Welcome to our glossary of Literary Techniques CONTRAST post. This article is part of the English Literary Techniques Toolkit series for the HSC. We will help you understand contrast, show you what it does, provide examples, and walk you through the steps for analysing this important literary device.
Some common questions that students ask are:
What does it mean to contrast?
How do I identify contrast?
How do I discuss contrast in a response?
Okay, so let’s answer these!
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Contrast is a common technique that is used by composers. That’s why it is important that you are confident in identifying and analysing it.
These techniques all use contrast, but they are much more specific:
Juxtaposition: Placing two things side-by-side to reveal a contrast.
Oxymoron: Two contradictory words are written or said side-by-side. eg. bitter sweet
Paradox: A statement that contradicts itself.
Antithesis: Two oppositional ideas or concepts that are put together.
Students often get contrast and juxtaposition mixed up. However, they are not the same!
Contrast refers to the more general placement of oppositional or different things, whereas, juxtaposition requires a direct side-by-side placement.
What is contrast?
Contrast is when two or more different or oppositional ‘things’ are deliberately placed to accentuate their differences.
Social or cultural aspects
And so much more!
It is important that you are constantly searching deeper than the surface differences. You need to look for the underlying meanings as well.
How does contrast work?
Humans are naturally drawn to incongruity.
Composers use this technique to make us see certain characteristics more clearly.
For example, if you place a red apple against a black background, it will make the apple stand out much more than just placing it on a pink background.
This logic applies to events, characters, qualities and literally anything else.
For example, a character can appear a lot braver than they are, by putting them beside someone who is crying in fear.
See, when you place two things that are significantly different from each other, you draw attention to their differences. This can be used to create a certain atmosphere or imagery and emphasise an idea or theme. When you combine these two findings, you can find the composer’s message.
How to analyse contrast? – A step-by-step process
Analysing contrast is not scary! There is a systematic way to do it.
Let’s go through the process together.
Read the text and identify any situation where there are two oppositional or different ideas, images, characters, objects etc.
Examine what is being contrasted
Figure out what the effect is. Ask:
What are the characteristics or qualities are being contrasted?
What is the atmosphere or vibe created from the contrast?
Combine these two findings to figure out the intended message.
Discuss your findings in a T.E.E.L paragraph
Now that we’ve got an overview of how to analyse contrast, let’s go through it step-by-step with an example. We will be looking at a Common Module text, Rosemary Dobson’s Painter of Antwerp.
Plod homeward, peasant, north-bound from Italy With head full of slow wonder, pondering On frescoes at Venice and all the odd adventures – The bear in the way, the painter at Padua In a great plumed hat, full of queer notions, Ships in the harbour at Naples with a new rigging – Strageness enough to empty many tankards.Plod homeward, Brughel, Painter of Antwerp.At the top of the Alps he paused perhaps, looked backwards, Rejecting the fanciful, and took for a painting Ploughman, fisherman, and moon-faced shepherd, The furrow cut cleanly, the sheep contented; Put thumb to nose with neither pride nor envy At soaring wings – a Southerner’s invention – Icarus sprawling, two feet out of the sea
Step 1: Read the text and identify any contrasts
You need to look for any oppositional or different ideas, images, characters, objects etc…
Here, you can see that there is a contrast of imagery between the first stanza and the final stanza:
“The bear in the way, the painter at Padua / In a great plumed hat”
In contrast to,
“Ploughman, fisherman, and moon-faced shepherd”
Step 2: Examine what is being contrasted
You need to figure out what is being contrasted and the details of it.
The first stanza creates a very extravagant and high-class image of Padua, a wealthy city in the vicinity of Venice (and during Pieter Breughel’s time under Venetian rule). There are bears, and plumed hats… everything seems very superficial.
When you look at the final stanza, the image created is not extravagant at all. It captures the normal, everyday aspects of a city; fisherman, ploughman, moon-faced shepherd. It creates a very bucolic tone and feeling.
These are our two contrasting images.
Step 3: Figure the effect
Now, you have to try to figure out why the composer has used contrast. This is your analysis.
To do this, let’s ask ourselves a few questions:
What are the characteristics or qualities are being contrasted? Dobson contrasts two different lifestyles in this poem; the extravagant, superficial lifestyle and the everyday life of the countryside.
What is the atmosphere or vibe created from the contrast? We feel as though everyday life is much more honest and simple than the extravagant life of Padua. The latter lifestyle seems very judgemental, uptight, and not welcoming to others.
Combine these two findings to figure out the intended message. Dobson comments on how it is important to be yourself, as opposed to fitting in with society’s expectations because there is no fulfilment in living that sort of life.
Step 4: Put your findings in a T.E.E.L paragraph
Now that we know how to identify and analyse contrast, let’s put it in a paragraph. The best way to do this is to use a T.E.E.L structure.
T.E.E.L stands for:
Technique: The technique used in the example
Example: The example
Effect: Your explanation of the effect of this technique and how it develops meaning
Link: An explanation of how this example supports your argument.
The example of this is “The bear in the way, the painter at Padua / In a great plumed hat” and “Ploughman, fisherman, and moon-faced shepherd“
The effect of this highlights the difference between a superficial, extravagant life and an ordinary, everyday life, whereby the former seems very uptight and unwelcoming and the latter is more honest and free.
The link to our argument is that it is important to be true to yourself because it allows you to be honest and have a fulfilling life.
Rosemary Dobson highlights the need to find your true identity as opposed to conforming to society’s expectations because it allows you to be honest to yourself. In the first stanza, Dobson creates superficial visual imagery in her description of the opulence of “The bear in the way, the painter at Padua / In a great plumed hat“. This depicts and reflects Venetian, specifically Paduan, society’s expectation for people to live an extravagant lifestyle. However, she not only illustrates society’s unwelcoming attitude towards those who don’t follow these norms but also their uptight beliefs and condescension in the imperative command for Pieter Brueghel to “Plod homeward, peasant, north-bound from Italy”. Dobson further develops this by contrasting this visual imagery against the “Ploughman, fisherman, and moon-faced shepherd” to highlight the ordinary lifestyle that rejects society’s conventions in the final stanza. Here, she illustrates a more honest and free lifestyle in the altered repetition of the initial line in “Plod homeward, Brueghel, Painter of Antwerp.” As such, Dobson compels her audience to be true to oneself as attempting to conform to society’s expectations will offer an unfulfilling and dishonest life.
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