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The Challenge of Defining Irony

Of all the literary terms we see, irony is perhaps both the most important and the most difficult.  None of the definitions are particularly helpful, and some people are irony-deaf, so it can be frustrating to talk about, but I think irony is a part of the core that makes the most interesting literature interesting.

I gave an example of situational irony to my sophomores yesterday that I liked.  I heard that this story was true, but I haven't been able to track its antecedants.  It's still a good story.  Several years ago, a pair of British bank robbers put together an elaborate, foolproof plan to rob a bank.  They rented a building with a basement that was across the street from a bank whose vault was in the basement.  Their plan was to dig a tunnel under the street until they reached the side of the vault.  On Friday, after the bank had closed, they'd break through the last barrier, and then have the entire weekend to empty the vault and make their getaway.  Good plan, right?  So, after weeks of incredible labor, they reached the bank, waited until the right time, and then broke through the wall.

Unfortunately, during their digging, they drifted off the line they thought they were on.  Instead of breaking into the vault, they had knocked a hole into a holding cell in the basement of the police station next to the bank where the police officers were waiting to arrest them.

See, irony.

One of the definitions I've used is that irony is "characterized by a poignant difference or incongruity between what is expected and what actually is," where the key word is "poignant."  Sometimes I'll say that irony is when the outcome is poetically different from what is expected, or there is an oddly appropriate opposite result from what was intended.  So, it is ironic that Juliet's plan to save herself and Romeo results in both of their deaths (and, irony on irony, as Blue Oyster Cult says, "Romeo and Juliet are together in eternity"). 

I have plenty of examples of irony:

  • almost any Twilight Zone episode (remember the glasses in "Time Enough at Last"?)
  • all the old James Bond films (where the bad guy is destroyed by his own super weapon)
  • Road Runner cartoons
  • Scrat from Ice Age
  • the ending of Wuthering Heights
  • Willy Loman's death
  • everything that happens to Roy Hobbs at the end of The Natural (the book, not the movie)
  • all of The Watchmen
Really, the list is endless.  As I said, irony is a part of the core of what makes the interesting stuff interesting.  Maybe that is because much of life itself is ironic.  My oldest son's favorite poem is Shelly's "Ozymandias."  He's memorized it.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
As he says, "Dad, that poem taught me more about life than anything I've ever read."

I think he was responding to the irony.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 25th, 2009 02:48 pm (UTC)
Beautiful, Jim. I hope you're collecting all of these. As a teacher, a book of these essays (lectures?) would be an invaluable tool for me, and I'm sure for others.
Mar. 25th, 2009 02:59 pm (UTC)
Hi, Louise. I archive my LJ periodically, so all the stuff is tucked away safely.
Mar. 26th, 2009 01:04 am (UTC)
A teacher I worked with printed the lyrics to Alanis Morrisette's "Isn't it Ironic". She then reads it as a poem with them. Most kids don't know the song. Then, to make it fun, listens.

I've done the same assignment and although all the examples may not be great examples of irony; because of what you express, it works better than many other sources out there :)
Mar. 26th, 2009 05:07 pm (UTC)
very thought provoking poem. Thank you for sharing
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )