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What is Juxtaposition? Two Examples of How it is Used

Updated on November 7, 2015
NateB11 profile image

I earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science in 1995. My interests include political and social issues and history.

The differences between the two things can be hazy and might expose an undercurrent that only deeper thought can reveal.

Let's start with a basic definition of the word "juxtaposition":

...a literary technique in which two or more ideas, places, characters and their actions are placed side by side in a narrative or a poem for the purpose of developing comparisons and contrasts. - literary-devices.net

Of course this technique, in stories, to illuminate a contrast can run much deeper than just that the two things placed together are different. The differences between the two things can be hazy and might expose an undercurrent that only deeper thought can reveal. Juxtaposition can elicit such deeper thought.

Here I want to present to you two examples of juxtaposition, in entertainment, that truly reveal deeper meaning within the contrasts they present. The two examples I will be using are (1) Showboat, the famous Broadway musical that was adapted to a major motion picture production and (2) Ghost Dog, Hip Hop gangster samurai movie by genius film-maker Jim Jarmusch. Both stories present contrasting elements that dig into deeper undercurrents relevant to a wider and deeper context.

Ol Man River from the Movie Show Boat

Kathryn Grayson as Magnolia in the film adaptation of the Broadway musical Show Boat.
Kathryn Grayson as Magnolia in the film adaptation of the Broadway musical Show Boat. | Source

Juxtaposition in Showboat

Showboat is a complex story with multiple threads of story-lines and issues running through it that have great depth and meaning.

The scene particularly relevant to juxtaposition is the one in which the black dock worker is singing Ol Man River as Magnolia (Nolie), the daughter of the show boat's owner Cap'n Andy, is happily sealing her love for the ship's gambler, Gaylord Ravenal, with a kiss. The striking contrast of this scene is that Joe is singing a song about being in basically slave conditions as a worker, only a couple decades after slavery had been abolished in the South, while Magnolia, in her privileged position is celebrating her love for Ravenal. Part of the juxtaposition of this scene is Nolie's struggle to bring this union between her and Ravenal about.

But it would be very superficial to stop there in the examination of this scene without looking at the wider context of the story. Nolie is quite innocent and sincere and truly loves Ravenal. A sequence of events finally brings them together and she, of course, is filled with joy.

She had originally gone to Joe, the dock worker, for advice on what to do about her love for Ravenal. Joe counsels her about Ol Man River who just keeps rollin' on. The contrasts here are quite complex and illuminating. The song Ol Man River focuses on the misery of working yourself to death and suffering while the rich have no such problems and in fact have you in that position of servitude. But Ol Man River doesn't care and just keeps rolling on.

Still, if you follow Nolie's life all the way through the 40 years that the story encompasses, you will see that she too suffers. The undercurrent here is suffering. Both that of poverty-stricken Joe and daughter of the show boat owner Nolie. Ravenal is unable to support himself and Nolie with his gambling habit, on down the line after they've moved on to live in the city, and in shame he leaves her. The suffering is the same. And Old Man River keeps rolling.

By another strange turning of events, performers from the show boat need the room that Nolie is living in, meet her and introduce her to a local gig which she eventually lands. Her performance is almost disastrous as the audience nearly boos her off-stage, but her father who'd come to visit her saves the day by working the audience into a frenzy that makes her an instant success.

Meantime, Nolie's father arranges to have Ravenal rejoin Nolie. Ravenal is uncertain whether Nolie will take him back. But as the river keeps going, so does Nolie's love and she immediately embraces Ravenal and takes him back.

While the juxtaposition of this story is the contrast between deprivation and privilege, the undercurrent is that of suffering and a slavery of sorts for all. Fixed in the middle of the contrast between Joe and Nolie is the biracial couple of the show boat, Julie and Steve. Early in the story, a cruel member of the show boat turns Julie in to the Sheriff because of the fact that she was black and married to a white man; something that was against the law at the time, and still was until fairly recently (by the way.). Julie is biracial, actually, and no one even knew she was black; once this fact is exposed, it is also exposed that her husband Steve is also part black and part white; so, though they are let off the hook for the bizarre anti-miscegenation charge, they are thrown off the show boat by the authorities because they are not allowed to be a part of the show because they are black.

