A paradox is a statement that may seem absurd or contradictory but yet can be true, or at least makes sense. Paradoxes are often contrary to what is commonly believed and so play an important part in furthering our understanding in literature and everyday life, or they can simply be an entertaining brain teaser.
What is a Paradox?
It is often easier to explain what a paradox is by giving examples. A paradox is used to challenge the mind and make you think about the statement in a new way. A paradox is often used to intrigue and question common thoughts. Take the statement “Less is more.” This statement uses two opposite words that contradict one another. How can less be more? The concept behind this statement is that what is less complicated is often more appreciated.
Another well-known example of a paradox is the Liar paradox, which offers up the simple sentence: “This statement is false.” If this is true, then the sentence is false, but if the sentence states that it is false, and it is false, then it must also be true! So the sentence is both true and not true at the same time.
Some more examples of paradoxical statements are:
- You can save money by spending it.
- I know one thing; that I know nothing.
- This is the beginning of the end.
- Deep down, you’re really shallow.
- I’m a compulsive liar.
- “Men work together whether they work together or apart.” – Robert Frost
- “What a pity that youth must be wasted on the young.” – George Bernard Shaw
- “I can resist anything but temptation.” – Oscar Wilde
A paradox can be thought provoking but also fun to think about. Some examples of witty statements:
- Here are the rules: Ignore all rules.
- The second sentence is false. The first sentence is true.
- I only message those who do not message.
Paradox in Literature
Have a better idea of what a paradox is now? Let’s continue on to some larger examples of paradox that appear in works of literature. In doing so, examining their purpose will become an important part of the process.
In George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”, the words “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” are part of the cardinal rules. Clearly this statement does not make logical sense. However, the point of a paradox is to point out a truth, even if the statements contradict each other.
Orwell is making a political statement here, but what? Perhaps it is that the government claims that everyone is equal when that is clearly false, or perhaps it is that individuals have skewed perceptions of what it means to be equal. The interpretation is up to the reader to decide.
Orwell also uses a paradox in his novel “1984.” He states that “War is peace.” We know that war is not a peaceful time but can be a means to achieving peace.
In Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” the title character states “I must be cruel to be kind.” On the surface, once again, this statement does not seem to make much sense. How can an individual convey kindness through evil? In this case, Hamlet is speaking about how he plans to slay Claudius in order to avenge his father’s death. His mother is now married to Claudius, so, of course, this will be a tragedy for her. However, he does not want his mother to be the lover of his father’s murderer (unbeknownst to her) any longer, so he believes the murder will be for her own good.
Poet John Donne wrote “Death, thou shalt die,” in his “Holy Sonnet 11”. This statement uses death in two opposing ways. We clearly know that death is not a living thing and cannot die. But Donne is stating that he is showing mortality in this case.
Paradox or Oxymoron
It is common to confuse an oxymoron with a paradox. Both are found in literature as well as in everyday conversations. Here is the difference between the two:
- An oxymoron is a combination of two words that contradict each other. It’s a dramatic figure of speech.
- A paradox is a statement or group of sentences that seems to contradict the truth but is an implied truth. They describe an action or situation that seems absurd but yet can be true.
An example that is frequently used to introduce the idea of a paradox is a “jumbo shrimp.” Certainly, “jumbo” and “shrimp” are contradictory words and some shrimp can be jumbo compared to others. However, this is an oxymoron, since the term is simply being used for dramatic effect.
Another example of an oxymoron is the phrase “pretty ugly.” It is obvious that “pretty” and “ugly” are opposite words. This phrase is used as such: “His words were pretty ugly and hurt her feelings.” The idea here is to express his words as being quite harsh, but “pretty ugly” is more dramatic. If something is called a “known secret”, this is also an example of an oxymoron. A “secret” is not something made known to others. But in this case, it means something widely known to be true but not spoken of in public.
Other examples of an oxymoron are the following words: bittersweet, small crowd, sweet sorrow
Purpose of Paradox
Many paradoxes have important implications in the world of literature, because they make statements that often sum up the main ideas of the work. A paradox is often used in everyday speech as well to criticize an idea in order to show its faults or to provoke a new thought. Paradoxes are also a fun concept that can add a witty element to a situation or writing. They are interesting or amusing statements that contradict common beliefs and are sure to add intrigue to whatever situation they are used in.