Take a moment and think about building a campfire in the dying light of a summer evening. The fire consumes the logs, growing higher and higher as the sun sets. Finally, the sky settles into an inky black, against which the orange and blue flames stand brighter and more grand. The contrast of colors changes the campfire from a simple heat source to a beautiful display. 

Contrast Contrast

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Table of contents

    Contrast is a powerful tool that people use to describe the differences they encounter in the world. Humans are naturally attracted to incongruity because it helps them understand things in greater detail.

    Contrast Definition

    The word contrast is often used to visually describe images like the campfire, but there are many types of contrast. People can also use the word contrast to describe abstract ideas like personalities, literary themes, and much more.

    Contrast is a literary device that explores the differences between two (or more) things or ideas. For example, apples and oranges are considered a fruit but have different colors.

    A literary device, also called a literary technique, is any strategy writers use to communicate their ideas and hint at significant themes within a text. Literary devices use language to go beyond the literal meaning of the words. For example, the phrase “The building scrapes the sky” is an exaggerated way of saying the building is very tall. This is an example of the literary device hyperbole.

    Contrast can be used to evaluate the differences between:

    • People

    • Places

    • Objects

    • Events

    • Ideas

    • Visual elements

    In literature, contrast examples are a means of evaluating two of these things side-by-side, but instead of looking for similarities, you’re looking for the ways the two things are different. This helps illuminate the details of one or both of the items you’re contrasting.

    Visually, it’s like setting a bright object up against a dull background; the details of the bright object will stand out more.

    Contrast, Photograph of a person walking with a bright pink umbrella on gray pavement taken from above, StudySmarterFig. 1. Visually, contrast provides greater detail about the edges and limitations of an object, and it works the same way in composition

    The umbrella is outlined in greater detail than if it were seen next to objects that were similar in color or shape. Contrast as a literary device works much the same way. There is a lot to learn about a subject when you can discuss how it is different from surrounding things.

    When two things are alike in many ways, a contrast must necessarily be extremely detailed. On the other hand, when two things are not much alike, a contrast between the two can be more general.

    For example, a contrast between the works of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe would need to take a close look at each playwright. They were both Elizabethan writers, and they both dealt with themes of love and tragedy on the stage. Anyone who might wish to argue that one is better would have to provide a detailed argument as to what exactly makes one greater than the other.

    On the other hand, a contrast between the works of William Shakespeare and Lin-Manuel Miranda would be quite a different story. They are both prolific writers, but in different genres and centuries, and the differences between their plays and musicals are quite obvious. This means a contrast between these two can be more general.

    How to Use Contrast

    You can contrast one aspect of an idea or text, which is an effective way to take a deep dive into this particular concept.

    Say, for example, you want to learn more about the contrast between near rhymes in poetry. One way to do this is to find a few examples of near rhymes among a few different poets and see how they each use this poetic device. How are they different? What counts as a near rhyme? What does this information tell you about near rhyming?

    Alternatively, you can contrast the entirety of two texts or concepts. This approach to contrast will include a potentially long list of differences, giving you plenty of content to contrast. Think of an assignment that asks you to contrast two different novels; you could talk about the differences in characters, prominent themes, storyline, setting, or whatever else sticks out to you.

    Types of Contrast

    So what are the types and examples of contrast? Because it’s possible to contrast virtually anything, there are in essence infinite types of contrast. You can contrast two political ideas, characters in a story, genres, public figures–or any of these things against the other. The options are limitless!

    There are, however, a few common types of contrast that help illuminate particular topics. These are visual, cultural, personal, and emotional contrast.

    Visual Contrast

    Perhaps the most easily accessible form of contrast is visual contrast because human brains can quickly process the differences in appearance between two objects. Visual contrast can be the difference between fast and slow (tortoise versus hare), color (black versus white), size (big versus small), or anything else you can perceive with your eyes.

    A student may choose to write a report on The Great Gatsby instead of War and Peace because the book is thinner, and they conclude that it will be easier to read and discuss.

    Cultural Contrast

    The cultural or social spectrum is one place where people tend to contrast their standing with those around them. You can contrast race, nationality, religion, gender, and anything else to do with social or cultural constructs.

    Most protestant Christians observe the Sabbath on Sunday, but Seventh-day Adventists interpret the Bible as saying the Sabbath should be observed on Saturday, not Sunday.

    Personal Contrast

    You can contrast specific details about people; physical appearance, personality traits, habits, skills, or anything else you can think of.

    In Say Yes (1985), a short story by Tobias Wolff about a seemingly innocent disagreement between husband and wife, there are many examples of contrast. The story hinges on their opposing stances on the topic of interracial marriage.

    He said all things considered, he thought it was a bad idea.

    The husband is opposed to the idea, while the wife doesn't believe race should be a deciding factor in a relationship.

    I just don't see what's wrong with a white person marrying a black person, that's all.

    Tobias Wolff uses the contrast in the husband and wife's beliefs to represent a divide in society; white versus black, racism versus acceptance of others, and love versus ignorance.

    Contrast, A red apple and a yellow apple with heart cut outs placed into the other one, StudySmarterFig. 2. Sometimes contrast is necessary to understand something better.

    Emotional Contrast

    Emotions are the way you feel in response to something that happens. Emotions can vary between people as they interpret the same event differently, and they can also quickly shift within one person.

    Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), written by Zora Neale Hurston, contrasts many aspects of Janie's life.

    Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches. (Ch.2)

    Janie herself recognizes the contrast in the fabric of her life. Dawn and doom represent the tension between life and death, youth and age—at times bringing emotions of joy or sadness—themes Hurston worked into the whole novel.

    More Examples of Contrast

    Here are a few more specific contrast examples found in literature.

    The famous opening lines to Charles Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities (1859) are a series of conflicting and contrasting ideas. The effect is strangely relatable, as life is rarely all one thing or another.

    “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, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us … (Ch. 1)

    Below is an example of personal contrast between two classic literary characters: George and Lennie from Of Mice and Men (1937), written by John Steinbeck.

    While George is a man of smaller stature, Lennie is large and tall. George is Lennie’s intelligent and quick-witted guardian because Lennie is intellectually disabled. Lennie is innocent and childlike, while George is cynical and worldly.

    Notice that the contrast between the characters is based on physical characteristics, intellect, and personality traits.

    Compare and Contrast

    Contrast is perhaps best understood alongside its counterpart, comparison.

    Comparison is the act of finding similarities between two things. For example, dots and cats may be different but they are still animals.

    In composition, comparison and contrast are frequently used together to evaluate something in great detail, so much so that compare and contrast is a common essay style assigned by English composition and biology teachers alike.

    In composition, a compare/contrast essay requires students to examine the texts or ideas side-by-side and make connections between themes, characters, literary devices, or any other relevant details. This will take students beyond basic reading and into a deeper understanding of the text and author.

    While a comparison will look for similarities between objects, a contrast will search for those differences. A contrast essay will try to pit the two objects against one another to find where they differ. The point of a contrast essay may be to find differences between two entire texts or to find differences in one aspect of both texts.

    For example, a contrast essay about Shakespeare's comedies versus his tragedies might make a general statement about what exactly makes one genre different from the other. Alternatively, a contrast essay on the same subject could take an example from each category and contrast them against each other in a few different ways.

    A simple thesis about comedies vs. tragedies:

    The major difference between Shakespearian tragedies and Shakespearian comedies is that the tragedies typically end in sweeping deaths, while the comedies end in marriage.

    A more intricate thesis contrasting Shakespeare's comedies and tragedies:

    A Midsummer Night's Dream, one of William Shakespeare's most popular comedies, differs drastically from his most known tragedy, Hamlet. The two plays both deal with themes of love and disappointment, but A Midsummer Night's Dream treats romantic love as the ultimate reason to live and therefore the ultimate opportunity for disappointment. Meanwhile, Hamlet treats romantic love as a social byproduct, not a goal worth pursuing for its own sake.

    Some assignments expressly invite comparison, contrast, or both, by using words like “similarities,” “differences,” “compare,” or “contrast.”

    • Compare and contrast the poems of Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson and their treatment of nature.

    • Examine the pros and cons of studying at home versus studying at school.

    • What are the major differences between 18th-century British Literature and modern British literature?

    Other assignments are less direct, but comparison or contrast might still be appropriate.

    • Choose a particular idea or theme, such as love or honor, and discuss how they are treated in two plays.

    • How do the texts we’ve read treat the idea of liberty in 20th-century Ireland?

    Regardless of whether you decide to compare or contrast a particular novel, idea, or theme, you’re sure to gain insight into the text or concept itself.

    Usage of Contrast

    There are specific ways you can use contrast to illuminate particular concepts. The following techniques add additional elements to contrast:

    • Juxtaposition – Placing two things side-by-side specifically to contrast them.

    • Oxymoron – A figure of speech where two contradictory words are written together in a word or phrase for an unusual effect (e.g., deafening silence, tough love, bittersweet)

    • Antithesis – A person or thing that is the exact opposite of someone or something else.

    • Paradox – A statement or situation that directly contradicts itself by definition.

    A figure of speech is an intentional use of language that deviates from the words’ typical meaning for a more vivid effect.

    Many people confuse contrast with juxtaposition, but they are not the same! Juxtaposition specifically identifies two things that might have differences and compares them side-by-side, while contrast refers to the general arrangement of oppositional things.

    All of these techniques can be combined to create a detailed contrast between two things, or they can be used alone and have the same effect.

    Contrast - Key Takeaways

    • Contrast is a literary device that explores the differences between two (or more) things or ideas.
    • Similar things require more detailed contrasts, while a contrast of dissimilar things can be general.
    • There are four common types of contrast: visual, cultural, personal, and emotional contrast.
    • Contrast is perhaps best understood alongside its counterpart, comparison.
    • A compare/ contrast essay requires students to examine texts or ideas side-by-side and make connections between themes, characters, literary devices, or any other relevant details.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Contrast

    What does contrast mean?

    Contrast is a literary device that explores the differences between two (or more) things or ideas.  

    What are examples of contrast?

    Romeo and Juliet is a good literary example of contrast, as the story revolves around the contrasting themes of love and hate. 

    What are the types of contrast?

    There are four types of contrast: visual contrast, personal contrast, cultural contrast, and emotional contrast.

    What is a synonym for contrast?

    The words difference and compare are two common synonyms for contrast. 

    What is the difference between contrast and compare?

    The difference between compare and contrast is that compare looks for similarities, while contrast looks for differences.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following is not something that you can evaluate with contrast:PeoplePlacesObjectsEventsIdeasVisual elements

    When two things are alike in many ways, a contrast must necessarily be extremely ________.

    When two things are not much alike, a contrast between the two can be more _______.

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