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A Hypertext Resource for Literature

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Literary Tropes
[Page 4]


Irony exists in many forms, which causes trouble for people wanting to write a unifying brief definition of the term. One common approach is to say that irony lies in the difference between apparent and real meaning, or expectation and reality. When Oedipus says that he's going to punish the man who killed his father, the statement is ironic because Oedipus himself committed the act; the meaning apparent to the speaker and the real meaning of the statement are different. Rain on your wedding day is not ironic. It's a bummer. But if you move your wedding from Seattle to Phoenix so it won't rain, and then it rains on your wedding day, you find yourself faced with irony as well as lousy weather. The irony comes from the shift from expected dry weather to actual wet weather, and it also accords with the traditional sense that irony arises from humans' efforts to control their own fates.

Kinds of Irony

Sarcasm, sometimes called verbal irony and sometimes limited to the harshest kinds of verbal irony, is a heavy-handed kind of irony in which speaker and audience are fully aware of the ironic meaning. If your friend trips and you say "smooth move," the statement is sarcastic because both of you understand that the move was not, in fact, smooth. Most sarcasm fails to rise above that sort of juvenile pettiness, so sarcasm suffers from a bad reputation among wits. Other kinds of irony require the subtlety to convey a difference between one perspective and another regarding the same words or situation.

Socratic irony involves downplaying the speaker's authority to bring an opponent into an argument and then, if all goes well, to reveal the greater ignorance of the opponent. The term comes from Plato's representations of Socrates debating a series of questioners; Socrates always begins by emphasizing his own ignorance, but he goes on to show the problems in the knowledge the questioner thought he possessed. A modern use of Socratic irony is that of Phil Hartman's Cirroc, the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer on Saturday Night Live. To win his cases, Cirroc downplays his knowledge of modern ways:

  Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I'm just
  a caveman. I fell on some ice and later 
  got thawed out by some of your scientists. 
  Your world frightens and confuses me! 
  Sometimes the honking horns of your 
  traffic make me want to get out of my 
  BMW and run off into the hills, or 
  wherever. Sometimes when I get a message 
  on my fax machine, I wonder: "Did 
  little demons get inside and type it?" 
  I don't know! My primitive mind 
  can't grasp these concepts. But there 
  is one thing I do know - when a man 
  like my client slips and falls 
  on a sidewalk in front of a public 
  library, then he is entitled to no 
  less than two million in compensatory 
  damages, and two million in punitive 
  damages. Thank you. 

Cirroc wins his cases by becoming a comic Socrates.

Dramatic irony happens, as in the example of Oedipus above, when the audience of a work of literature understands the meaning of a statement in a way that the speaker does not. Much suspense in films arises from dramatic irony: think of a scene where the audience knows a car will explode upon ignition, and a character gets into the car, plays with the keys, and opens a newspaper. Whether the car blows up or not, the tension between the situation's urgency and the character's carefree behavior creates irony. Dramatic irony can also be comic; a scene showing a character approaching a surprise party would create dramatic irony.

Romantic irony, as Anne Mellor writes in English Romantic Irony, "is both a philosophical conception of the universe and an artistic program. Ontologically, it sees the world as fundamentally chaotic. No order, no far goal of time, ordained by God or right reason, determines the progression of human or natural events. This chaos is abundantly fertile, always throwing up new forms, new creations" (4). As you've probably guessed by now, this is "Romantic" in that it has to do with Romanticism, not because it will help you on a date. The artist taking a stance of Romantic irony on the model of Schlegel "must constantly balance or "hover" between self-creation (Selbstschˆpfung) and self-destruction (Selbstvernichtung) in a mental state that he calls Selbstbeschr‰nkung, a rich term variously translated as self-determination, self-restraint, or self-restriction. Self-determination thus involves the artist in a process in which he simultaneously projects his ego or selfhood as a divine creator and also mocks, criticizes, or rejects his created fictions as limited and false" (Mellor 14).

Cosmic irony involves important and unfortunate events that could lead observers to question the benevolence and reason of the world. If James Taylor's song "Fire and Rain" were actually about the death of his girlfriend in a plane crash as she flew to surprise him for his birthday, as is often claimed, it would be a description of cosmic irony. (It's not.)

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