A paradox is a statement or event that seems to contradict itself, though it is still true, or at least makes sense.
In A dictionary of Literary Terms, (3rd ed. Blackwell, 1991), J. A. Cuddon explains the origin: “Originally a paradox was merely a view which contradicted accepted opinion. By round about the middle of the 16th c. the word has acquired the commonly accepted meaning it now has: an apparently self-contradictory (even absurd) statement which, on closer inspection, is found to contain a truth reconciling the conflicting opposites. . . .”
Paradox occurs often in children’s literature, even that for the very young, as is seen in Betty Ann Schwartz’s What makes a Rainbow? In this board book, a little rabbit’s mother suggests he ask his friends to answer his question. Each animal replies with a color—the color that is associated with the particular animal, “green” for the grasshopper, for instance. By the end of the book, Little Rabbit learns that besides colors it also takes both rain and sunshine to make a rainbow.
The child in Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Bed in Summer” (found in A Child’s Garden of Verses) finds the long summer days and the long winter nights to be a paradox:
In winter I get up at night
And dress by yellow candlelight.
In summer, quite the other way,
I have to go to bed by day.
I have to go to bed and see
The birds still hopping on the tree,
Or hear the grown-up people’s feet
Still going past me in the street.
And does it not seem hard to you,
When all the sky is clear and blue,
And I should like so much to play,
To have to go to bed by day?
The paradox of Jessica Aday Kennedy’s Marta’s Garguantian Wings (Guardian Angel Publishing) is that the wings that Marta thinks are a liability are really an asset.
The antics of Artemis Fowl (paradoxical name: does this mean he hunts for foul people?) keep the Middle Grade Reader hopping among alien robots, fairies and dwarfs and imps, multiple personalities, and real stuff like global warming. In Eoin Cofler’s “Time Paradox,” Artemis (now fifteen years of age) and his friends journey to the past to correct a mistake Artemis made about eight years earlier in his eventful life. His mother has contracted a rare disease that can only be cured by an extract from the brain of an extinct lemur, and ironically, that extinction was hastened by none other than Artemis himself. It will be interesting to see how Artemis battles with himself.
Paradox abounds in adult poetry and fiction, also.
We find in the Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson many examples.
On the bleakness of my lot
Bloom I strove to raise.
Late, my acre of a rock
Yielded grape and maize.
Soil of flint if steadfast tilled
Will reward the hand;
Seed of palm by Lybian sun
Fructified in sand.
I many times thought peace had come,
When peace was far away;
As wrecked men deem they sight the land
At centre of the sea,
And struggle slacker, but to prove,
As hopelessly as I,
How many the fictitious shores
Before the harbor lie.
There’s the “rule” painted on the barn in George Orwell’s Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” The idea of being “more equal” is paradoxical, but Napoleon oppresses the other farm animals; he must think he’s more equal than they.
Consider also the paradox of Captain Beatty in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Books have been banned, and Beatty’s job is to destroy any books he finds, but he is obviously well-read because he surrounds himself with quotations from great literature that he uses to convince people that destroying books is the right thing to do.
Shakespeare was the master of paradox.
In Romeo and Juliet, Benvolio speaks,
“One fire burns out another’s burning,
One pain is lessen’d by another’s anguish.”
And Juliet: “Parting is such sweet sorrow. . .”
This brings up a sub-genre of paradox, the oxymoron, a figure of speech wherein contradictory statements reside side by side.
In Macbeth, the witches say, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.”
The Paradox of Catch-22
“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that 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.”
(Joseph Heller, Catch-22, 1961)
“Catch – 22” has become an almost every day term.
My story, “A Pet for Foley,” (knowonder magazine, Sept. 2009) turns on a paradox. Here is the beginning and end of that story.
Foley was a Springer spaniel puppy with white and brown and while fur. He lived on a farm until a nice lady came and took him home in her car, his floppy ears streaming like feathers in the wind. The lady gave him food and water and a doghouse in the fenced back yard.
After he explored his yard, Foley felt lonely. “What I need is a pet,” he said.
(Foley meets three animals he asks to be his pet. The squirrel and the blue
bird agree, but things go wrong; it just doesn’t work out. The mole is not
acceptable, so Foley doesn’t even ask him. Now he’s alone again).
Foley lay down with his head on his front paws and thought about his problem. Who could he ask to be his pet? Just then an orange tabby strolled into the back yard. Foley jumped up and ran over to greet the cat. He smiled and said, “Will you be my pet? We can play and have fun together.”
“Sorry,” said Nutmeg, licking his back with dignity and not sounding very sorry at all. “I already belong to Jessica and here she comes now.”
A yellow school bus came down the street. By the screeching sound of the bus’s brakes, it must have stopped in front of Foley’s house. In a few minutes a pretty little girl opened the back door and ran down the steps. The cat purred and arched his back up against her legs. She bend down and scratched him behind the ears. “Hi, Nutmeg,” she said. Then she ran over to Foley. She sat down on the grass and hugged him. “Foley, I am so glad that you have come to live with us and be my pet.”
Foley’s ears stood up in surprise.
He and Jessica were soon having fun. They played Frisbee, fetch, tug-o-war, and tumble-in-the-grass. The treat Jessica gave Foley tasted delicious—much better than worms and grubs!
Life in Foley’s new home was going to be wonderful. He knew he would never be lonely again.
“I guess I don’t need a pet. . .” Foley told himself. I AM a pet.”
What’s your favorite paradox in literature?