Oxymoron in Literature: Definition, Purpose & Examples

In this lesson, you’ll review figurative language and its purpose in literature. Then, take a closer look at the term oxymoron and analyze some examples.

Definition of Figurative Language

Communication is one essential aspect of humanity that truly pushes mankind above all other species. We have invented so many different forms of communication that it is difficult to imagine what might come next. However, one method that has been around since the dawn of man, in verbal and in the written word, is figurative language.

You use figurative language every day and most likely don’t even notice. Figurative language occurs any time you say one thing in terms of something else; it’s the language that doesn’t translate literally. For instance, the phrase ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ is figurative language. If it was literal, then it would mean cats and dogs are falling from the sky. Clearly, the phrase infers that it is raining hard and not that animals are falling through the air!

Definition of an Oxymoron

Figurative language serves to clarify our descriptions of the world around us. One common figurative language device that can achieve that goal is the oxymoron. An oxymoron occurs when two contradictory words are together in one phrase. In fact, oxymoron translates from the Greek words oxy meaning sharp, and moron, which means dull. Thus, the word itself is two contradictory words pushed together. It’s often used to make the description of a particular scene more effective, to make the characters or even reader feel greater emotional intensity, and eventually clarify the different shades of meaning.

Examples of an Oxymoron

Some common examples are the phrases ‘sweet sorrow,’ ‘cold fire’, and ‘silent scream’. Each pair of words has opposing definitions, but they are being used side by side. If these phrases are used in writing or even in oral communication, a more specific meaning can be reached.

For instance, if the parting of ways of two characters in a novel is described as sweet sorrow, then the reader can infer the characters are sad to leave each other, but happy about where they are about to go. Or if a character made a silent scream, then he did not actually make a sound, but instead, his facial expression showed his terror. These phrases allow for different shades of meaning and intensify emotions in order to clarify specific situations in stories and in real life.

Common Examples of Oxymoron

  1. Open secret
  2. Tragic comedy
  3. Seriously funny
  4. Awfully pretty
  5. Foolish wisdom
  6. Original copies
  7. Liquid gas

The above oxymoron examples produce a comical effect. Thus, it is a lot of fun to use them in your everyday speech.

Short Examples of Oxymoron in Speech

  1. There was a love-hate relationship between the two neighboring states.
  2. The professor was giving a lecture on virtual reality.
  3. Paid volunteers were working for the company.
  4. The channel was repeating the old news again and again.
  5. The contractor was asked to give the exact estimate of the project.
  6. A lot of soldiers have been killed in friendly fire.
  7. The doctor was absolutely unsure of the nature of his illness.
  8. All the politicians agreed to disagree.
  9. There was an employee in the office who was regularly irregular.
  10. The hero of the play was so dejected that he was the perfect embodiment of being alone in a crowd.
  11. The heads of state gathered to determine an approximate solution to the crisis.
  12. The green pasture surrounded by hills was teeming with a deafening silence.
  13. The political scientist was asked to give his unbiased opinion on the current issue.
  14. The CEO of a multinational company said, “We have been awfully lucky to have survived the disastrous effects of the recent economic recession.”
  15. The program was not liked by the people, for a lot of unpopular celebrities were invited.

Examples of Oxymoron in Literature

Example #1: Romeo and Juliet (By William Shakespeare)

Why, then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
O anything, of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness! Serious vanity!
Misshapen 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.
Dost thou not laugh?

We notice a series of oxymora being employed when Romeo confronts the love of an inaccessible woman. An intense emotional effect is produced, to highlight his mental conflict by the use of contradictory pairs of words, such as “hating love,” “heavy lightness,” “bright smoke,” “cold fire,” and “sick health”.

Example #2: Lancelot and Elaine (By Alfred Lord Tennyson)

The shackles of love straiten’d him
His honour rooted in dishonoured stood
And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true

We clearly notice the use of oxymoron in the phrases “shackles… straiten’d,” “honour… dishonor,” “faith unfaithful,” and “falsely true”.

Example #3: Petrarch’s 134th sonnet (By Sir Thomas Wyatt)

I find no peace, and all my war is done
I fear and hope, I burn and freeze like ice,
I flee above the wind, yet can I not arise;

The contradicting ideas of “war … peace,” “burn … freeze,” and “flee above … not rise” produce a dramatic effect in the above-mentioned lines.

Example #4: Essays of Criticism (By Alexander Pope)

The bookful blockhead ignorantly read,
With loads of learned lumber in his head,
With his own tongue still edifies his ears,
And always list’ning to himself appears.

The above lines provide fine evidence of Pope’s witticism. The oxymora “bookful blockhead” and “ignorantly read” describe a person who reads a lot, but does not understand what he reads, and does not employ his reading to improve his character.

Example #5: Hamlet (By William Shakespeare)

Shakespeare makes use of oxymora in his plays to develop a paradox.

I will bestow him, and will answer well
The death I gave him. So, again, good night.
I must be cruel, only to be kind:
Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.
One word more, good lady.

In the above lines taken from “Hamlet,” Shakespeare draws two contradictory ideas: “be cruel … to be kind”. The contradiction is understood in the context of the play. Hamlet wants to kill Claudius, the murderer of his father, who has married his mother. Hamlet does not want his mother to be the beloved of his father’s murderer. Therefore, he is of the view that this murder will purge her.

Example #6: Romeo and Juliet , Act I, Scene II (By William Shakespeare)

O serpent heart, hid with a flowering face!
Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave?
Beautiful tyrant! fiond angelical!
Dove-feather’d raven! wolvish-ravening lamb!
Despised substance of divinest show!
Just opposite to what thou justly seem’st;
A damned saint, an honourable villain!
O, nature! what hadst thou to do in hell
When thou didst bower the spirit of a fiend

This extract makes use of some good oxymora, such as “damned saint,” and “honorable villain,” etc.

Function of Oxymoron

Oxymoron produces a dramatic effect in both prose and poetry. For instance, when we read or hear the famous oxymoron, “sweet sorrow,” crafted by Shakespeare, it appeals to us instantly. It provokes our thoughts, and makes us ponder the meaning of contradicting ideas. This apparently confusing phrase expresses the complex nature of love, that can never be expressed through simple words.

In everyday conversation, however, people do not use oxymoron to make deep statements like the one above. Instead, they do it to show wit. The use of oxymoron adds flavor to their speech.

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