3 Paradox Examples from Literature and History

If you want to get your readers to think about what you are writing, learn to use paradox. These paradox examples will help you get started.

In literature, paradoxes can make readers stop and think. This figure of speech shows up in classic Greek literature and early English writings, but it can also be found in modern classics.

What is a paradox, and how is it different from other literary devices like oxymoron or irony? Here is a closer look at what the term means and some paradox examples from literature to help you understand the term better.

Paradox Examples Start With a Definition

Paradox examples

Before looking at paradox examples, you must first understand what a paradox is. The definition of a paradox is a statement or situation that seems to be self-contradictory at first, but the more you look at it, the more sense it makes. 

Writers use paradox to engage their readers to find underlying logic and to think less traditionally to better understand a concept. The self-contradictory statement creates a “stop and think” scenario for the reader. You might also find our alliteration examples from culture and literature guide helpful.

Simple Examples of Paradox

Some simple phrases are examples of paradoxes. These include:

  • World war: Rarely does a world war include the entire world.
  • Time travel: Travel and time are two completely different metrics.
  • Jumbo shrimp: Jump and shrimp are two works that are in juxtaposition to each other.

Literary Paradox Examples From Classic Writers

Looking at examples of paradox is one of the best ways to understand this literary device and use it effectively in your writing. These writers all used paradox well in their writing.

1. Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw was a famous playwright who wrote Pygmalion. He is considered one of the last great rhetorical playwrights. Many paradoxical statements have their origin in his writings and work. 

For example, Shaw once said each of these:

  • What a pity that youth must be wasted on the young.
  • Paradox is the only truth.
  • There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.

His play Man and Superman aims to use paradox to show how societal norms don’t always work. One of the more paradoxical statements in the play is:

  • The golden rule is that there are no golden rules.
Man and Superman: A Comedy and a Philosophy
  • Shaw, George Bernard (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 172 Pages - 11/08/2020 (Publication Date) - Independently published (Publisher)

2. Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Paradox is woven throughout this classic play. Shakespeare is known as one of the greatest playwriters of all time, and he artfully gets his listeners to think by using paradox. 

These Hamlet quotes are clear examples of the literary device:

  • “You are the queen, your husband’s brother’s wife.” Though this statement is true, it seems illogical and contradictory, and thus, is a paradox.
  • “A little more than kin, and less than kind.” This quote is a paradox because Claudius, the person discussed, is both the uncle and stepfather to the speaker, thus “a little more than kin.”
  • “I must be cruel, only to be kind.” This contradictory statement that you must be cruel to be kind shows the paradox of Hamlet’s actions.
Sale
Hamlet ( Folger Library Shakespeare)
  • Simon Schuster
  • Shakespeare, William (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 342 Pages - 07/01/1992 (Publication Date) - Simon & Schuster (Publisher)

3. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

It’s not surprising that another Shakespearean play will make it on this list of examples of paradoxes. Romeo and Juliet is, arguably, one of his most famous tragedies. 

This excerpt from the play shows several paradoxes:

Alas, that love, whose view is muffled still,
  Should, without eyes, see pathways to his will!
  Where shall we dine?—O me! What fray was here?
  Yet tell me not, for I have heard it all.
  Here’s much to do with hate but more with love.
  Why, then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
  O any thing, of nothing first create!
  O heavy lightness! Serious vanity!
  Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
  Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!
  Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
  This love feel I, that feel no love in this…

Here, love being blind, but still seeing, still-waking sleep, love you feel but do not feel are all examples of a paradox. Even the phrases “loving hate” and “brawling love” are examples.

Romeo and Juliet (Folger Shakespeare Library)
  • Simon Schuster
  • Shakespeare, William (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 336 Pages - 01/01/2004 (Publication Date) - Simon & Schuster (Publisher)

4. 1984 by George Orwell

In 1984, Orwell created a dystopian world where a totalitarian government is a giant paradox at its very heart. He shows this contradiction in phrases like:

  • War is peace
  • Freedom is slavery
  • Ignorance is strength

Throughout the novel, Orwell tries to shed light on the danger of society becoming numb to this paradox and the contradictions it creates. Thus, the paradoxical government is at the heart of the story itself.

