What is Antithesis? Definition, Examples of Antitheses in Writing

Antithesis definition: Antithesis is a literary and rhetorical device where two seemingly contrasting ideas are expressed through parallel structure.

What is Antithesis?

What does antithesis mean? An antithesis is just that—an “anti” “thesis.” An antithesis is used in writing to express ideas that seem contradictory.

An antithesis uses parallel structure of two ideas to communicate this contradiction.

Example of Antithesis:

  • “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” –Muhammad Ali

what does antithisis meanThis example of antithesis is a famous quotation from boxer Muhammad Ali. The antithesis is found in multiple aspects of this quotation.

First, the structure is parallel. Each “side” of the phrase has the same number of words and the same structure. Each uses a verb followed by a simile.

Second, the contracting elements of a butterfly and a bee seem contradictory. That is, a butterfly is light and airy while a bee is sharp and stinging. One person (a boxer, in this case) should not be able to possess these two qualities—this is why this is an antithesis.

However, Ali is trying to express how a boxer must be light on his feet yet quick with his fist.

Modern Examples of Antithesis

Meaning of antithesis in a sentenceWhen he landed on the moon, American astronaut Neil Armstrong famously stated:

  • “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Through parallel structure, this quotation presents an antithesis. It seems contradictory that one action could be a “small step” and a “giant leap.”

However, this contradiction proposes that the action of landing on the moon might have just been a small physical step for the man Neil Armstrong, but it was a giant leap for the progress of mankind.

The Function of Antithesis

meaning of antethesisPrimarily, writers employ antithesis for argument. As a literary or rhetorical device, a writer is trying to communicate a particular point that is best expressed through opposites. These extreme opposites emphasize that point.

An antithesis stands out in writing. Because it uses parallel structure, an antithesis physically stands out when interspersed among other syntactical structures. Furthermore, an antithesis presents contrasting ideas that cause the reader or audience to pause and consider the meaning and purpose.

Oftentimes, the meaning of an antithesis is not overtly clear. That is, a reader or audience must evaluate the statement to navigate the meaning.

Writers utilize antitheses very sparingly. Since its purpose is to cause an audience to pause and consider the argument, it must be used with purpose and intent.

Antithesis Example from Literature

antitheses examples in literaturePerhaps the most famous literary example of antithesis is the opening lines from Charles Dickens’ 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…”

From the beginning, Dickens presents two contradictory ideas in this antithesis.

How can it be the “best” and the “worst” of times? These two “times” should not be able to coexist.

Similarly, how can the setting of this novel also take place during an “age of wisdom” and an “age of foolishness?”

The antithesis continues.

Dickens opens his with these lines to set the tone for the rest of the novel. Clearly, there are two sides to this story, two tales of what is the truth. These two “sides” should not function peacefully. And, in fact, they do not. That, after all, is the “tale of two cities.”

Dickens sets up this disparity to set the tone for his novel, which will explore this topic.

Summary: What is an Antithesis?

Define antithesis: An antithesis consists of contrasting concepts presented in parallel structure.

Writers use antithesis to create emphasis to communicate an argument.

  • Note: The plural form of antithesis is antitheses.