• Literary Terms
  • Definition & Examples
  • When & How to Write a Paradox

I. What is a Paradox?

A paradox is a statement that contradicts itself, or that must be both true and untrue at the same time. Paradoxes are quirks in logic that demonstrate how our thinking sometimes goes haywire, even when we use perfectly logical reasoning to get there.

But a key part of paradoxes is that they at least sound reasonable. They’re not obvious nonsense, and it’s only upon consideration that we realize their self-defeating logic.

For example:

This statement is a lie.

This is the most famous of all logical paradoxes, because it’s so simple. These five simple words are self-contradictory: if the statement is true, then it’s a lie, which means it’s not true. But if it’s not true, then it’s a lie, which makes it true. Yikes!

In literary analysis, “paradox” can sometimes have a looser meaning: a person or situation that contains contradictions. For example, a character who is both charming and rude might be referred to as a “paradox” even though in the strict logical sense , there’s nothing self-contradictory about a single person combining disparate personality traits.

We’ll distinguish these two definitions by calling the strict definition “ logical paradox ,” and the loose definition “ literary paradox .”

II. Examples of Paradox

Nobody goes to Murphy’s Bar anymore — it’s too crowded .

If the bar is crowded, then lots of people are going. But if so many people are going, it makes no sense to say “nobody goes” there anymore. (It’s possible, though , that this paradox can be escaped by suggesting that by “nobody” the speaker just means “none of our friends.”)

A time traveler goes back in time and murders his own great-grandfather.

Time-travel paradoxes are very common in popular culture. In this classic example, the time traveler murders his own great-grandfather, meaning that the time traveler cannot exist. But if he does not exist, then there’s no one to kill the great-grandfather, and thus he must exist. Logical paradoxes of this sort are one of the many reasons why time travel is such a difficult proposition for science.

III. The Importance of Paradox

Logical paradoxes have been used for centuries to demonstrate the fallibility of human logic. although logic is a valuable tool, it sometimes breaks down, as in the example of “this statement is a lie.” Philosophers and mystics often use paradoxes to prove that human beings have to approach their world using intuition as well as logic. The literary paradox, on the other hand, may help “art imitate life.” The world around us is full of contradictions, especially when it comes to people’s behavior and personality. So when a character combines disparate elements, it seems very lifelike and three-dimensional. Most people are paradoxes in one way or another, so a main character who wasn’t somehow paradoxical could seem stilted or dull! Such paradoxes can also lend mystery to a story, which helps to make it more compelling.

IV. Examples of Paradox in Literature

Example 1: literary paradox.

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

This is a nice literary paradox, but not a logical one. Cruel and kind are apparent contradictions, but of course it’s perfectly logical to say that one must be cruel (in some minor way) in order to be kind (in some other, more important way). There’s no logical contradiction, and therefore no logical paradox. The character Hamlet, however, combines disparate attributes of kindness and cruelty, so his personality is loosely paradoxical.

Example 2: Logical Paradox

A Chinese folk tale tells of a blacksmith who created the best armor and weapons in the world. He once created a spear that could pierce any object. He then created a shield that could deflect any attack. When a young boy asked him what would happen if he tried to pierce the shield with the spear, the blacksmith realized he could not answer. Because of this story, the Chinese character for “paradox” is a spear next to a shield.

Example 3: Logical Paradox

Zeno’s paradox, one of the oldest paradoxes that we know of, states:

A man approaches a wall 10 feet away. To get there, he must first go half the distance (5 feet), then half the remaining distance (2.5 feet), half the remaining distance (1.25 feet) and so on. Therefore in order to reach the wall he must complete an infinite number of actions , which is impossible , before he can reach the wall. Therefore it is impossible to reach the wall.

Of course, we know from experience that it’s quite easy to walk twenty feet and touch a wall — but the logic shows this to be impossible!

Although this was considered a difficult paradox by the ancient Greeks, most philosophers today believe that it can be escaped because the “infinite number of actions” theory is invalid. (In other words, the underlined portion is not a logically valid step, and therefore there is no genuine logical paradox, but rather a simple logical error .)

V. Examples of  Paradox  in Pop Culture

Example 1: logical paradox.

In an episode of Futurama , Fry (one of the main characters) travels back in time to the 1940s, where he comes face-to-face with his own grandfather, Enos. He knows that if he kills him, it will create a logical paradox that may destroy the universe, but Fry’s clumsy efforts to protect Enos from harm put the pair in greater and greater danger. Finally Fry accidentally causes Enos to be destroyed by a nuclear test. (This logical paradox is resolved, however, because it turns out that Enos was not actually Fry’s grandfather to begin with.)

Example 2: Literary Paradox

In the television show House , the main character is a rude, narcissistic, and abrasive man who constantly alienates those around him. However, he is a brilliant doctor and deeply committed to saving his patients’ lives. Thus, he combines a gruff, mean exterior with a deep sense of compassion and morality.

Example 3:  Literary Paradox:

I close my eyes so I can see (Fugazi, Shut the Door )

In the lyrics to Fugazi’s song Shut the Door , there’s an apparent contradiction between closing eyes and seeing. However, this is merely a literary paradox (or an oxymoron, since it employs a double entendre). Clearly, the word “see” isn’t being used literally in this case, but rather figuratively – closing one’s eyes to the outside world allows one to “see” internal truths.

VI. Related terms

(Terms: self-fulfilling prophecy, dilemma, irony,  oxymoron and juxtaposition)

  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Because time-travel paradoxes are so common in popular culture, we often confuse them with self-fulfilling prophecies . The basic difference is which direction you’re traveling. Because  the future does not have logical consequences (it’s considered “open”), only traveling back in time can produce a paradox . However, traveling or looking forward in time can produce a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy :

A scientist peers into the future and sees a terrible apocalypse. When he returns, he tries to warn humanity, but everyone laughs at him and in his anger he turns on them with his machines, thus causing the very destruction that he witnessed in the future.

No part of this story contradicts or makes itself impossible, so it’s not a paradox.

Time Travel Paradox :

A time traveler from 2025 builds a time machine in order to assassinate Hitler and prevent the second world war. He succeeds, meaning that the war never happened and he (in 2025) would have had no reason to build the time machine in the first place, meaning Hitler was never assassinated.

In this story, the logical consequences of the character’s actions imply that those actions could never have happened. There’s a contradiction, and therefore a paradox.

Some people mistake dilemmas for paradoxes, but they’re actually quite different. A dilemma is a difficult choice , whereas a paradox is a violation of logic itself. In a dilemma, we may have conflicting needs or desires, but those desires are logically compatible, so there’s no logical paradox. Moreover, the dilemma involves two possible situations, not one actual situation, so there’s no literary paradox either.

For example, say a single dad wants to provide for his kids with a better job, but in order to do that he needs to go back to school, which will take him away from his kids. Should he spend more time with them? Or go back to school, get a better job, and give them a better life? It’s a difficult choice – a dilemma. But there is neither a logical paradox nor a literary paradox in this situation.

Irony (or, to be precise, situational irony ) is an event or circumstance that violates our expectations. However, it is not a violation of logic, so it is not a logical paradox. This is a common mistake!

For example, it would be ironic if an ethics professor was stealing money from her students. (Because we have an expectation that a professor of ethics will be an expert on doing what’s right, and therefore won’t be a thief.) But that situation would not exactly be paradoxical, since a person’s position teaching ethics doesn’t logically imply that he or she must be a good person.

However, the professor could be seen as a literary paradox , since her personality combines two disparate elements: expertise in ethics, and an inability to behave ethically.

An oxymoron is an apparent paradox that can be escaped through puns or double entendre . For example, “jumbo shrimp” is an oxymoron. It would be a paradox if shrimp necessarily meant “something small.” But shrimp can also mean a specific animal, and thus the apparent paradox is just an illusion. Similarly, the phrase “a poor man of great wealth” appears to be a paradox, but the contradiction disappears once we realize that the “wealth” is not money, but spiritual, moral, or intellectual fulfillment.

