English 456: C20 Criticism and Theory

Irony: a Few Simple Definitions
Jennifer Thompson, UC Irvine

Al Drake | Cyber Cafe | Thurs. 6-7 | 714-434-1612

Adapted from M.H. Abrams' Glossary of Literary Terms

The elements of irony (an allegory of irony):

A. The text presents a loose string (say, Lucretia's unwonted modesty in death). reader recognizes the possibility of a double reading.

B. Reader favors the "clever" reading over the less complex one--sees herself as eiron in relation to previous readers (and, perhaps, author); either stop here (stable irony), or...

C. Doubt extends from simple to complex reading. Reader becomes alazon to the text's eiron. She begins to perceive multiple frames which unravel progressively as she continues to reflect on her relation to the text; The reader arbitrarily settles on a manageable reading, and deliberately simplifies the text, or...

D. The reader experiences firsthand the horrors of permanent parabasis and the rhetorical sublime;

E. Malaise, nausea, dizziness and despair result. She stops reading and begins to write about irony in general rather than the text in particular, thereby adding to the critical literature on irony, or...

F. She realizes that better minds have covered the same ground (Schlegel, Kierkegaard, de Man), and decides to teach a class instead.

G. She returns to the texts that defeated her, determined to identify the particular rhetorical structures that trigger the collapse of each individual text.

In his entry on irony, Abrams defines nine categories and subcategories of irony--verbal, structural, stable and unstable, Socratic, dramatic, tragic, cosmic, and Romantic--along with comments upon several related terms (sarcasm, invective, and so on). Lanham's excellent "Handlist of Rhetorical Terms" distinguishes "trope" from "scheme" irony, and hints at the relation between extended irony and other complex tropes like allegory, metonymy, and pun (this last, rather humble trope becomes intricate and subtle in Lanham's hands). The exhaustive and exhausting New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics isolates six categories of irony, the first of which has 10 subcategories, including meiosis, litotes, and other lesser-known subspecies of this prolific trope.

Why all the confusion? Well, irony is inherently confusing. Not only are its definitions confusing; it is confusing by definition. We should probably be wary of any literary/philosophical term that "is not a concept," according to Paul de Man in his posthumously published lecture, "The Concept of Irony." Though I will not discuss de Man's odd (and, yes, ironic) assertion here, we will follow his lead in at least one respect: we will begin with the most familiar and easily understood forms of irony, and will proceed from form to form, until the very clear becomes vertiginously complex.

Abrams writes:

Verbal irony ... is a statement in which the meaning that a speaker implies differs sharply from the meaning that is ostensibly expressed. The ironic statement usually involves the explicit expression of one attitude or evaluation, but with indications in the overall speech-situation that the speaker intends a very different, and often opposite, attitude or evaluation (97).

To put it more simply, verbal irony is saying one thing but meaning another (this is very nearly a paraphrase of Aristotle's definition). In its everyday form, verbal irony deals in opposites, and the ironist gives broad clues to her real meaning. For example, upon walking into pouring rain, a wit without an umbrella might murmur, "Nice weather." It's not nice weather, of course, it's lousy weather. The success of the joke depends on its delivery; the English excel at just this sort of dry remark. People frequently use a simple form of verbal irony to forge bonds with a new acquaintance (think of the repartee between Hugh Grant and his beloved in Four Weddings and a Funeral). The listener is pleased to get the joke, however simple, and the speaker is pleased to have made it, and to have pleased the listener.

Literary examples of this type of irony abound; most comic writers use it to great effect in both dialog and narrative. Verbal irony can, of course, be quite complex. The "true" meaning can be different rather than simply opposite, and interpretive cues can be quite subtle. Abrams uses the example of the first line of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." Abrams comments, "[P]art of the ironic implication is that a single woman is in want of a rich husband" (97). I would argue that Austen's ironic effect is much more subtle. She opens the novel by asserting that everyone knows that rich men want wives, when in fact men's supposed fear of commitment was axiomatic long before the early 19th century. As it turns out, Bingley, the rich bachelor in question, does want a wife, as does his autocratic friend Darcy. Austen devotes the whole of the novel to forcing both men to admit that, whatever they and society may think, a clever, spirited wife is exactly what every single man lacks and needs.

