J is for Juxtaposition
Written by Kerry E.B. Black
Juxtaposition is a literary device that creates a parallel between characters, concepts, settings, ideas, or themes. Doing so highlights their contrasts and similarities. It compares up-close, thus helping to flesh out characters or create suspense and tension. Some writers use juxtaposition to lend a rhetorical effect.
In “A Prayer for Owen Meany” by John Irving, Owen and John contrast greatly in appearance, size, and beliefs, but their juxtaposition allows the reader a glimpse into their internal similarities. John Milton in “Paradise Lost” used juxtaposition to highlight the differences between God and Satan. William Shakespeare used a form of juxtaposition in sonnet 116 to prove love is eternal but beauty fades. Johnathin Swift in “The Lady’s Dressing Room” uses the device to contrast how people perceive Celia and her real character.
Photographers, artists, and architects use juxtaposition in their work as well. In a recent statement about feminism, actor Tom Hiddleston recreated movie poster art, casting himself as the female leads to reveal the stereotypes intrinsic in such posing. A photograph of a grandmother’s withered lips kissing her new granddaughter’s petal-smooth skin provides juxtaposition.
Even music incorporates juxtaposition. “Rough in the ghetto/but in jail he’s jello…” raps “Road to the Riches.” Film makers often juxtapose an incongruous musical score with a scene to heighten the effect. In film, “The Godfather” juxtaposed tranquil, reverent vignettes like a baby’s baptism with a scene of violence. The 1980’s film “Twins” juxtaposed Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzeneger. In 1997, a movie called “Fairy Tale: A True Story” used juxtaposed montage at the end to explain the truth behind the story.
Juxtaposition is very similar to a foil. Foils, however, only possess contrasting traits. Where Juliet is dark, Rosamund is pale; Juliet possesses passion, but Rosamund is complacent and compliant. Thus a foil defines and deepens the understanding of Juliet’s character.
Another similar literary device is Oxymoron, which place two contrasting words, phases, or ideas in proximity to produce ironic or humorous results. My kids claim “Good Morning” is an oxymoron. Oxymoron is placed side-by-side in the sentence. Juxtaposition, by contrast, can span an entire novel..