  • Juxtaposition

When an author places two or more disparate elements next to one another, this is referred to as juxtaposition , but it can also fall under the broad definition of literary paradox. For example, one of the most famous images of juxtaposition shows a group of anti-war protesters surrounded by soldiers who are pointing rifles at them, with one man out of the crowd placing flowers in the barrel of each gun. The image juxtaposes violence against the gentle harmlessness of flowers. This combination of disparate elements could also be seen as a literary paradox.

List of Terms

  • Alliteration
  • Amplification
  • Anachronism
  • Anthropomorphism
  • Antonomasia
  • APA Citation
  • Aposiopesis
  • Autobiography
  • Bildungsroman
  • Characterization
  • Circumlocution
  • Cliffhanger
  • Comic Relief
  • Connotation
  • Deus ex machina
  • Deuteragonist
  • Doppelganger
  • Double Entendre
  • Dramatic irony
  • Equivocation
  • Extended Metaphor
  • Figures of Speech
  • Flash-forward
  • Foreshadowing
  • Intertextuality
  • Literary Device
  • Malapropism
  • Onomatopoeia
  • Parallelism
  • Pathetic Fallacy
  • Personification
  • Point of View
  • Polysyndeton
  • Protagonist
  • Red Herring
  • Rhetorical Device
  • Rhetorical Question
  • Science Fiction
  • Synesthesia
  • Turning Point
  • Understatement
  • Urban Legend
  • Verisimilitude
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What Is a Paradox in Writing?

Parker Yamasaki

“The first rule of fight club is you do not talk about fight club.”

This famous line is from Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel, Fight Club , and it leaves an impression. Not only does it shroud the fight club in mystery, but it forces the reader to pause and think. Is he breaking the rules of fight club by talking about the rules of fight club? It’s an impervious circle and a perfect literary paradox .

A paradox is a  literary device that appears to contradict itself but contains some truth, theme, or humor.

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What is a paradox?

In literary paradoxes, something doesn’t seem right. They are self-contradictory statements that defy logic in such a way that the reader’s brain takes pause. This apparent contradiction is the first layer of the paradox.

The second layer of paradox is the truth behind it. With the reader’s attention fixed on the paradox, they are encouraged to look for greater meaning in the statement.

Typically, a writer wants the reader to have the smoothest reading experience possible. However, every once in a while, the writer wants the reader to stop and consider something more deeply. A paradox will do this.

When to use paradox

The main purpose of a paradox is to get the reader to pause and then to think. “I can resist everything except temptation,” declares Lord Darlington in Oscar Wilde’s 1893 play Lady Windermere’s Fan . It sounds like Lord Darlington is describing his ability to resist temptation unless that temptation is . . . temptation. What he’s actually saying, in a humorous and roundabout way, is that he cannot resist temptation. This is a paradoxical statement.

Other authors use paradox to reveal deeper truths about a character, as in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (ca. 1599–1601) . When Hamlet tells his mother, “I must be cruel only to be kind,” he is protecting her from the consequences of her actions. So although Hamlet’s actions are harsh, his intentions are good. It’s not a complete contradiction, even though it appears so at first, making it a literary paradox.

Rules for writing a paradox

It takes a clever writer to create a good paradox, and like all good writing , it requires a little work.

Even if it’s a tricky task, the rules for writing a paradox are pretty simple. First, the statement must contain an apparent contradiction. Think in opposites. Second, there must be some sort of conclusion or truth that the reader discovers after some consideration.

If your statement contains contradictions but ultimately makes no sense, it is not a literary paradox. It’s either a logical paradox or an error.

Literary paradox versus logical paradox

A literary paradox doesn’t make any sense—but only at first. The last part of that sentence—“at first”—is what distinguishes it from logical paradoxes.

In a logical paradox, there is no solution. It defies the rules of logic.

Literary paradoxes do have a conclusion, which is often reached through reason and requires just a little extra thought (exactly the writer’s intention).

Another major difference is that the message of a literary paradox is often not found in its literal meaning. In fact, its literal meaning is often beside the point.

For example, in Lewis Carroll’s 1865 book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (a wonderland of paradoxes, if you want to go down that rabbit hole ), there is a scene where the March Hare tells Alice to take more tea.

“‘I’ve had nothing yet,’ Alice replied in an offended tone, ‘so I can’t take more.’ 

‘You mean you can’t take less ,’ said the Hatter: ‘it’s very easy to take more than nothing.’”

It’s clear enough what Alice meant, but Carroll does not want the reader to think about whether Alice should drink some tea or not. The point of this paradox is the flimsiness of language that we take for granted and to provide a bit of humor. If this were a logical paradox, Alice and the March Hare might go back and forth forever, but that wouldn’t make for a very fun book to read.

Similar terms to paradox

There are many great literary devices that rely on opposition to create an effect on the reader. Some closely related terms are:

Antithesis: Using two things that are opposites but do not contradict one another.

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” —Neil Armstrong

This is an antithetical statement—and a very poetic one at that. Armstrong uses juxtaposition ( small step / giant leap and man / mankind ) but does not use any apparent contradictions.

Oxymoron: Oxymorons are similar to paradoxes because they also play with contradictions. However, the contradictions in paradoxes vs. those in oxymorons happen on different scales. An oxymoron is a contradiction between two words, while a paradox is a contradiction between sentences, phrases, or even entire books. In other words, think of an oxymoron as a contradiction of terms and a paradox as a contradiction of ideas.

Irony: Irony is a situation or statement that turns a reader’s expectation on its head. It is, in other words, exactly what you don’t predict will happen. Of course, in real life, humans are full of contradictory and unpredictable behavior. So a scene that involves irony is both unpredictable and closer to real life, which would make it predictable. Is that a paradox?

Examples of paradox in literature

Paradox happens on a variety of scales, from witty one-liners to the plot of an entire book.

Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel Catch 22 is based entirely on a literary paradox and contains many smaller paradoxes.

One of the paradoxes in the book is that only a crazy man would want to fly planes in a war, but only a sane man can. So if one of the characters wants to go to war, that means he’s crazy and therefore cannot. But if he does not want to go to war, then he is sane and therefore will be sent.

Oscar Wilde is famous for his one-line paradoxes. For example, in The Importance of Being Earnest , first performed in 1895, he writes:

“To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.”

Wilde uses paradox to gently, and humorously, push against societal norms. With this line, Wilde’s character admits that appearing “natural” in his society is itself an unnatural act.

George Orwell also used paradoxical statements to comment on the absurdity of his political time. In his 1945 book, Animal Farm , he wrote:

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

Logically, one thing cannot be “more equal” than another thing—that cancels out the meaning of equality. But Orwell is not challenging mathematical conventions; he’s remarking that, within the farm’s unjust society, “equality” has lost its meaning.

Paradox FAQs

What is a paradox in writing.

A paradox in writing is a statement that appears to contradict itself but upon further inspection reveals a deeper truth, meaning, or joke.

How is a paradox structured?

A paradox can be a sentence, a phrase, or an entire book theme. It contains an apparent contradiction and a deeper truth. If the contradiction is unsolvable, it’s a logical paradox. If it happens at the level of individual words, it’s an oxymoron.

What is the purpose of a paradox?

A paradox forces the reader to pause and think twice. Encountering seemingly contradictory elements, the reader must think critically to understand their meaning. 

literary definition paradox

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What Is a Paradox? Definition and Examples

Krystal Craiker headshot

Krystal N. Craiker

What is a paradox?

"Save money by spending money."

Wait. What does that mean? How can that possibly be true? That advice seems contradictory but may make sense.

This sentence is an example of a paradox—a statement or argument that seems to contradict itself but can in fact be true.

This is a paradox

There are logical paradoxes and literary paradoxes. In literature, paradoxes are a powerful literary device . But what are they? And why are they so valuable to readers?

In this article, we give you a solid paradox definition alongside plenty of examples so you can fully understand this rhetorical device.

What Is an Easy Definition of a Paradox?

What is a paradox, what is a logical paradox, what is a paradox in literature.

  • How Do Paradoxes Differ from Other Literary Devices?

If you’re already feeling like you’ve just stumbled into a philosophy class, have no fear. The easiest way to understand paradox is through examples, which we’ll cover in great detail in subsequent sections.

But if you need an easy paradox definition, here’s what you need to know.

