Course 8—Lecture

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How to Read: Irony
Authors love to use irony—to make readers expect one thing but give them another. This LitCourse examines the somewhat elusive quality of irony, the different forms it takes, and why authors use it.

Reading
Edith Wharton—"Roman Fever"


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Seeing Irony



I can't define it . . .
but I know it when I see it.

Justice Potter Stewart
U.S. Supreme Court



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Seeing Irony

That remark—"I know it when I see it"—is actually about pornography. But it applies equally well to irony.

Shelves of books and countless graduate seminars have tried to dissect irony, understand it, and pin it down. But like humor, irony can prove just as elusive.

We'll do our best in this LitCourse at least to introduce you to irony and explain its remarkable qualities.


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Seeing Irony

Irony is all over the place! Loosely defined, it's the opposite of what is expected or intended.

Unintended consequences—a miracle drug meant to cure one illness causes another.
Deviation from a pattern—after a long dry spell it rains—the very day you plan a picnic.
Deceptive appearances—the dumb blond gets the top grade in calculus.

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Seeing Irony

Irony is part of life. Things rarely go the way we intend them to, expect them to, or hope they will— which is why authors use irony. Irony mimics life.

Authors use irony to . . .
create a degree of realism
add depth to their portrayal of life
create humor (often sly, even sardonic)

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Seeing Irony

Irony exudes a tone or attitude. It's said we live in an ironic age, one that appreciates an ironic stance. Writers and critics look for it in literature; it evokes a tone or quality:

tongue-in-cheek
an arched eyebrow
a knowing wink to readers
  a lack of earnestness or sincerity (no
exclamation points in ironic writing!!)

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Seeing Irony

Authors have been using literary irony for thousands of years. It comes in 4 distinct flavors:

Verbal irony—what's said is not what's meant. Sarcasm is a type of verbal irony.
Situational irony—what happens is the opposite of what's expected or desired.
Dramatic irony—readers know things that characters do not. We're "in the know."
Cosmic irony—bad things happen to good people; a working out of fate.

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Verbal Irony

Julius Caesar (Shakespeare)—in his famous oration to the crowd, Marc Anthony calls Brutus "an honorable man," knowing that Brutus was one of Caesar's assassins.
"Carnal Knowledge" (a story by T.C. Boyle)—a character reads a "comfortingly apocalyptic" book about the planet's demise, comforting because he feels virtuous reading it and doing so relieves him of taking action. A nicely ironic phrase.

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Situational Irony

"The Gift of the Magi" (O'Henry)—a young wife cuts and sells her hair to buy her husband a watch chain. The husband sells the watch to buy her a comb.
Pride and Prejudice (Austen)—Elizabeth, charmed by Wickham, believes he is the victim and Mr. Darcy the villain. The opposite is true.
"The Story of an Hour" (Chopin)—Mrs. Mallard dies of sorrow when her supposedly dead husband walks through the door (See LitCourse 1).

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Dramatic Irony

Othello (Shakespeare)—we know full well that Iago is plotting against Othello, yet Othello remains unaware of Iago's duplicity.
A Doll's House (Henrik Ibsen)—Nora's husband treats her as a child; all the while she has been protecting him from scandal. We know...but Torval is clueless.
The Good Soldier (Ford Maddox Ford)—the book's narrator is oblivious to his wife's betrayal, yet the clues he provides readers enable us to see quite clearly her dishonesty.

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Cosmic Irony

Oedipus Rex (Sophocles)—Oedipus's fate, to kill his father and marry his mother, is the inescapable working out of a curse.
Tess of the d'Urbervilles (Thomas Hardy)—Tess suffers as part of some larger scheme of fate over which she has no control.
The Trial (Franz Kafka)—the protagonist finds himself on trial for unknown reasons and held accountable by powerful, unknowable forces.

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Irony—pop culture and beyond

Ironic conventions abound in literature and pop culture. It's fun to pick them out. Here's one example of irony: The Naif . . .

A stranger or youth, with little experience of society and its rules, wonders why things are they way they are. His naive questions expose the absurdities of cultural norms and assumptions.
Gulliver's Travels
Catcher in the Rye
To Kill a Mockingbird
Blast from the Past
Third Rock from the Sun
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

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Irony—pop culture and beyond

The Underdog is another well-known ironic example:

An incompetent hero is put to the test and seems doomed to failure. But he ultimately triumphs against his "betters"—and in doing so exposes their arrogance, pretensions, and sometimes their corruption.
Plato's Dialogues
The Turtle and the Hare
Henry V
Rocky (and sequels)
My Cousin Vinnie
Legally Blond
Every single sports movie ever made

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Irony—pop culture and beyond

The Outcast is another familiar ironic type:

A debased hero, despised by society, proves worthier than those who condemn her, thus revealing others' hypocrisy or bigotry. (Similar to the Underdog.)
The Good Samaritan
Cinderella
The Scarlett Letter
Huckleberry Finn
The Help
Gladiator

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Irony—pop culture and beyond

The Masquerader—recognize this one?

Mistaken identity—one who wittingly or unwittingly takes on the identity of another, fooling or confusing those around him. He is not who others think he is. The results are instructive and sometimes hilarious.
The Comedy of Errors
Twelfth Night
The Prince and the Pauper
 The Importance of Being  Ernest
Dave
The Man Who Knew Too Little

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Irony—pop culture and beyond

Other Realities—our last type of irony. There are more, many more.

More-than-meets-the-eye —the "reality" characters experience may be masking other very different realities.
Wuthering Heights
The Magus
The Sixth Sense
The X Files
Vanilla Sky


And now . . .

Congratulations! You've completed the Lecture. To continue LitCourse 8, click "Reading" in Course Tools.

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