“What is Juxtaposition?” A Guide for English Students and Teachers

“What is Juxtaposition?” A Guide for English Students and Teachers


The beautiful and the grotesque. Belief in the existence of God, and doubting
the existence of God. Bigotry or tolerance. The wilderness or your backyard vegetable
garden. Dark, light. Despair, hope. These are examples of contrasts. Examples of contradictions. Divergences. Opposites even. In literature, one way that writers and readers
find pleasure, is when those things are juxtaposed. Now, juxtaposition doesn’t mean exactly that this
thing and that thing are opposites. The etymology of juxtaposition, from Middle
English, from Latin and French, essentially means to position object X near object Y. Juxta: that’s Latin for “next to.” And pose…as in, to place. To place next to. To juxtapose. The thing is, the connection has to do with
proximity and immediacy. Again, not opposed, but juxtaposed. Not opposite, but near to, next to. In other words, to notice when things are
in juxtaposition is to notice things side by side, with the outcome being that specific
qualities are contrasted. Look at this painting by Mark Rothko: Check out the juxtaposition between the blue
and the orange. But also, the light blue and the dark blue. The orange and that tint of red under the blue. Or the hint of yellow under the orange. Or look at this next one, by Rene Magritte. The giant leaf and the small sphere…what
looks to be a planet…aren’t in opposition. They’re in juxtaposition. And, are those little the people at the bottom? The scale of everything is off, and those
pieces are in juxtaposition as well. The effect of juxtaposition is that we notice
comparisons–we notice them in scale, or in value, in concepts, or situations, or in literary form. Which is to say, juxtaposition, because it
dramatizes one experience (the leaf tree in the Magritte painting) by placing it side
by side with another experience (like the white sphere), is a special kind of metaphor. In literature, juxtaposition can be as simple
as a turn of phrase. Like: All’s fair in love and war. Or: You’re making a mountain out of a molehill. I’m sure you remember hearing some of that
famous opening 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…” Let’s try another level. What about something more complex? In Natasha Trethewey’s poem, “Myth,”
a poem about the loss of a mother, she writes a 12 line poem in three stanzas. And then, she juxtaposes all that by flipping
the lines around upside down. Line 12 becomes line 1, line 11 becomes line
2, and so on. Check this out: I was asleep while you were dying. It’s as if you slipped through some rift,
a hollow I make between my slumber and my waking, the Erebus I keep you in, still trying
not to let go. You’ll be dead again tomorrow,
but in dreams you live. So I try taking you back into morning. Sleep-heavy, turning,
my eyes open, I find you do not follow. Again and again, this constant forsaking. Again and again, this constant forsaking:
my eyes open, I find you do not follow. You back into morning, sleep-heavy, turning. But in dreams you live. So I try taking,
not to let go. You’ll be dead again tomorrow. The Erebus I keep you in—still, trying— I make between my slumber and my waking. It’s as if you slipped through some rift,
a hollow. I was asleep while you were dying. Something about the formal juxtaposition of
the two sections brings our attention to the recurrence of the poet’s grief. Just look at the last line of the first section,
on the left at the bottom, and the first line of the second section, on the right, at the
top. “Again and again, this constant forsaking….[then
repeated] Again and again, this constant forsaking.” That’s so painful, the repetition. The energy of abandonment, renunciation, relinquishment. But the cool thing, in the first instance,
it’s the mother forsaking the daughter. And in the second instance, it’s the daughter
feeling that she’s forsaking the mother. The two difficult emotions are placed in juxtaposition—even
using the same words. That’s juxtaposition. You just look at one thing that’s been placed,
or posed, or juxtaposed, side by side, next to another thing. And then you experience how they become allies of meanings.

4 thoughts on ““What is Juxtaposition?” A Guide for English Students and Teachers”

  • What a wonderful explanation, thank you, David. Loved the art works, LOVED the Trethaway poem. Here's to continuing education.

  • I would like to ask a question if I may, please. But first my thanks for your time and this video. Q: If I place a ripe red cherry tomato next to a very large dark green watermelon, is it correct to say: 'His intention was to juxtapose the tomato next to the watermelon to offer a unique vantage point of both fruits' or 'the comparison of sizes was a deliberate juxtaposition' or 'the tomato was juxtaposed next to the watermelon.' 

    Thank you kindly for any assistance offered.

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