A paradox is a statement or idea that contradicts itself.

With that simple definition in mind, you’ll be able to grasp the concept of paradox in no time.

A paradox has different definitions depending on where it’s being used—that’s where it starts getting complicated. These definitions can be tricky, but we’ll try to simplify things for you.

In short, a paradox is a self-contradictory statement or argument.

Sometimes, a paradox seems to contradict itself but it can in fact be true. A paradox defies logic and runs counter to one’s expectations.

A paradox presents conflicting ideas and relates them in a way that forces you to wonder if it’s true or not.

In many cases, a paradox is neither decidedly true nor false and results in circular reasoning.

Definition of a paradox

The word origin of paradox comes from the Latin paradoxum , which in turn came from the Greek paradoxos . It’s a combination of the ancient Greek words para and dokein .

Para- is a prefix that means "beyond," while dokein is a verb that means "to think."

Combined, paradoxos , or paradox, means "beyond thinking." A paradox is an idea that forces you to ponder beyond the normal, expected limits of your thinking.

Origin of the word paradox

Some paradoxes might sound false at first but have some semblance of truth. For example, you might say, "doing nothing is exhausting."

If you’re doing nothing, you’re exerting no energy, so how can it be exhausting? But think about a day where you just sit and do nothing.

Or imagine a time you’ve been on a trip, and you’re just sitting in a car or a train with nothing to do. At the end of those days, you’re likely more tired than you would be if you’d been busy.

Those are some basic examples of the concept of paradoxes.

But paradoxes can get infinitely more complicated, particularly because paradoxes are used or defined differently depending on who is using them.

Within the fields of logic and rhetoric , paradoxes represent perplexing arguments. Paradoxes in science and mathematics have challenged principles that were accepted as true.

In literature, paradoxes juxtapose two ideas that seem incongruous in order to provide emphasis or deep insight. We’ll get into some examples of these later.

What is a logical paradox?

Many people are most familiar with the concept of logical paradoxes .

A logical paradox is a statement that is so self-contradictory that it cannot be true or false . In other words, if the statement is true, it’s false, but if it’s false, it’s true.

Is that making your head spin? Good! That’s the purpose of logical paradoxes. They force us to expand our critical thinking and reasoning skills .

Have you heard the age-old question: "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" This statement is an example of a logical paradox. It is logically unsolvable, theories of evolution aside.

A chicken is born from an egg, so it stands to reason that an egg would come first. However, the egg is laid by a chicken, so the chicken would need to come first.

That’s a classic example of a logical paradox. Let’s take a look at some examples of logical paradoxes.

What Are Some Examples of a Logical Paradox?

Logical paradox examples

It’s important to have a good grasp of a logical paradox in order to understand how literary paradoxes work.

Before we move onto the literary device of paradox, here are more examples of logical paradoxes .

"All I know is that I know nothing."

This quote is attributed to Socrates, and poses an interesting paradox. If he knows nothing, then he cannot know that he knows nothing.

"Everything I say is a lie."

Am I telling the truth by saying everything I say is a lie? Or am I lying by saying this? This strange paradox is unsolvable.

"Is the answer to this question 'no'?"

This question is unanswerable. If we answer the question "no," then the correct answer would be yes. But if we answer "yes," the correct answer would be no. There is no correct way to answer this paradox.

Now that we’ve got a solid understanding of logical paradoxes, let’s learn what a literary paradox is.

What is a literary paradox?

Paradoxes are often used in literature as a poignant device.

A literary paradox is a statement that appears to contradict itself, but upon further rumination, either reveals a deeper meaning or actually makes sense.

Literary paradoxes are often used to illustrate something profound. Authors choose to juxtapose two contradictory ideas in a way that is insightful.

A literary paradox is often related to the overall theme or message of a story and is used to emphasize the story’s deeper meaning.

Paradoxes are tricky to get right. But when an author successfully uses a literary paradox, they are exceptionally poignant.

A paradox is not the only literary device that relies on two conflicting ideas. Paradox is often confused with the rhetorical devices oxymoron , antithesis , and irony .

These literary terms, however, have very distinct meanings and uses.

What Are Some Examples of Paradox in Literature?

The first rule of fight club

While paradoxes are tricky to use, lots of authors have given it a try. Both logical paradoxes and literary paradoxes appear often in literature. Let's look at some classic examples.

"All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."

This quote is a tenet created by the pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. This statement is a paradox because something cannot be more equal than another.

That goes against the very definition of equal. Even if something could be considered "more equal," the two parts of the sentence contradict each other, creating another layer of the paradox.

The premise of the book itself is paradoxical. The animals want equal rights to the humans, but in their quest for equality, the animals end up in a totalitarian regime that relies on class differences. The apparent paradox of the story is summed up by the quote.

"The first rule about fight club is you don’t talk about fight club."

Before it was a movie with Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, Fight Club was a novel by Chuck Palahniuk.

This is a logical paradox because in order to tell the rules of fight club, you must talk about fight club.

The story contains several larger, thematic literary paradoxes as well. For example, the narrator's key aim is to stop himself from committing an act of terrorism and killing himself, but the main barrier to him doing this is himself.

"I must be cruel only to be kind."

Shakespeare used paradox frequently in his plays. This quote from Hamlet is a literary paradox because Hamlet believes he must murder his uncle to avenge his father and free his mother.

He believes the murder is an act of mercy for his mother, although murder is not generally accepted as an act of kindness.

"To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up. "

Oscar Wilde was a master of paradox. This quote is from The Importance of Being Earnest.

Acting natural is supposed to be natural, but it’s not natural if you’re having to act it.

This has even greater relevance today with reality TV stars and social media influencers, who often pretend to appear real and natural.

"I’m Nobody! Who are you? Are you—Nobody—too?"

In this poem, Emily Dickinson uses a paradox to explore the concept of identity. By being someone, they cannot be nobody, even though they say they are nobody.

"Death, thou shalt die."

In this Holy Sonnet by John Donne, the poet uses an apparent paradox. Death is not a thing that can literally die, but Donne explores the idea of everlasting life after death.

In this interpretation of the Christian afterlife, the concept of death ceases to exist in heaven.

"'Take some more tea,' the March hare said to Alice, very earnestly.

'I've had nothing yet,' Alice replied in an offended tone, 'so I can’t take more.'

'You mean you can’t take less,' said the Hatter. 'It’s very easy to take more than nothing.'"

Lewis Carroll uses paradoxes throughout Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This paradox from the Mad Hatter sounds nonsensical.

How can one take more than nothing? But he is right: if nothing is zero, than anything higher is more. Paradoxes feature heavily in mathematical theory, and Carroll was a mathematician.

"A child asked, 'Can God do everything?' On receiving an affirmative reply, she at once said: 'Then can He make a stone so heavy that He can’t lift it?'"

This is a common example of a paradox used in theological debates. It appears in Henry Dudeney’s The Canterbury Puzzles.

This paradox poses the idea that if God is omnipotent, then he can create a stone so heavy he can’t lift it.

If he can create this stone but not lift it, he is not all-powerful. If he can’t create this stone, he can’t do everything.

"The earth that’s nature’s mother is her tomb;

What is her burying grave, that is her womb..."

This excerpt is another Shakespeare example, this time from Romeo and Juliet.

This paradox is about earth being both a life-giving womb and a tomb. It creates a circular argument that sounds contradictory but is not untrue.

Here are a few other examples of literary paradox that aren’t as easy to sum up in a quote.

The Odyssey

In The Odyssey, Odysseus tells the Cyclops that he is Nobody.

When Odysseus attacks him, the Cyclops says that Nobody is hurting him. This situation is a paradox because obviously someone is hurting him.

Joseph Heller uses paradox throughout his novel Catch-22]. A major paradox is that Yossarian claims to be crazy to get out of fighting in the war.

However, a crazy person would not be sane enough to claim to be crazy for this reason, so he reveals himself as sane and does not get out of duty.

The Grandfather Paradox

Finally, the grandfather paradox often appears in literature and media that deals with time travel.

The idea is that if you travel back in time to kill your grandfather, you will never exist and therefore will not be able to travel back to the future.

