Binary Opposition in Literature: Definition & Examples

Binary Opposition in Literature: Definition & Examples
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  • 0:02 Binary Opposition
  • 1:37 Harry Potter
  • 2:54 Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Francesca Marinaro

Francesca M. Marinaro has a PhD in English from the University of Florida and has been teaching English composition and Literature since 2007.

This lesson will cover the concept of binary opposition in literature. We'll define the term, look at a few examples to explore how it functions in a story and conclude with a quiz to test your knowledge.

What Is Binary Opposition?

A light switch is either on or off; in a sports match, a team either wins or loses; water is either hot or cold; something in relation to something else can be left or right, up or down, in or out. These are opposites - concepts that can't exist together.

Binary opposition is a key concept in structuralism, a theory of sociology, anthropology and linguistics that states that all elements of human culture can only be understood in relation to one another and how they function within a larger system or the overall environment. We often encounter binary oppositions in cultural studies when exploring the relationships between different groups of people, for instance: upper-class and lower-class or disabled and non-disabled. On the surface, these seem like mere identifying labels, but what makes them binary opposites is the notion that they cannot coexist.

The problem with a system of binary opposites is that it creates boundaries between groups of people and leads to prejudice and discrimination. One group may fear or consider the opposite group a threat, referred to as the 'other'. The use of binary opposition in literature is a system that authors use to explore differences between groups of individuals, such as cultural, class or gender differences. Authors may explore the gray area between the two groups and what can result from those perceived differences.

Example 1: Harry Potter

In the Harry Potter series, there are two major groups: the magical community and non-magical community. However, there are two sets of people who don't fit clearly into either category; these are the muggle-borns and half-bloods. The evil wizard Lord Voldemort believes that the only people who should be a part of the magical community are the pure bloods, who come from a long line of full-blooded witches and wizards with no muggle blood. Lord Voldemort and his followers create a binary system in which the pure-blooded wizards would dominate and persecute anyone not purely magical, whether muggle-born, half-blood or muggle. He and his followers use dark magic to ostracize, torture and sometimes even kill these individuals out of fear that they would take over the wizarding world. Using this binary system of pure blood vs non pure blood, J.K. Rowling shows her readers the dangers of creating such categorizations within society.

Consider this image of a poster for the movie Order of the Phoenix. It features Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort and states 'Only one can survive,' reinforcing the idea of binary opposition between these two characters and what they represent.

Example 2: Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

Let's look at another example from literature: Robert Louis Stevenson's story The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

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