My English teacher my freshman year of high school was quick to point out when discussing irony that most of the things Alanis Morissette sings about in her song “Ironic” (rain on your wedding day and having ten thousands spoons when you really need a knife) are really not ironic, they’re just bummers. The truth is irony is so often misused in today’s world that the meaning of it has been muddled. I’ve been wondering if it even plays a role in contemporary literature anymore, and specifically in children’s lit because that’s what I write.
I’m going to specifically focus on dramatic irony and verbal irony that isn’t sarcasm (because sarcasm is so not used in today’s world and nobody ‘gets’ it anyway!). (Caveat: I’m not sure I actually understand what irony is and I’m probably going to do a terrible job of discussing it, and you will only end up more confused by the end of this post.)
Let’s start with dramatic irony, which is when the audience/reader/observer is privy to information that allows them to better know the true implications of an action/speech/situation that involves an unknowing character/speaker/subject. A classic example in when Romeo takes his own life because he thinks Juliet is dead, but the audience knows that Juliet only took a potion to appear dead.
Verbal irony is when something is stated that seems to mean one thing, but the speaker actually intends it to mean something else, often the opposite of what was said (and this is done with intent on the part of the speaker…as opposed to dramatic irony which occurs without the subject’s knowledge). Now sarcasm can be a form of verbal irony, but verbal irony doesn’t have to be sarcastic. In A Series of Unfortunate Events the narrator starts the story by saying not to read the book because only bad things happen, but of course, the narrator doesn’t really want the reader to put down the book.
I think it’s a bit more obvious how verbal irony is prevalent and relevant in today’s society. We see it in books, on TV, in everyday life. Dramatic irony is a little bit tougher to observe, especially in children’s lit. Today’s kids are so savvy about everything that it’s harder to create a character that is believably in the dark about something that is obvious to the reader.
Going back to the Romeo and Juliet example, are we really supposed to believe that Romeo was so dense that he couldn’t figure out that Juliet wasn’t dead? In a historical context, we can buy that Romeo wouldn’t have known to check for a pulse and that he could have actually believed that Juliet’s “crimson” lips and cheeks were possible even after death. But today, it’s hard to believe that a guy–even a young one with a minimal amount of medicinal knowledge–wouldn’t be able to to tell the difference between a dead body and a live person.
I feel like I could go on and on about irony and really come to no conclusion at all. I’ve been researching definitions of irony and asking others for examples of irony in contemporary children’s lit and I’m just feeling more confused about the whole thing than when I started. Frankly, I was kind of sick of the whole idea of irony before I even started writing this post and now that I’m rereading what I’ve written, I’m thinking I didn’t really say much at all in this ever-growing post.
And who’s to say that Alanis Morissette didn’t know that all the crap she says in “Ironic” wasn’t ironic? Maybe she knew that the whole time, and the song ends up being even more ironic because it isn’t talking about irony at all. Now I’m throwing my hands up in frustration! Please, someone post an intelligent comment about irony so that this whole thing doesn’t feel so pointless.
Also, check out the SCBWI Writers of Lower Fairfield blog where I’ll be occassionally posting about writing-related topics.