How Do You Prevent a Literary Paradox from Confusing Your Reader?

A paradox doesn’t have to confuse your reader if you set it up correctly.

Tie the central idea in your paradox to your story’s main theme. This will allow the reader to already be thinking about the central idea of your paradox before you overtly mention it, like in the Animal Farm example earlier.

If you can get the pacing and structure right, paradoxes and complex elements will seamlessly blend with your main storyline. If you have to spend pages explaining a paradox or why it is there, it’s probably not worth including.

ProWritingAid’s Pacing report highlights slow moving sections of your novel to help you balance action with exposition . When you introduce your paradox, make sure to surround it with some action or dialogue to keep things moving for your reader.

ProWritingAid's Pacing Report

Try the Pacing Report with a free account.

How Do Paradoxes Differ from Other Literary Devices ?

Wondering how a paradox is similar to or different from other writing techniques like oxymoron? Let’s explore.

What Is the Difference Between an Oxymoron and a Paradox ?

A literary paradox is the juxtaposition of ideas. It can be made up of whole phrases and sentences, or even larger elements of a story.

An oxynmoron versus a paradox

An oxymoron is a figure of speech made up of two contradictory words. It does not result in the same circular reasoning as a paradox. Here are some examples of oxymoron:

  • Jumbo shrimp
  • Friendly fire
  • Living history
  • Magical realism

Oxymorons aren’t inherently true or untrue. They create a new meaning altogether.

What Is the Difference Between an Antithesis and a Paradox?

The literary device antithesis also uses two opposing ideas.

However, while a paradox is more about using logic and reasoning to illustrate an idea, an antithesis is about using sentence structure to illustrate a point.

An antithesis versus a paradox

Antithesis takes two unrelated or opposing ideas, then uses parallel sentence structure to connect them. It's a common rhetorical device used in speeches.

Here are some examples of antithesis:

  • You win some, you lose some
  • If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail
  • One person’s trash is another person’s treasure
  • Easy come, easy go
  • A day late and a dollar short

Antithesis doesn’t create a debate of truth in the same way a paradox does. It’s mostly used to create a catchy, memorable phrase to emphasize a point.

What Is the Difference Between Irony and Paradox?

Irony is another literary device that is often confused with a paradox. Irony does involve conflicting words, phrases, or ideas, but it is not self-contradictory in the same way as a paradox.

Irony versus a paradox

Irony uses contradiction to subvert what is expected in a story. The contradiction serves to show a difference between what the reader expects versus what is actually occurring in the story.

There are three types of irony.

1) Dramatic irony is when the audience is aware of a situation but the characters are not.

2) Verbal irony is when something is said that does not match the situation. For example, you might say, "I hope we can find a seat" when you walk into an empty venue.

3) Situational irony is when a situation is unexpected, like a fire station catching fire or a tow truck breaking down and needing to be towed.

None of the three types of irony are the same as paradox because they are not necessarily self-contradictory.

What Exactly Is a Paradox?

Paradoxes are a powerful device that force you to think deeply about a statement or argument.

Used in different disciplines, paradoxes create opportunities for engaging in philosophical debate.

Can you think of any other examples of paradox we should add to this article?

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literary definition paradox

Paradox Definition

What is paradox? Here’s a quick and simple definition:

A paradox is a figure of speech that seems to contradict itself, but which, upon further examination, contains some kernel of truth or reason. Oscar Wilde's famous declaration that "Life is much too important to be taken seriously" is a paradox. At first it seems contradictory because important things are meant to be taken seriously, but Wilde's paradoxical suggestion is that, the more important something is, the more important it is  not  to take it seriously.

Some additional key details about paradox:

  • People often use the word paradox simply to express their astonishment at something unexpected or enigmatic, but this is a misuse of the word.
  • In the study of logic, paradoxes have a slightly different meaning than the one we cover in this entry. Logical paradoxes are statements that actually  do  contradict themselves, and are therefore unresolvable.
  • The word paradox comes from the Greek "paradoxos," meaning contrary to expectation, or strange.

Paradox Pronunciation

Here's how to pronounce paradox: par -uh-docks

Literary Paradox in Depth

The special ability of the figure of speech called paradox—which is to simultaneously seem self-contradictory and yet also reveal unexpected meaning—often depends on words that can be interpreted in more than one way. For instance, in Shakespeare's Hamlet , when Hamlet tells his mother "I must be cruel, only to be kind," he's using a paradox to express that his behavior, while it may appear  to be cruel, is actually a form of kindness—but that's only  if you interpret kindness to include harsh actions that may be better for everyone in the long run (Hamlet also turns out to be wrong since, by the end of the play, pretty much everyone is dead). This type of paradox, also called verbal paradox or literary paradox , is the type we'll focus on in this entry.

Literary Paradox vs. Logical Paradox

Literary paradox is distinct from logical paradox, in which the meaning of a statement is contradictory in a way that  cannot  be resolved into sense-making. Here are the differences between literary and logical paradox in more detail:

  • Initially:  Literary paradoxes often seem unresolvable, while logical paradoxes often don't immediately seem contradictory.
  • Upon further examination:  While further thought leads to literary paradoxes resolving in a way that reveals a deeper truth, further examination reveals a logical paradox to be so thoroughly self-contradictory that it defeats its own meaning (instead of revealing an unexpected meaning based on how the language is interpreted).

The classic example of logical paradox is the statement "This statement is false." The statement is logically impossible to resolve:​​​​​​ if the statement is true, then it is false; and if the statement is false, then it is true.

Put more broadly: rather than using language figuratively to construct a new and unexpected meaning (as in literary paradox), logical paradox actually uses language nonsensically  to create the appearance of meaning which upon further review is revealed as hopelessly contradictory and therefore lacking.

Paradox vs. Related Terms

Literary paradox is easily confused with two other figures of speech, antithesis  and oxymoron . This section outlines how paradox differs from each of these terms.

  • Unlike paradoxes, antitheses are not contradictory, nor do they seem to be. Rather than contradiction, antitheses focus on opposition  between two things.
  • Further, whereas antithesis generally involves the use of parallelism (two or more parallel grammatical structures at the sentences level), paradox does not.
  • While an oxymoron is usually made up of just two words, a paradox can be expressed in many different ways, as a concept or a description of a situation.
  • So when, in Romeo and Juliet ,  Juliet tells Romeo that "parting is such sweet sorrow," the oxymoron "sweet sorrow" suggests a deeper paradox at play: that Juliet's pain at parting with Romeo even for a night is cause for joy, since it testifies to the strength of their love. However, this same paradox could also be expressed without the use of the poetic oxymoron, for instance if Juliet were simply to say something like "my sorrow makes me happy."

Paradox Examples

Paradox appear in all sorts of writing, from literature, to speeches, to song lyrics. The examples below show some of each. 

Paradox Examples in Literature

In literature, paradoxes can create humor, express the confusion or frustration of a seeming impossibility, or make clear the absurdity of an unexpected situation.

Paradox in William Shakespeare's Hamlet

As Hamlet interrogates his mother, Gertrude, in Act 3 Scene 4 of Hamlet , after mistakenly killing Polonius, he uses a paradox to explain why he has committed such violent actions and why he has been berating his mother for remarrying Claudius (the brother of Hamlet's father). With this paradoxical statement, Hamlet is attempting to persuade his frightened mother that although he seems wicked in this moment, his intentions are good.

I must be cruel, only to be kind.

Hamlet's phrase sums up a wider paradox at play in many stories, as characters wrestle with the question: is it alright to commit acts that seem morally wrong, in support of causes that seem morally right?

Paradox in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet

In the first scene of Shakespeare's famous tragedy, Romeo and Juliet , Romeo has not yet met Juliet and is still heartbroken over his first crush, Rosalind. Shakespeare expresses the whirling confusion of his emotions in this moment with a series of oxymorons  and paradoxes.

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 any thing, 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 first paradox suggests Romeo's seemingly contradictory wish that a love that is "blind" should nevertheless see a path to accomplish its desires. The second paradox references a central theme of the play: the idea of love and hatred coinciding (remember that the play is about children from warring families falling in love?). The third paradox expresses Romeo's exasperation that such beautiful things could come together to make such a mess. After a number of oxymorons —which express Romeo's sense of confusion in love—the final paradox  is Romeo's expression of sorrow that his feeling of love is unrequited.

