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What Is the Role of Oxymoron in Literature?

By Lee Johnson
Updated May 23, 2024
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Writers use oxymoron in literature for a couple of different reasons, but some of the most common roles include the illumination of conflict, the creation of new meaning, and the showcase of some particular paradox. It’s sometimes also as a humorous element, or as a way of showing a writer’s wit. In general, oxymoron is a pairing of two seemingly contradictory terms; most examples are single phrases, like “wise fool,” but the juxtaposition can also be more opaque in a sentence or phrase. In almost all cases it’s intentional, and writers typically use it to draw attention to something or make some larger point.

Understanding the Device Generally

Oxymoron is perhaps best understood as a figure of speech, though scholars typically refer to it as a “literary device”: a method that writers can use as a vehicle for conveying a larger meaning or set of emotions. In most cases it’s considered artistic and, when used properly, can be very effective at steering reader opinions and “saying without saying,” which is to say, using words to make a point that doesn’t have to be strictly spelled out.

Illuminating Conflict

The intent of oxymoron in literature can usually be discerned from how the device was used and the specific words it contains. For example, in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet calls Romeo a “beautiful tyrant, fiend angelical” when she finds out he killed her cousin. The juxtaposition of these terms together — beautiful and tyrant, fiend and angelical — is most likely an attempt to demonstrate the conflicting emotions Juliet has for Romeo. Despite killing her cousin, which makes him a fiend and a tyrant, he is still beautiful and angelical to her because she is in love with him.

To Create New Meaning

Writers can also use this device as a way to create new meaning. Creative use of language often reaches readers better than simply stating something in plain language would. Oxymora such as “deafening silence,” “silent scream,” and “bitter-sweet” can create new meanings and lasting images. The inclusion of the contradictory words next to each other opens them up for new interpretation. If this interpretation happens to fit the situation, as with Juliet’s confusion of love and hatred for Romeo, then the new meaning can be easily understood by readers.

To Showcase a Paradox

A sense of confusion or paradox is another possible role of oxymoron in literature. A character expressing his “terrifying fearlessness” or “joyous mourning,” for example, can both baffle a reader and cause him to pause and think harder about the situation at hand. All can be used by a writer to make the reader question the state of mind of the character, or make the reader less sure of the course of action a character is going to take. They can also reveal an internal conflict, where the character acts and appears one way to the external world but feels something different inside.

As a Humorous Element

Humor is another possible role for this sort of device. Oxymora as a class aren’t usually entertaining, but depending on their use they can be. Sometimes writers combine contradictory terms because they’re funny, and the end result is so absurd as to be amusing. Authors who use the device in this way are often called “witty.”

Referring to compound phrases that are not technically oxymoronic with this term can also be humorous in the right settings. For example, the phrase “military intelligence” on its own is common and quite serious, but if it is interpreted as an oxymoron, the humor becomes clear. This also works with other phrases such as “honest politician,” “government organization,” and “educational television.” Writers often employ these sorts of phrases as oxymoron for rhetorical effect.

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Discussion Comments
By Mor — On Nov 24, 2013

@browncoat - I actually think something original like that is fine and it is the cliches that should be avoided. There are a lot of oxymoron cliches and they get used to describe things that they don't really match. They also don't throw any real light on a subject. If you describe a character's feelings as being bitter-sweet that doesn't really tell me very much and it doesn't give me a lovely picture in my head because the words have been used together so often that they don't have any punch.

If you were to tell me that a character's emotions were like an orange, the sweet juice wrapped in a bitter peel, then that gives me more information and has a bit more punch.

By browncoat — On Nov 23, 2013

@Fa5t3r - It makes me think of a book I read once where a character was describing his favorite part of a novel. The phrase that he loved was describing a tree that had a beehive in it and the author said that it was "weeping pleasure" referring to the honey dripping from the tree.

At the time I didn't think it was all that special, but I've somehow kept the image in my head even though I've basically forgotten the original book almost completely. So it must be quite a powerful image.

By Fa5t3r — On Nov 22, 2013

This is a very difficult thing to do well if you are trying to make something original and I would use it with a bit of caution and very sparingly. If you try to force too many oxymorons into a book it will just seem like a mess.

If you do it well, however, it can be very poignant and can show something more clearly than one word or image might by itself.

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