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


Chiasmus: A rhetorical figure in which certain words, sounds, concepts, or syntactic structures are reversed or repeated in reverse order. The term chiasmus is derived from the x-shaped Greek letter chi; the implication is that the two parts of a chiastic whole mirror each other as do the parts of the letter x.

EXAMPLES: William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606) contains the chiastic line, “Fair is foul and foul is fair.” James Joyce used chiasmus in “The Dead” (1907) when he wrote, “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling… .”

Not all chiasmus is this precise, however. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for example, wrote that “Flowers are lovely, love is flowerlike.” His poem “Kubla Khan” (1816) begins with what some would call a sonic chiasmus (chiasmus effected by sound): “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan …” Two of U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s most famous statements, both from his 1961 inaugural address — “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” and “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate” — display chiastic structure.

Chiastic structure may also create or heighten paradox. The protagonist in Carrie Fisher’s Postcards from the Edge (1987) tells her diary that “I was into pain reduction and mind expansion, but what I’ve ended up with is pain expansion and mind reduction. Everything hurts now, and nothing makes sense.” Likewise, in Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club (1989), a character gorges herself to the point of sickness on strawberry ice cream and wonders why “eating something good could make me feel so terrible, while vomiting something terrible could make me feel so good.”

Alexander Pope used a type of chiasmus effected by reversal of a syntactic pattern in his “An Essay on Criticism” (1711), a long poem in which he stated that art “works without show and without pomp presides.” Here the syntactic pattern of the quoted line is verb (“works”), prepositional phrase (“without show”), prepositional phrase (“without pomp”), and verb (“presides”).