The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Parallelism: A rhetorical figure used in written and oral compositions since ancient times to accentuate or emphasize ideas or images by using grammatically similar constructions. Words, phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs, and even larger structural units may be consciously organized into parallel constructions, creating a sense of balance and inviting both comparison and contrast.

Repetition often plays an important role in parallelism. Sometimes a word, line, or other grammatical unit is repeated verbatim. For instance, the exact repetition of words or phrases at the beginning of successive lines or sentences is called anaphora. Similarly, the refrain, or chorus, of a song may be repeated word-for-word after each stanza. Often, however, repetition is not this strict. It may be incremental, as when the same basic line recurs with subtle variation throughout a poem. It may also occur when one grammatical unit reinforces another, saying the same thing but in different words. To say that a woman is lovely, then to describe her as beautiful, and then to present an image depicting her beauty is to use repetition of this latter sort.

Parallelism has been a particularly important device in oral composition, such as speeches and sermons, and in biblical poetry, where it often involves the restatement of the same idea in slightly different words rather than the juxtaposition of related or antithetical ideas.

EXAMPLES: Charles Dickens used parallelism to emphasize antithetical ideas in the opening lines of his novel A Tale of Two Cities (1859), where the narrator speaks of the year 1775:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

Among the most familiar poems in India is a short one from Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali (1910), in which each line but the last begins with the word “where” in the poet’s English translation:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

Where knowledge is free;

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;

Where words come out from the depth of truth;

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;

Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action —

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Likewise, in Goodnight Moon (1947), a classic children’s bedtime story, Margaret Wise Brown employed parallelism first to list everything in the “great green room” and then to bid it and everything in it good night: the light, the telephone, the red balloon, a pair of mittens, two little kittens, pictures of bears and a cow jumping over the moon, and so forth.