Word of the Week: Paradox

by: Megan Jenkins (alumni)

In literary terms, paradox is defined as, “a statement that appears at first to be contradictory, but upon reflection then makes sense” (Literary Devices). The Poetry Foundation defines this term in a similar manner explaining paradox,”as a figure of speech, it is a seemingly self-contradictory phrase or concept that illuminates a truth” (Poetry Foundation).

The etymology of paradox stems from the two Greek words para, meaning “distinct from”, and doxa, meaning “opinion”. Putting the two words together forms the Greek word paradoxon which means “contrary opinion”.

The purpose of paradox is to reveal an underlying meaning through a contradictory statement (not to be confused with oxymoron-more on that in a minute). Britannica explains this purpose by saying, “[t]he purpose of a paradox is to arrest attention and provoke fresh thought,” (Britannica).

After listing some literary examples of paradoxes, the article states how a paradox differs from an oxymoron, stating, “[w]hen a paradox is compressed into two words as in “loud silence,” “lonely crowd,” or “living death,” it is called an oxymoron,” (Britannica). Basically, a paradox is a complete phrase and/or sentence while an oxymoron is two specific words together.

A common literary example of a paradox is found in George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945). Animal Farm (1945) is an allegorical novella, or described by Britannica as an anti-utopian satire, that centers around farm animals rebelling against their human farmer as a means of achieving a utopia for animals to live as equals and in peace.

One of the famous quotes from the novella says:

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

George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945)

The paradox is that in the first half of the phrase there is the section “all animals are equal”, yet the second half seems to contradict the first half by saying, “but some animals are more equal than others”. Referring back to its definition, paradox is seemingly contradictory, but once taking a deeper look reveals truth. In this case, the fact of the matter is that not all animals are exactly the same, some with more or less advantages and/or disadvantages than others. Furthermore, the word “equal”, could be a more analogous term than an absolute fact. For more insight , refer to an in-depth analysis by SparkNotes on this specific statement and its significance in the plot of the book.

Paradox in Poetry

While in literature paradoxes play as a literary device for a witty, noticeable, and eye-catching statement, in poetry it is considered to play a much more significant role. Britannica explains this difference by saying,

“Paradox has a function in poetry, however, that goes beyond mere wit or attention-getting. Modern critics view it as a device, integral to poetic language, encompassing the tensions of error and truth simultaneously, not necessarily by startling juxtapositions but by subtle and continuous qualifications of the ordinary meaning of words.”


Check Alpha Chi Tau’s past word of the week on juxtaposition!

In the Poetry Foundation’s article on paradox, which can be found in the “Glossary of Poetic Terms“, poets such as Wallace Stevens, Alexander Pope, and John Donne are mentioned as having poems with examples of paradox.

In Alexander Pope’s poem, “An Essay of Man: Epistle II“, the line

“Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all,”

describes the paradox of Man (humankind) being the lord of all that roams the earth, yet is also prey to all things on it as well.

Another example is John Donne’s poem, “Holy Sonnets: Batter my heart, three-person’d God” which John “considers God’s power to restore the spirit to life by first dismantling it,” (Poetry Foundation).

“Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you

            As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

            That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

            Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.”

John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet: Batter my heart, three-person’d God

Overall, a paradox is a statement that looks and sounds self-contradictory at a first glance, but upon further reflection a deeper truth is revealed…all through a seemingly simple statement.

“A moving object is neither where it is nor where it is not,’ implies Zeno in his famous paradox. Ever since my youth I have believed this paradox is better suited to literature or, indeed, to writers, rather than to physics.

I am writing these words from a prison cell.”

an excerpt from “The Writer’s Paradox” by Ahmet Altan, translated from the Turkish by Yasemin Çongar


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