Dichotomy: Definition, Examples of Dichotomy in Speech & Literature

Last Updated on May 9, 2020

You might have often come across the term dichotomy and wondered what it was referring to. In this article, we are going to be taking a look at not only the meaning of dichotomy but also how it can be used in both a literary sense and in a spoken sense. We are also going to look at some examples of dichotomy in use as a way to help us to gain a greater understanding of its function.

What Is Dichotomy?

The word dichotomy comes from the Greek language and means to divide in two. It is a technique which is commonly used as a literary device as a way of creating a conflict. In the most simple terms dichotomy is a technique which is used to divide something into two parts which are equal and yet contradicting. The two parts may be separated between two groups which oppose one another. There are many examples of common dichotomy, let’s take a look at some of these.

  • Good and evil
  • Male and female
  • Body and soul
  • Real and imaginary
  • Heaven and hell
  • Civilised and savage

As you can see, these ideas are are opposite to one another but can be used together in a story or situation, and this is dichotomy. One might see dichotomy as a separation into two parts which relies on a distinction to cause the separation. It might seem like a complicated technique, but in actual fact it is much more easy to understand than you might think.

Dichotomy Examples

Examples of Dichotomy In Spoken Language And Day To Day Life

There are many examples of dichotomy all around us throughout our every day lives and once we start to notice this, we will be much more easily able to identify it. Let’s now take a look at some examples of this so that we can see how these daily examples of dichotomy might result in conflict.

  • Politics is an excellent place to begin with gaining an understanding of dichotomy, we see this concept clearly in the ideas of the left and right wing political views and how they are separated into two grossly distinct parts.
  • You may also see dichotomy in education, of course there are those who take public education and those who take private and whilst this falls under the same large umbrella, the two are starkly different and opposing ideas.
  • In the great nature vs nurture debate, we see a clear example of dichotomy.
  • If a politician were to say something along the lines of “we must improve the infrastructure of the country, so we must raise the taxes.” This is an example of dichotomy.
  • If the income of a company is rising but the revenue is falling, this is an example of dichotomy.
  • The contrast between the rich and the poor in a country such as the United States of America, which claims to be one of the richest in the world, is an excellent example of dichotomy.
  • The ever popular example of the conscious being represented by an angel and a devil which is frequently seen in cartoons is a brilliant example of dichotomy as it shows the contrast and conflict between the characters own emotions and thoughts.

Examples of Dichotomy In Literature

Dichotomy, as we mentioned can be used as a literary device and this is the case for the themes of many works of fiction. The writer might use dichotomy as a way to give more clarity of the opposing situations making it more easy for the reader to understand. They might also employ the use of dichotomy as a way of identifying things and ideas and being able to show the contradictions between them. We are now going to take a look at some examples of times when dichotomy has been used as a literary device.

  • In Doctor Faustus written by Christopher Marlow, we can see a wonderful example of dichotomy when the angels-both good and bad are used as a representation of the consciousness of the title character. The good tells the character to repent whereas the bad one encourages him to look to be powerful in lust and knowledge which would ultimately result in damnation.
  • In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of darkness, there is another example of how writers use dichotomy with the theme of dark and light. However, there is a more notable example of dichotomy when we look at how savage and civilisation are compared. The powers of the imperial rulers show that they represent civility whereas the native people represent savagery. But as the story unfolds, we see that it is in fact, the complete opposite and the civilised man turns savage.
  • In William Shakespeare‘s As you like it, the use of dichotomy is clearly seen. This is done by using dichotomy of life in the country versus life in the city. The conclusion to this dichotomy is clearly shown by the bard as having an equal balance of time in the country and time in the city.
  • In the famous poem, Beowulf, dichotomy is used to show good and evil with the title character being the representation of good whilst the monsters are a representation of evil. The monsters are actually other characters within the poem, who Beowulf kills for justice. We also see that the dichotomy of light and dark is used in the poem when the character of Grendel comes to attack at night, this shows the reader the evil and the dark attacking the good and the light. This is symbolic and we see that darkness is a representation of death and the treasure that are received by Beowulf as a representation of light.


Dichotomy can be used in both day to day life and spoken language as well as being used in literature. It is simply a sharp distinction between two ideas which are then separated into two opposing parts. Most commonly, you might recognise dichotomy as good and evil or female and male but there are many more contradictions that can be demonstrated with its use, as we have seen in our examples here.

Dichotomy Infographic


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2 thoughts on “Dichotomy: Definition, Examples of Dichotomy in Speech & Literature”

  1. I would argue that the example of male and female would be incorrect, because there are intersex people such as those having xxy xyy xxyy. A dichotomous relationship is binary where there is only 2, whereas when you take a closer look at biological s*x it is not as binary as it appears.

    • I agree- but I think the point you’re getting at is true of all dichotomous relationships. Just like the fact that that biological s*x is in fact a spectrum, there is no absolute, provable ‘good’ or ‘evil’, and there is no real judge of what is civilised as oppose to uncivilised. Rather, these are words used to simplify, or make better sense the often complex experiences in life. Other dichotomies may ring true at first, but are in fact arguably false dichotomies- such as ‘man vs nature’ (it is not scientifically true that man could possibly be ‘separate’ from nature, unless we were to question how exactly we define ‘nature’.) It is never that clear cut. The dichotomy is a utility for dealing with relativist subjects, a way for us to ‘take sides’ or make us feel like can define ourselves easily. They do exist, but only inasmuch as social thought exists – how ‘true’ they feel varies from culture to culture, and over time. ‘Black and white’ thinking in general is fallacious.


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