song “Cruel to Be Kind”. Like Hamlet, the singer emphasizes that a little cruelty can also be an expression of love. It is an arguable concept to ponder on, but the singer also tries to reason out his opinion through the song’s lyrics.

Example #3 – Animal Farm

“All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

In his novel, author George Orwell writes about how the government insists that everyone is equal, yet fails to treat everyone equally. At first glance, the line above doesn’t make any sense. However, if you examine it properly, the statement speaks a different kind of truth that continues to haunt modern-day society: the political truth. And, since the concept of equality given is opposite to our common belief, it becomes a paradox.

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If anything, paradoxes are simple brain teasers. They are commonly used in literature and everyday life to leave us questioning our own thoughts. Because of its amusing yet mind-boggling nature, it allows authors to capture the duality of life in an innovative way for audiences to grasp. But instead of creating logical conundrums to test readers, paradoxes help illuminate meanings. Paradoxes are an enthralling and thought-provoking literary device that effectively contradict common beliefs and keep audiences intrigued by a given situation or reading material.

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