Foil (literature)

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This article is about a character foil. For other types of foil, see Foil (disambiguation).
Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza, as illustrated by Gustave Doré: the characters' contrasting qualities[1] are reflected here even in their physical appearances

In fiction, a foil is a character who contrasts with another character (usually the protagonist) in order to highlight particular qualities of the other character.[2][3][4] In some cases, a subplot can be used as a foil to the main plot. This is especially true in the case of metafiction and the "story within a story" motif.[5] The word foil comes from the old practice of backing gems with foil in order to make them shine more brightly.[6]

A foil usually either differs dramatically or is extremely similar but with a key difference setting them apart. The concept of a foil is also more widely applied to any comparison that is made to contrast a difference between two things.[7] Thomas F. Gieryn places these uses of literary foils into three categories which Tamara Antoine and Pauline Metze explain as: those that emphasize the heightened contrast (this is different because ...), those that operate by exclusion (this is not X because...), and those that assign blame ("due to the slow decision-making procedures of government...").[8]

Examples from literature[edit]

In Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, the two main characters of Dr. Frankenstein and his "creature" are both together literary foils, functioning to compare one to the other.

In Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Mary's absorption in her studies places her as a foil to her sister Lydia Bennet's lively and distracted nature.[9]

Similarly, in Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar, the character Brutus has foils in the two characters Cassius and Mark Antony.[10]

In the Harry Potter series, Draco Malfoy can be seen as a foil to the Harry Potter character; Professor Snape enables both characters "to experience the essential adventures of self-determination"[11] but they make different choices; Harry chooses to oppose Lord Voldemort and the Death Eaters, whereas Draco eventually joins them.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Corwin, Norman (1978-04-01). Holes in a stained glass window. L. Stuart. ISBN 9780818402555. Retrieved 3 March 2013. 
  2. ^ "foil | literature | Encyclopedia Britannica". Retrieved 2015-02-18. 
  3. ^ "Home : Oxford English Dictionary". Retrieved 2015-02-18. 
  4. ^ Auger, Peter (August 2010). The Anthem Dictionary of Literary Terms and Theory. Anthem Press. pp. 114–. ISBN 9780857286703. Retrieved 3 March 2013. 
  5. ^ "Chegg Study | Guided Solutions and Study Help |". Retrieved 2015-02-18. 
  6. ^ "Online Etymology Dictionary". Retrieved 2015-02-18. 
  7. ^ "Define Foil at". Original publisher, Collins World English Dictionary, reprinted at Retrieved 3 March 2013. 
  8. ^ Metze, Tamara Antoine Pauline (2010). Innovation Ltd. Eburon Uitgeverij B.V. pp. 61–. ISBN 9789059724532. Retrieved 3 March 2013. 
  9. ^ Leverage, Paula (2011). Theory of Mind and Literature. Purdue University Press. pp. 6–. ISBN 9781557535702. Retrieved 3 March 2013. 
  10. ^ Marrapodi, Michele (2011-03-01). Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories: Anglo-Italian Transactions. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. pp. 132–. ISBN 9781409421504. Retrieved 28 February 2013. 
  11. ^ Heilman, Elizabeth E. (2008-08-05). Critical Perspectives on Harry Potter. Taylor & Francis US. pp. 93–. ISBN 9780203892817. Retrieved 3 March 2013.