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CHAPTER XV. CONTRAST.
In all effective writing contrast is far more than a figure of speech: it is an essential element in making strength. A work of literary art without contrast may have all the elements of construction, style, and originality of idea, but it will be weak, narrow, limp. The truth is, contrast is the measure of the breadth of one's observation. We often think of it as a figure of speech, a method of language which we use for effect. A better view of it is as a measure of breadth. You have a dark, wicked man on one side, and a fair, sunny, sweet woman on the other. These are two extremes, a contrast, and they include all between. If a writer understands these extremes he understands all between, and if in a story he sets up one type against another he in a way marks out those extremes as the boundaries of his intellectual field, and he claims all within them. If the contrast is great, he claims a great field; if feeble, then he has only a narrow field.
Contrast and one's power of mastering it indicate one's breadth of thought and especially the breadth of one's thinking in a particular creative attempt. Every writer should strive for the greatest possible breadth, for the greater his breadth the more people there are who will be interested in his work. Narrow minds interest a few people, and broad minds interest correspondingly many. The best way to cultivate breadth is to cultivate the use of contrast in your writing.
But to assume a breadth which one does not have, to pass from one extreme to another without perfect mastery of all that lies between, results in being ridiculous. It is like trying to extend the range of the voice too far. One desires a voice with the greatest possible range; but if in forcing the voice up one breaks into a falsetto, the effect is disastrous. So in seeking range of character expression one must be very careful not to break into a falsetto, while straining the true voice to its utmost in order to extend its range.
Let us now pass from the contrast of characters and situations of the most general kind to contrasts of a more particular sort. Let us consider the use of language first. Light conversation must not last too long or it becomes monotonous, as we all know. But if the writer can pass sometimes rapidly from tight conversation to serious narrative, both the light dialogue and the serious seem the more expressive for the contrast. The only thing to be considered is, can you do it with perfect ease and grace? If you cannot, better let it alone. Likewise, the long sentence may be used in one paragraph, and a fine contrast shown by using very short sentences in the next.
But let us distinguish between variety and contrast. The writer may pass from long sentences to short ones when the reader has tired of long ones, and vice versa, he may pass from a tragic character to a comic one in order to rest the mind of the reader. In this there will be no very decided contrast. But when the two extremes are brought close together, are forced together perhaps, then we have an electric effect. To use contrast well requires great skill in the handling of language, for contrast means passing from one extreme to another in a very short space, and if this, passing is not done gracefully, the whole effect is spoiled.
What has been said of contrast in language, character, etc., may also be applied to contrasts in any small detail, incident, or even simile. Let us examine a few of the contrasts in Maupassant, for he is a great adept in their use.
Let us take the opening paragraph of “The Necklace” and see what a marvel of contrast it is: “She was one of those pretty and charming girls who are sometimes, as if by a mistake of destiny, born in a family of clerks. She had no dowry, no expectations, no means of being known, understood, loved, wedded, by any rich and distinguished man; and she had let herself be married to a little clerk in the Ministry of Public Instruction.” Notice “pretty and charming”― “family of clerks.” These two contrasted ideas (implied ideas, of course) are gracefully linked by “as if by a mistake of destiny.” Then the author goes on to mention what the girl did not have in a way that implies that she ought to have had all these things. She could not be wedded to “any rich and distinguished man”; “she let herself be married to a little clerk.”
The whole of the following description of Madam Loisel is one mass of clever contrasts of the things she might have been, wanted to be, with what she was and had. A little farther on, however, we get a different sort of contrast. Though poor, she has a rich friend. Then her husband brings home an invitation at which he is perfectly delighted. Immediately she is shown wretched, a striking contrast. He is shown patient; she is irritated. She is selfish in wishing a dress and finery; he is unselfish in giving up his gun and the shooting.
With the ball the author gives us a description of Madam Loisel having all she had dreamed of having. Her hopes are satisfied completely, it appears, until suddenly, when she is about to go away, the fact of her lack of wraps contrasts tellingly with her previous attractiveness. These two little descriptions―one of the success of the ball, one of hurrying away in shame, the wretched cab and all―are a most forcible contrast, and most skilfully and naturally represented. The previous happiness is further set into relief by the utter wretchedness she experiences upon discovering the loss of the necklace.
Then we have her new life of hard work, which we contrast in mind not only with what she had really been having, but with that which she had dreamed of having, had seemed about to realize, and had suddenly lost for ever.
Then at last we have the contrast, elaborate, strongly drawn and telling, between Madam Loisel after ten years and her friend, who represents in flesh and blood what she might have been. Then at the end comes the short, sharp contrast of paste and diamonds.
In using contrast one does not have to search for something to set up against something else. Every situation has a certain breadth, it has two sides, whether they are far apart or near together. To give the real effect of a conception it is necessary to pass from one side to the other very rapidly and frequently, for only in so doing can one keep the whole situation in mind. One must see the whole story, both sides and all in between, at the same time. The more one sees at the same time, the more of life one grasps and the more invigorating is the composition. The use of contrast is eminently a matter of acquired skill, and when one has become skilful he uses contrast unconsciously and with the same effort that he makes his choice of words.
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Cody, Sherwin, 2007. The Art Of Writing & Speaking The English Language Word-Study. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved April 2022 from https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/19719/pg19719-images.html
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