CHAPTER 5: Irony
Creating the fictional world is difficult. Sometimes, no matter how brilliant your writing, it just doesn’t seem to jell. You provide exquisite description, active, intelligent characters, and yet the novel won’t come to life. Nothing seems to work, and just when you’re about to throw up your hands in despair, it’s all so hopeless, along comes one little word to save the day: irony. Irony is your Superman, Wonder Woman and cavalry that will come to the rescue.
The problem is that human reality is much stranger and more complex than you might think, and what you’ve overlooked is this sticky, existential stuff that goes a long way toward holding it together. The human condition has an ironic edge. And although irony may seem obscure and limited, it’s actually a huge, complex subject, and very well may be the single most important subject for the novelsmith who has mastered the elements of plot, character, and narration.
All right then. What is irony?
Irony is generally thought of as simply saying the opposite of what is meant. When someone says, “And the wonderful weather continues,” following a week of fog and rain, we know that the person is speaking ironically. Irony might also be said to be the mismatch between appearance and reality, between what is expected and the actual occurrence. In The Lord of the Rings, when Frodo, a meek little hobbit, offers the ultimate ring of power to Gandalf, an immortal wizard and one of the most powerful beings in Middle Earth, for safekeeping, Frodo doesn’t get the “thank you” he expects, but instead, shock and horror from Gandalf. Understanding this one short episode exposes the naiveté of the Hobbits, the inherent goodness of Gandalf and the nature of absolute power, who can be allowed to possess it and who can’t. The use of irony here helps to expose the full meaning behind the lengthy story and provides insight into the characters. But don’t get too fixated on irony as an opposite. The most important aspect is the meaningful disconnect.
Even in the time of Plato and Socrates, irony was associated with saying something that was not meant literally. The word “irony” comes from the ancient Greek eirωneia (eironeia), which means “assumed [feigned] ignorance.”30 Perhaps the first story in western literature containing irony comes from Hesiod, who flourished around 750 BC. As described in his Works and Days, when Zeus learned that Prometheus had stolen fire and given it to mankind, Zeus roared with laughter. 31 He laughed, not because mankind was going to do something funny with fire, but because he saw the irony of the situation. Prometheus had given mankind fire to keep us from dwindling into nonexistence, but Zeus knew the trail of misery it would cause. Thus, Prometheus’ act was ironic. This has become a metaphor for all scientific achievement, because scientific “advances” frequently cause new problems, and sometimes these problems become larger than those the advances solved. Also note that this anecdote tells us something about character. Zeus understood the implications of Prometheus’ act while Prometheus didn’t. More about this below.
This example from Hesiod also illustrates one of the more curious and helpful aspects of irony. Irony is frequently considered to be witty or funny. Zeus saw the irony in Prometheus’ act, and it caused him to laugh even though what was about to happen wasn’t funny. Indeed, practically all humor comes from the many faces of irony. This may seem to be an overstatement, but once you see all of its ramifications, you may also come to understand this to be true.
This particular example also illustrates something else about irony, and to understand it, we must delve a little deeper into Greek mythology. Prometheus was a Titan, one of the generations of gods that came before Zeus. The word “titan” was derived from the Greek “titainein,” which means to overreach, and was used as an insult.32 The Titan intellect was one of creativity and ingenuity, but the Titans’ lack of wisdom prevented them from seeing the ramifications of their actions. Titans had no feel for irony. The generation of gods under Zeus, the Olympians, were known for their wisdom. They had not only the intellect to solve problems, but also the wisdom to foresee the implications. Zeus could see the outcome of Prometheus giving mankind fire, but Prometheus couldn’t; therefore, Zeus had an ironic stance, which came about because of his wisdom.
In this way, Irony can be viewed as a perspective. Colebrook describes the ironic perspective:
Irony exists ‘above’ existence, giving the world form. Irony is the adoption of a point of view ‘above’ a context, allowing us to view the context from ‘on high’.33
We can see this even in the simplest form of verbal irony. The fact that someone says the weather is good, and yet we understand that he means it is bad, indicates that we understand the statement in a broader context. Human beings don’t much appreciate rain and snow in their everyday lives. The tone of the speaker may also confirm the opposite as the reality. This is the context that allows us to interpret the statement ironically. If a farmer in the middle of a drought made the statement about a rainstorm, however, we’d probably interpret it as a simple statement of fact.
Irony, then, alludes to a truth that transcends language34 and demands more of the reader, that he have a certain wisdom enabling him to recognize a subtext that carries the meaning rather than the literal words. This intellectual demand pulls the reader more deeply into the story, and the story seems more connected. Characters who make ironic statements about each other, e.g., “That nun gives of herself like a hooker,” are more connected to the world around them. Whether this speaker has used an ironic but tasteless metaphor or is stating a literal fact is something the reader will determine by investigating the character speaking, the character spoken about, and the context.
