“Here’s some deep irony, Lieutenant.”
“Eh, how’s that?”
“The murder weapon was purchased by the victim—for his wife’s protection from bad guys. He took business trips. He worked late. He…”
“Met his mistress, as he was doing the night of his demise.”
“Yep, the mistress sang like the proverbial canary.”
“So, lover boy gets out of bed, goes to work, meets girlfriend for drinks and late-night business, leaves his cell phone at the office, comes home a little drunk—his shirt tail stuck in his zipper, drops his keys, can’t find them in the dark, tries a back window and—bam!”
“His innocent wife, thinking he’s a bad guy, shoots him.”
“Exactly! His wife shoots him—the bad guy—with the very gun he provided.”
Dear blogger friends, forgive my simple example of irony. The above is known as “situational” irony, where one’s actions work in opposition to one’s intentions. Another well-known use of irony is “verbal” irony which occurs when one’s words convey a meaning in opposition to a literal meaning.
Verbal irony can occur consciously, as in an insult, which is often sarcastic in nature. Or unconsciously, as in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, when Juliet’s mother says in anger over her daughter’s refusal to marry Paris. “I would the fool were married to her grave!”
And of course, the Grandfather of all ironic speeches would be almost everything Oedipus says in the first half of Socrates’ great play, Oedipus Rex.
I remember reading some dense tome where the author stated that the Modern Age could or should be called the Age of Irony. The author posited that the driving trope for literature between say 1918 and 1960 was irony. Unfortunately, a great deal of that ironic literature is also incredibly depressing—most ironic situations tend to lean heavily toward misery. Why is that? I think, and I’m also interested in your thoughts on this, that irony reveals the “tricky-ness” of human existence, as well as that “dark” side: the meaninglessness of life. My students response to that: “Awww, man.”
For instance, after overcoming great odds, the hero gets the girl, only to find out that she’s dying of some rare disease…or vice versa! I remember reading a short story by Sartre, the French existentialist. The hero is suspected of being a spy for the French Resistance in Paris. He is interrogated by a ruthless Nazi officer who wants to know where the French Resistance leader is hiding. The hero has no idea. He knows of the leader but doesn’t have a clue as to his whereabouts. He says as much, over and over. Pushed to an extreme, he finally names a meaningless place. He gives the Nazi an address, off the top of his head. It’s all absurd. He has no idea where the leader is. They search. The French resistance is there! He is captured and taken away to be shot. Irony!
Irony screams in laughter at our efforts to be good or moral or even just happy. Life is a bitch!
“But wait,” you say. “Does it have to be so? Does irony always have to be so demoralizing?” The answer is no. It doesn’t. And no, I’m not being ironic—really. I’m not. Honestly!
There’s two other possibilities. One, use irony as a powerful tool in your narrative, i.e., as the absurd error the antagonist makes that brings about his own doom instead of the hero’s. Hence, at the end of the work, the hero is happy. His love is happy, and the reader is happy. Is that such a bad thing?
For the next possibility, let’s return to the dialogue at the beginning of this post. (The man who gave his wife a gun to kill bad guys.) If I drew that scene out into a novel, then I could insert into the dialogue of the philandering husband, the wife, the mistress, a few lines of verbal irony. BUT, and this is very important, the reader will not know that what the husband says early on is ironic.
Irony is understood only after the fact, and therein lies its power. I remember when I read Oedipus Rex for the first time, I was absolutely speechless. I didn’t know the plot. I had zero background in Greek myth. I was stunned when I finished that play. I really was. I had to read it a second time, to experience the work fully.
When a novel is well-conceived, beautifully written, and full of meaning, many readers will read it a second time and third, on and on. I also believe, when it’s done well and with sensitivity, irony can bring a reader “back” to your novel. And isn’t that our dream goal?
It’s quite possible—that your work is so well done and possesses a depth of meaning that a reader returns to it after a span of time to read it again. I think many readers do so. I do. Even though I read it years ago, I’m re-reading Jane Austen’s Emma, right now. I love it. It’s chock full of mild irony, revealing folly and misunderstanding, but it does so with a subtle smile.
What are your thoughts on irony as a writer’s tool? Have you utilized it? Resented it? Let’s talk.