Foster begins this chapter with an emphatic claim: “Irony trumps everything,” including all that has been described in the book so far. Samuel Beckett, known as the “poet of stasis,” created works of literature in which little happens and which do not seem to contain any message or “point.” His most famous play, Waiting for Godot, takes place in what Northrop Frye calls “the ironic mode,” meaning that the characters appear to have less free will than the audience feels they themselves do. The audience also has a better understanding of the situation the characters find themselves in, yet are forced to watch as they remain trapped due to their lack of agency and awareness.
“Irony trumps everything” is a useful phrase to remember, although it is not initially completely clear what it means. In “trumping everything,” irony doesn’t eliminate other layers of meaning. Rather, irony relies on these other layers of meaning—whether symbolic, archetypical, intertextual, or otherwise—and then subverts them by converting them into the ironic mode.
Irony greatly expands the range of interpretations that can be applied to any symbol. For example, rain—which ordinarily has a fairly predictable set of associated meanings—can take on an entirely different type of significance when employed ironically.
Many people argue that our time is particularly suited to irony, as people in the 20th and 21st centuries have tended to claim that all creative options have already been explored and exhausted. In order to create something new, we must therefore rely on irony.
Writers like Beckett and Hemingway lived at a time dominated by irony, where old belief systems (including belief in science) were crumbling under the weight of war and suffering. One way to understand irony is to think of cases in which a signifier or sign (such as a billboard encouraging people to wear seatbelts) ends up taking on an unexpected significance (like accidentally crushing a driver and killing him) while still retaining its original, fixed meaning. The sign still contains a message of road safety, but this message has been made ironic by the fact that it has accidentally killed someone.
The example of the road safety sign is one of the clearest ways of explaining what irony means. However, irony is not always this simple. It is rare for the ironic object in question to literally be a sign—usually we have to figure out the original significance first, before understanding how that original meaning is changed by the author’s use of irony.
Irony mainly consists of “a deflection from expectation.” Irony can also work when the reader or audience knows something that a character doesn’t, thereby creating multiple layers of (contradictory) meaning around events that take place within the narrative. As these points indicate, irony can be verbal, structural, and/or dramatic, depending on what level of the text (plot arc, speech, event) the ironic point is being made.
When engaged in a surface-level reading, it is hard to see when our expectations are being deflected, because we are likely to “go with the flow” of the story and simply let our expectations be controlled by the author. Deeper reading, however, requires us to step back and analyze how the author anticipates and manipulates the reader’s response to the text.
Irony can also be used to undermine the moral value or authority of belief systems, institutions, and individuals, from physicians to Christianity. Irony makes interpretation complicated, as it can lead scholars to argue in a counterintuitive (and sometimes illogical!) way. For example, the main character in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange is a nihilistic, selfish sadist, about as far from Jesus as it’s possible to get. On the other hand, he is ultimately subjected to a cruel punishment and robbed of his free will by the government hoping to make an example out of him—the exact fate of Christ. It is thus possible to assert that in this particular sense, Alex is a Christ figure, albeit a highly ironic one.
The character of Alex in A Clockwork Orange makes for an ironic Jesus figure in several ways. Whereas Jesus symbolizes goodness and hope, Alex symbolizes moral perversity and a dark future. The irony here is also structural, as at the beginning of the novel Alex is an evil villain who triumphs over the other characters, yet by the end he suffers and is made vulnerable by his cruel punishment at the hands of the state.
Some writers use irony more than others, which is just as well considering irony does not work in every context. (Salman Rushdie’s use of irony in The Satanic Verses, for example, almost got him killed!) When it does work, however, irony adds richness to a text, creating new, more complicated and more compelling layers of meaning.
Whether or not irony “works” is largely dependent on the reaction of the reader. Sometimes readers might not pick up on irony; at other times, they might be aware that irony is at play, but refuse to go along with it on moral grounds, as was the case with Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses.”