Dramatic Irony

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

by

Mark Twain

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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: Dramatic Irony 2 key examples

Definition of Dramatic Irony
Dramatic irony is a plot device often used in theater, literature, film, and television to highlight the difference between a character's understanding of a given situation, and that of the... read full definition
Dramatic irony is a plot device often used in theater, literature, film, and television to highlight the difference between a character's understanding of a given... read full definition
Dramatic irony is a plot device often used in theater, literature, film, and television to highlight the difference between a... read full definition
Chapter 2
Explanation and Analysis—Whitewashing The Fence:

In an example of dramatic irony, Tom convinces all of his friends to spend hours whitewashing Aunt Polly’s fence. This is a chore that readers know Tom was given as a punishment for playing hooky from school, but one that he frames for his friends as a privilege, such as in this conversation with Ben Rogers:

“Oh come, now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?”

The brush continued to move.

“Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”

To the surprise of readers, Tom’s manipulation is very effective—only a moment later Ben says, “Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little.” By the end of the day, Tom had convinced at least a dozen boys not only to paint the fence but to pay him for the opportunity to do so (via toys and other collectible items). Tom feels no guilt about this, thinking to himself that he could’ve bankrupted the entire village if he didn’t run out of whitewash.

This ironic experience establishes at the start of the novel that Tom knows how to easily manipulate people while avoiding taking responsibility for his actions, setting the scene for his eventual maturation.

Chapter 17
Explanation and Analysis—The Funeral:

In an example of dramatic irony, Tom, Huck, and Joe sneak into the funeral that the village holds for them when all of the townspeople believe the boys to be dead. (In reality, the three of them were secretly living on Jackson’s Island to play pirates and engage in other fantasies.) Twain captures the irony of the moment as he describes the “three dead boys” walking into the church:

First one and then another pair of eyes followed the minister’s, and then almost with one impulse the congregation rose and stared while the three dead boys came marching up the aisle, Tom in the lead, Joe next, and Huck, a ruin of drooping rags, sneaking sheepishly in the rear! They had been hid in the unused gallery listening to their own funeral sermon!

Readers know that the boys are alive and well—they’ve just been hiding on Jackson’s Island—but everyone in St. Petersburgh earnestly believes them to be dead, making this a prime example of dramatic irony.

There is situational irony in this scene as well in that, before Tom, Huck, and Joe entered, the minister was discussing the misbehaving boys as if they were saints:

The minister related many a touching incident in the lives of the departed, too, which illustrated their sweet, generous natures, and the people could easily see, now, how noble and beautiful those episodes were, and remembered with grief that at the time they occurred they had seemed rank rascalities, well deserving of the cowhide.

The irony here is that, as the minister waxes poetic about the “sweet, generous” boys, the very same boys are actively manipulating everyone in town, engaging in the type of “rank rascalities” of which the minister was is trying to absolve them.

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