Is He Serious? And Other Ironies

How to Read Literature Like a Professor - Thomas C. Foster 2003

Is He Serious? And Other Ironies

NOW HEAR THIS: irony trumps everything.

Consider roads. Journey, quest, self-knowledge. But what if the road doesn’t lead anywhere, or, rather, if the traveler chooses not to take the road. We know that roads (and oceans and rivers and paths) exist in literature only so that someone can travel. Chaucer says so, as do John Bunyan, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Robert Frost, Jack Kerouac, Tom Robbins, Easy Rider, Thelma and Louise. If you show us a thoroughfare, you better put your hero on it. But then there’s Samuel Beckett. Known as the poet of stasis, he puts one of his heroes, literally, in an ash can. The great actress Billie Whitelaw, who was in virtually every Beckett play that called for a woman, said his work repeatedly put her in the hospital, sometimes by demanding too much strenuous activity, but just as often by not letting her move at all. In his masterpiece Waiting for Godot, he creates two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, and plants them beside a road they never take. Each day they return to the same spot, hoping the unseen Godot will show up, but he never does, they never take the road, and the road never brings anything interesting their way. In some places writing something like that will get you a fifteen-yard penalty for improper use of a symbol. Of course, we catch on pretty fast and soon understand that the road exists for Didi and Gogo to take, and that their inability to do so indicates a colossal failure to engage life. Without our ingrained expectations about roads, however, none of this works: our hapless duo become nothing more than two guys stranded in desolate country. But they’re not merely in desolate country but in desolate country beside an avenue of escape they fail to take. And that makes all the difference.

Irony? Yes, on a variety of levels. First, the entire play exists in what the late literary theorist Northrop Frye calls the “ironic mode.” That is, we watch characters who possess a lower degree of autonomy, self-determination, or free will than ourselves. Whereas normally in literary works we watch characters who are our equals or even superiors, in an ironic work we watch characters struggle futilely with forces we might be able to overcome. Second, the specific situation of the road offers another level of irony. Here are two men, Didi and Gogo, who wish to find possibilities for change or improvement, yet they can only understand the road they wait beside passively, in terms of what it brings to them. We in the audience can see the implication that eludes them (this is where our expectations concerning roads enter the equation), so much so that we may want to scream at them to walk up the road to a new life. But of course they never do.

Or take rain. Of course, we already know that it has nearly limitless cultural associations, but even those won’t cover the literary possibilities once irony kicks in. If you read a scene in which new life was coming into being, the rain outside would almost inevitably lead you (based on your previous reading) to a process of association in which you thought, or felt (since this really works as much at the visceral as at the intellectual level): rain-life-birth-promise-restoration-fertility-continuity. What, you don’t always run that cycle when rain and new life are on the table? If you begin to read like an English professor, you will. But then there’s Hemingway. At the end of A Farewell to Arms his hero, Frederic Henry, having just experienced the death of his lover, Catherine Barkley, and her baby during childbirth, distraught, walks out into the rain. None of those expectations we just listed are going to prevail; in fact, quite the opposite. It might help to know Hemingway’s background in World War I, during which the novel is set, or his earlier life experiences, or his psychology and worldview, or the difficulty of writing this passage (he rewrote the last page twenty-six times, he said) in order to make sense of this scene. Most of all, we need to know that it’s ironic. Like most of his generation, Hemingway learned irony early, then met it firsthand in the war as he watched youth meet death on a daily basis. His book is ironic from its first words. Literally. His title is taken from a sixteenth-century poem by George Peele, “A Farewell,” about soldiers rallying enthusiastically to the call to war, the first two words of which are “To arms!” By conjoining these two in one seamless phrase, Hemingway makes a title as nearly opposite Peele’s rousing meaning as it’s possible to get. That ironic stance pervades the novel right up to the end, where mother and child, rather than existing for each other, as experience has taught us to expect, slay each other, the infant strangled by the umbilical cord, the mother dead after a series of hemorrhages. Frederic Henry walks out into rain in a season that is still winter but comes on the heels of a false spring. There’s nothing cleansing or rejuvenating about the whole thing. That’s irony—take our expectations and upend them, make them work against us.

You can pretty much do this with anything. Spring comes and the wasteland doesn’t even notice. Your heroine is murdered at dinner with the villain, during a toast in her honor no less. The Christ figure causes the destruction of others while he survives very nicely. Your character crashes his car into a billboard but is unhurt because his seat belt functions as designed. Then, before he can get it off, the billboard teeters, topples, and crushes him. Its message? Seat belts save lives.

Is the billboard the same as those other instances of irony?

Sure, why not? It’s a sign that’s used in a way other than the intended one. So are the others. What is a sign? It’s something that signifies a message. The thing that’s doing the signifying, call it the signifier, that’s stable. The message, on the other hand, the thing being signified (and we’ll call that the signified), that’s up for grabs. The signifier, in other words, while being fairly stable itself, doesn’t have to be used in the planned way. Its meaning can be deflected from the expected meaning.

