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?
So what is a paradox? Let’s start with an easy paradox definition: In literary terms, a paradox is a self-contradictory statement or portrayal of two conflicting ideas. It’s something that cannot or should not make logical sense.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.