Figurative Speech: Paradox

Paradoxes make my head hurt – at least the scientific ones do – and a couple of years ago I went to a talk at Winchester Discovery Centre on the world’s greatest paradoxes given, no less, than by Jim Al Khalili. Those are not the sorts of paradoxes I want to talk about here. I want to show how it can be used as a literary device, often for comic effect and sometimes to make a very serious point.

A paradox is a seemingly impossible contradiction that makes you stop and pause. In science, it is a logical statement or difficult concept to try to get our head around – Fermi’s Paradox is the concept of a universe with billions of stars and billions of galaxies that should be teeming with life, trying to understand quite why we haven’t encountered anything else. In literature, it is much the same- they make us stop and ponder what the writer is trying to tell us by use of humour, irony and serious commentary.


We see it in such amusing quotes as Blaise Pascal’s quote:

I am sorry for the length of this letter, but I did not have the time to write a short one.

The intent here is to make us laugh and then perhaps afterwards to think about it. It is seemingly contradictory but as a professional writer, I have come to the understanding that writing a piece (whether that’s fiction, a blog post or article for a client) with a strict low word limit can actually be harder than writing a lengthier piece. It’s easy to waffle and harder to remain succinct than it is to find filler material.

One of my favourite paradoxes is from Oscar Wilde:

Lord Caversham: I don’t know how you stand society. A lot of damned nobodies talking about nothing.
Lord Arthur Goring: I love talking about nothing, Father. It’s the only thing I know anything about.

Again, used for humorous effect and Lord Goring makes a flippant comment after his father’s lament about modern society. The one I like repeating most is this, seen on many mugs, key chains and fridge magnets:

“I’d give up chocolate but I’m no quitter.”

Or change to your vice of choice. The idea of giving something up is either seen as noble (smoking, alcohol) or as failure (university) and this paradox works by switching around the dynamic.


The most famous paradox in literature is the American novel Catch-22. The book is based on a persistent series of Catch-22 situations and the term has moved into modern tongue to show a sense of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”. This is the original Catch-22.

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to.


The mind fuck and doublespeak in Orwell’s 1984 (we get the latter term from that book) uses political rhetoric that, were we to read it for the first time now, would be a chilling reflection of the sort of language our politicians use  – albeit a more extreme version of it. Modern politics has become about by-words and metaphors so these terms from the pages of 1984 should sound a little familiar in the paradox of the language while making sense in the context:

Ignorance is Strength, Freedom is Slavery, War is Peace.

I find it amazing that many people, often the politically conservative, are quick to expound the latter as a political truth. Orwell also uses the same sort of political paradox in Animal Farm. The powerful saying which makes no sense, but we all know what it means is

All animals are equal but some are more equal than others

Functions of Use

We use paradox in literature for many reasons – as we can see above, most centre on humour or to make a chilling point. In other cases, we use it to make a profound point, such as presenting a hidden meaning. Writing (and reading) can be very boring if things were explained in a dispassionate style. Figurative speech such as paradox and some of the others I have already covered, do a good job in making people think about what they are saying by using irony, humour and other devices.

Finally, I came across this on the internet during my research for this (found here, credit to anonymous on 20/3/15). No cheating, don’t look at the answer but see if you can get your head around why this is a paradox:

1. Two of these statements are false
2. 1+1=2
3. 12 is also know as a dozen
4. 89 is a square number
5. A is next to S on a classic key board


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