Here’s an instance. G. K. Chesterton, a mystery writer and contemporary of Arthur Conan Doyle, has a story, “The Arrow of Heaven” (1926), in which a man is killed by an arrow. Of the cause of death there is never a flicker of doubt. That’s too bad, since it sets up an insoluble problem: no one could have shot him but God. The victim is in a high tower with higher windows, so there is no way for a straight shot except from heaven. Father Brown, Chesterton’s little hero/detective/priest, studies the matter a while, listening to all the stories, including one intended to misdirect him about how those Indian swamis could throw a knife from an impossible distance and kill a man, so maybe they worked their magic in this case with an arrow. This story immediately reveals the solution: no divine bow, but a murderer in the room with the victim. If a knife, which is intended for close use, can be thrown, then an arrow can be used to stab. Everyone except Father Brown makes the error of assuming that the arrow can only mean one thing. Our expectations about the arrow, like those of the characters in the story, point us in one direction, but Chesterton deflects the meaning away from those expectations. Mysteries, like irony, make great use of deflection. The arrow itself is stable; arrows are arrows. The uses to which arrows can be put and the meanings we attach to them, however, are not so stable.

Well, the seat belt billboard is an arrow. So are the deadly dinner, the failed Christ figure, Hemingway’s rain and Beckett’s road. In each case, the sign carries with it a customary meaning, but that doesn’t guarantee it will deliver that received meaning. The signifier is stable. The rain is neither ironic nor not ironic; it’s simply rain. That simple rain, however, is placed in a context where its conventional associations are upended. The signified’s meaning stands opposed to what we expect. Since one half of the sign is stable and the other is not, the sign itself becomes unstable. It may mean many things, but what it won’t mean is the thing we came in expecting that it would. Still, that expected meaning keeps hanging around, and since we experience this phantom meaning as an echo at the same time as the newly created, dominant meaning, all sorts of reverberations can be set off. It’s kind of like the way jazz improvisation works. Jazz musicians don’t just launch into random sound; rather, the combo begins by laying out a melody which is the basis for everything that will follow. Then, when the trumpeter or the pianist cuts loose, running through the chorus two, three, fifteen times, each one a little different, we hear each of those improvisations, those changes, against our memory of the original melody. That memory is largely what makes the experience of the solo meaningful: this is where he started and now this is where he’s taken us.

What irony chiefly involves, then, is a deflection from expectation. When Oscar Wilde has one character in The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) say of another, recently widowed, that “her hair has gone quite gold from grief,” the statement works because our expectation is that stress turns people’s hair white. Someone becoming blond in widowhood suggests something else entirely, that perhaps her grief has not been so all-consuming as the pronouncement suggests on the surface. Wilde is the master of comic irony in both verbal and dramatic modes, and he succeeds because he pays attention to expectations. Verbal irony forms the basis for what we mean when we say irony. In ancient Greek comedy, there was a character known as the eiron who seemed subservient, ignorant, weak, and he played off a pompous, arrogant, clueless figure called the alazon. Northrop Frye describes the alazon as the character who “doesn’t know that he doesn’t know,” and that’s just about perfect. What happens, as you can tell, is that the eiron spends most of his time verbally ridiculing, humiliating, undercutting, and generally getting the best of the alazon, who doesn’t get it. But we do; irony works because the audience understands something that eludes one or more of the characters. By the time we get to Wilde, we can have verbal irony that needs no alazon but that uses an assumed innocence as the basis against which it plays.

The irony with which we’re dealing in this discussion, though, is chiefly structural and dramatic rather than verbal. We know what should happen when we see a journey start, or when the novel cycles through the seasons and ends in spring, or when characters dine together. When what should happen doesn’t, then we have Chesterton’s arrow.

E. M. Forster only wrote a handful of books early in the twentieth century, but two of them, A Passage to India and Howards End (1910), are among the truly great novels. The latter deals with the class system and issues of individual worth. One of its important characters is a working-class man, Leonard Bast, who is determined to improve himself. He reads books approved for the purpose, such as John Ruskin on art and culture, he goes to lectures and concerts, always struggling to better himself. His efforts do lead him to meet people of the higher classes, the bourgeois Schlegel sisters and, through them, the aristocratic Wilcox family. We might expect this pattern to hold true and to lead him up and out of his wretched existence; instead he ends up finding greater wretchedness and death where he had hoped for his soul’s ascent. Henry Wilcox advises him, through Helen Schlegel, to leave his banking position for a more secure firm, but the advice proves to be completely wrong, as his old bank continues to prosper while his new post is eliminated. Moreover, in his despair he has spent a night with Helen that has left her pregnant, and when Charles Wilcox attempts to exact retribution, Leonard dies of a heart attack. Irony, right? But there’s more. We would normally see his love of books as something that is affirming of values, improving, and educational—all of which we know as positive virtues. As Leonard collapses, however, the last thing he sees are the books from the bookcase he has pulled over on himself. We sense the disjunction between what books ought to be and the function assigned to them here by Forster.

