Definition of Paradox:
A paradox is similar to an oxymoron—in fact, an oxymoron can be considered a compressed paradox. In a paradox, a statement that appears to be contradictory or impossible actually expresses a striking and often counterintuitive truth on a more figurative level.
Examples of Paradox in Literature:
“Fair is foul, and foul is fair.”
—William Shakespeare’s Macbeth
This paradox, spoken by the three witches, essentially switches the meanings of the words “fair” and “foul,” serving to announce a key theme within Macbeth—that not everything is as it seems. The witches’ prophecy promises Macbeth greatness but it ultimately leads him to ruin as he commits “foul” deeds in pursuit of the “fair” future the witches have foreseen for him.
“The child is father of the man”
—William Wordsworth’s “My Heart Leaps Up”
This statement, rendered paradoxical by the literal inability of a child to be the father of an adult, serves to highlight Wordsworth’s belief that our experiences as children mark our adult lives. In Wordsworth’s case, his delight in seeing a rainbow in the sky has followed him from childhood to adulthood. Thus the child that he was has taught the man that he is to love nature just as a father might.
“Death, thou shalt die.”
—John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud”
This phrase is a paradox in that death, as a concept rather than a mortal entity, cannot die. However, Donne is referring to the idea that death is impermanent because the afterlife is eternal. Thus “death” dies as soon as the soul wakes from its brief slumber and arrives in the afterlife.