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In the following passage, would it be correct to say that the bolded sentence uses irony?

She walks past one of the farm workers (is his name John?), a robust, small- headed man wearing a potato-coloured vest, cleaning the ditch that runs through the osier bed. He looks up at her, nods, looks down again into the brown water. As she passes him on the way to the river she thinks of how successful he is, how fortunate, to be cleaning a ditch in an osier bed. She herself has failed. She is not a writer at all, really; she is merely a gifted eccentric.

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I'm nearly certain it isn't irony. I can't say what it is, though. Needs work. –  Kris Nov 11 '12 at 8:02
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3 Answers

Irony is the rhetorical device of exploiting a disparity between two distinct meanings in a single event or utterance. The LitCrit factory has produced an enormous body of writing on Irony, which is one of those Fundamental terms, like Metaphor and Ambiguity, but two broad sorts may be distinguished:

  • ‘Rhetorical’ (or ‘classical’ or ‘conscious’ or ‘explicit’) depends on a disparity between what a speaker says and what he means. It is expressly intended by the speaker, who says one thing and expects his listeners to understand the opposite: Mark Antony describes Caesar’s behaviour but repeatedly asserts Brutus’ characterization of Caesar, “But Brutus says he was ambitious, and Brutus is an honourable man,” precisely in order to undercut both the characterization and Brutus’ reputation.
  • ‘Dramatic’ (or ‘romantic’ or ‘unconscious’ or ‘implicit’) depends on a disparity between what a fictional character knows, and in consequence does, and what the spectators know: Sophocles’ Oedipus ‘knows’ himself to be the agent of justice, Sophocles’ spectators know that Oedipus is in fact the guilty man he pursues.

The passage at hand is certainly ironic, drawing its effect from the disparity between the man’s humble occupation and the woman’s characterization of that occupation as ‘successful’ and ‘fortunate’. What is not clear is whether what is in play is rhetorical or dramatic irony.

  • Are we to understand that the woman is consciously musing upon the ironic contrast between success-in-failure and failure-in-success? —that she achieves at this moment an important recognition?
  • Or are we to understand that her mistaking gruelling labour for self-realization reflects her inability to see the world as it really is? —that she is unconsciously revealing her self-absorption?

There’s not enough context in this brief excerpt to judge.

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To the extent you felt "there's not enough context," we had to wait for the OP to clarify. It's not clear if it's irony in the first place. I think it isn't. –  Kris Nov 11 '12 at 14:30
    
@Kris I think the irony's there, and the question (which possibly only the entire story could answer) is how to take it. It's even just possible that what we have here is unintended irony, which the author didn't recognize; but I think that unlikely. –  StoneyB Nov 11 '12 at 14:37
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I went to this website to get a definition of irony, and will focus on this one:

2: a) the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning

When I think of someone who is successful, my initial thoughts are a well-paying job, and a life of relative ease and comfort. Ditch digging is hardly the first thing that comes to mind.

In that sense, I think there could be a trace of irony in the bolded sentence. However, I wouldn't characterize it as dramatic irony; I'd regard it as sarcasm. By dramatic irony, I'm referring to this definition of irony:

Incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs

There isn't enough context in the scene to call that situation ironic. Sarcasm, however, refers to the use of words to mean something opposite of their usual definition, normally in a caustic tone:

sar·casm noun 1. harsh or bitter derision or irony. 2. a sharply ironical taunt; sneering or cutting remark.

In short, sarcasm is a form of irony, and the thought reads as sarcastic to me. So, if I read the paragraph by itself, I might perhaps detect a smidgeon irony there – though it's hardly the best example of an ironic statement.

With additional information – namely, that we are reading the thoughts of a depressed and suicidal woman – what little irony may have been read into the passage seems to evaporate. In that context, I see despair, not irony.


