If you've ever said to someone, "I love
what you're wearing" when you actually think it looks awful, there are
You want that person to believe you, in which case you're lying, but
probably out of a kindly impulse.
You don't want to be believed: you want to upset the person. In this case
you're being sarcastic.
You don't want to be believed: you want the other person to share a
feeling of amusement. In this case you're being ironic.
Of course, like so much at A level, this is an over-simplification, but
it will do well enough for the moment.
the word irony comes from.
In classical Greek comedy, there was sometimes a character called the eiron.
He was a dissembler: someone who deliberately pretended to be less intelligent
than he really was, and often spoke using understatement. (Incidentally, the eiron
often came out on top.) The word irony
is nowadays used in several slightly different ways, but they nearly all retain
the idea of dissimulation, of a discrepancy between what is said and what is
really the case or between what is expected and what really happens.
Sometimes known as linguistic irony, verbal irony carries two meanings:
the explicit or apparent meaning and a second, often mocking, meaning running
counter to the first. Jane Austen’s novel Pride
and Prejudice (1813) opens with the words, “It is a truth universally
acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want
of a wife”. Here, the explicit meaning is undermined by the suggestion that
single women want a rich husband.
irony is built into texts in such a way that both the surface meaning and deeper
implications are present more or less throughout. One of the most common ways of
achieving structural irony is through the use of a naďve
hero or naďve narrator, whose
simple and straightforward comments are at variance with the reader’s
interpretation. This depends for its success on the reader understanding the
author’s intention (if one may dismiss intentionality in such a cavalier way!)
and perceiving an authorial presence behind the naďve persona.The
humorist P.G.Woodhouse created the naďve narrator Bertie Wooster (1917
onwards), who reports the deflating comments of Jeeves, his butler, with no
indication that he perceives any irony. Swift’s satire Gulliver’s Travels (1726) is narrated by the gullible Gulliver,
who finishes up trying to behave like a horse because he’s been convinced
horses are superior to men.
This takes its name from the ancient Greek writer Socrates, who often in
his philosophic dialogues takes the part of the eiron
and asks apparently foolish questions which actually move the debate in the
direction he wants.
irony derives, again, from classical Greek literature, and this time again from
the theatre. It refers to a situation in which the audience has knowledge denied
to one or more of the characters on stage. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth
Night (1599-1600), for example, Malvolio’s hopes of a splendid future
derive from a letter which the audience knows to be faked.
This refers to writing in which life, or God, or fate, or some other
powerful force seems to be manipulating events in a way that mocks all the
efforts of the protagonist. A famous example is Thomas Hardy’s Tess
of the d’Urbevilles (1891) in which the eponymous heroine, largely through
innocence in a world which is hostile to her, loses her virginity, her happiness
and ultimately her life. Hardy’s final comment on his heroine is that “The
President of the Immortals…had ended his sport with Tess”.
this form of writing, the writer sets up the world of his text, and then
deliberately undermines it by reminding the reader that it is only a form of
illusion. Examples of this occur in the English novel as early as the works of
Henry Fielding (1707-54), who interrupts his stories to address the reader
directly and comment on the action. A similar technique is used by the poet
Byron in Don Juan (1819-24).
and the “new criticism”.
“New criticism” is now somewhat old, dating back to the writings of T.S.Eliot and I.A.Richards in the 1920s, and developed by others. Applying their theory particularly to poetry, these writers postulated that poems which commit themselves unreservedly to one view of their subject are laying themselves open to the reader’s irony and are thus inferior to poems which incorporate the poet’s own awareness of an alternative view.
How can we recognise irony?
In speech, intonation will usually give the listener a clue that the intention is ironic. It may be harder for the reader to identify irony, although the writer must, for the text to be understood as ironic, insert clues.
As you read the examples of ironic
writing that follow, try to identify both the type of irony the writer is using
and the clues for the reader that it is ironic.
From Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain (1884).
Note: Huckleberry Finn is a young American, whose father is a vagrant and who is to some extent brought up by the widow Douglas, with some help from Miss Watson.
Then Miss Watson she
took me to the closet and prayed, but nothing came of it. She told me to pray
every day, and whatever I asked for I would get it. But it warn’t so. I tried
it. Once I got a fish-line, but no hooks. It warn’t any good to me without
hooks. I tried for the hooks three or four times, but somehow I couldn’t make
it work. By and by, one day, I asked Miss Watson to try for me, but she said I
was a fool. She never told me why, and I couldn’t make it out no way.
