Oxymoron, Antithesis, Irony - stylistic devices of contrast. Examples from Literature


Oxymoron (Greek oxys + moros - "pointedly foolish") is a stylistic device the syntactic and semantic structures of which come to clashes. It involves a combina­tion of two contrasting ideas within the same syntactical whole, thus ascribing some features to an object incompatible with it.
Antithesis (Greek anti + thesis - "opposition") is a stylistic device involving the use of a parallel construction, the two parts of which must be semantically opposed to each other.
Irony (Greek eironeia - "mockery concealed") - as a trope - is a stylistic device in which the contextual evaluative meaning of a word is directly opposite to its diction­ary meaning.
The following information will provide more info on the peculiarities of each stylistic device.

As a rule, one of the two members of oxymoron illuminates the feature which is universally observed and acknowledged while the other one offers a purely subjec­tive individual perception of the object. Kukharenko names three structural pat­terns that are possible (the first three points in the table below), the forth is mentioned in the text-book Stylistics by Galperin:
The structural pattern
The examples
a.    attributive structures
(the most widely known structure)
"with careful carelessness" (Dickens)
b.    verbal structures
"to shout mutely" fining Shaw) "to cry silently" (Wilson)
c.    non-attributive structures
"the street damaged by improvements"
(O. Henry) "silence was louder than thunder"
(Updike)
d.    adverbial-attributive structures
"awfully pretty" (Cusack)
Oxymora rarely become trite, for their components, linked forcibly, repulse each other and oppose repeated use. There are few colloquial oxymora. all of them show­ing a high degree of the speaker's emotional involvement in the situation, as in "damn nice." "awfully pretty".
For instance: pay attention to the structure and semantics of the oxy­mora. Also notice which of their members conveys the individually viewed feature of the object and which one reflects its generally accepted characteristic:
1. If out of my meager vocabulary only the term unenthusiastic excitement comes anywhere near describing the feeling with which all my thoughts were suf­fused, you must resolve my meaning from that term's dissonance. (Earth)
2. "Heaven must be the hell of a place. Nothing but repentant sinners up there, is­n't it?"       (Delaney)
3. He opened up a wooden garage. The doors creaked. The garage was full of nothing.     (Chandler)
4. He caught a ride home to the crowded loneliness of the barracks.     (Jones)
5. Sprinting towards the elevator he felt amazed at his own cowardly courage. (Markey)
6. They were a bloody miserable lot - the miserablest lot of men I ever saw. But they were good to me. Bloody good.     (Steinbeck)
7. Harriet turned back across the dim garden. The lightless light looked down from the night sky.       (Murdoch)
8. It was an open secret that Ray had been ripping his father-in-law off. (Uh-nak)
9. A neon sign reads "Welcome to Reno - the biggest little town in the world." (A. M.)
10. Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield are Good Bad Boys of American literature. (Vallins)
11. He was sure the whites could detect his adoring hatred of them. (Wright)

In contrast to oxymoron the two opposed notions of an antithesis can refer to the same object of thought or to different objects. Antithesis is based on the use of anto­nyms, both usual (registered in dictionaries) and occasional or contextual. It is essential to distinguish between antithesis and what is termed contrast. Contrast is a literary (not linguistic) device, based on logical opposition between the phenom­ena set one against another.
Discuss the semantic centers and structural peculiarities of the following antitheses:
1. Don't use big words. They mean so little.       (Wilde)
2. ... quite frequently, things that are obvious to other people aren't even apparent to me.       (Barth)
3. ... drunkenness was an amusing but unquestioned vice: churchgoing a soporific but unquestioned virtue.     (Barth)
4. I like big parties. They are so intimate. At small parties there isn't any privacy. (Fitzgerald)
5. Rup wished he could be swift, accurate, compassionate and stem instead of clumsy and vague and sentimental.       (Murdoch)
6. His coat-sleeves being a great deal too long, and his trousers a great deal too short, he appeared ill at ease in his clothes.     (Dickens)
7. It is safer to be married to the man you can be happy with than to the man you cannot be happy without.    (Esar)
8. 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. we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short the period was so far like the present period, that some of its nosiest authori­ties insisted on its being received for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. (Dickens)
9. His fees were high: his lessons were light.      (O. Henry)
  •  Irony

