Dramatic Irony

The Age of Innocence


Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence: Dramatic Irony 3 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 17
Explanation and Analysis—Medora’s Request:

After Archer has accepted that he is in love with Ellen (and they have started trying to plan secret alone time together), Ellen’s aunt Medora approaches him to ask him for his assistance in reuniting Ellen with her husband. This is an example of dramatic irony, because Archer and readers know that he is the last person who wants to see Ellen go back to Europe to be with her cruel husband.

Archer’s inner reaction to Medora’s request captures the irony of this moment:

He would have laughed if any one had foretold to him that his first sight of poor Medora Manson would have been in the guise of a messenger of Satan; but he was in no mood for laughing now, and she seemed to him to come straight out of the hell from which Ellen Olenska had just escaped.

The irony of Medora’s request is so palpable that Archer wants to laugh. He even uses verbal irony, calling her “a messenger of Satan” (sarcastically comparing Ellen’s brutish husband to Satan). Of course, given that Archer is bound by the rules of elite New York society, he cannot say how he actually feels. He does make his displeasure with this idea clear—telling Medora that he does not think this is a good idea—but doesn’t dare to tell her about his romantic feelings for Ellen or his desperation for her to stay in New York.

Chapter 19
Explanation and Analysis—Visit to Skuytercliff:

On the night of May and Archer’s wedding, Mr. van der Luyden offers that they stay at Skuytercliff since there’s a leak at the house where they were supposed to be staying. In an example of both situational and dramatic irony, May is delighted at this news (since Skuytercliff is known to be a very beautiful estate) while Archer is distraught by it because, as he and readers know, this is the very house where he and Ellen revealed their feelings for each other not long ago.

The irony comes across in Archer’s reaction to learning about this offer from a member of Mr. van der Luyden’s staff:

Archer stared at the speaker so blankly that he repeated in still more apologetic accents: “It’ll be exactly the same, sir, I do assure you—” and May’s eager voice broke out, covering the embarrassed silence: “The same as Rhinebeck? The Patroon’s house? But it will be a hundred thousand times better—won’t it, Newland? It’s too dear and kind of Mr. van der Luyden to have thought of it.”

That Archer “stared at the speaker so blankly” shows the situational irony in this moment. He is shocked by the turn of events because, in the very house where he was going to consummate his relationship with Ellen, he will now do so with May.

The dramatic irony comes across in the way in which May believes it is “too dear and kind of Mr. van der Luyden” to offer them his fancy home, as, unlike Archer and readers, she has no idea what this place represents for her new husband. The dramatic irony is furthered later in the conversation when May exclaims, “Ah, it’s just our luck beginning—the wonderful luck we’re always going to have together!” Of course, they do not have wonderful luck, as Archer will continue to long for Ellen throughout their entire marriage. This is one of the moments in which May’s innocence and naiveté is apparent.

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Chapter 33
Explanation and Analysis—The Farewell Dinner:

In an example of dramatic irony, May proposes to Archer near the end of the novel that they host a farewell dinner for Ellen before she leaves New York. This is ironic because, as readers and Archer know, he is in love with Ellen and does not want to see her leave, much less celebrate her departure at an event he is hosting with his wife. The irony comes across in Archer’s reaction to May’s proposal for the dinner:

It was that evening, on his return home, that May announced her intention of giving a farewell dinner to her cousin. Madame Olenska’s name had not been pronounced between them since the night of her flight to Washington; and Archer looked at his wife with surprise.

“A dinner—why?” he interrogated. Her colour rose.

“But you like Ellen—I thought you’d be pleased.”

“It’s awfully nice—your putting it in that way. But I really don’t see—”

“I mean to do it, Newland,” she said, quietly rising and going to her desk.

Archer’s shocked reaction is palpable here—he “look[s] at his wife with surprise” and then awkwardly stammers a reaction to her statement that he “should be pleased” about such an idea because he “likes” Ellen. This language adds to the irony of the scene as Archer does like Ellen, just in a much more significant and romantic way. Because he cannot admit this fact to his wife, Archer must act like he is excited about her proposal for a dinner instead of shocked and upset. One of the main rules of their society is that any tension or hard truths must go unspoken for the sake of maintaining good manners and the appearance of normalcy.

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