I set down, one time, back in the woods, and had a long think about it. I says to myself, if a body can get anything they pray for, why don’t Deacon Winn get back the money he lost on pork? Why can’t the widow get back her silver snuff-box that was stole? Why can’t Miss Watson fat up? No, says I to myself, there ain’t nothing in it. I went and told the widow about it, and she said the thing a body could get by praying for it was ‘spiritual gifts’. This was too many for me, but she told me what she meant – I must help other people, and do everything I could for other people, and look out for them all the time, and never think about myself. This was including Miss Watson, as I took it. I went out in the woods and turned it over in my mind a long time, but I couldn't see no advantage about it – except for the other people – so at last I reckoned I wouldn’t worry about it any more, but just let it go. Sometimes the widow would take me on one side and talk about Providence in a way to make a body’s mouth water; but maybe next day Miss Watson would take hold and knock it all down again. I judged that I could see that there were two Providences, and a poor chap would stand considerable show with the widow’s Providence, but if Miss Watson’s got him there warn’t no help for him any more. I though it all out, and reckoned I would belong to the widow’s, if he wanted me, though I couldn’t make out how he was a-going to be any better off than what he was before, seeing I was so ignorant and so kind of low-down and ornery.
Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon (1776-88).
The sober discretion of the present age will more readily censure that admire, but can more easily admire that imitate, the fervour of the first Christians, who, according to the lively expression of Sulpicius Severus, desired martyrdom with more eagerness that his own contemporaries solicited a bishopric. The epistles which Ignatius composed as he was carried in chains through the cities of Asia breathe sentiments the most repugnant to the ordinary feelings of human nature. He earnestly beseeches the Romans that, when he should be exposed in the amphitheatre, they should not, by their kind but unseasonable intercession, deprive him of the crown of glory; and he declares his resolution to provoke and irritate the wild beasts which might be employed as the instruments of his death. Some stories are related of the courage of martyrs who actually performed what Ignatius had intended, who exasperated the fury of the lions, pressed the executioner to hasten his office, cheerfully leaped into the fires which were kindled to consume them, and discovered a sensation of joy and pleasure in the midst of the most exquisite tortures. Several examples have been preserved of a zeal impatient of those restraints which the emperors had provided for the security of the church. The Christians sometimes supplied by their voluntary declaration the want of an accuser (i.e. the Christians sometimes confessed even when they were not accused), rudely disturbed the public service of paganism, and, rushing in crowds round the tribunal of the magistrates, called upon them to pronounce and to inflict the sentence of the law. The behaviour of the Christians was too remarkable to escape the notice of the ancient philosophers, but they seem to have considered it with much less admiration than astonishment. Incapable of conceiving the motives which sometimes transported the fortitude of believers beyond the bounds of prudence or reason, they treated such an eagerness to die as the strange result of obstinate despair, of stupid insensibility, or of superstitious frenzy. ‘Unhappy men!’ exclaimed the proconsul Antoninus to the Christians of Asia, ‘unhappy men! If you are thus weary of your lives, is it so difficult for you to find ropes and precipices?’ He was extremely cautious (as it is observed by a learned and pious historian) of punishing men who had found no accusers but themselves, the imperial laws not having made any provision for so unexpected a case; condemning therefore a few as a warning to their brethren, he dismissed the multitude with indignation and contempt. Notwithstanding this real or affected disdain, the intrepid constancy of the faithful was productive of more salutary efforts on those minds which nature or grace had disposed for the easy reception of religious truth. On these melancholy occasions there were many among the Gentiles who pitied, who admired, and who were converted. The generous enthusiasm was communicated from the sufferer to the spectators, and the blood of martyrs, according to a well-known observation, became the seed of the church.
From the Review section of The Sunday Telegraph, 20th October 2002.
from William Langley’s television review of Ulrika
Jonsson: The Truth about Men:
She’d had a ghastly childhood…Despite everything,
she’d carved out a good career, only to become a victim of the tabloids! Most
people have no idea what the popular press does to celebrities like Ulrika. It
builds them up, feeds off them for a while, and then destroys them. Honestly.
You wouldn’t believe it.
Just in case readers hadn’t got the point, the next paragraph starts:
Too right you wouldn’t. Largely because it doesn’t happen.
an extract from David Sexton’s radio review of a Woman’s
Hour phone-in on the subject of living alone:
One lady said, “I love being on my own. If I want to
sit in bed eating pickled onions at three in the morning and reading a thriller,
I can do so and won’t upset anyone else.” An alluring image, indeed.
