Foil (fiction)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  (Redirected from Foil (literature))
Jump to navigation Jump to search
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, to highlight 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 to make them shine more brightly.[6]

A foil usually either differs dramatically or is an extreme 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 A. P. Metze explains 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 Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, Edgar Linton is described as opposite to main character Heathcliff, in looks, money, inheritance and morals, however similar in their love for Catherine.

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

In David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens, Edward Murdstone's marriage to David's mother Clara, contrasts with David's future marriage to Dora Spenlow, presented with a different outcome if David had endeavored to subdue his wife's caprices, as did Edward Murdstone with Clara's.

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, William Shakespeare's tragedy Julius Caesar, the character Brutus has foils in the two characters, Cassius and Mark Antony.[10] In the play Romeo and Juliet, Romeo and Mercutio serve as character foils for one another, as well as Macbeth and Banquo in his play Macbeth. In the tragedy Hamlet, a foil is created between Laertes and Prince Hamlet to elaborate the differences between the two men.[11] In Act V Scene 2, Prince Hamlet tells Laertes that he will fence with him and states, "I'll be your foil, Laertes" (5.2.272).[12] This word play reveals the foil between Hamlet and Laertes, that was developed throughout the play.

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"[13] but they make different choices; Harry chooses to oppose Lord Voldemort and the Death Eaters, whereas Draco eventually joins them.

George and Lennie are foils to each other in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Lennie is huge and strong as a bull but is also mentally slow, while on the other hand George is small, skinny and very smart.

In the Gospels of Mark (12:41-44) and of Luke (21:1-4), the poor widow puts two copper coins worth a penny into the treasury; she is a foil for the rich who put far more into the treasury but give far less.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Corwin, Norman (1 April 1978). Holes in a stained glass window. L. Stuart. ISBN 9780818402555. Retrieved 3 March 2013.
  2. ^ "foil | literature | Encyclopædia Britannica". Retrieved 18 February 2015.
  3. ^ "Home : Oxford English Dictionary". Retrieved 18 February 2015.
  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 |". Archived from the original on 5 October 2011. Retrieved 18 February 2015.
  6. ^ "Online Etymology Dictionary". Retrieved 18 February 2015.
  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 (1 March 2011). Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories: Anglo-Italian Transactions. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. pp. 132–. ISBN 9781409421504. Retrieved 28 February 2013.
  11. ^ Hamlet : New Critical Essays. Kinney, Arthur F., 1933-. New York: Routledge. 2001. pp. 215–230. ISBN 0815338767. OCLC 45963065.CS1 maint: others (link)
  12. ^ Shakespeare, William (2012). The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. p. 275. ISBN 978-0-7434-7712-3.
  13. ^ Heilman, Elizabeth E. (5 August 2008). Critical Perspectives on Harry Potter. Taylor & Francis US. pp. 93–. ISBN 9780203892817. Retrieved 3 March 2013.
  14. ^ James L. Resseguie, Spiritual Landscape: Images of the Spiritual Life in the Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 56-7.

External links[edit]