Incidentally, it's not always easy to judge if there's irony in a passage. In fact, you can even submit a passage at a website, and let people vote on whether or not they find that particular example ironic. My guess is that most irony connoisseurs would cast votes on the NOT IRONIC side of the spectrum.

It's also worth noting that the Is It Ironic? website doesn't even use two buttons (IRONIC vs NOT IRONIC). Instead, there is a 1 through 10 rating system, which includes a section labeled "Tricky - Not Sure." Irony isn't always so easy to judge and detect. Maybe that's ironic, in a way?

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The problem, which is why I haven't given an answer, is that we don't have enough information to determine whether the woman is speaking literally or not. On the face of it, the statement is ironic - a ditch cleaner is not the usual image of success - but it could also be that she means it literally. Cleaning ditches is literally more successful than her failed writing career. –  Roaring Fish Nov 11 '12 at 10:16
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@RoaringFish: I agree with you. There are plenty of potential ironies embedded in the passage. How did John get here? Maybe he's a one-time tycoon who has experienced a meteoric fall. In that case, the entire scene might be ironic. However, she may not be thinking sarcastically at all. Maybe John likes the outdoors, has an IQ of 68, has five young mouths to feed at home, all while the country is in a deep depression. In that case, her thoughts might be made out of sincerity, or pity, rather than sarcasm. I've made some assumptions in my response that could easily be negated with more context. –  J.R. Nov 11 '12 at 10:34
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@RoaringFish: the context is that the woman is on her way to commit suicide. She is severely depressed. I take it that her depression is making her think that a ditch cleaner is better than a house-wife that lives in house with a maid. –  Paul Lassiter Nov 11 '12 at 13:03
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@Paul: Now I'm curious as to why you would omit that very vital information from your original question. It also makes me even less likely to identify any irony in the passage. In that context, it smacks of despair, not irony. –  J.R. Nov 11 '12 at 13:10
    
@PaulLassiter "the context is that the woman is on her way to commit suicide. She is severely depressed. I take it that her depression is making her think that a ditch cleaner is better" -- I think you must say as much right there in the question. –  Kris Nov 11 '12 at 14:27
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I would say it depends entirely on her state of mind when she makes this observation - and her state of mind is not clear from the excerpt given.

If she truly believes in that moment that he is better off and she has failed, then it is not ironical. But if this view of things is one she is adopting in a literary way, knowing that it does not really reflect the truth, then you could call it irony.

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As can be seen, "she truly believes ... that he is better off". The point, really, is her choice of an extreme contrast to highlight the fact of her (perceived) failure. To that extent, it seems to me like a nice literary technique, though probably not irony. –  Kris Nov 11 '12 at 8:01
    
She's just feeling sorry for herself, isn't she? She tried to be a writer but failed, she thinks (maybe she knows), and she sees someone who's doing a job that doesn't take intellectual talents that, she's discovered to her dismay, she hasn't enough of to lift her beyond the plateau of eccentricity. She's not an artist, just a hack. Self-pity, not irony. I imagine most of us have felt this way after failing to achieve a goal that we finally learned was beyond our reach and abilities. –  user21497 Nov 11 '12 at 8:32
    
Rather than ironic, I think the paragraph is patronizing: "...a robust, small-headed man...". He's brawny but not brainy. Physical work is easier to master than mental work. –  user21497 Nov 11 '12 at 9:03
    
The rest of the passage describes the woman as being severely depressed, so much so that she commits suicide. Her depression is causing her to believe that a ditch cleaner has a better life than her as a house-wife whose household is well-off enough to have a maid. –  Paul Lassiter Nov 11 '12 at 13:06
    
Yes, I agree with J.R. that the tone is one of despair, which is an extreme state of self-pity. Not at all ironic. I have personal experience with suicidal thoughts and that kind of self-pity. Patronizing, definitely, because the woman thinks that doing manual labor means that the man is stupid and that stupid people have it so much better because they can't aspire to anything higher than unskilled work. –  user21497 Nov 11 '12 at 14:12
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