Examples of Dichotomy In Literature

Dichotomy Meaning

Dichotomy is a division or contrast between the two different and opposite things. The term was originated from the Greek words ‘dichotomia’, which means ‘dividing in two’. In various contexts, the dichotomy is utilized to describe a clear and distinct separation between the two elements. It suggests a binary classification where the two parts are mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive.

In the philosophy, the dichotomy implies a binary opposition i.e. a pairing of concepts that are considered fundamentally different. Logically, it refers to a division that is jointly exhaustive and mutually exclusive.

In everyday language, this term is employed to describe the situation where things seem to be presented as two opposite categories, such as ‘good vs. evil’ or ‘black vs. white’. This usage oversimplifies complex spectrums into two categories for the sake of clarity and argument. Furthermore, dichotomies also oversimplify the complex realities, which potentially lead to misconceptions in case the nuances between the two extremes are not acknowledged.

Examples of Dichotomy

  • Night and day – The dichotomy between the enveloping darkness of night and the revealing illumination of day has long fascinated poets and philosophers alike. The opposing states epitomize the light and shadow of the human experience.
  • Nature and nurture – The age-old tension between nature and nurture – whether our destiny is shaped more by our innate character or by external influences – continues to drive scientific and social debate about what makes us who we are.
  • Individualism and community – Modern society grapples with the fundamental dichotomy between individualism and community, the competing drives of self-interest and collective responsibility, and how to balance personal freedom with care for others.
  • Freedom and security – Democratic societies must perpetually navigate the dilemma between ensuring civil liberties that empower the individual while also providing public safety and order through authority. There are no easy answers in reconciling this dichotomy.
  • Justice and mercy – Justice systems often struggle to reconcile the opposing moral imperatives of imparting punishment to serve justice while also extending mercy and granting leniency in mitigating circumstances.
  • Equality and equity – Those crafting social policy are challenged by the dichotomy between pursuing the ethical principle of equality – equal treatment for all – while recognizing that specific groups and individuals have faced substantive barriers that equity policies aim to accommodate in order to provide fair opportunities.
  • Subjectivity and objectivity – Across fields as diverse as journalism, science, and justice, theorists have long debated the potential dichotomy between detached objectivity and subjectivity influenced by personal bias, perspective, and values.

Examples of dichotomy in literature


“A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens

“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.”

The writer presents pairs of opposing ideas about the age in which the book is set: late 18th century England and France. Each dichotomy highlights the contradictions and contrasts shaping the turbulent historical period that forms the backdrop to the novel. The “best of times” balanced with the “worst of times” points to coexisting prosperity and cruelty. “Wisdom” is contrasted with “foolishness” to convey rational enlightenment grappling with backwardness in thought and deed. “Belief” counterposed with “incredulity” captures society’s tension between upholding ideals or falling into skepticism.

Together the dichotomies reference a culture filled with paradoxes – reason and folly, clarity and ignorance, hope and despair. Dickens uses this literary device to lay the foundation for a complex duality reflected throughout the epic story of individuals caught in the extremes of the age. The contrasts shape an intricate setting brimming with revolution, conflict, and turmoil.


“Things I’ve Been Silent About” by Azar Nafisi

“There was only a limited amount of space within a house, she thought. There were inner laws of conservation, those of physics and those of the spirit.”

The author illustrates the dichotomy between the tangible world, which is bound by natural laws of space and matter, and the intangible world of the spirit and emotions, which have their own imperatives. The writer looks at two things. Firstly, they study the measurable limits of physical items and secondly they explore the parts of human experiences that are hard to define or limit. These two are contrasted.


“A River Runs Through It” by Norman Maclean

“The water you touch in a river is the last of that which has passed, and the first of that which is coming. Thus it is with time present.”

The contrast between the past and future has been shown by the writer while using the river as metaphor. The water flows from past to future being in the present for a short time. It shows how past and future are always connected, that move us forward. The focus is on time moving in a straight line linking moments, but always changing.


“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson

“In each of us, two natures are at war – the good and the evil. All our lives the fight goes on between them, and one of them must conquer. But in our own hands lies the power to choose – what we want most to be we are.”

Here, the writer lays out the dichotomy between good and evil that exists within the human nature. He presents two opposing forces battling to control over the character and action of a person. The excerpt suggests that each individual must choose through his own willpower. He should decide that which side will prevail. It is considered as an examination of the intrinsic human conflict between our virtuous and vicious impulses.


“1984” by George Orwell

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

The first line shows a difference between real life and a made-up dystopian world. It describes a bright but cold setting unlike the usual warm of April. The clock strikes an unusual number of times. This creates a contrast between normal and weird. It emphasizes the novel’s themes of truth manipulation and being different.

Examples of Dichotomy In Literature
Examples of Dichotomy In Literature

examples of dichotomies in pop culture

“Spiderman” by Stan Lee

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

This famous Spiderman quote compares power and responsibility. Spiderman gets great powers. But he also has a big duty to use them well. The quote looks at the challenge of having power and being responsible for it.

“Dolly Parton song”

“If you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.”

In the mentioned line, Dolly Parton talks about the difference between beauty and difficulty. She compares rainbows to rain. This means one must go through tough times to enjoy good moments like rainbows. The idea is that hard times often come before or lead to happiness. It shows the contrast between struggling and succeeding.

Money Heist TV series “

“If you are born poor it’s not your mistake, But if you die poor it’s your mistake.”

Here, Money Heist captures the dichotomy between circumstances one is born into which are out of one’s control and the agency one has to change one’s situation despite limitations. It examines the tension between the misfortune of poverty at birth – which is not the individual’s fault – and the responsibility of the individual to write their own destiny and not leave this world without attempting to prosper.

Bumper sticker playing off Spiderman “

“With great power, comes great need to take a nap. Wake me up later.”

This bumper sticker quote takes the famous Spiderman line regarding power and responsibility, and adds a dichotomous twist. While acknowledging the weight of responsibility that comes with great ability, it contrasts this dutifulness with the countervailing need for rest and reprieve through naps. It examines the clash between obligation and self-care, using humor to state that one whose contributions are important must balance serious work with lighthearted rest.

Related Terms

1- Paradox

A paradox is a statement that seems to contradict itself but may nonetheless be true. Like dichotomies, paradoxes contain interrelated elements that seem unlikely to coexist simultaneously, yet somehow do. For example the phrase “less is more” is a paradox – implying that minimizing or reducing something can actually enhance or improve its impact. Paradoxes and dichotomies both grapple with complexities and truths that are not always logical at first glance.

2- Dualism

Dualism refers to the philosophical concept that reality consists of two fundamental, oppositional elements. The classic example is mind-body dualism – the belief that reality encompasses both physical matter and non-physical mind or spirit. This interplay between tangible and intangible worlds is an example of a larger dualistic worldview. Like dichotomies, dualism examines supposedly contrasting planes of existence that comprise a meaningful tension or interdependency able to describe a complex phenomenon.

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