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) in order to highlight particular qualities of the other character.[2][3][4] A foil usually either differs drastically 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.[5] 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...").[6]

In Pride and Prejudice, Mary's absorption in her studies places her as a foil to her sister Lydia Bennet's lively and distracted nature.[7] Similarly, in Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar, the character Brutus has foils in the two characters Cassius and Mark Antony.[8]

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

In The Great Gatsby, Nick and Gatsby are often seen as foils to each other.

Another place where foil is used is in the book Tom Sawyer, where the characters Huck and Sid are two prominent foils.

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.[10]

The word foil comes from the old practice of backing gems with foil in order to make them shine more brightly.[11]

See also[edit]


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