This more complex instance of irony brings us to the second of Abrams' six types of irony. In structural irony, according to Abrams, "The author, instead of using an occasional verbal irony, introduces a structural feature which serves to sustain a duplicity of meaning and evaluation throughout the work" (98). This, too, is a common technique. Most comic novels use some combination of verbal and structural irony. For example, in Stendhal's Charterhouse of Parma, the passionate and naive hero Fabrizio stumbles from one wild adventure to another. He muses constantly on fate, heroism, and tragic love, but each of the novel's crucial incidents is absurd or grotesque, not heroic or tragic. The young Italian charges off to fight for Napoleon, only to be imprisoned as a spy. When he finally manages to catch up with the French army, he stumbles into the middle of the battle of Waterloo. The gore and confusion of the French defeat exposes the absurdity of Fabrizio's heroic ideals; the French soldiers he admires rob him; he survives the sanguinary battle because he is too hapless to find a front on which to fight.

Stendhal's narrator occasionally mocks his hero openly ("[Fabrizio] explained effusively ... all the reasons [to join Napoleon's army] which had decided him, reasons which we take the liberty of finding somewhat comical"). More often, Fabrizio's naiveté speaks for itself:

I saw an eagle, Napoleon's bird...At that instant, while I was still gazing at the eagle, in some strange way my tears ceased to flow.... In the twinkling of an eye all the sorrows that, as you know, are poisoning my life, especially on Sundays, seemed to be swept away as by a breath from heaven (43-4).

Of course, Fabrizio's Sunday misery is adolescent melancholy, a mix of Douglas Adams' Dark Teatime of the Soul and Young Werther's Sorrows. The structural irony occurs when Fabrizio naively trades commonplace melancholy for the horrors of the battlefield--only to find that war is as petty and absurd as life in a rural Italian village. We might say that verbal irony consists of a single, humorous remark, while structural irony results from sustained dissonance between attitudes expressed by a character or narrator on the one hand, and the workings of the fictive world on the other.

That last assertion is quite complex, and probably requires further explanation. Let me rephrase, it, then, as follows: structural irony typically contrasts the ideals of a hapless character with impersonal and often brutal events. Works that employ structural irony tend to balance between satire, which reveals human absurdity, and tragedy, which couples the ideal and the real in shocking or grotesque ways.1 In satire, though the world differs from what we might expect, it is essentially harmless (think of Fielding's chaste footman Joseph Andrews, who dodges the absurd advances of Lady Booby). In tragedy, on the other hand, slight mistakes prove fatal, as when Oedipus swears to rid his kingdom of "the incestuous father-murderer who has brought a plague on Thebes" and "the object of the hunt turns out ... to be the hunter himself, and the king ... penitently blinds himself" (Abrams 99).

The latter is, perhaps, the best-known example of dramatic irony, which Abrams defines as follows:

Dramatic irony involves a situation in a play or narrative in which the audience or reader shares with the author knowledge of present or future circumstances of which a character is ignorant; in that situation, the character unknowingly acts in a way we recognize to be grossly inappropriate to the actual circumstances, or expects the opposite of what we know that fate holds in store, or says something that anticipates the actual outcome, but not at all in the way that the character intends (99).

Dramatic irony, as Abrams defines it, sounds a lot like structural irony. We know something that the characters don't because the author has somehow pointed it out. It's not clear from Abrams' account how structural irony differs from dramatic irony; after all, the author must use some sort of "structural feature" to expose the characters' delusions. In the case of Oedipus, Sophocles relies on the audience's knowledge of myth. It's possible that Adams would apply "dramatic irony" to plays and film, and "structural irony" only to narrative. This distinction seems unnecessary, however, since all irony is "structural" and the difference between drama and narrative doesn't seem terribly important with regard to irony; Adams himself draws his examples impartially from both. It seems to me that, though irony seems to elicit constant definition and redefinition, it cannot be defined.

I'd like to review an example to test the truth of the claim I've just made. Horror movies provide a familiar instance of Abrams' dramatic irony: the moment or series of moments in which a rash character opens the refrigerator/enters the cellar/moves into the Bad House, or otherwise flies in the face of ominous signs. In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for instance, a young man goes in search of friends who disappeared on the way to a dried-up pond. As he knocks at the door of a strange house, he hears the tinkling of his hippie-girl friend's ankle bracelet. We know that both friends are dead--they've been yanked into the kitchen and disemboweled by the fat, fast, out-of-work slaughterhouse worker, Leatherface. He may wear a mask of human skin and speak in porcine squeals, but Leatherface is no dummy. He jungles the bracelet, giggles a little, and draws the young man over the threshold and into the kitchen, all the while calling out those famous horror-movie last words, "Hey, guys, joke's over!"

