Irony – The Sharp, Double-Edged Sword

conciseOxford“Irony: A subtly humorous perception of inconsistency, in which an apparently straightforward statement or event is undermined by its context so as to give it a very different significance. “In various forms, irony appears in many kinds of literature from the tragedy of Sophocles to the novels of Jane Austen and Henry James, but is especially important in satire, as in Voltaire and Swift.”  – Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms

If the protagonist in a novel says, “He is a bad doctor,” and lets it go at that, he has made an assertion. If the protagonist is a doctor, we might believe his statement. However, in fiction–as well as in nonfiction–assertions are much stronger when backed up by facts. Backing up assertions is part of showing rather than telling.

Now, consider this line from George Orwell’s Burmese Days: “In the evening, the wounded boy was taken to a Burmese doctor, who, by applying some poisonous concoction of crushed leaves to his left eye, succeeded in blinding him.”

Thiss is verbal irony. The audience knows the doctor did not intend to blind his patient, yet he did so because he was inept. There are two levels of meaning in irony: the meaning on the surface and the unexpected, actual meaning. The use of the word “succeeded” and the term “concoction” here rather than “medicine” are strong indicators that the author’s intention here is ironic.

Sentimentality is an Assertive Showing

StyleEastman“The sentimentalist over-urges or mis-urges his readers to feel emotion,” says Richard M. Eastman in Style: Writing as the Discovery of Outlook. “Many good writers simply allow the reader without urging, to infer his own emotion from detail well chosen and carefully drawn.

“The ironist actually counter-urges in such a way as to draw his reader forward into active collaboration toward the desired response.” (Eastman changed the book’s title in the edition shown here.)

Irony can be understated or overstated. Either way, it shows–with the reader’s interpretative help–rather than tells. However, in most novels other than dark satires, it’s best used with some restraint. Too much irony is like too much hot sauce on the taco.

(More often than not, when people say–in conversation–that something is ironic, it isn’t. It’s usually simply odd or strange. The Guardian had a nice article about this some years ago.)

In using irony, as Eastman says, a writer can rather bluntly signal irony by overtly saying what is obviously false: “This rain is Mother Nature’s way of drying the field for the baseball game.” However, this is rather weak because its surface meaning isn’t really believable. As you see here, we have a blurry lines between sarcasm an irony.

When you lead the reader realistically toward a conclusion that suddenly collapses at the end of the passage, the impact–as in the Orwell quote–can be very great. Double meanings can also point symbolically to the novel’s overarching themes in many subtle ways. Irony is one of the many tools on the writer’s drawing board for luring the reader into a memorable story.


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