Irony and Satire: The Might of the Word
Irony, in its original Greek sense, means acting ignorant in order to make fun of a person or to expose the truth about a situation. We see this very old kind of irony still at work today when a story or movie shows a shrewd farmer pretending to be dumb in order to make fun of a city slicker. But irony has also come to have far broader meanings.
We find three kinds of irony in stories, each of them involving some kind of contrast between expectation and reality. Verbal irony – the simplest kind – is being used when someone says one thing but means the opposite.
If we say, “You sure can pick ‘em,” to the man whose team finished last, we are using verbal irony. A parent uses verbal irony when she looks up from the string of D’s on Willie’s report card and says, “It is certainly gratifying to find you are getting so much out of your education.”
If the speaker goes on to use words in a particularly harsh and cruel way, we see the use of sarcasm. Sarcasm is intended to wound, to bite in a hurtful way.
Someone looking at Willie’s report card would be sarcastic if he said,
“I’ve seen shirts with higher IQs than yours.”
Situational irony is much more important to the storyteller than other kinds of irony are. It describes an occurrence that is not just surprising; it is contrary to what we expected. In an ironic situation, what actually happens is so contrary to our expectations that is seems to mock human intentions and the confidence with which we predict our futures. The ironic possibility that this haughty rich man will come begging from us tomorrow or that this girl who is dreading tonight’s party will meet her future husband there keeps our lives interesting. Of course, it does the same for our fiction.
An example of situational irony would be found in a story that told how, after years of searching and after many bloody quarrels over the treasure map, the characters discover the treasure chest and find that it is full of old bottle caps.
A classic example of situational irony is found in the myth of King Midas. This greedy king wishes for a golden touch but when his wish is granted, something unexpected happens. Midas can lo longer eat because even his food turns to gold when he touches it. The golden touch has brought him not only riches, but misery, even death, as well.
Dramatic irony is the kid of irony that occurs when we know what is in store for a character but the character does not know. This is called dramatic irony because it’s so often used on stage.
Jean arranges a surprise party for Fred’s birthday and all his friends are hiding behind the curtains waiting for him to arrive home. When Fed, looking haggard, calls into an apparently empty hall, ‘Hello! Jean? Anybody home? Boy, am I tired!” we recognize dramatic irony. Our sense that an exhausted Fred is soon going to be astonished by a happy birthday chorus heightens our interest in Fred (we wonder if he’ll just fall to the floor).
Dramatic irony adds to our enjoyment of a story because it mimics life, which is forever pulling surprises on us.
Irony of all kinds is somehow enormously satisfying, perhaps because we know instinctively that our carefully laid plans and ambitions and strivings often come to little, whereas good luck (or bad) often finds unlikely targets.
Satire: A Social Purpose
Satire is a close relative of irony and often uses irony to accomplish its purpose. Satire is any writing that uses ridicule with the intention of bring about social reform. The satirist wants to expose and eliminate human stupidity and wickedness. Greed, injustice, cruelty, and deceit are all targets of the satirist.
Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels is often read by children, but it is really one of the most stinging satires in the English language. The story mocks people in early 18th century England who thought their nation was the most civilized on earth. George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm is another famous satire, one that uses barnyard animals to mock the way people abuse political power.
Comedians on television use satire all the time, often to make fun of themselves. The long-running television show M*A*S*H used satire to make us laugh (and cry) at the insanity of war.
Ironic and satiric writing can be humorous. It can lay bare a weakness or a pretense and it can also invite laughter at someone’s expense. Irony and satire may sometimes sting. They may sometimes be cruel in purpose and in effect, bit it would be a mistake to ignore them.
Whenever you hear the ancient claim that “the pen is mightier than the sword” think of irony and satire. A pen (or computer) that uses irony and satire can even become a sword, and it can be taken up in a good cause. Irony and satire can hold up to us the mirror of art and reveal our own faults and foolishnesses. They can make us aware of all the ways in which we humans persuade ourselves that we are righteous and right-minded—when, in fact, we just may be dead wrong.