Paradox in George Orwell's 1984

In his dystopian novel 1984 , George Orwell imagines a totalitarian government designed on purpose to have contradictory claims at its very core. These contradictions are examples of paradox:

War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.

The general population of this dystopian future seems numb to the contradiction inherent in this phrase, and this is part of why Orwell sees this society as so dangerous. In it, language no longer has meaning on its own—rather, the ruling party has gained and maintained power to wage constant war, enforce absolute obedience, and nurture general ignorance precisely by annihilating meaning in language so that there is nothing left for any citizen to hold on to or to trust.

Paradox in Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself"

In this poem, Walt Whitman famously welcomes the idea that he might be indulging himself in paradoxes, writing "Do I contradict myself?/Very well then, I contradict myself/I am large, I contain multitudes." Paradox is, in fact, a major feature of the poem, as you'll see in this excerpt:

I have said that the soul is not more than the body, And I have said that the body is not more than the soul... And I or you pocketless of a dime may purchase the pick of the earth, And to glance with an eye or show a bean in its pod confounds the learning of all times...

Whitman's writing proposes values that are at odds with those of his culture, and the paradoxes here help to highlight the radical nature of his ideas. Whitman believes that all people, however poor (or "pocketless of a dime"), are capable of 'buying' whatever they please ("the pick of the earth"). He states that the sight of something as insignificant as a bean can reveal more knowledge than a lifetime of schooling. Whitman's paradoxes invite the reader to reconsider what he or she believes to be important.

Paradox in George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman

In his play Man and Superman , Shaw uses his protagonist Jack Tanner to express many of his own unconventional ideas about society. One of the tenets in a book carried by Tanner comes in the form of a witty paradox:

The golden rule is that there are no golden rules.

This statement undermines the sanctity of the traditional "golden rule" (i.e., "do unto others as you'd have them do unto you"), suggesting a more flexible worldview. It creates a paradox, however, since a golden rule against golden rules would seem to defeat its own authority! This makes it similar to the classic "liar's paradox" from logic: "this sentence is a lie."

Paradox in Ralph Waldo Ellison's  Invisible Man

In  Invisible Man , Ellison's protagonist grapples with what it means to be black in predominantly white, racist America. He is haunted by the paradoxical advice of his grandfather, who tells him to "overcome 'em with yeses, undermine 'em with grins, agree 'em to death and destruction..." In other words, the grandfather suggests that the best way to break the power of the white majority is precisely  to submit to it . Another paradox arises when the protagonist is promoted to chief spokesman of the Brotherhood in Harlem, and Master Jack describes  the position:

"You will have freedom of action— and  you will be under strict discipline to the committee."

This restrained freedom creates a paradox, which ultimately leads the protagonist to decide to leave behind all institutions, as he comes to realize that  all  groups will require him to sacrifice his freedom and identity to their cause.

Paradox in Speeches

Paradox also appears in great political speeches, whose key phrases have survived the test of time in the public imagination.

Paradox in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933

In his first inaugural address, Roosevelt spoke about the challenges facing the United States as a result of the Great Depression. One of the most famous lines from his speech is so memorable in part because it creates a paradox:

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself...

With this optimistic message, Roosevelt hoped to unite the struggling nation against a common enemy (fear), all the while asserting the invincibility of the American nation. Every challenge facing the nation could be defeated, Roosevelt argued, as long as its citizens could believe in themselves and vanquish fear.

Paradox in Song

A well-placed paradox can make song lyrics memorable and give them a greater depth of meaning, asking listeners to think twice as they sing along to a catchy tune.

Paradox in Nick Lowe and Ian Gromm's "Cruel to Be Kind"

Nick Lowe and Ian Gromm borrow a turn of phrase from Shakespeare's Hamlet , cited above, in their co-written song "Cruel to Be Kind." Like Hamlet, the speaker here is trying to argue that a little cruelty can be a sign of love, a sentiment that also echoes the paradoxical blending of love and hate in Romeo and Juliet .

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...

Why Do Writers Use Paradox?

Paradoxes are helpful for capturing the sometimes bewildering duality of life. A writer might choose to employ paradox for various reasons, including: 

  • To highlight the complexity of a certain situation, or point out the fallacy of a widely-held, preconceived notion.
  • To allude to an apparent contradiction and suggest that it might reveal a greater truth if it can be resolved.
  • To point out, challenge, or satirize contradictions in the world.
  • To craft a word puzzle that draws the reader in and demands their attention.
  • To add humor to a work by making a witty observation.

Other Helpful Paradox Resources

  • Paradox Wikipedia Page: this entry is specific to paradox as a literary term, but you can also find the link to a general entry on paradox.
  • American Rhetoric: this site catalogues examples of literary devices like paradox in famous speeches from history, and even provides free audio clips of the speakers in action.
  • Youtube explanation: this video offers a thorough and clear definition of paradox, with helpful literary examples. 

The printed PDF version of the LitCharts literary term guide on Paradox

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What is Paradox - StudioBinder

  • Scriptwriting

What is a Paradox? Definition and Examples for Literature and Film

W hat is a paradox? Definitions can often feel, well, paradoxical. Even though paradoxes have been part of human thinking for thousands of years, they are not always well understood. This seems particularly true of paradoxes in movies, which often leave viewers scratching their heads. Whether you want to get a grip on exactly what a paradox is, or write the next great brain-teasing movie paradox, this article will get you started.

Tools For Screenwriters

Literary devices.

Literary Elements

  • Deuteragonist
  • Foil Character
  • Point of View
  • Protagonist

Literary Techniques

  • Alliteration
  • Connotation
  • Deus ex Machina
  • Foreshadowing
  • Iambic Pentameter
  • Juxtaposition
  • Onomatopoeia
  • Personification
  • Red Herring

Brain Teasers

What does paradox mean.

In addition to trying to wrap our brain around paradox meanings, we’ll investigate some famous paradoxes and paradoxical statements. We’ll also look at paradox in literature and time paradoxes in movies, including causal loops and the grandfather paradox.

But first, let's start with a paradox definition.

PARADOX DEFINITION

What is a paradox.

A paradox is a statement, proposition, or situation that seems illogical, absurd or self-contradictory, but which, upon further scrutiny, may be logical or true — or at least contain an element of truth. Paradoxes often express ironies and incongruities and attempt to reconcile seemingly opposing ideas. Paradoxes express something of the conflicting, often confounding, nature of human affairs, and even of meaning itself.

LIST OF PARADOXES:

  • If I know one thing, it's that I know nothing.
  • This is the beginning of the end.
  • Deep down, you're really shallow.
  • I'm a compulsive liar.
  • Here are the rules: ignore all rules.
  • Nobody goes to that restaurant; it's too crowded.
  • Don't go near the water 'til you learn how to swim.

Discerning Differences

Oxymoron vs paradox.

The difference between oxymoron and paradox is that a paradox is a statement, a series of statements, or a situation, while an oxymoron is simply two contradicting adjacent words such as:

  • Bittersweet
  • Deafening silence
  • Jumbo shrimp
  • Open secret
  • Walking dead

Paradox Examples

Identifying paradoxes.

Paradox quotes can be found throughout culture — in everyday speech; in philosophy textbooks; in film, literature, and drama; even in pop songs, which often contain paradoxical lyrics as a way of expressing conflicting and contradictory emotions:

  • Hotel California , by The Eagles.
  • My Back Pages , by Bob Dylan.
  • Sam’s Town , by the Killers
  • A Change Would Do You Good , by Sheryl Crow

One of the most simple and confounding paradox examples is something called "the liar's paradox." In the liar's paradox, we have a simple sentence: "This sentence is false."

It is among the most famous paradoxes, partially because it sums up the nature of paradoxes so concisely.  If the statement is true, then it is by definition false, thereby making it true — and round and round it goes.

Paradox Literary Definition

What is a paradox in literature.

