by C.E. Lawrence, @C_E_Lawrence
Life is nothing if not ironic. You spend all your time working for money or fame or adulation or whatever – only to find out that in getting what you thought you wanted, you don’t get what you were after all along – happiness.
How ironic. Or you finally marry that fabulous blond bombshell you always thought was the idea woman, only to fall in love with that funny little neighbor next door with the short brown hair and lopsided smile. Ironies in life abound, even for the rich and famous: Republican Terminator Arnold Schwarzenegger marries Kennedy Babe Maria Shriver; Democratic policy wonk James Carville marries Republican Spokeschick Mary Matalin. How ironic. Super anal retentive Felix Unger’s best friend is super slob Oscar Madison, and vice versa. Hmm . . . do I sense a pattern here?
Webster’s first definition of irony is: "1. expression in which the intended meaning of the words is the direct opposite of their usual sense: as in irony she called the stupid plan 'very clever.’” (We’ll talk about the second definition later.)
IT’S ALL GREEK TO ME
The word irony is derived from the Greek “eironeia,” which means "simulated ignorance." The Wordsworth Dictionary of Phrase and Fable says irony is "the use of expressions having a meaning different from the ostensible one; a subtle form of sarcasm understood correctly by the initiated." In literature, this kind of irony can proceed from one character to another - or from the author to the reader. In “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” Flannery O’Connor gives us an accurate portrait of Julian through the constant use of irony. What Julian thinks about himself is not at all what we are invited to think about him; the story fairly drips with irony.
And E.L. Doctorow, in writing about Mark Twain, has this to say:
"Huck, making the socially immoral choice to assist the escape of a slave - someone's rightful property, he thinks - creates in himself an ethically superior morality that he defines as outlaw, and appropriate to such a worthless tramp as he. And Twain can deal with the monstrous national catastrophe of slaveholding, not head on, in righteousness, in the manner of Harriet Beecher Stowe, but with the sharper stick, the deeper thrust, of irony."
In other words, the initiated reader “gets it” – Huck is not immoral at all, but is the product of a society whose values are so twisted that Huck actually believes that giving an enslaved fellow human being his freedom is wicked. How ironic. I might also point out that while Huckleberry Finn is still flying off the shelves, read by children and adults alike, few people other than English graduate students ever read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Of course, Twain is one of our national treasures – but it is his use of irony that makes his political writing so sharp, even today. (And also, he’s a pretty funny guy – I have yet to see a really good comic writer who doesn’t use irony. It literally comes with the territory.)
Using irony in your writing also makes your readers feel smart – they “get it,” they’re part of the “initiated.” It’s like belonging to a club. In “Everything That Rises,” Flannery O’Connor invites us to sort of “gang up” on poor Julian; in seeing him for what he really is, we become her cronies, her cohorts, her co-conspirators, in a sense. This is fun for us; we feel like we’re “in on something.” Of course, the only person “left out” is a fictional character, but no matter. We still get the same naughty thrill we got as children when we formed the Glass Club and kept out those nasty boys across the road. After all, what’s the point of a club if everyone can join?
IRONY IN COMEDY: THIS IS NOT YOUR PARENTS’ TELEVISION
For those of you who watch The Daily Show, (and I hope that’s everyone with cable), don’t you get a little kick out of the fact that you’re pretty sure your parents wouldn’t get this kind of humor, and if they did, they wouldn’t think it was funny anyway? Irony, like comedy to which it is so closely related, has a point, a cutting edge - it is an attitude born of anger. Like comedy, it also invariably involves a “twist” of some kind. It can be dry or wet, but not everyone "gets it." You have to be one of the “initiated.” I have a kind of "irony meter" when I judge people's characters, and some people have little or no sense of the ironic. I have found, for example, that as you head west across the United States, the irony meter drops rapidly, until, some time after crossing the Delaware, you come to the Great Midwest, or, as I like to call, the Irony Free Zone. (To those of you who live there, my apology; every rule has its exceptions.)
IRISH CHILDREN – BAKED OR BOILED?
In the eighteenth century, Jonathan Swift, noted author, journalist, and wit, wrote a rather famous essay called "A Modest Proposal.” In it he suggested dealing with the problem of famine in Ireland by eating Irish children. He felt this was an elegant solution because it would both reduce the population while providing a plentiful and cheap source of nutrition. Needless to say, his irony – wet as it was – completely escaped a certain percentage of the population. In fact, the editor of his newspaper received letters from outraged readers castigating Mr. Swift for his insensitive and wicked ideas. So much for political satire. Irony will always have its “initiated” audience, but, as they say, you can’t please all of the people all of the time.
But go out there and have fun – be funny, be satirical, be ironic! After all, what can they do to you – shoot you?
Oh, right, I guess they can. I forgot this is America, where everyone owns guns. On second thought, maybe this is a good time to move to Canada. Long winters and moose meat. Oh, yeah.
Carole Bugge ( C.E. Lawrence) has eight published novels, six novellas and a dozen or so short stories and poems. Her work has received glowing reviews from such publications as Kirkus, The Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, The Boston Herald, Ellery Queen, and others. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines. Winner of both the Euphoria Poetry Competition and the Eve of St. Agnes Poetry Award, she is also a Pushcart Prize nominee and First Prize winner of the Maxim Mazumdar Playwriting Competition, the Chronogram Literary Fiction Prize, Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Award, and the Jean Paiva Memorial Fiction award, which included an NEA grant to read her fiction and poetry at Lincoln Center. A finalist in the McClaren, MSU and Henrico Playwriting Competitions, she has read her work at Barnes and Noble, The Knitting Factory, Mercy College, Merritt Books, the Colony Cafe and the Gryphon Bookstore. She has received grants from Poets and Writers, as well as the New York State Arts Council. Her story "A Day in the Life of Comrade Lenin" received an Honorable Mention in St. Martin's Best Fantasy and Horror Stories, and she was a winner in the Writer's Digest Competition in both the playwriting and essay categories.