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How much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to be greater than his nature will allow

The above quote is taken from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and I read it described as an example of 'antithesis'. I don't quite agree that categorisation and was after a second opinion. Also, if it isn't antithesis what type of literary technique would it be classified as?

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I'm going to have to disagree with @Barrie (a first for me on this board) and say this is an example of antithesis. The requirements for the device are somewhat looser than he would have you believe.

Let's look at a basic definition of the term from NOAD:

antithesis |anˈtiTHəsis|
noun ( pl. antitheses |-ˌsēz| )
a person or thing that is the direct opposite of someone or something else: love is the antithesis of selfishness.
• a contrast or opposition between two things: the antithesis between occult and rational mentalities.
• a figure of speech in which an opposition or contrast of ideas is expressed by parallelism of words that are the opposites of, or strongly contrasted with, each other, such as “hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all sins”: his sermons were full of startling antitheses.

Note the example "hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all sins": love and hatred are directly antithetical, true, but the actions described in each clause are certainly not diametric opposites, and it is the clauses, not their subjects, that form the elements of the antithesis.

Now, turning back to the Shelley quote:

How much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to be greater than his nature will allow

This is a somewhat veiled antithesis, to be sure: there are no obvious contrast pairs like love and hate that distinguish the clauses. Nevertheless, it is the meaning of each clause — what it points to — that furnishes the material for contrast. In the first case we have a man who "believes his native town to be the world" — in other words, who is content with what he has at hand, and does not therefore overreach; in the second we have a man who does overreach by aspiring to be "greater than his nature will allow." The antithesis here arrives in the contrast between wise contentment and rash ambition: not overreaching vs. overreaching.

If we put this fragment into the context of Frankenstein, it informs the entire import of the novel. Dr. Frankenstein was the exemplar of overreaching, as he sought (in Shelley's view) to become as God and create life. It was the kind of prideful act that is regularly cast down in Greek tragedy, and the resultss of Frankenstein's act, you will recall, were disastrous.

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You could be right, but I based my answer on the definition in the OED, which has only: 'An opposition or contrast of ideas, expressed by using as the corresponding members of two contiguous sentences or clauses, words which are the opposites of, or strongly contrasted with, each other;’ The indispensable element in both the OED and the NOAD seems to me to be ‘words which are the opposites of, or strongly contrasted with, each other’. – Barrie England Oct 15 '11 at 15:33
@Barrie: That's completely understandable and cogent. I do believe, though, that it is legitimate to extend the meaning of antithesis beyond words to concepts. – Robusto Oct 15 '11 at 16:19

I think you’re right. Antithesis requires the two contrasting elements of a sentence in which it occurs to contain words which are opposites, or near opposites. This sentence has contrasting elements, but to be antithetical the clause following than would need words that were the opposites, or near opposites, of native town and world. I know of no word that describes a sentence of this kind that does not meet the requirements of antithesis.

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