The twin punch lines come when the girl's bloody corpse vaults out of a deep freezer, and Leatherface clouts the poor guy's brains out with a sledgehammer. It's safe to say, following Abrams, that the character has "unknowingly act[ed] in a way we recognize to be grossly inappropriate to the actual circumstances," and has "expect[ed] the opposite of what we know that fate holds in store," and has said "something that anticipates the actual outcome, but not at all in the way that [he] intend[ed]." This is particularly impressive when we consider that Chainsaw was director Tobe Hooper's first film.

As it progresses, TCM's dramatic irony becomes more complicated. Hooper plays off this and other early, simple instances of dramatic irony by creating situations where the significance of ominous events is less clear. The resulting tension becomes almost unbearable. Take, for example, the gas station sequence.

Once the young heroine, Sally, has watched Leatherface hack her wheelchair-bound brother to death, she escapes the bizarre abattoir/mansion by taking refuge in a rural gas station. She's a whimpering mess, clothes torn, jumping at every sound; she can hardly say what has happened to her. The attendant, a simple, avuncular type, peeks out the door and reassures her that "There's no one out there now." Since there's no phone, he offers to drive her to the sheriff's office. As he leaves to get the truck, the camera rests on her wan face; at the edge of the frame, we see homey details including a gas oven.

Gradually, over her sobs, we become conscious of the sound of sizzling meat. Cut to a string of sausage links sizzling over a fire. [expand; compare to credit sequence] Cut back to the ravaged heroine. Meanwhile, a news report comes on the radio; the announcer leads off with a report on local grave robberies. The revving of the truck's engine mimics the sound of a chainsaw; the audience starts along with her, then erupts into nervous laughter. Just as we've settled back into our seats, the attendant enters; oddly, he's carrying a bag and rope. She begins to back away from him, whimpering, "What do you want?" Her friends and family are dead; a maniac wearing a mask of human skin is tearing through the woods; the gas station attendant speaks soothingly, seems trustworthy, impatient and incredulous all at once. Even as he beats her unconscious with a broom handle (a nice touch of restraint in a movie famed for hyperbolic violence), we can't be sure precisely what sort of fire she's fallen into.

In this case, the "structural" tip-off is genre; we know that kindly strangers in horror films can't be what they seem. Hooper's genius lies in keeping us guessing for minutes at a time, then slapping us with a surprise worse than anything we'd imagined (here, a long family dinner). Upon subsequent viewings, one can't help but derive pleasure from the films delicate weaving of thematic elements in the dialogue, visuals, and camera work. [invocation of cosmic irony].

Less masterful films provide less subtle signals--the stupid music and clichéd not-quite-dead assailants in Halloween and Fatal Attraction, for example. In any case, whatever their level of complexity, all three examples seem to satisfy the definitions of both structural and dramatic irony. [explain that claim, and draw conclusions about the home of irony]

By now, we might feel that we have a pretty good notion of what irony entails. The characters expect one thing, but they get another--that "other" may be more or less horrible or humorous; it may even be both. This is what Adams (following Wayne Booth) calls "stable irony." We know what is true or "real" (Leatherface is gonna getcha) and what is false ("Safe at last! This nice man will drive me to the sheriff!"). In contrast, unstable irony "offers no fixed standpoint which is not itself undercut by further ironies" (Abrams 98).

The idea of standpoint, which we've taken for granted so far, is crucial to understanding irony of any sort, especially unstable irony. Even the simplest irony relies on the standpoint of the reader or viewer for its effect. From the perspective of the guy who receives the sledgehammer blows, a massacre is hardly ironic. Before he gets hit, he can't see what's coming. Afterwards, he's dead. He's in no position (except perhaps in the instant before the blow falls) to appreciate the joke.

In other words, irony always requires a butt or victim--usually several victims in succession. Paul de Man writes:

It helps a little to think of it [irony] in terms of the traditional opposition between eiron and alazon, as they appear in Greek or Hellenic comedy, the smart guy and the dumb guy. Most discourses about irony are set up that way.... You must keep in mind that the smart guy, who is by necessity the speaker [or narrator] always turns out to be the dumb guy, and that he's always being set up by the person he thinks of as being the dumb guy, the alazon ("Concept" 165).

