I’ve blogged before on the subject of irony. I’ve long been intrigued by the concept, mainly because for quite some time I had no idea how to correctly use the term. Like most people, I just rolled it out whenever I found myself discussing a situation characterised by coincidence and/or bad luck.
Of course, we all know where the blame for this flagrant misappropriation of the word lies: at the guitar strings of Canadian songstress Alanis Morissette. Rain on your wedding day? Not ironic, but pretty bad luck. A free ride when you’ve already paid? No again (but absolutely bloody typical). The good advice you just didn’t take? No! God damn it! It’s foolish, but it’s not ironic.
Incidentally, the whole Alanis Morissette debacle is, like, soo peak irony: pop star, who clearly doesn’t understand irony, writes song about irony, which turns into best-selling global smash, thereby confusing an entire generation as to what irony actually is. The needle on the irony gauge is twitching at max here.
Because of its slipperiness, I’m always on the lookout for simple ways to explain irony, and I came across one this week, when reading Penelope Lively’s short story The Darkness Out There with my Y9s. Long story short (well, short story shorter): girl who thinks bad stuff is all monsters, creepy things in forests, and scary stories in newspapers, ie. “out there”, comes to understand darkness is in fact “in here”, ie. within the human soul.
So I asked my Y9 boys: “The story is called The Darkness Out There but it’s actually about what?”
“The darkness inside people.”
“Good,” I said, having already told them the answer. “So the title is an example of what we call irony. When an author appears to say one thing, but you, the reader, understand that he is actually saying something different, or perhaps even opposite, that’s irony. It’s a little like a lie, except that irony relies on the audience being aware of the truth, whereas a lie relies on its audience being unaware of the truth.”
I then whipped out my board pen and drew my little irony doodle on the whiteboard. My little irony doodle looks something like this:
And it was pretty much as straighforward as that. When I’ve blogged about irony in the past, it has been in relation to Browning’s poem ‘My Last Duchess’. You certainly need to understand irony to understand that poem, but given that it’s tricky at the best of times, introducing pupils to both the poem and irony all at once is problematic and likely to lead to cognitive overload. Conversely, using The Darkness Out There allows for a relatively straightforward introduction to a concept that is routinely misunderstood.