Considerable trouble in translating and interpreting ancient texts has resulted from cases in which the social context of a statement is uncertain or not known at all. But Socrates’ use of irony has been discussed since Aristotle, so that the context of his statements within Plato’s dialogues was well-established in antiquity, and this fact enables us to get at his true meaning. Indeed, one of the reasons irony captured the interest of the academic community is that Socrates used irony in his dialogues as a method of uncovering truth on the great issues of his time.
At this point you might be thinking that this irony stuff is a rather elitist phenomenon and that your readership might not be up to the task of interpreting it. This is hardly the case. Just remember Aesop’s famous fable of the tortoise and the hare, the slow tortoise that wins the race against the lightning-quick hare. And as an example from real life for animal lovers, anyone who has ever owned a dog knows how they like to play tug-rope. They pull viciously on one end of the rope while you pull on the other, and the dog will growl as though he wants to bite your head off. But let go and walk off, and he’ll whine and bring the rope to you, begging to do it again. His growl didn’t mean that he was angry, but indeed, he somehow meant the opposite. Lions, tigers, and bears, however, are somewhat slow on the uptake when it comes to irony, so don’t try tug-rope with them.
When all is said and done, irony comes to everyone intuitively, and it’s just the intellectualizing of it that gets rather complicated. Recognizing irony is one thing, but using it as an active force within a novel is quite another. For an author frowning over a pedestrian piece of narration, introducing a little irony just might be the salt that makes the French fries worth eating. The trick is not to force irony into the story, but to find the irony within the situations being portrayed and bring it to the surface.
In the paragraphs to follow, I will discuss authorial uses of irony that effect dialogue, character, plot, Premise, and one more use that originates when the narrator takes the reader into his confidence, dramatic irony. I’ll even go one step further and investigate how irony can allude to a meaning that lies beyond the story itself. If the author can accomplish this last step, the novel can shimmer with significance. With this accomplished, the reader won’t be able to let go of the novel even if he’s read it a couple of times.
This is simply dialogue, characters saying the opposite of what they mean, as in the earlier weather example. But verbal irony isn’t always an opposite. Sometimes, for example, it comes as an exaggeration. Remember, irony is a disconnect. When a narrator says, “None of the other instructors at the university seemed to notice something that the professor’s students detected about him immediately—the man didn’t have a brain,” we know the narrator is speaking ironically. Obviously, a professor at a center of learning has a brain, but we also know that he must have some rather startling deficiencies. The reader’s interest is immediately peaked because he’s going to be asked to solve the mystery surrounding this man’s intellect. Inherent in this one bit of narration are both irony of reversal and exaggeration. The reversal comes because generally professors are really smart and this man is probably an exception. The exaggeration comes because we know that, if the man can walk and talk, he must have a brain. The context can take us in another direction, though, if the professor is an android in a science fiction novel. So context, this higher plane of knowing, is crucial to making sense of the narrative.
THE IRONIC CHARACTER
For character development, the author might envision an ironic character, whose pattern of dealing with people might be the following:
As a figure or extended mode of thought irony allows the speaker to remain ‘above’ what he says, allowing those members of his audience who share his urbanity to perceive the true sense of what is really meant.35
Thus, the character might be rather snobbish and not prone to speaking at a level where his ideas can be easily understood, much the way Socrates dealt with those whose opinions he argued against without divulging his own. This is characterization of the intellect, the way the character thinks and deals with ideas and other people. This is only one way to exploit irony in characterization. A creative novelsmith could find all sorts of ways to develop character personality using this new tool.
Characters may also have “external” ironic behavior patterns. Ironic behavior may be quickly identified in the local and national headlines, and it is not always humorous. One quick example is the Catholic priest who molests children. The disconnect between his professional life and personal conduct manifests in tragedy for his victims. Still, the irony of these characters’ lives makes for a strange, curious quality that draws the reader into the story, much like people slowing down and gawking at a roadside accident.
Socrates saw our world, the “real” world, as only a metaphor of divine existence. Divine existence was viewed as a mystery that could never be fully understood by human beings. Socrates used irony to expose our understanding as being always incomplete and to allude to the complete divine truth that could only be experienced through a sort of intellectual peripheral vision. Socrates was always trying to pull back the curtain to enable us to see the wizard at work, to use a metaphor from The Wizard of Oz. Thus the ironic perspective itself, according to some, is rather divine and exists “above” human existence.
