Dichotomy

The term dichotomy derives from the Greek dichotomia, meaning dividing in two.” Dichotomy is a common narrative device that splits two opposing ideas into equal and contrasting parts. It serves as a means of creating conflict between good and evil, reality versus fantasy, order and chaos, etc. It can also be used to highlight how the sexes different from each other, often to comedic effect. Dichotomy can involve clashes between individuals and groups, but it can also appear in a single character.

Typical Examples of Dichotomy in Everyday Life

  • One side believes climate change is caused by human activity while the other side is skeptical, and so no compromise can be reached.
  • She is simple, yet somehow sophisticated.
  • The US economy is growing even as the gap between the wealthy and poor becomes wider.
  • Starbucks continues to expand its coffee houses even as its profits decrease.

Examples of Dichotomy in Literature

Example 1

“With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to the truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two.”

(Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson)

This is one of the most iconic stories about duel personalities, in which the moral-minded character of Dr. Jekyll comes to terms with the fact that he also possesses on the evil side in the form of Mr. Hyde.

Example 2

Shakespeare employs several dichotomies in Romeo and Juliet including personal needs versus family loyalty, love versus hate and rational versus illogical. But one of the more striking ways in which Shakespeare incorporates dichotomy is in how both love (in this case, the intense passion that Romeo and Juliet feel for each other) and hate (the long-standing feud between the Montague and Capulet families) can lead to equally violent outcomes. Rather than viewing love through rose-colored glasses, there are several instances throughout the story in which the two main protagonists threaten violence – such as each brandishing knives in the presence of Friar Lawrence to demonstrate their willingness to commit suicide – unless they are allowed to be together. Ultimately, their love for each other proves to be their undoing, as they both end up committing suicide. And yet, their deaths leave their respective families so shaken up that they agree to a truce. In other words, love indirectly conquered hate, leading to a resolution to their feud.

Example 3

Beowulf, one of the most revered Old English poems in existence, offers another great example of dichotomy in the way it highlights the elements of good versus evil. In this case, the hero Beowulf plays the role of the honorable character, while three supernatural characters possess evil traits. The brave and charismatic Beowulf kills the monster Grendel without the aid of a weapon. He defeats Grendel’s mother with a sword. In his final heroic act, he slays a dragon, but at the cost of his own life. As a descendent of the Biblical Cain, Grendel is the embodiment of evil and selfishness, whose only desire is personal gain. By contrast, Beowulf is a triumphant hero, who demonstrates loyalty to others and is willing to risk his life to defend them.

Example 4

The comic book superhero Batman and his arch-nemesis the Joker offer a sophisticated approach to the dichotomy. As a child, Bruce Wayne watches on as the Joker murders his parents in cold blood. This tragic event leads Wayne to eventually become Batman, a one-man crime-fighting vigilante. The Joker seeks to cause chaos in Gotham while Batman’s only real purpose in life is to save the city. As a result, the two characters become the ying to the other’s yang. While Batman is able to successfully foil the Joker’s plans, the clever villain is always one step ahead of him. But since Batman has taken a vow never to kill anybody, this extends even to the Joker, meaning their battle is never over. Analyzed more broadly, the message is that the fight between good and evil is eternal. Indeed, because the concepts of good and evil are relative, it is impossible for one to exist unless it is counterbalanced by the other.

Applications of Dichotomy

The use of dichotomy encompasses a broad scope. Aside from being used in literature, the dichotomy is widely applied in linguistics, life science, philosophy, politics, and mathematics. As it creates a more clearly defined contrast between two characters or ideas, the reader is better able to recognize the differences. To put it a different way, the application of dichotomy makes it easier for the audience to examine the characteristics that make up either side. While it is useful for entertainment purposes, it also helps in developing critical thinking skills and finding solutions for real-world problems.