For thousands of years, writers have been using paradox. Examples can be found in epic Greek poems, including The Odyssey (written in the 8th century BC), in which Homer creates a paradox for the hero Odysseus to trick the cyclops who has captured Odysseus and his men.

While captured, Odysseus gets the cyclops drunk and tells him that his name is Nobody. Later, he attacks the cyclops, who screams to the neighbors that “Nobody is killing him.” Of course nobody comes to his aid because Nobody is hurting him — when, of course, somebody is hurting him, thus the paradox.

What is Paradox - Tricking the Cyclops in The Odyssey

Tricking the Cyclops in The Odyssey

Shakespeare also expresses paradoxes within his work. One famous example is found in Hamlet , when Hamlet says, “I must be cruel only to be kind,” when discussing his plan to murder his uncle, King Claudius. Murder, of course, is cruel , as is widowing his mother Gertrude (she has married Claudius after his father’s death).

But Hamlet must do it in order to be kind to the ghost of his dead father, who Claudius has slain. He also believes he will be doing both his mother and the kingdom a kindness by dispatching a villainous usurper.

A more recent example is the “catch-22” from the novel of the same name.  Catch-22  regales the attempts of Yossarian, an American bomber stationed in Italy during World War II, to get out of dangerous bombing missions by claiming to be crazy — because men diagnosed crazy will be excused from duty.

The paradox is that asking out of missions is seen as a sane act, because only a sane person can perceive the danger; a crazy person would never make the request. Thus, Yossarian is pronounced sane and made to continue to fly. One of the most famous paradox examples in literature, the term entered our shared lexicon as shorthand for a paradox.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22.”

One final example of a paradox in literature can be found in Animal Farm by George Orwell, in which, “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” is a principle dictum of a society of animals Orwell uses as an allegory for human society.

The paradox is meant to illuminate the hypocrisy inherent in ruling systems that claim egalitarianism while erecting unjust hierarchies. Below it is articulated in the trailer for the 1954 animated film version.

Animal Farm  •  Paradox and Allegory

Both Heller and Orwell created paradoxes as a way to express the absurdity of war and oppression.  Other important literary devices for conveying difficult ideas with which every storyteller should be familiar include allegory , oxymoron, and irony .

Related Posts

  • What is an Allegory? →
  • ​ How Screenwriters Use Subtext →
  • Types of Irony Every Storyteller Should Know →  ​

Paradox in Movies

Consider paradox in science fiction.

Time travel is a favored premise of science fiction. The best sci-fi movies often use time travel as a way to dramatize temporal, or time, paradoxes and conjecture about what could happen if they played out. Many movies dramatize time paradoxes. Examples include:

  • ​ The Terminator 
  • Back to the Future  
  • Star Trek: First Contact
  • Donnie Darko
  • Time Crimes
  • Interstellar
  • Men in Black 3
  • Predestination
  • Avengers: Endgame

Movies typically present two kinds of time paradoxes according to physics: consistency — or grandfather — paradoxes; and causal loops. Let's review those paradox examples one at a time.

Paradox Meaning

The grandfather paradox.

Imagine a character traveling back in time to kill her grandfather as a young woman. Why would she do this? As a screenwriter, the possibilities are endless. Maybe her grandfather turned out to be a genocidal dictator, or the inventor of glam rock. Who knows?

The point is, if the grandfather died, then the time traveler’s parents never existed — then neither would the time traveller herself. If she didn’t exist, then she wasn’t able to go back in time to begin with. And how is that possible if she killed her grandfather? This video provides one possible way to reconcile this paradox.

“Solution” to the Grandfather Paradox

Perhaps your character doesn’t want to kill her grandfather, but ends up changing the past in another way, resulting in a future in which she no longer exists. How would your character visit the past in the first place?

Back to the Future (1985) dramatizes this paradox when ‘80s kid Marty McFly goes back to the 1950s and “bumps into his parents,” altering the trajectory of their relationship, and imperiling Marty, who now may never be born. In this scene, Marty literally begins to disappear as it seems his parents will never become a couple.

Marty Fades Away

Another grandfather paradox occurs in The Terminator (1984), when John Connor sends Kyle Reese to the past to save his mother, Sarah, from an artificial intelligence network that is trying to wipe out John by killing Sarah before he can even come into existence.

Sarah learns about the future

The famous paradox in The Terminator is that Kyle becomes John’s father, then dies in the past. But if he dies in the past, how is he sent back from the future to rescue Sarah and become John’s father?

Ask even a casual film fan what is a paradox in a movie and they’ll likely name this one first. Let's move onto what's known as a causal loop.

Predestination Paradox

Causal loop explained.

The other primary time-travel paradox in science fiction is referred to as a causal loop — so named because the time travel journey on which the traveller embarks is a circular one. He keeps making the same trip again and again despite attempts to change the past: a future event causes a past event, which causes a future event, and so on. 

A causal loop is sometimes referred to as a predestination paradox, meaning that the future is predestined to stay the same at every point along the loop. No matter how hard the traveller tries to change things, fate won’t allow it.

An example of a predestination paradox can be found, not surprisingly, in Predestination (2014), in which a time traveller is sent to the past by a government agency to stop a mass murderer.

During the film, the time traveller discovers that he is on a causal loop, and that on different points on the loop he is both his own mother and father, as well as the mass murderer he’s trying to stop.

Predestination  •  Can we change the future?

Once he realizes this, he tries to break the loop and stop himself, only to find that events unfold with the same results — they are predestined. This video breaks down the timeline of Predestination to show how the screenplay dramatizes the paradox.

Predestination  •  Illustrated Timeline Explanation

The video explains the causal loop in the movie very clearly; however, a viewer watching the movie for the first time will likely find it much less clear. This is a good lesson for screenwriters: paradoxes can be confusing and need to be carefully set-up and explained.

Exploring irony in storytelling

Stories dramatizing predestination paradoxes are typically trying to convey irony — perhaps the idea that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Irony is one of the most important of all storytelling elements, and something every screenwriter should be in command of. Let’s begin an exploration of kinds of irony and how they are used.

Up Next: Types of Irony →

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Definition of Paradox

A paradox is a statement that appears at first to be contradictory, but upon reflection then makes sense. This literary device is commonly used to engage a reader to discover an underlying logic in a seemingly self-contradictory statement or phrase . As a result, paradox allows readers to understand concepts in a different and even non-traditional way.

For example, playwright George Bernard Shaw famously stated the paradox that “youth is wasted on the young.” At first, it is contradictory in the sense that the “young” are the ones that embody “youth,” so therefore it cannot be “wasted” on them. However, this paradox makes sense upon reflection. It illuminates the idea that young people may not have the perspective of older people as far as what is truly important or valuable.

Youth, in this case, implies a vibrancy and energy that can be put towards those very actions that are important and valuable, yet young people may not recognize what they are. Whereas older people, who may recognize which actions have importance or value, often don’t feel such vitality or willingness to take risks to do them. As a result, the very group who would benefit from youth due to their perspective are the ones who, by definition, aren’t youthful.

Common Examples of Paradox

There are many common examples of paradox in everyday conversation and writing. Here are some well-known and familiar uses of this literary device:

  • less is more
  • do the thing you think you cannot do
  • you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t
  • the enemy of my enemy is my friend
  • the beginning of the end
  • if you don’t risk anything, you risk everything
  • earn money by spending it
  • nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent
  • The Pen is Mightier Than the Sword
  • the more you give, the more you get
  • living in the present for the future
  • the best way out is always through
  • the louder you are, the less they hear
  • impossible is not a word in my vocabulary
  • the only constant is change

Examples of Paradox in Movies

Examples are often portrayed in movies as well, through dialogue or situations. This creates humor and/or causes the audience to think and gather greater meaning from a film. Here are some examples of paradox in movies:

  • “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room.” (Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb)
  • “If everyone is special, no one is.” (Disney’s The Incredibles)
  • “The first rule about fight club is you don’t talk about fight club. The second rule about fight club is you don’t talk about fight club.” (Fight Club)
  • “It appears that I now have an outlaw for an in-law.” (Disney’s Robin Hood)
  • “Me, I always tell the truth. Even when I lie.” (Scarface)
  • “To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.” ( The Importance of Being Earnest )
  • “I had to come to prison to be a crook.” (The Shawshank Redemption)
  • “I haven’t had any [tea] yet, so I can’t very well take more. You mean you can’t very well take less.” (Disney’s Alice in Wonderland)
  • “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.” (The Godfather)
  • “You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from.” (No Country for Old Men)

