What Is Paradox?

(View all literary devices)

Derived from the Greek word paradoxon, meaning “contrary to expectations,” a paradox is the juxtaposition of two contradictory ideas that cancel each other out because they cannot both be true at the same time. Mathematician P.E.B. Jourdain developed a classic paradox in 1913 when he wrote these two sentences on the opposite sides of a card:

  • The sentence on the other side of this card is true.
  • The sentence on the other side of this card is false.

As a literary device, paradox is the use of two ideas that are contradictory yet, when placed together, reveal a deeper meaning. For instance, in the Monty Python film, The Life of Brian, the title character impatiently addresses a mob of people eager to claim him as their Messiah. He tells them they need to think for themselves, that “they are all individuals.” The crowd repeats, in unison, “We are all individuals.” This paradox explores the idea that people often claim to have original or revolutionary ideas even though they are simply following the crowd.

Examples of Paradox

Paradox Example 1. “To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.” — Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

Paradox Example 2.. “I can resist everything but temptation.” — again, Oscar Wilde.

Paradox Example 3. Nobody goes to that restaurant; it’s too crowded.

Paradox Example 4. I am nobody.

Paradox Example 5. Less is more.

Paradox Example 6. You have to be cruel to be kind.

Paradox Example 7. “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength” — these three paradoxes are the slogans of the English Socialist Party in Orwell’s novel, 1984.