Irony is actually named for the eiron. The problem with irony always is, Who's the real eiron? Who's the smart guy, and who's the dope? To return to TCM, at the beginning of the film, the wheelchair-bound Franklin inevitably seems whiny, overanxious, and effeminate. He's fat, he can't walk, and though the other characters try to humor him, they frequently end up mocking or simply ignoring him. When Franklin mulls over a sign that a psychotic hitchhiker smeared on the van (in his own blood, no less), Jerry (Franklin's sister Sally's hip and handsome boyfriend) teases the anxious Franklin. "I told him your name, where you're from--I even told him your zip code. He's coming to get you!" As with all ironic narratives, Jerry ends up eating his words, playing alazon to Leatherface's eiron. Eventually Franklin joins the parade of dumb guys, too: the narrative brutally disabuses us of the notion that worry alone will ward off disaster.

Before we get too comfortable here, we should take care to follow de Man's point to its conclusion. De Man ends by pointing out that he himself is attempting to act as eiron in relation to Booth, "and I recognize," he adds, "that this makes me the real alazon of this discourse" ("Concept" 165). So who's the real alazon of Texas Chainsaw Massacre?

Certainly it's a simple matter for the audience to shift from eiron, basking in the warm glow of the TV set, to alazon, hooting with terror when the cat jumps on the couch. From the director's perspective, the audience looks absurd: jumping, twisting, whimpering, squirming. Even the scrupulous deadpan typical of male viewers looks mighty silly. In this very simple fashion, the film's effects can be said to extend beyond the frame.

We needn't stop there. What if I really were playing a bit part in a horror movie? It would take an extraordinary sense of humor to enjoy the irony of it all if a psychotic butcher were to grab you as you read this; a newspaper reporter, however, would find the irony delectable. After I ghoulishly narrated key scenes from Chainsaw to my roommate, she solemnly informed me that her previous roommate swears that she saw the Night Stalker creeping around outside my window just before he was arrested for several ritualistic serial killings. Though Chainsaw cannot be said to have caused Richard Ramirez' killings, it certainly colors my perceptions of his deeds, and reminds me of my very real vulnerability to murder. If my life were a horror movie--or were simply read as a horror movie by a newspaper audience--every trip to the laundry room after dark would be invested dramatic irony. In fact, insofar as I read my life through the conventions of horror, I can take pleasure from thinking "Don't do it! Don't do it!" as I open the refrigerator, nip out to get the paper, enter the dark laundry room.

If we're to believe the French poet and critic Baudelaire, "The power of laughter lies with he who laughs, not with the object of laughter. Almost no one can laugh at his own fall, unless he is a philosopher, a man who has acquired, through habit, the ability to double himself rapidly and look on as a disinterested spectator" at the spectacle of his own fall (qtd. in "Rhetoric" 211-212, my own rough-and-ready translation). For de Man, this rapid splitting of the self ends in the hysterical laughter of madness. He writes, "[A]bsolute irony is a consciousness of madness, itself the end of all consciousness; it is a consciousness of a non-consciousness, a reflection on madness from the inside of madness itself" (216). Or, to quote Baudelaire, "laughter is one of the most frequent and numerous [nombreuses] symptoms of madness." Thus, Chainsaw begins with a laughing drunk claiming he "sees things," and ends with a tight shot of Sally drenched in blood and shrieking with laughter.

This notion of doubling or dédoublement in the face of irony brings us back to the distinction between stable and unstable irony. Stable irony stays neatly within a movie, novel or play; unstable irony comes roaring out of the frame. Stable irony is a figure of speech, much like metaphor. As such, it merely requires a conscientious reader capable of decoding the signs left by the author. Unstable irony is one of the ways in which language works upon the world; rather than representing life, an ironic text somehow implicates the reader. The ideal reader of unstable irony must be capable of comprehending and laughing at her own situation.

