LITERARY TERMS & THEMATIC ELEMENTS
Irony ExemplifiedArt courtesy of Janet Preslar, FrActivity
Irony is the discrepancy between what is and what should be, appearance and reality, between expectation and fulfillment. Since for many, this is a difficult concept to grasp, finding it and applying this thematic element to a difficult unknown story can be confusing, and certainly not help shed light on what irony is. In that spirit, this exercise is designed to use a commonly shared story to bring out this element. We will examine several very short Aesop's Fables - http://www.aesopfables.com/ - to find how authors use irony to get the point across. Fables and fairy tales serve this function well. They are designed to get fairly serious and sometimes complex observations about life to children. The story itself is what the child remembers, and from it the lesson, for if taught alone, the lesson would not be remembered. Irony functions as a reminder that our failures in life are UNEXPECTED... and it is our weaknesses that lead to these failures. Symbolism is also important.
The first is The Goose with Golden Eggs - The Goose with the Golden Eggs. The irony is of course, that in an effort to become richer more quickly, the man who slew the goose was now poorer, an obvious situational irony, and of course, directly linked to the theme or Moral, which tells us greed can lead us to destruction.
The next is The Dog and His Shadow - The Dog and His Shadow. Like the previous example, this is a morality tale of situational irony in which greed for more of an item loses the greedy one his original possession.
The third is The Eagle and the Arrow - The Eagle and the Arrow. The situational irony lies in the FEELING of irony...the joke...that is on the eagle. It is a feeling of ironic twist he experiences as he dies because he knows he unwittingly helped his murderer by providing the feathers for the arrow.
When folks use the phrase "crying over spilled milk" or "Don't count your chickens before they hatch," they are actually referring to a story that is called, varyingly, The Milk Woman and Her Pail - The Milkmaid [woman] and Her Pail. The situational irony here is twofold. Daydreaming about her future (not considered a proper pastime) results in a shattering...or postponing...of those same dreams. In some versions, she cries and is told by a wiser, older person, "There's no use cryin' over spilled milk," implying that regret over a past failure has no benefit. In others, she is told "You shouldn't have counted your chickens before they hatched," a warning against reliance on speculation. This version of the story has dialogue, so we may also see some Dramatic irony as well. Her words that she will refuse to interact with the men, " '...all the young fellows will propose to me, but I will toss my head and refuse them every one' " results in her inability to mingle with them... thus an act of refusal she had not intended, nor has control over. In another she is snubbing a rival. In both cases, we see a second situational irony...in planning her arrogance, she is humbled.
© T. T. Eiland, January 1998