Famous Examples of Paradox

Paradox is also found in many examples of poetry, prose , drama , lyrics , and clever quotations. Here are some famous examples of paradox:

  • “I can’t live with or without you” ( With or Without You , lyrics by U2)
  • “Whatever you do in life will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it” (Ghandi)
  • “Men work together…Whether they work together or apart” ( Robert Frost )
  • “It’s weird not to be weird” (John Lennon)
  • “Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once” ( Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare )
  • “Life is a preparation for the future; and the best preparation for the future is to live as if there were none” (Albert Einstein)
  • “I know one thing, that I know nothing” (Socrates, as according to Plato)
  • “I’m Nobody! Who are you? / Are you – Nobody – too?” ( Emily Dickinson )
  • “I’m My Own Grandpa” (lyrics by Ray Stevens)
  • “ All animals are equal , but some animals are more equal than others” ( Animal Farm by George Orwell )

Difference Between Paradox and Oxymoron

Many people confuse paradox and oxymoron as literary devices or find them interchangeable. Both of these terms reflect apparent contradictions when it comes to ideas and phrasing. However, a paradox involves a larger scope than an oxymoron. Paradox is a statement or group of statements that seems to be self-contradictory as to what is logical, yet delivers the message of an inherent plausibility, truth, or meaning.

An oxymoron, however, is a combination and juxtaposition of two words that contradict each other, but serve as a sound or logical figure of speech . Whereas oxymoron is a contradiction in terms, paradox is made up of contradictory phrases or sentences . However, both oxymoron and paradox can achieve similar effects as a means of manipulating language through opposing words and ideas to create deeper meaning.

Writing Paradox

As a literary device, paradox functions as a means of setting up a situation, idea, or concept that appears on the surface to be contradictory or impossible. However, with further thought, understanding, or reflection, the conflict is resolved due to the discovery of an underlying level of reason or logic. This is effective in that a paradox creates interest and a need for resolution on the part of the reader for understanding. This allows the reader to invest in a literary work as a means of deciphering the meaning of the paradox.

It’s important for writers to construct proper paradox so that the meaning is not lost for the reader. Paradox is dependent upon two elements: 1) a statement or situation which initially appears contradictory; 2) the statement or situation that appears contradictory must, after consideration, be a logical or well-founded premise .

Here are some ways that writers benefit from incorporating metaphor into their work:

Set Up Conflict

Paradox is an excellent literary device as a means of setting up conflict in a work of literature. A paradoxical situation or idea in a literary work creates tension and potential suspense for the reader. For example, a literary character may find themselves in a situation where they must go against law and order as a means of preserving law and order. This type of paradox generates interest for the reader in terms of anticipating the resolution of the conflict.

Create Irony

Paradox is a way for writers to create verbal or situational irony . In a broad sense, irony itself is a literary device in which what appears to be said, expected, or taking place on the surface of a literary work is very different from what is actually the case. Paradox often creates irony in literature, which can deepen the meaning for the reader through humor or a sense of realism due to the complexity and often contradictory ways in which humans behave.

Difference between Antithesis and Paradox

When two ideas or words are contrasted in a statement, it is known as an antithesis . In other words, it means that two words or ideas are juxtaposed for contrastive effects. However, when such ideas contradict each other in a statement in a way that the statement seems self-contradictory, it is a paradox. Whereas a paradox’s main thrust is a self-contradiction, the main thrust of an antithesis is the opposition of things or persons. In other words, a paradox is self-contradictory, or it contradicts or opposes the same thing given in the statement. However, the antithesis is the opposition of a thing, situation, or person.

Difference Between Literary Paradox and Logical Paradox

When there is a logical paradox, it means that the paradox has occurred in the logic that is self-contradictory and that it does not have any resolution. Such paradoxes defy logic, violating all rules and comprise logical fallacies . On the other hand, a literary paradox shows some profound truths through its self-contradiction. When it is said that “Death shall die in the war,” it is a literary paradox as it offers a profound truth about death.

Use of Paradox in Sentences

  • When waking up becomes a dream in this country, the low goes up.
  • Hunger may satisfy itself with bread and butter.
  • Something is nothing when it comes to money.
  • When he is well and unwell, he stays balanced or else loses his mind.
  • After they had slept and unslept for the whole night , they found themselves sleeping again in the morning.

Examples of Paradox in Literature

Paradox is an effective literary device as a means of creating interest in a literary work and engendering thought on the part of the reader. Here are some examples of paradox and how it adds to the significance of well-known literary works:

Example 1:  Catch-22  (Joseph Heller)

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22 , which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask ; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

In his novel , Heller creates perhaps the most circuitous and dramatic paradox in literature. War, which is inherently paradoxical on many levels, is the basis of the paradox of Catch-22. This passage explains the contradictory idea that a person who recognizes that putting themselves in harm’s way is “crazy,” is actually “sane” enough to do a mission that will put themselves in harm’s way.

In a sense, Heller’s paradox is a reflection of the way World War I was labeled the “war to end all wars.” The very notion that humans understand the necessity of war to curtail war is both crazy and sane, mirroring the Catch-22 paradox faced by Orr’s character in the novel in terms of flying war missions. Rather than glorifying war and its combatants, Heller’s war paradox creates a sense of irony, absurdity, and even frustration for the reader which, in turn, deepens the meaning of the novel’s theme .

Example 2:  Hamlet (William Shakespeare)

I must be cruel only to be kind; Thus bad begins, and worse remains behind.

In this passage, Shakespeare’s title character reveals the reasoning behind his plan to kill his stepfather/uncle Claudius. Hamlet states he must be “cruel” to be “kind,” which is paradoxical on the surface. However, his apparent cruel act of killing Claudius could be seen as a kindness to Hamlet’s mother, who has unknowingly become the wife and lover of her first husband’s murderer. In addition, though Hamlet also believes that killing Claudius is “bad,” he feels the “worse” will remain behind because his father’s death will be avenged. Therefore, though it appears contradictory that Hamlet’s murder of a murderer requires cruelty for kindness, there is a level of logic to his reasoning.

Example 3:  As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner)

I could just remember how my father used to say that the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time.

This quote is said by Addie Bundren in Faulkner’s novel. She speaks directly to the reader, due to the fact that her voice appears in a chapter subsequent to her death. Addie reveals her own paradoxical nature through this paradoxical theory of her father’s. If the reason for living is to get ready to stay dead for a long time, then there must be no reason for living since the outcome is death. However, there is an inherent truth in this paradox, particularly in terms of religion. Addie recognizes the futility in the idea that in order to achieve a good life after death , one must live in preparation for death rather than living for life. This adds to the realism and complexity of Addie’s character in the novel as she questions the purpose and validity of faith.

Synonyms of Paradox

Some of the important synonyms of paradox include contradiction, self-contradiction, incongruous, incongruity, anomaly, oddity, absurdity, enigmatic, oxymoron, antimony, etc.

Related posts:

  • The Paradox
  • Fair is Foul, Foul is Fair
  • War is Peace
  • It Was the Best of Times; It Was the Worst of Times
  • Ignorance is Strength

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What is a Paradox? Definition, Types, and Examples

literary definition paradox

by Fija Callaghan

Literature is full of paradoxes—so is life. Sometimes, paradoxes make a funny kind of sense and encourage us to think about things in a new way. Sometimes, they don’t make any sense at all. That’s a bit paradoxical in itself, isn’t it?

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what the word paradox means, why it’s helpful to be aware of them in your writing, how they compare to similar literary devices, and some examples of paradox to show you how it looks.

What is a paradox?

A paradox is a self-contradictory statement or expression of two conflicting ideas. It’s something that cannot or should not make logical sense. A logical paradox is a statement that may seem logical at first but ultimately turns out to be impossible, while a literary paradox is a statement or situation that seems logically unsound but actually reveals a deeper truth.