So, you can see these gradations of misery in the story-line: Joe's complete deprivation and degradation as a poor dock worker, Nolie's innocent but deep struggles of the heart and the biracial couple's only borderline acceptance by society that really turns into being barred from opportunities and even a livelihood. Julie and Steve's story, like the others, also is mostly tragic; as they end up struggling further, Steve leaves Julie and Julie takes to drinking to console herself.

The metaphor of the river is truly genius as we see it used as a metaphor about how, basically, a slave goes on with his suffering as the river goes rolling on; but we also see how the river is part of nature and goes exactly where it is going to go. Revenal ended up with Nolie and her love kept going on too.

The juxtapositions in this story show us themes of suffering, love and, actually, the very nature of life, in a very well-woven complex of story-lines, to reveal something deeper and abiding in the heart.

Irene Dunne and John Mescall from the 1936 film adaptation of Show Boat.
Irene Dunne and John Mescall from the 1936 film adaptation of Show Boat. | Source

Juxtaposition in Ghost Dog

Ghost Dog is a brilliant film by independent film-maker Jim Jarmusch. The story is about a modern-day, and black, Samurai in the ghetto who works as an independent hit-man for the mafia. Ghost Dog lives a secluded life in the middle of the city and lives ardently by the code of the Samurai; in his world, a dead tradition that is continuing to die but that he somehow has kept alive.

He becomes beholden to a mafia officer who saves his life, from a group of thugs, in his youth. Forever after that Ghost Dog makes himself Louie's retainer and performs mob hits for him.

On one hit, Ghost Dog accidentally lets himself be seen by the daughter of a mob boss who just happened to be sleeping with the gangster he was sent to assassinate. Though, in this context, it might have been smart to kill her, Ghost Dog does not and she passes a book, Rashomon, on to him before he leaves.

The mob bosses that order the hit on the gangster are now frantic to off Ghost Dog because he'd been seen so they fear being implicated in the hit. Ghost Dog in turn realizes he must completely kill off the remaining members of the mafia before they kill him and his retainer Louie.

Ghost Dog does just that, leaving only two members alive, Louie and the mob boss' daughter.

In the great finale, Louie, though feeling loyalty to his Samurai hit man, still ventures to kill him at the behest of the new boss, the mob boss' daughter. Ghost Dog refusing to kill Louie, lets Louie kill him and hands him the copy of Rashomon before he dies. Before that, Ghost Dog had given Pearline (more on her later) his Samurai manual, The Hagakure.

Juxtaposition exists in many forms in the movie Ghost Dog. First, is the use of Hip Hop music as the score for the movie, contrasted with the activities of the modern-day Samurai Ghost Dog. Ghost Dog himself is the embodiment of various contradictions: A black Samurai, living on a roof-top with pigeons, in isolation, in an inner-city ghetto.

The mafia gangsters in the movie are portrayed as buffoons, something no one ever dares to think of the mafia. Gangsters are too dangerous to be buffoons. However, the movie has no good guys or bad guys and the gangsters' buffoonery lends sympathy to them in spite of their position against Ghost Dog. Their tradition is dying, just as Ghost Dog's tradition is barely alive. This is the undercurrent of the movie: Tradition. The dying or passing on of it.

Pearline is the young girl who innocently befriends Ghost Dog while the both of them meet on a park bench in the park he frequents and where he meets up with his best friend, a French-speaking Haitian who runs an ice-cream truck. His Haitian friend speaks only French and therefore the two best friends do not understand what the other is saying but they both proclaim they are best friends; the pair are clearly on the same wave-length and there is an obvious statement about understanding beyond language here. Pearline and Ghost Dog, both avid readers, exchange books.

The final scene occurs in the park, with both Pearline and the Haitian present, and Ghost Dog is killed by Louie right in front of them. Ghost Dog, as said, passes on his copy of the Hagakure, his Samurai code, to Pearline, before he goes to face his death by Louie's bullets. Ghost Dog passes on the Rashomon book to Louie, a book that had belonged to the mob boss' daughter who is waiting for Louie in a Limo after Louie executes Ghost Dog. The mob boss' daughter has taken over her father's mafia tradition and Pearline has been given Ghost Dog's Samurai tradition; at the end, Pearline picks up Ghost Dog's gun and takes aim.