It would seem that irony is alive and well and living in the twenty-first century. You might keep an eye open for further examples in your reading. Ask yourself how they work, and what attitude they imply on the part of the writer.
Samuel Johnson (1709-84) of Dictionary fame defined satire as ‘a poem in which wickedness or folly is censured’. Apart from the fact that few, if any, would nowadays confine satire to poetry, the rest of the definition works well enough. Satire condemns, either overtly or covertly, what it believes to be wrong, generally with a view to achieving reform. It works best when there is general agreement among its readers about what is right or normal. Traditionally, there are two sorts of satire: Juvenalian, which attacks wickedness with some indignation, and Horatian, which attacks folly in a more urbane manner.
Although satire often employs wit and irony, ridicule and parody, it is not necessarily a form of comedy. It may be directed against an individual, a group or humanity in general.
One of the names often associated with satire is that of the Irish writer Jonathan Swift. As well as his political satire Gulliver’s Travels, he wrote a pamphlet known as A Modest Proposal (1729) in which he satirically attacks the state of affairs in Ireland:
It is a melancholy object to those who walk through this great town, or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads, and cabin doors, crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags, and importuning every passenger for an alms. These mothers, instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in strolling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants; who, as they grow up, either turn thieves for want of work, or leave their dear native country to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes.
I think it is agreed by all parties that this prodigious number of infants in the arms, or on the backs, or at the heels, of their mothers and frequently of their fathers, is in the present deplorable state of the kingdom a very great additional grievance; and therefore whoever could find out a fair, cheap and easy method of making these children sound useful members of the commonwealth, would deserve so well of the public, as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation…
I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child, well nursed, is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will serve equally in a fricassee or a ragout.
I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration that of the 120,000 children already computed, 20,000 may be reserved for breed, whereof only one-fourth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle or swine; and my reason is, that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining 100,000 may, at a year old, be offered in sale to the persons of quality and fortune through the kingdom; always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and, seasoned with a little pepper or salt, will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.
I have reckoned upon a medium that a child just born will weigh 12 pounds, and in a solar year, if tolerably nursed, will increase to 28 pounds.
I grant that this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.
I can think of no one objection that will possibly be raised against this proposal, unless it should be urged that the number of people will be thereby much lessened in the kingdom. This I freely own, and it was indeed one principal design in offering it to the world. I desire the reader will observe, that I calculate my remedy for this one individual kingdom of Ireland, and for no other that ever was, is, or I think ever can be, upon earth. Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: of taxing our absentees at 5s. a pound; of using neither clothes nor household furniture except what is of our own growth and manufacture; of utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury; of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gambling, in our women; of introducing a vein of parsimony, prudence, and temperance; of learning to love our country, in the want of which we differ even from Laplanders and the inhabitants of Topinamboo; of quitting our animosities and factions, nor acting any longer like the Jews, who were murdering one another at the very moment their city was taken; of being a little cautious not to sell our country and conscience for nothing; of teaching landlords to have at least one degree of mercy toward their tenants; lastly, of putting a spirit of honesty, industry, and skill into our shopkeepers; who, if a resolution could now be taken to buy only our native goods, would immediately unite to cheat and exact upon us in the price, the measure and the goodness, nor could ever yet be brought to make one fair proposal of just dealing, though often and earnestly invited to it.
Therefore I repeat, let no man talk to me of these and the like expedients, till he has at least some glimpse of hope that there will be ever some hearty and sincere attempt to put them in practice.
You will realise that Swift uses some of the techniques of irony here, but his purpose must surely be satirical.
Suggestions for wider reading.
Ben Jonson, The Alchemist (1610)
Wycherley, The Country Wife (1675)
G.B.Shaw, Arms and the Man (1894)
Dryden, Absalom and Achitophel (1681)
Alexander Pope, The Dunciad (1728)
Byron, Don Juan (1819-24)
Campbell, The Georgiad (1931)
Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (1726)
Aldous Huxley, Antic Hay (1923)
Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall (1928)
George Orwell, Animal Farm (1945)
Joseph Heller, Catch 22 (1961)
More information about irony and satire can be found in, among other sources, The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English and M.H.Abrams’s Glossary of Literary Terms. Most of the texts mentioned are described in The Cambridge Guide.
© CD Selwyn-Jones 2002