Irony occurs when a person says one Thing but really means something else. There­fore, irony does not exist outside the context. Irony is a wide-ranging phenomenon and may be achieved both by linguistic and extra-linguistic means. Three kinds of irony are usually distinguished.
Verbal (or linguistic) irony is a figure of speech involving discrepancy between what is said and what is meant. The context is arranged so that the qualifying word reverses the direction of the evaluation, and the word positively charged is under­stood as a negative qualification and (much rarer) vice versa.
Besides, according to Skrebnev, irony can be based on stylistic incongruity. It hap­pens when high-flown, elevated linguistic units are used in reference to insignificant, socially low topics.
In cases of extra-linguistic irony it is usually extended over a whole story.
In dramatic irony the contrast is between what a character says and what the reader knows to be true. The value of this kind of irony lies in the comment it implies on the speaker or the speaker's expectations.
In irony of situation (or irony of life) the discrepancy is between appearance and reality, or between expectation and fulfillment, or between what is and what would seem appropriate.
Thus, irony makes it possible to suggest meanings without stating them. It can be used to convey both the seriousness and humour of situations.

In the following excerpts you will find mainly examples of verbal irony. Explain how the context makes the irony perceptible. Try to indicate the exact word whose contextual meaning diametrically opposes its dictionary meaning.
1. She turned with the sweet smile of an alligator.       (Steinbeck)
2. The book was entitled Murder at Milbury Manor and was a whodunit of the more abstruse type, in which everything turns on whether a certain character, by catch­ing the three-forty-three train at Hilbury and changing into the four-sixteen at Mil-bury, could have reached Silbury by five-twenty-seven, which would have given him just time to disguise himself and be sticking knives into people at Bilbury by six-thirty-eight. (Woodhouse)
3. When the war broke out she took down the signed photograph of the Kaiser and. with some solemnity, hung it in the men-servants" lavatory: it was her own com­bative action. (Murdoch)
4. From her earliest infancy Gertrude was brought up by her aunt. Her aunt had care­fully instructed her to Christian principles. She had also taught her Mohammedan­ism, to make sure. (Leacock)
5. She's a charming middle-aged lady with a face like a bucket of mud and if she has washed her hair since Coolidge's second term. I'll eat my spare tire, rim and all. (Chandler)
6. With all the expressiveness of a stone Welsh stared at him another twenty seconds apparently hoping to see him gag.        (Chandler)
7. Apart from splits based on politics, racial, religious and ethnic backgrounds and specific personality differences, we're just one cohesive team.     (Uhnak)
8. I had been admitted as a partner in the firm of Andrews and Bishop, and through­out 1927 and 1928 I enriched myself and the firm at the rate of perhaps forty dol­lars a month.   (Barth)
9. But every Englishman is bom with a certain miraculous power that makes him master of the world. As the great champion of freedom and national independence he conquers and annexes half the world and calls it Colonization. (Bernard Shaw)


Identifying oxymoron, antithesis, and irony as well as defining the function performed in the following examples:
1. Sara was a menace and a tonic, my best enemy; Rozzie was a disease, my worst friend. (Cory)
2. Mrs. Nork had a large home and a small husband.  (Lewis)
3. Bookcases covering one wall boasted a half-shelf of literature.   (Capote)
4. You have got two beautiful bad examples for parents. (Fitzgerald)
5. A very likeable young man with a pleasantly ugly face.    (Cronin)
6. There were some bookcases of superbly unreadable books.       (Waugh)
7. I liked him better than I would have liked his father... We were fellow strangers. ( Greene)
8. All this blood and fire business tonight was probably pan of the graft to get the Socialists chucked out and leave honest business men safe to make their fortunes out of murder.       (Charteris)
9. I'm interested in any number of things, enthusiastic about nothing.     (Barth)
10. Ah. me. Everything. I'm afraid, is significant, and nothing is finally important. (Barth)
11. A local busybody, unable to contain her curiosity any longer, asked an expectant mother point-blank whether she was going to have a baby. '"Oh. goodness, no." the young woman said pleasantly. "I'm just carrying this for a friend." (Wodehouse)
12. I also assure her that I'm an Angry Young Man. A black humorist. A white Ne­gro. Anything. (Richler)
13. Last time it was a nice, simple. European-style war.   (Irving Shaw)



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