Tuesday, 30 December 2008 14:06
It’s said we live in an age of irony—irony is in; sincerity is out. It’s the importance of NOT being earnest that matters.
What is irony? Think Seinfeld—”Whatever…,” “Duh…,” “Yeah, riiiight”—all said with an arched eyebrow, a knowing wink. The “ironic stance” is detachment.
When it comes to fiction, writers, critics, and readers adore irony—most recently, Jonathan Franzen’s Corrections, Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones. Even classics like Pride and Prejudice are plumbed for their irony.
Jane Austen’s brand of irony derives from her subversive wit, which undercuts class structure and decorum. It’s a type of irony in vogue today: one that exposes hypocrisy and punctures holes in pretensions, beliefs and institutions that no longer stand for truth or meaning.
But literary irony is far more complex. It’s been around since Oedipus—he who unwittingly marries his mother; who searches for a king’s murderer, only to find himself; and who attains inner “sight” only when blind.
Writers from Sophoclese on down have used irony because it mimics life. Though irony takes numerous forms, the most common definition is an opposite reality from what is intended or expected: the king brought low; the underdog raised up; best-laid plans gone awry.
To learn more about irony, see LitCourse 8—based on Edith Wharton’s wonderful short story “Roman Fever.” The courses are short, free, and fun! (And that’s not ironic.)
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