What is Parallelism in Literature? - Definition & Examples

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Instructor: Bryanna Licciardi

Bryanna has received both her BA in English and MFA in Creative Writing. She has been a writing tutor for over six years.

Parallelism is a device used to make moments in literature memorable and alluring. Learn what makes parallelism such a powerful tool and read some famous literary examples.

Definition of Parallelism

Ever wonder why certain quotes are easier to remember than others? Why some speeches made a bigger impact than others? Take, for example, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 'I Have a Dream' speech.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today…

While you may not have the entire speech memorized, you do know some of it, as well as King's ultimate point. The speech's success is due in part to King's fantastic use of parallelism. Parallelism is a literary device in which parts of the sentence are grammatically the same, or are similar in construction. It can be a word, a phrase, or an entire sentence repeated. King's famous 'I have a dream' repetition makes the speech compelling and rhythmic, as well as memorable.

Martin Luther King, Jr. addressing the crowd before giving his famous speech, 1963
Martin Luther King Jr speech

Parallelism is considered a great persuasive tool. Its repetitive quality makes the sentence or sentences symmetrical and therefore very memorable for the reader. Parallelism makes the idea easier for readers to process because they sense a pattern and know what to expect.

A popular example is the famous translated line from Julius Caesar - 'I came, I saw, I conquered.' Notice that the sentence construction is being repeated. Each phrase begins with 'I' plus a verb. It not only sounds appealing, but the repetition makes the quote stand out in the reader's mind. There is a reason why the quote became so popular! If the sentence had been constructed a different way, with faulty parallelism, it would turn bulky, unbalanced, and lengthy; 'I came to this place to see, and after I saw, I conquered it.' Notice how this sentence loses its memorable nature and appeal. Faulty parallelism often times appears in sentences with lists and phrases that the writer unnecessarily tries to vary.

Literary Examples

Parallelism in literature uses the same idea to appeal to the reader or make something memorable, but with a much grander intention. In literature, parallelism is used to convey messages of morality and emphasize ideas. It is very common in proverbs from all around the world. A proverb is a popular expression that is used to reveal a human truth or experience. Here is a list of common English proverbs that you might recognize, with short explanations as to how they are parallel.

  • What you see is what you get. (The 'what you' plus a short verb is repeated.)
  • When the going gets tough, the tough get going. (The 'going gets tough' phrase is repeated so that it sounds similar, and yet by flipping around the order of the words, the meaning changes.)
  • Nothing ventured, nothing gained. (The 'nothing' plus a verb is repeated.)
  • Easy come, easy go. (The 'easy' plus a short verb is repeated.)

There are different forms of parallelism in literature. One common form is called antithesis, which is when two opposing ideas are put together in a parallel construction. By doing this, the writer emphasizes their opposition. A popular example appears at the very beginning of Charles Dickens' novel A Tale of Two Cities:

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…

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