Paradox in Literature: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:02 What Is a Paradox?
  • 0:45 Shakespearean Examples
  • 2:11 Examples and Novels
  • 4:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Janovsky

Angela has taught middle and high school English, Business English and Speech for nine years. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and has earned her teaching license.

In this lesson, we'll learn what a paradox is and what role they play in literature. We'll also look at several examples of paradoxes, including ones from Shakespeare, George Orwell and Joseph Heller.

What Is a Paradox?

Jumbo shrimp. Wise fool. This sentence is false. What's the common theme with all these phrases? They're all paradoxes. A paradox is a statement or idea that seems to contradict itself. And, to be fair, they can be confusing.

Think about the statement, 'This sentence is false.' Is it true? If it's true, then it's false. But if it's false, how can it be true? Yep, it's a paradox.

Why do we find paradoxes in literature? A paradox can be a useful literary device. Writers use paradoxical statements to make us see something in a new way or question what we thought was true. Sometimes they just show how complex life can be.

Shakespearean Examples

You know who knows how complex life can be? Shakespeare. And what's more complex than love? Check out this little speech Juliet makes in Romeo and Juliet:

My only love sprung from my only hate!
Too early seen unknown, and known too late!
Prodigious birth of love it is to me,
That I must love a loathed enemy.

Juliet loves Romeo, but his family is her sworn enemy. Therefore, she both loves and hates him. That's a paradox.

It would be much simpler for Juliet if she just fell in love with some random guy. But no, she falls in love with Romeo, whose family she has spent her entire life hating. This paradox is more than just bad news for Juliet. It helps us understand the central conflict of the play. When Juliet says, 'My only love sprung from my only hate,' we learn in one line why this is a tragedy.

Speaking of tragedy, let's talk Hamlet. In this play, Hamlet says, 'I must be cruel, only to be kind.' This statement is a paradox. How can Hamlet be cruel and kind at the same time?

Here, context matters. He's referring to his mother and how he's going to need to handle things with his stepdad, Claudius. And by 'handle things,' we're talking murder. Murder is pretty cruel, right? So how is that also kind? Well, Claudius is a bad guy. Killing him will be the right thing for everyone in the long run. Everyone except Claudius.

Examples and Novels

In addition to Shakespeare, there are many examples of paradoxes in novels. In George Orwell's Animal Farm, there is the proclamation, 'All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.'

How can some animals be more equal than others? Perhaps he means pigs are more equal, since bacon is superior to beef. Really, though, this line highlights the paradox of governments proclaiming equality with regards to their citizens. There may be laws on the books saying everyone is equal, but in reality that just isn't the truth.

As with politics, a paradox can be useful when it comes to describing war. In 2002, during the early days of the Iraq War, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld referred to 'known unknowns.' How can you know what you don't know? If they're unknown, you can't know them.

This is much like the military rule called Catch-22, from Joseph Heller's novel of the same name. In the novel, the pilots want to get out of flying in the war and go home.

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