The word “paradox” comes from the Greek word paradoxos , which means “to think beyond,” or “contrary to belief.” Paradoxes encourage us to think beyond our everyday understanding of language.

Paradox literary definition: A paradox is a self-contradictory statement that highlights two conflicting ideas.

The most famous example of a paradox is the statement, “This statement is a lie.” It’s a paradox because it defies logical construction: if it’s true, then it has to be a lie. But if it’s a lie, it can’t be a lie after all. If you spend too long thinking about it you might get a headache.

“This statement is a lie” is an example of a logical paradox . We’ll look at the two types of paradoxes next.

Logical paradox vs. literary paradox

Logical paradoxes and literary paradoxes are both self-contradictory ideas that appear to defy basic logic. The difference is that while logical paradoxes cannot function, like the example we looked at above, literary paradoxes only appear to be illogical at first glance—really, they convey a deeper meaning.

An example of a literary paradox is the saying “You have to spend money to make money.” What the huh? How does spending your hard-earned cash make you richer? This idea sounds pretty suspect.

What it actually means is that making money often takes an initial investment. If you think about publishing a book, you (or your publisher) need to pay some money up front for things like printing, cover design, and marketing before you end up seeing any profit. But if you don’t do those things, you don’t make any profit from your book at all.

Thus: you have to spend some money up front to make money in the long run. The saying uses a paradox to communicate an inherent truth in an imaginative way.

By contrast, a logical paradox doesn’t have any truth to it—it just doesn’t work.

Paradoxes can be more than a play on words; they can also represent larger ideas. For instance, someone who’s cruel at times and compassionate at others might be called a “paradox” because their behaviour seems to defy logic. We’ll look at one of the most famous examples of story-level paradox next.

What is the “Grandfather Paradox”?

The grandfather paradox is a popular trope in science fiction film and literature that explores a variation of the temporal paradox, or displaced logic of time. It represents a logical paradox that occurs if a time traveller journeys back in time and accidentally (or not) kills their grandfather in their youth.

If the traveller’s grandfather never grew up to have a child, then the time traveller would never have been born and couldn’t have gone back in time to kill their grandfather in the first place. But if they didn’t kill their grandfather, they wouldn’t have prevented their own inception. It’s a logical cycle without beginning or end.

A famous example of this type of story happens in the film Back to the Future , in which the protagonist accidentally prevents his parents’ marriage. Such paradoxes also arise in the TV series The Umbrella Academy .

Several quantum theorists, including Stephen Hawking, have examined ways in which you could beat this paradox in practice. For instance, the theory of multiple parallel timelines, or time as a finite construction—ie., you could never kill your grandfather, no matter how hard you tried, because it already hadn’t happened.

Another example might be if someone went back in time to prevent something from happening—for example, a great war. If they succeed, they’ll have no reason to go back in time and prevent it from happening in the first place.

While we probably won’t all be jaunting through time anytime soon, this is a good thing to keep in mind when crafting science fiction or fantasy stories. Do your stories contain logical paradox plot holes, such as time travel? If your plot doesn’t make sense within the world you’ve created, your readers will notice.

(Image: two text boxes) A logical paradox is a statement or concept that defies earthly logic; A literary paradox is a statement that reveals a deeper meaning.

Examples of paradox in everyday speech

Some of our most familiar sayings are paradoxes. This is because they’re catchy and they have a way of making us think. Here are some famous paradox examples that we hear in everyday conversation around us all the time.

Youth is wasted on the young.

Less is more.

The only constant is change.

You have to spend money to make money.

The only rule is there are no rules.

I can resist anything except temptation.

It’s hard making elegance look easy.

The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.

If you don’t risk anything, you risk even more.

Examples of paradox in literature and film

Let’s look at a few ways writers have used paradoxes effectively in their stories.

Animal Farm, by George Orwell

In Orwell’s political allegory, the tyrannical pigs decide that “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” This is an example of a logical paradox; by nature, one thing can’t be “more equal” than another.

The author uses this strange paradox as a literary device to communicate the fact that something’s not quite right on the farm.

The Importance of Being Earnest , by Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde was known for making good use of paradoxes in his writing and in his life. In his play The Importance of Being Earnest , a fashionable lady says, “To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.”

This is a literary paradox—it appears contradictory, but really it’s saying that it takes a lot of effort to appear effortless.

Catch-22 , by Joseph Heller

In Heller’s novel, a character claims to be a crazy person in order to get out of fighting the war—since mentally ill people aren’t allowed to enlist. However, his desire to abstain from the battle proves he’s of rational mind, meaning he can’t claim insanity after all.

This apparent paradox has become so famous that logical paradoxes are sometimes called “Catch-22s.”

Wicked , by Gregory Maguire via Stephen Schwartz

In the stage musical based on a novel of the same name, the romantic lead projects a facade that he wants others to see. When questioned about his facetious charm, he protests, “I happen to be genuinely self-absorbed and deeply shallow.”

Is this a logical paradox or a literary paradox? While someone can genuinely be these things, it’s unlikely that they’d be self-aware enough to recognise it—making it a logical contradiction.

Hamlet , by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare has had an immeasurable influence on the English language, and his play Hamlet has given us one of our most famous paradoxical statements. Hamlet says, “I must be cruel only to be kind”—meaning that his evil deed is for the greater good.

Can one be cruel and kind at the same time? Unfortunately, it’s common to think so—but this can encourage people to make some selfish choices.

Paradox and other literary devices

As a narrative technique that utilises contrast, paradox can seem quite similar to other literary devices that use juxtaposition in a similar way. Let’s explore the difference between paradox and other devices that use apparent contradictions or two opposing ideas for effect.

Paradox vs. oxymoron

Paradox and oxymoron are both rhetorical literary devices that communicate seemingly contrasting ideas. The difference is that while paradox uses phrases or concepts that are in conflict, an oxymoron uses just one or two words. Therefore, a paradox is a thematic idea while an oxymoron is a conflicting phrase.

Examples of oxymorons include “open secret,” “controlled chaos,” or “virtual reality.”

Unlike a paradox, an oxymoron is only two words that seem like they should be illogical.

You can learn more about this literary device, and how to use it in your writing, in our dedicated lesson here .

Paradox vs. irony

Paradox and irony both deal in inversions of expectation. There are three types of irony in literature, and the one most often confused with paradox is situational irony. The difference is that while paradoxes are statements that communicate two ideas that appear contradictory, irony expresses two ideas that are contrary to expectation.

An example of irony might be if a professional marriage counsellor goes through a divorce. It’s not a paradox, because there’s nothing impossible or illogical about it—it’s just unexpected.

You can read all about the different types of irony in literature here .

Paradox vs. logical fallacy

Paradoxes and logical fallacies both deal with ideas that seem counterintuitive. Sometimes, logical paradox and logical fallacy can overlap. But while literary paradoxes always convey a deeper truth behind the words, logical fallacies hide the truth by presenting arguments based on bias or deflection rather than deductive reasoning.

An example of a logical fallacy might be, “She wouldn’t make a good leader because she comes from a background of white privilege” (rather than, “she might find certain aspects of leadership challenging because she has no lived experience as a person of minority identity”). Or, “Girls are smarter than boys because Sara beat her brother at chess” (rather than, “ This girl is smarter than that boy, or maybe just got lucky one time”).

Logical fallacies are common in politics and social media, because they support flawed arguments in a convincing way.

Paradox vs. antithesis

While paradox puts two contrasting ideas together that are seemingly incompatible, antithesis puts two contrasting ideas together that can nonetheless exist at the same time, highlighting their differences. A classic example of antithetical statements occurs at the 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…

In his story, he presents the idea that all these things are true at the same time.

Another example would be the famous phrase “a small step for a man, but a giant step for mankind.” Here, the two polarities are put next to each other to communicate a bigger idea.

Paradox is one of the most popular rhetorical devices in literature, popular culture, and everyday life.

Contradictory emotions or ideas can reveal surprising truths

Paradox in literature is often misunderstood. Sometimes, they seem to work against common sense; other times, they feel surprisingly relatable. Logical paradoxes can trip up your story if you’re not careful, but they can also be used in characterisation and to communicate insightful, inherent truths.

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