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What Is Antimetabole? Understand the Rhetorical Device with Examples from Literature

“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Who can forget those powerful words by former U.S. President John F. Kennedy? Antimetabole has helped in crafting so many more remarkable expressions. And in this article, we discuss the meaning, effects, and notable examples of antimetabole in literature.

What is Antimetabole?

Antimetabole is a figure of speech where you repeat the words or clauses from the first half of a sentence in reverse order in the second half of the sentence. It can be predictive because it is often easy to reverse the terms in the first part of such an expression. But the reversal may prompt deeper reflection than merely inverting the first half of a statement. Like the famous saying, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going," antimetabole is a regular part of everyday language, as much as it is in rhetoric and literature.

Purpose of Antimetabole in Literature

Antimetabole helps summarize an argument or idea into a single remarkable expression. The second half of the statement can surprise the audience and present a unique angle to a commonly held belief. It can be inspiring, and when used in literature, can offer depths in meaning and create outstanding works of fiction.

Examples of Antimetabole in Literature

Antimetabole is common in works of fiction throughout the contemporary era, and here are prominent examples from notable literary works: 

"I would say, my dear fellow, that you were posing for a character that doesn’t suit you. All crime is vulgar, just as all vulgarity is crime. It is not in you, Dorian, to commit a murder." — Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890).

"Fair is foul, and foul is fair; Hover through the fog and filthy air." — William Shakespeare, Macbeth (1623).

"Mr. Gore was proud, ambitious, and persevering. He was artful, cruel, and obdurate. He was just the man for such a place, and it was just the place for such a man. It afforded scope for the full exercise of all his powers, and he seemed to be perfectly at home in it." — Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845).

"For, give the dry fool drink, then is the fool not dry: bid the dishonest man mend himself; if he mend, he is no longer dishonest; if he cannot, let the botcher mend him. Any thing that’s mended is but patch’d; virtue that transgresses is but patch’d with sin; and sin that amends is but patch’d with virtue." — William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night (1602). 

"When old age shall this generation waste, / Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe / Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st, / ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." — John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn (1820).

"Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly." — Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). 

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Frank Stephen