Characters who don’t have irony as a part of their makeup tend to be dogmatic, literal and not very easy to get along with. The man who is without irony is not looking for answers. He already knows the answers. However, he is most susceptible to irony of fate. The ironic man is looking for answers. He is not so attached to his opinions, not even this world actually, and has a sort of wisdom that transcends his own nature. Indeed, as mentioned before wisdom itself may require irony.36
PLOT IRONY/COSMIC IRONY
To illustrate cosmic irony, consider its occurrence in what is possibly the most famous play in the history of literature, Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus. The play, written in 429 BC, concerns the fate of the king of Thebes, a city-state to the north of Athens, during the mythological Mycenaean era, ~1250 BC. When the play opens, Oedipus is king and his kingdom is faced with a plague that is decimating the entire area. He consults the Delphic Oracle to find the reason for the plague, and learns that Thebes is harboring the murderer of the previous king, Laius. Harboring the murderer has polluted the city, and the killer must be found and brought to justice to end the plague. Oedipus vows to find the murderer and sets off to bring him to justice.
Through the course of the play, we learn that years before, Oedipus had been a prince at Corinth, son of the king, but left Corinth as a result of an oracle received at Delphi saying that he would kill his father and marry his mother. He then refused to return to Corinth and instead went to Thebes where, as the result of a series of bizarre events, he was made king and given the hand of the queen, Jocasta, in marriage. The plague followed some twenty years later. Also, during his attempt to learn the identity of the murderer, Jocasta tells him that Laius, her previous husband, was killed at a crossroads shortly before Oedipus himself had come to Thebes. Oedipus then tells her that he had killed a man at that same crossroads while on his way to Thebes. But Jocasta says that Laius was killed by a band of robbers, so that it couldn’t have been the same man.
Coincidentally, a messenger then arrives from Corinth to tell Oedipus that his father has passed away. Oedipus expresses relief because he’d escaped the oracle that had said he was to kill his father and marry his mother. But the messenger tells Oedipus that there was never any danger of that because he’d been adopted. The rumors Oedipus had heard years before were true. Oedipus soon learned that Laius and Jocasta had once had a child, which the Delphic oracle had said would kill Laius, so they had the child exposed on a mountainside and left to die. But a shepherd had saved the child, and taken him to Corinth, where the king had adopted him as his own. Oedipus was that child, and sure enough he’d killed his father, his biological father, and married his biological mother.
The irony in the plot of this story is that Oedipus, by trying to avoid the fate predicted by the oracle, fulfilled it. This is known as “cosmic irony” or “irony of fate,” which is sort of a “conspiracy of the elements” that produce a predestined result. It is also “irony of reversal,” because the outcome is the opposite of what Oedipus intended by his actions.
Irony in this particular myth has several reflections. From Laius’ standpoint, he got rid of the son who would grow up to kill him, only to set up a situation that would lead to his death. Also, Oedipus blinded himself after realizing what he’d done. Oedipus, when blind, could finally see who he really was for the first time, and while he had been able see, he had been blind to his own identity.
This irony concerning blindness and internal vision is a familiar theme in Greek myth. Teiresias, the blind seer at Thebes, could see the future and had warned Oedipus of what was about to happen. Teiresias had been blinded years before for seeing the goddess Athena naked, but she gave him “internal” sight as recompense. Teiresias is an ironic character. Irony is a sort of twist in logic and, as in Oedipus’ case, it can also be an underlying plot structure.
Dramatic irony is a rather curious narrative technique involving the relationship between the narrator and the reader. Dramatic irony occurs when the narrator takes the reader into his confidence and tells him something that the characters do not know. Colebrook defines it this way:
If the audience sees or knows more than a character, or if a character’s speech is undermined by subsequent action, then we can say that there is a dramatic irony, an irony that plays on a disjunction between character and audience point of view.37
As an example, consider the generic scene from a horror story wherein the naive heroine enters a dark room, and the reader cringes with terror because he knows that a murderer is hiding behind the door. This increases the tension for the reader, and it can become so intense that he may have to put the book down for a minute and say to himself, “This is only a novel. This is only a novel.”
To capture the full human experience and sense the divine element that is so elusive, a novel needs some degree of ironic stance. Whether irony will be visible to the reader depends on narrative technique and how close the narrator is to the action. As we live life, rarely do we see the irony of our own existence; therefore, in a first-person narration, cosmic irony may be more deeply buried than in third person. With distance from the action, we gain the perspective necessary to view it ironically.
The more you come to terms with irony, the better chance you have of getting an accurate portrayal of life itself. Just as the five senses help construct physical reality, irony is an overarching sense of understanding, a deeper understanding. This comes from an intellectual evaluation of the story that makes it more interesting and brings it closer to actual human experience.
Again, irony is a difficult, complex subject but important enough to learn as much about as possible. A novel, by its very nature, strives to reveal an ultimate truth, something that exists on a plane above normal existence. Socrates thought it alluded to something in the divine world. This is the ironic stance, and, therefore, all novels are ironic. To further explore this subject, see the highly recommended Irony by Claire Colebrook.
(a) Define your overall strategy for using irony, whether it is to play a primary or secondary role in your novel. (b) Identify ironic aspects of your storyline. (c) Write a paragraph on how you think a reader’s perception of your novel might be different from your own.