It goes on and on. In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, her damaged Great War veteran, Septimus Warren Smith, commits suicide because his enemies are coming to get him. His enemies? Two doctors. We customarily associate physicians with healing, but in this novel they are interfering and threatening figures. Characters in Iris Murdoch’s Unicorn spend a great deal of time trying to identify one of their number as the title creature, which is associated in folk mythology with Christ. Yet their first choice, who also seems to be the princess held captive in the tower, turns out to be selfish, manipulative, and murderous, while the second candidate winds up drowning another character (named Peter, no less). Hardly the image of Christ one would expect in either case. In each of these novels, the dislocation between our expectations and the reality constitutes a dual awareness, a kind of double-hearing that is the hallmark of irony.

That dual awareness can be tricky to achieve at times. I can bring a discussion of A Clockwork Orange to silence by suggesting that we consider Alex, its protagonist, as a Christ figure.

Alex? The rapist and murderer Alex?

No doubt Anthony Burgess’s protagonist has some high negatives. He is supremely violent, arrogant, elitist, and worst of all unrepentant. Moreover, his message is not one of love and universal brotherhood. If he’s a Christ figure at all, it’s not in any conventional sense.

But let’s consider a few facts. He leads a small band of followers, one of whom betrays him. He is succeeded by a man named Pete (although this fact is troubling, since this Pete, unlike Peter, is also the betrayer). He is offered a bargain by the devil (he relinquishes his soul, in the form of spiritual autonomy, in exchange for the freedom awarded for undergoing aversion therapy). He wanders in the wilderness after his release from prison, then launches himself from a great height (one of the temptations Christ resists). He seems to be dead but then revivifies. Finally the story of his life carries a profound religious message.

None of these attributes looks right. They look instead like parodies of Christ’s attributes. Or, rather, none of the attributes but that last one. This is very tricky business. No, Alex is not like Jesus. Nor is Burgess using Alex to denigrate or mock Jesus. It can look that way, however, if we approach the matter from the wrong angle or consider it carelessly.

It’s a help, of course, to know that Burgess himself held deep Christian convictions, that issues of goodness and spiritual healing occupy a major place in his thought and work. More important, though, is the item I place at the end of my list, that the purpose of telling Alex’s story is to convey a message of religious and spiritual profundity. The book is really Burgess’s entry in the very old debate over the problem of evil, namely, why would a benevolent deity permit evil to exist in his creation? His argument runs like this: there is no goodness without free will. Without the ability to freely choose—or reject—the good, an individual possesses no control over his own soul, and without that control, there is no possibility of attaining grace. In the language of Christianity, a believer cannot be saved unless the choice to follow Christ is freely made, unless the option not to follow him genuinely exists. Compelled belief is no belief at all.

The Gospels offer us a positive model for their argument: Jesus is the embodiment of the behaviors Christian believers should embrace as well as the spiritual goal toward which they strive. A Clockwork Orange, on the other hand, provides a negative model. In other words, Burgess reminds us that for goodness to mean anything, not only must evil exist, but so must the option of choosing evil. Alex freely, and joyously, chooses evil (although in the final chapter he has begun to outgrow that choice). When his capacity to choose is taken away, evil is replaced not with goodness but with a hollow simulacrum of goodness. Because he still wants to choose evil, he is in no way reformed. In acquiring the desired behavior through the “Ludovico Technique,” as the aversion therapy is called in the novel, society has not only failed to correct Alex but has committed a far worse crime against him by taking away his free will, which for Burgess is the hallmark of the human being.

In this regard, and only in this one, is Alex a modern version of Christ. Those other aspects are a bit of ironic window dressing the author embeds in his text as cues for how to understand Alex’s story and the message he unwittingly conveys.

Nearly all writers employ irony sometimes, although the frequency of occurrence varies greatly. With some writers, particularly modern and postmodern writers, irony is a full-time business, so that as we read them more and more, we come to expect that they will inevitably thwart conventional expectations. Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Angela Carter, and T. Coraghessan Boyle are only a few of those twentieth-century masters of the ironic stance. If we were wise, we would never open a Boyle novel or short story expecting him to do the conventional thing. Some readers find relentless irony difficult to warm to, and some writers find that being ironic carries perils. Salman Rushdie’s irony in The Satanic Verses did not register with certain Muslim clerics. So there’s our second ironic precept: irony doesn’t work for everyone. Because of the multivocal nature of irony—we hear those multiple voices simultaneously—readers who are inclined toward univocal utterances simply may not register that multiplicity.

For those who do, though, there are great compensations. Irony—sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, sometimes wry or perplexing—provides additional richness to the literary dish. And it certainly keeps us readers on our toes, inviting us, compelling us, to dig through layers of possible meaning and competing signification. We must remember: irony trumps everything. In other words, every chapter in this book goes out the window when irony comes in the door.

How do you know if it’s irony?