By Ray Petersen — I just love irony! Is that strange? Not really. It’s just that I guess I’ve been ‘bitten by the same dog” so many times, that I’ve perhaps come to embrace what Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of, in his epic tale of The Scarlet Letter. “Trusting no man as his friend, he could not recognise his enemy, when the latter actually appeared.”
Irony and frustration are common bedfellows it seems, but with the passage of time, and some maturity, are more likely to be encountered hand in hand with a rueful smile. (I think I just made up a quote of my own there, hmmm) When first struck with an ironic situation, our frustration tends to be our initial reaction. After all, irony is a figure of speech, and one that sees the intent of words confused with the actual meaning, or, a situation where the eventuality is distanced from the anticipation, a difference between appearance and reality.
Irony is actually a literary technique originally used in the first of the Greek tragedies to look beyond the Gods for inspiration, in which the full significance of a character’s words or actions are much clearer to the audience or reader, while still being unrevealed to the central character. For example, in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King lies an example of tragic irony where Oedipus refers to his motives for his pursuit of the killer of Laius, he says: “Such ties swear me to his (Laius’) side as if he were my father.” Of course the audience and readers both know that Laius is, in fact his father.
This dramatic irony surfaced most evidently in Romeo and Juliet, where the audience knew that Juliet was feigning her death, though Romeo did not, leading to one of the great literary tragedies of all time. In Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice, the dastardly D’Arcy says of our heroine, Elizabeth Bennett, “she is not handsome enough to tempt me”.
Yet, in spite of that, he gradually becomes a better person as the story unfolds, and eventually falls in love with her. It is this same form of verbal irony that drives many of the modern-day soap operas that dominate daytime television.
Often reflected more as a form of sarcasm or cynicism, the humour is often lost on the person at the ‘butt end’ of an ironic situation, and a dictionary definition of, “the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect,” particularly with reference to language, almost certainly refers to the ‘Oscar Wilde’ school of satirical life, as he exhorted us to “borrow money from pessimists, as they will never expect you to pay it back anyway”.
William Golding sought to expose the fallibility of human nature in The Lord of the Flies, a story of a group of boys marooned on an island. When discord, and fighting, breaks out amongst the children resulting in extreme violence, one of the characters castigates the others for “acting like kids”.
He goes on to say that they should behave more like adults, and talk about their problems. The irony here, clearly not lost on the reader, is that a war is raging around the globe, caused, fought and perpetuated by adults.
Me, I’m stuck with a somewhat less literary and dramatic definition of, “a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result.” Partly amusing because generally it is, and also partly because often, at that moment, I seem to be on a ride that I can’t get off. It’s been referred to, I think, as a delicious irony, in that you can at least revisit the occurrence as a humorous anecdote later.
Alanis Morrisette, in her song, ‘Ironic,’ referred to a man who won the lottery and died the next day. Having a fork and spoon, when all you need is a knife, and meeting the man of your dreams, only to find out he’s already married. Samuel Coleridge in The Ancient Mariner’ about seamen adrift, referred to “water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink,” in the ocean. Otto Lilienthal was a world famous glider pioneer who said that air travel was safer than a horse and buggy, but he crashed and died.
These have all happened to all of us, I’ll guarantee it. In the bathroom of a shopping mall, you wash your hands, and then attempt to get a hand towel from the dispenser. Follow the simple instructions: “Pull down on both sides to remove towel.” Hah! Your hands are wet, aren’t they? Try pulling down on a hand towel with wet hands. It ain’t gonna happen, and that’s not the way it’s meant to be.
Go to the checkout at the supermarket. It’s sure to be the one with a ‘query’ product, and you’ll be kept waiting while the customers at the other checkouts are flying through. That’s not how it’s meant to be. Too tired for work, but don’t want to sleep? That isn’t the way it’s meant to be. And let’s finish with this comment to a critical Mother-in law. “Don’t tell me how to raise my kids, I’m living with one of yours, and he could do with some tidying up that’s for sure!”