Foil (literature)

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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 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 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 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

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 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 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 William Shakespeare's 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.

See also


  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 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 (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.
  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.