Friday, April 22, 2011

Irony May Be a Lost Art

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Irony is a particular type of humor that relies upon incongruity. You will recognize an author’s use of irony by his choice of words to communicate something different from or even opposite to the words’ literal or most widely understood meanings. In other words, an author deliberately juxtaposes a word(s) against its usual meaning. For example, Flannery O’Connor declared that, “There's many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.” Here, several words create an unexpected message.

We expect “good teachers” to cultivate, coach, and nurture writers to fame or best-seller status. We also expect a “bestseller” to be an example of good writing taught by “good teachers.” O’Connor turns those expectations 180°. She suggests that bestsellers are not examples of good writing or products of good teaching; in fact, she suggests the opposite, offering that a good teacher would have “red-inked” a bestseller out of existence.

Consider the statement that follows: “Politics is the gentle art of getting votes from the poor and campaign funds from the rich by promising to protect each from the other” (Oscar Ameringer). Is it an ironic statement? Does it “spin” our expectations of politics and public officials in such a way that we see both in new ways? Is the new vision incongruous? In other words, does Ameringer’s comment contrast sharply with our vision of a united America?

Irony is also the contrast between what we expect and what actually happens. This definition includes two sub-categories of irony: situational and dramatic.

Situational irony is the type of irony about which Alanis Morissette sang in “Ironic” because the entire song could be entitled “Rotten Luck” or “This Ain’t My Day,” two phrases that describe situational irony. “Ironic” begins with the following lines:

An old man turned ninety-eight
He won the lottery and died the next day
It's a black fly in your Chardonnay
It's a death row pardon two minutes too late
And isn't it ironic... don't you think

Winning the lottery is definitely unexpected at any age (the odds of winning
are one in several million), but winning and dying without being able to enjoy any of
the windfall is the lousiest of lousy luck. Having a black fly plop in the middle of a refreshing white wine such as Chardonnay is not something any one of us would choose, but it’s just a minor inconvenience when compared to the man executed only two minutes before a pardon comes through. That’s tragic as is the ironic and tragic poem by Thomas Hardy, “The Man He Killed:”

"Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!

"But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him and he at me,
And killed him in his place.

"I shot him dead because –
Because he was my foe,
Just so – my foe of course he was;
That's clear enough; although

"He thought he'd 'list perhaps,
Off-hand like – just as I –
Was out of work – had sold his traps –
No other reason why.

"Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You'd treat if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown."

Hardy describes the situational irony of war, suggesting that it is unnatural. Two men who could have and probably would have been friendly acquaintances became enemies because they needed work and their nations had declared war.

The second sub-category of irony is dramatic irony wherein readers or viewers have information that the characters lack so readers and viewers appreciate the action on entirely different levels. For example, Oedipus, the titular character in Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex, condemns himself when he promises to exile the former King Laius’ murderer. Oedipus’ fate becomes poignant when he vows to rid Thebes of its curse and stain because the audience knows that the toxic man is Oedipus himself, full of both good intentions and guilt.

Similarly, when little Cathy of Wuthering Heights falls under the spell of Linton Heathcliff, readers want to warn her not to be so naïve and foolish. Readers know that Heathcliff means her harm and will use Linton to accomplish his ends.

Some of the best exploiters of dramatic irony—indeed, users of every type of irony—are the writers and stars of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report on Comedy Central. Recently (March 23, 2011), Wyatt Cenac, a Daily Show correspondent, interviewed a Jewish resident of Long Island where an Orthodox group sought permission to erect an Eruv, represented by fishing line strung well above the heads of passersby below. The area inside the Eruv boundary would then be an exception to the prohibition against any type of work on the Sabbath. An Eruv would allow Orthodox Jews to participate in the community by shopping or pushing strollers on holy days, but some non-Orthodox Jews object. They believe that the Eruv should be disallowed in spite of their conviction that “the Hamptons should be open to everyone.” The speaker was unconsciously hypocritical. Apparently, only Mr. Cenac and viewers could discern between the speaker’s desire to “close” the Hamptons to Orthodox Jews seeking an Eruv while maintaining that the Hamptons should be “open” for all.

Reading Challenge:

“Read” the short Funny or Die film, “The Landlord.” Pearl is a great example of situational irony. (

Read Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. How does dramatic irony develop the comedy?

Read Thomas Hardy’s “Convergence of the Twain: Lines on the Loss of the Titanic” and examine it for Hardy’s use of irony.

In a solitude of the sea
Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.

Steel chambers, late the pyres
Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.

Over the mirrors meant
To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls -- grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.

Jewels in joy designed
To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.

Dim moon-eyed fishes near
Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: 'What does this vaingloriousness down here?'...

Well: while was fashioning
This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything

Prepared a sinister mate
For her -- so gaily great --
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.

And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.

Alien they seemed to be:
No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,

Or sign that they were bent
By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,

Till the Spinner of the Years
Said 'Now!' And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

Writing Challenge:

Explain the irony in “Convergence of the Twain” by Thomas Hardy. Be sure to distinguish between verbal, situational, and dramatic ironies as you do.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

This is a minor matter, but a mistake that countless people make. The cheer squad and/or dance team at your high school or college use pompons, not pompoms. Due to widespread misunderstanding, the word pompom is becoming an accepted term to describe those colorful, hand-held spirit inducements.

Similarly, once upon a time, there was no such place as a safety deposit box; there was only the safe deposit box. Because the word safe was followed closely by de, hearers heard safe + de and translated the sounds into safety. Now we are beset with safe + ty + de + posit boxes. Technically, the correct phrase is safe deposit box, but no one will laugh you out of the bank if you ask for a safety deposit box.