Many people confuse oxymorons and paradoxes. Both can be recognized in everyday conversation as well as in literature. However, they are not the same thing and have different purposes.
A paradox is a statement or group of statements that may on the surface appear to embody contradictions or seen absurd but upon further reflection be seen as true or at least as something that makes sense. They are contrary to what we normally believe and can make us think about things in different ways or more deeply. They, therefore, are frequently employed as literary devices. An oxymoron is comprised of two opposing or contradictory words that are used for dramatic effect.
War is peace seems like a contradiction and an absurd one at that. War is the most brutal act we can carry out against each other. It is far from peaceful. Sometimes war is necessary to ensure that peace can occur.
Consider the situation where a country is constantly launching missiles at another country, going on stealth raids or other types of limited attacks that may be months apart and each a single occurrence but which still result in the loss of life, property, the constant fear or another attack that causes the population to have to change the way they live to protect themselves from harm and terror when the attacks occur.
This is not a state of peace. So to stop all this, the country being attacked launches a war against the other nation to render it impossible for them to continue the attacks both materially and based on the conditions of either a cease-fire or final agreement. The country that had been previously attacked wins the war following which they now have peace and are free from fear of further attack.
In Animal Farm, also by George Orwell, there is a cardinal rule set forth for all the animals. Part of it states:
“All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
This statement seems like it is impossible. First of all, equal is equal; it’s an absolute without a related quantity. You can’t have something that is more equal or less equal. So then, if all the animals are equal, you can’t have some that are more equal. This would imply that some are either better, have more power, have more of a right to make decisions or deserve more resources than others. Again this would not suggest equality.
But in the novel, the government has never treated everyone equally even while stating that everyone is equal. It is akin to the separate but equal doctrine that once justified systems of segregation and the dual education system in the south. It was determined that as long as black children were provided with equal facilities as white children, segregation didn’t go against the Constitution. But these separate schools were anything but equal.
In another, example, In Shakespeare's Hamlet, Hamlet states, “I have to be cruel to be kind.” Again being cruel and being kind are considered to be opposite and mutually exclusive such that an action that is cruel cannot be kind and vice versa. We typically don’t see someone who is cruel to us as a kind person.
In this example, Hamlet is speaking about his mother, and his intention to kill Claudius, his Uncle. It will be a tragedy for his mother, who is Claudius’s wife, but Hamlet thinks that killing his father’s murderer will ultimately be the best thing for this mother. So in the greater scheme of things, while it may seem cruel initially, Hamlet feels that the kindness he is doing is far greater.
In another Shakespeare work, The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, it says,
“The earth that’s nature’s mother is her tomb;
What is her burying grave, that is Rainbow in her womb…”
The lines are at once describing the birth, with the earth being the birthplace, and death with the same earth housing Juliet’s tomb. The second life, juxtaposes the idea of a grave, again alluding to death, with a womb, which is associated with birth.
In the poem, My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold by William Wordsworth, is the line:
“The child is father of the man…”
This line seems reversed for it should be the man who is the father of the child. But thinking about it more carefully, it can be seen that childhood and everything that happens during this stage sets the stage for what comes after. So childhood is the basis for adulthood and thus, childhood “fathers” the man or adulthood.
There are numerous examples of an oxymoron in literature, but probably the most obvious one is from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet:
Why, then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
O anything, of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness! Serious vanity!
Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this.
Romeo learns he has fallen in love with an unavailable woman and feels as if he has descended into chaos. All his hopes and dreams have been shattered. Shakespeare portrays this sense of discord through the use of opposites that don’t make sense much the same as Romeo’s life no longer makes sense to him. This is communicated through phrases such as loving hate, heavy lightness, serious vanity, feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health, waking sleep.