Ghost Dog's tradition is long dead but he's managed to keep it alive, where he is, in his horrible contrasting circumstances. There is a classic scene in which a couple of racist bear hunters try to kill Ghost Dog and, of course, being the expert he is, Ghost Dog kills off both hunters. Before he executes them he lets them know that wherever he is, his tradition is alive.

The bear metaphor here is crucial. His Haitian friend calls Ghost Dog a bear because bears are peaceful unless attacked; then they are not peaceful. Ghost Dog happens upon the hunters who like to kill black bears because "there aren't many of them left". Ghost Dog questions them: "That's why you kill them? Because there aren't many of them left?" There aren't many like Ghost Dog left either. And he deals with the hunters summarily.

The juxtapositions run throughout the movie: Samurai and ghetto, mafia and Samurai and the two girls who carry on the traditions. It is no mistake that girls are carrying on the traditions. The traditions are not presented as good, by the way. And carrying them on is not necessarily good either. This is all part of the juxtaposition in the storyline. Strangely enough, there is no good or bad in this story.

One wants to say that the mob boss' daughter had Ghost Dog kill off the mafia so she could take over. The undercurrent of tradition flowed straight to her after she passed the Rashomon book on to Ghost Dog. Tradition is passed on through books in various key places in the movie. In the end, Rashomon is passed back on to the mob.

Ghost Dog and the Bear Hunters

The river, the undercurrent, in Show Boat is suffering and love. In Ghost Dog, the undercurrent is tradition, not necessarily good tradition (and one wonders if there is a good tradition). Both movies expose underlying issues around the misery of hatred (racism) and its effects. These undercurrents remain constant while events change. This makes a person consider the fact that forms change but traditions and undercurrents don't. In the case of Ghost Dog this amounts to tradition, murder and mayhem. In Show Boat, tradition is not the undercurrent (though a wrong social system is an underlying theme) but life itself is, as well as love.

The two stories are complex, with deep meaning which is brought out through brilliant use of contrast and portrayals of intense suffering and determination. While certain levels of misery are constant in both stories there are also equal levels of true hope and this feeling that life goes on. Ghost Dog is a bit more cynical, but one can definitely see a sensibility of intelligence and intelligence in relationship in the story. In Show Boat there is an intelligence to the river, to the ways and movements of life itself and that of abiding love.

Jim Jarmusch, writer and director of Ghost Dog.
Jim Jarmusch, writer and director of Ghost Dog. | Source

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    • NateB11 profile image
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      Nathan Bernardo 3 years ago from California, United States of America

      Thanks, manatita. Yes, these are truly great videos; with the heart-felt and powerful singing and scenery in Show Boat and the very charged and, as you say sublime, event and message in the second--especially as Ghost Dog reads from the Hagakure. I'm glad you stopped by.

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 3 years ago from london

      Well-written Hub. Great videos. Sublime message in the second.

    • NateB11 profile image
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      Nathan Bernardo 3 years ago from California, United States of America

      Thanks, Mona. Yes, using these somewhat divergent movies added to the theme of juxtaposition. You're right about Ghost Dog, it is definitely right up there with the classics as far as I'm concerned.

    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 3 years ago from Philippines

      You used two wonderful examples of juxtaposition, one a classic old movie, and another a modern movie which should be, if one were to judge by the video alone, a future classic. Very nice hub.

    • NateB11 profile image
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      Nathan Bernardo 3 years ago from California, United States of America

      Thanks, Shelley. Yes, when I looked at the two stories and realized how well both used juxtaposition, I had to write about it. You're right about Warfield's singing of Ol Man River; absolutely beautiful. Thanks for stopping by, reading and commenting and for the vote too.

    • CyberShelley profile image

      Shelley Watson 3 years ago

      I enjoyed the examples and it was marvellous to hear Ol Man River sung by the beautiful deep, deep voice. Up, interesting and useful

    • NateB11 profile image
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      Nathan Bernardo 3 years ago from California, United States of America

      Thanks, Bill. Glad you stopped by.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      An excellent explanation with perfect examples.

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