Mass murder and pratfalls aside, how might this work? De Man provides an example drawn from Fielding in "The Concept of Irony." Rather than harass you with yet another book you may not have read, I'd like to adapt his insight to Stendhal's Charterhouse (partly because de Man cites Stendhal's novel admiringly in an earlier essay, "The Rhetoric of Temporality"). We concluded that the novel's irony consists in the contrast between the hero Fabrizio's absurd ideals and the brutal reality of war. If this is indeed stable irony, then I can systematically document how Stendhal juxtaposes the two and conclude my lecture, satisfied that I've gotten the joke. However, a little reflection demolishes this comfortable conclusion. For instance, I'm hardly a member of the military: how can I be sure that Stendhal hasn't crafted the entire novel as an elaborate joke on armchair generals who think they understand the brutality and arbitrariness of battle? Perhaps I'm the butt of the joke, not Fabrizio. Of course, if this is the point of the novel, then its ostensible "content" becomes meaningless, or at least beside the point. Also, there's no reason to end my paranoid imaginings here; perhaps the novel is poking fun at the pomposity of soldiers who make fun of armchair generals who think they understand ... you get the point.

So how can we tell stable from unstable irony? Well, if you believe American critics like Wayne Booth, it's simply a matter of knowing when to stop. If you pursue stable irony too far, your conclusions will begin to look absurd. After all, Stendhal probably wasn't that mischievous, and we'll have a lot more to worry about than irony if a Hooper-style killer is on the loose in Irvine. Others--philosopher-comedians like Friedrich Schlegel, Nietzsche, de Man, Oscar Wilde and Sören Kierkegaard--will tell you, with the rueful grin of the perpetually falling, that all irony is unstable. Instability is one of the hallmarks of irony. If you doubt this, then go to the library and read Adams' entry on irony in full. Either his nine varieties of irony make no sense and irony eludes his tidy critical categories, or he's pulling a prank, and he knows that irony eludes tidy critical categories, and his elaborate taxonomy is intended to demonstrate just that (only to folks in the know, of course).

Is Adams the alazon or the eiron of his own discourse? I think de Man would argue that he, Adams and I are all both, when you write about irony you must alternate between the two. Rather than a concept, irony is the property of rhetoric that switches the author and reader from eiron to alazon and back with infinite, dizzying speed. I don't say "infinite" lightly. In both "Rhetoric" and "Concept," de Man alludes to Schlegel's definition of irony as permanent parabasis. De Man takes this to mean that in a novel like Charterhouse, ironic possibilities exist at every point in the text. To formulate a coherent reading, we focus on certain possibilities and remain resolutely blind to others. Theoretically, it could be demonstrated that every point in the text has a certain ironic capacity. Such a reading would certainly produce a series of rapid switches from eiron to alazon, complicated by the fact that both roles may be attributed to the characters (Fabrizio, the Duchess Sanseverina, Franklin, Leatherface), Stendhal, the narrator, the critic, and the critic's reader. The possibilities are infinite, and any such attempt would surely end in dizziness all around.

This dizziness is an intellectual and spiritual malaise that results in part from the following: the novel's capacity to reach out and implicate its readers; the effort of dédoublement which careful reading requires; the ironic text's resistance to even the most painstaking reader's attempts to render it coherent without resorting to brutal simplification; the infinite regress of frames (Fabrizio, other characters, the narrator, Stendhal [both the autobiographical person and the nominal author], critic, multiple readers, and so on), and the rapid, multiple contagion of ironies from frame to frame. This contagion is one of irony's most compelling qualities. It's impossible to write or read about irony without either becoming ironic, falling victim to irony, or both. Schlegel calls this effect "Unverstandlichkeit," the impossibility of understanding. Kierkegaard provides us with a metaphor: irony, like the greedy witch from a Danish fairy tale, must eventually devour even its own stomach.

The ironic text bursts into bloom (or erupts in boils) with sublime profusion. Our strategies for containing this profusion --mad laughter, despair, impatient dismissal--reflect, not mastery of the infinite, but rather the failure of the individual mind when confronted with the tireless workings of rhetoric. Though there is a certain satisfaction in graceful homage, we need not attribute these effects to any particular brilliance in Stendhal or Hooper; once an author sets certain formal parameters (pseudonymity, for example, or a naive hero), the irony does the rest.

Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Publishers, 1985.

Baudelaire, Charles. "On the Essence of Laughter." The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. New York: Da Capo, 1964.

de Man, Paul. "The Concept of Irony." Aesthetic Ideology. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

_____. "The Rhetoric of Temporality." Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1983.

Hooper, Tobe, dir. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. 1974.

Kierkegaard, Sören. The Concept of Irony. Tr. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1989.

Schlegel, Friedrich. "On Incomprehensibility." Friedrich Schlegel's Lucinde and the Fragments. Tr. Peter Firchow. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1971.