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1984
  • George Orwell (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 328 Pages - 01/01/1961 (Publication Date) - Signet Classic (Publisher)

5. Invisible Man by Ralph Waldo Ellison

In this book, the protagonist, a black man, struggles with themes of racism and prejudice. His grandfather told him the following advice, which serves as a paradox:

  • Overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction.

Throughout the book, the protagonist tries to figure out how to submit while overcoming the white majority. Later in the story, when he rises to a position of leadership, he is given another paradox in the statement:

  • You will have freedom of action, and you will be under strict discipline to the committee.

Restrained freedom of this sort is always a paradox, and it drives the story’s action even further. 

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Invisible Man
  • Vintage Books USA
  • Ralph Ellison (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 581 Pages - 01/01/1995 (Publication Date) - Vintage Books (Publisher)

6. Animal Farm by George Orwell

Animal Farm is another novel by Orwell that uses paradox. In this statement:

  • All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

Orwell attempts to show the paradoxical nature of socialistic governments. It shows a gap between the principles of socialistic governments and how they show up in actual practice.

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Animal Farm: 75th Anniversary Edition
  • George Orwell (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 140 Pages - 04/06/2004 (Publication Date) - Signet (Publisher)

Logical Paradox Examples from Philosophy

The study of philosophy includes quite a large number of paradoxes. Some famous examples from historic philosophers include:

1. Zeno’s Paradox

Zeno’s paradox is one of the oldest paradoxes known today. It reads like this:

“A man approaches a wall 10 feet away. To get there, he must first go half the distance, then half the remaining distance, then half the remaining distance, and so forth. Therefore, it is impossible for him to reach the wall because he will always have another half distance to cover.”

This is a paradox because the reader knows you can walk 10 feet without trouble. Ancient Greek philosophers studied it in-depth, but modern philosophy finds it invalid because there is a logical way to overcome the paradox. 

2. Meno’s Paradox

Meno’s paradox is one that the philosopher Plato studied in depth. This famous paradox is known as the paradox of inquiry, and it states:

  • “A man cannot inquire either about what he knows or about what he does not know – for he cannot inquire about what he knows, because he knows it, nor again can he inquire about what he does not know because he does not know about it.”

In other words, if you know what you’re looking for, the inquiry is unnecessary.

Plato introduced this idea in a Socratic dialogue between Socrates and Meno. In the end, Plato concluded that the soul’s immortal nature creates the need for recollection, which comes from inquiry. Thus the paradox is invalid.

3. Barber Paradox

The barber paradox, also known as Russell’s Paradox because it is historically the work of Bertrand Russell, is a bit more straightforward than the ancient Greek philosophers. This paradox considers the role of the barber. 

In the paradox, the philosopher sets forth a definition of a barber as follows:

  • The barber is the one who shaves those, and those only, who do not shave themselves.

Thus, when the barber shaves himself, he ceases to be the barber. 

If you take the logic of this paradox too far, you create a scenario where no barber can exist. Once the barber shaves himself, he no longer fits into the category of one who shaves those who do not shave themselves and, therefore, is no longer a barber. Thus, a barber based on this definition cannot exist.

Like this? Read our guide to the most common literary elements

A Final Word on Paradox Examples

Paradox examples are everywhere. You can find paradox in your favorite television show or book, in ancient philosophy, and in everyday phrases we all use.

Paradox is a helpful tool to create writing that makes the reader think. By focusing on building some paradox into your writing, you can craft thought-provoking works.

FAQs on Paradox Examples

What is a paradox?

A paradox is a statement or situation that seems to contradict itself. However, when you look more closely at it, you see some logic in the statement.

What is a paradox example?

A classic paradox is the Postcard Paradox. This creates an imaginary scenario where you are holding a card in your hand. On one side, it reads, “the statement on the other side of this card is true,” then you flip it over to read, “the statement on the other side of this card is false.”
This creates an impossible paradox. Both statements cannot be true, and both statements cannot be false either. This is a variation of the “liar paradox,” which is a famous paradox often used in philosophy.

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  • Nicole Harms has been writing professionally since 2006. She specializes in education content and real estate writing but enjoys a wide gamut of topics. Her goal is to connect with the reader in an engaging, but informative way. Her work has been featured on USA Today, and she ghostwrites for many high-profile companies. As a former teacher, she is passionate about both research and grammar, giving her clients the quality they demand in today's online marketing world.

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