“So as to give them courage we must teach people to be shocked by themselves.”

Daily Archives: September 13, 2008

Is it ironic?

There are a cluster of literary terms we need to master in order to fully understand The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The most important of these is irony, a concept that those who possess the requisite intellectual curiosity will discover located in the dictionary. Here is how Bedford-St.Martin’s Dictionary of Literary Terms  defines it:

“A literary device that uses contradictory statements or situations to reveal a reality different from what appears to be true. It is ironic for a firehouse to burn down, or for a police station to be burglarized. Verbal irony is a figure of speech that occurs when a person says one thing but means the opposite. Sarcasm is a strong form of verbal irony that is calculated to hurt someone through, for example, false praise. Dramatic irony creates a discrepancy between what a character believes or says and what the reader or audience member knows to be true. Tragic irony is a form of dramatic irony found in tragedies such as Oedipus the King, in which Oedipus searches for the person responsible for the plague that ravishes his city and ironically ends up hunting himself. Situational irony exists when there is an incongruity between what is expected to happen and what actually happens due to forces beyond human comprehension or control. The suicide of the seemingly successful main character in Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem “Richard Cory” is an example of situational irony. Cosmic irony occurs when a writer uses God, destiny, or fate to dash the hopes and expectations of a character or of humankind in general. In cosmic irony, a discrepancy exists between what a character aspires to and what universal forces provide. Stephen Crane’s poem “A Man Said to the Universe” is a good example of cosmic irony, because the universe acknowledges no obligation to the man’s assertion of his own existence.”


A man said to the universe:
“Sir I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”


Irony is the primary tool of satire and related literary forms such as parody and burlesque. Burlesque, in the sense that we will use it to discuss AHF, signifies both a literary genre and a type of theatrical performance, one closely related to the minstrel show, what I have also called “racial masquerade” and “blackface performance” in class.  Here is how the Encyclopedia Britannica defines literary burlesque:

in literature, comic imitation of a serious literary or artistic form that relies on an extravagant incongruity between a subject and its treatment. In burlesque the serious is treated lightly and the frivolous seriously; genuine emotion is sentimentalized, and trivial emotions are elevated to a dignified plane. Burlesque is closely related to parody, in which the language and style of a particular author, poem, or other work is mimicked, although burlesque is generally broader and coarser.”

 Anthropologist Clifford Geertz borrows from a discussion about “thick description” in ethnography that uses the term burlesque in order to establish the complexity of signification this way:

Ryle’s discussion of “thick description” appears in two recent essays…. Consider, he says, two boys rapidly contracting the eyelids of their right eyes. In one, this is an involuntary twitch; in the other, a conspiratorial signal to a friend. The two movements are, as movements, identical; from an l-am-a-camera, “phenomenalistic” observation of them alone, one could not tell which was twitch and which was wink, or indeed whether both or either was twitch or wink. Yet the difference, however unphotographable, between a twitch and a wink is vast; as anyone unfortunate enough to have had the first taken for the second knows. The winker is communicating, and indeed communicating in a quite precise and special way: (1) deliberately, (2) to someone in particular, (3) to impart a particular message, (4) according to a socially established code, and (5) without cognizance of the rest of the company. As Ryle points out, the winker has done two things, contracted his eyelids and winked, while the twitcher has done only one, contracted his eyelids. Contracting your eyelids on purpose when there exists a public code in which so doing counts as a conspiratorial signal is winking. That’s all there is to it: a speck of behavior, a fleck of culture, and–voilà!–a gesture.

That, however, is just the beginning. Suppose, he continues, there is a third boy, who, “to give malicious amusement to his cronies,” parodies the first boy’s wink, as amateurish, clumsy, obvious, and so on. He, of course, does this in the same way the second boy winked and the first twitched: by contracting his right eyelids. Only this boy is neither winking nor twitching, he is parodying someone else’s, as he takes it, laughable, attempt at winking. Here, too, a socially established code exists (he will “wink” laboriously, over-obviously, perhaps adding a grimace–the usual artifices of the clown); and so also does a message. Only now it is not conspiracy but ridicule that is in the air. If the others think he is actually winking, his whole project misfires as completely, though with somewhat different results, as if they think he is twitching. One can go further: uncertain of his mimicking abilities, the would-be satirist may practice at home before the mirror, in which case he is not twitching, winking, or parodying, but rehearsing; though so far as what a camera, a radical behaviorist, or a believer in protocol sentences would record: he is just rapidly contracting his right eyelids like all the others. Complexities are possible, if not practically without end, at least logically so.

The original winker might, for example, actually have been fake-winking, say, to mislead outsiders into imagining there was a conspiracy afoot when there in fact was not, in which case our descriptions of what the parodist is parodying and the rehearser is rehearsing of course shift accordingly. But the point is that between what Ryle calls the “thin description” of what the rehearser (parodist, winker, twitcher . . .) is doing (“rapidly contracting his right eyelids”) and the “thick description” of what he is doing (“practicing a burlesque of a friend faking a wink to deceive an innocent into thinking a conspiracy is in motion”) lies the object of ethnography: a stratified hierarchy of meaningful structures in terms of which twitches, winks, fake-winks, parodies, rehearsals of parodies are produced, perceived, and interpreted, and without which they would not (not even the zero-form twitches, which, as a cultural category, are as much non-winks as winks are non-twitches) in fact exist, no matter what anyone did or didn’t do with his eyelids.

Like irony, the burlesque owes its punch to incongruity. Literary burlesque, as the Britannica tells us, depends on a contrast between content and form: “the serious is treated lightly and the frivolous seriously”. Theatrical burlesque, which has come to be associated in the popular imagination with only one of its later components, the strip-tease, resembles the minstrel show in its structure and is related to the variety show, a staple of the American stage which generally featured, comedy acts, singing, “ethnic humor”, juggling or other acrobatic performances, etc. Mark Twain, as has already been suggested in class, borrowed heavily from this form of popular entertainment in writing the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

This article on Alanis Morrissette’s Isn’t It Ironic may be helpful.

For those who still don’t feel entirely at ease with the concept of irony, here is an exercise: go to The Onion website and find 3 articles that are ironic.

From the 2004 Democratic Convention. The area behind the police is the “free speech zone.”


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