by Norman D. Knox

IRONY may be defined as the conflict of two meanings which has a dramatic structure peculiar to itself: initially, one meaning, the appearance, presents itself as the obvious truth, but when the context of this meaning unfolds, in depth or in time, it surprisingly discloses a conflicting meaning, the reality, measured against which the first meaning now seems false or limited and, in its self-assurance, blind to its own situation. Irony "lies," but it does so only as a dramatic means of bringing two meanings into open conflict. Some theorists assert that by encompassing this conflict in a single structure, irony resolves it into harmony or unity. The variable factors in the ironic structure are the following:

(1) The degree of conflict between appearance and reality ranges from the slightest of differences to diametrical opposites.

(2) The field of observation in which irony may be noticed ranges from the smallest semantic unit—e.g., a pun—to the cosmos. The most frequently used fields are: the relation between one meaning located in words and another meaning located either in the same words or in their context—verbal irony; the relation between an event or situation as interpreted from a limited point of view and that event as interpreted with a broader knowledge of the situation or of subsequent events—called dramatic irony in literature, in life called the irony of fate, God, events, things, etc.; the relation between events and an observer’s state of mind—the ironic attitude, which may or may not externalize itself as verbal irony, dramatic irony, or the irony of fate.

(3) Irony usually has an author, who by analogy is a superhuman power in some fields of observation; it always has an audience, even if it is only the author amusing himself; and a victim, who is deceived by appearance and enlightened by reality, although an author may turn himself into a pseudovictim.

(4) The aspects of irony may be analyzed as follows. The variable factors here are the conception of reality, the degree to which author and audience sympathize or identify with the victim, and the fate of the victim—triumph or defeat. Reality may be thought of by author and (or) audience as reflecting their own values. In this context, satiric irony reveals the defeat of an unsympathetic victim; comic irony reveals the triumph of a sympathetic victim. (Throughout this article, the word comic refers primarily to a rise from defeat to tritimph, as in Dante’s Divine Comedy.) At the other pole, reality may be thought of as hostile to all human values. In this context, triumph is impossible, defeat inevitable. In tragic irony, sympathy for the victim predominates; in nihilistic irony, satiric detachment counterbalances or dominates sympathy, but a degree of identification always remains since author and audience necessarily share the victim’s plight. Paradoxical irony balances these two extremes. Everything is relative: reality in part does and in part does not reflect human values; author and audience fuse, or oscillate between, identification and detachment; comic triumph and tragic defeat counterbalance each other, or the satiric norm constantly shifts.

Although the idea of irony has undoubtedly appeared under other names—e.g., Aristotle’s peripeteia, Jean Paul’s and Pirandello’s humor—little attempt has been made to trace the idea apart from the term. The term itself, after quickly shedding most of its original meaning, has steadily extended itself from satiric and comic irony through paradoxical irony to tragic and nihilistic irony, and now encompasses all the meanings outlined above. Frequently, during this history, the use of irony has elicited intense ethical judgments, pro and con.

The most influential model in the history of irony has been the Platonic Socrates. Neither Socrates nor his contemporaries, however, would have associated the word eironeia with modern conceptions of Socratic irony. As Cicero put it, Socrates was always "pretending to need information and professing admiration for the wisdom of his companion"; when Socrates’ interlocutors were annoyed with him for behaving in this way they called him eiron, a vulgar term of reproach referring generally to any kind of sly deception with overtones of mockery. The fox was the symbol of the eiron.

All serious discussions of eironeia followed upon the association of the word with Socrates. These occurred in two contexts, the ethical and the rhetorical. In ethics, the field of observation was an habitual manner of behaving, a type of human character, and here the notion of irony as actual lying persisted, narrowed however to understatement. "As generally understood," Aristotle said in the Ethics, "the boaster is a man who pretends to creditable qualities that he does not possess, or possesses in a lesser degree than he makes out, while conversely the self-depreciator disclaims or disparages good qualities that he does possess. Midway between them is the straightforward sort of man (iv. 7. 1-17). Aristotle recognized that understatement (eironeia) might have various degrees of difference from the truth, including total denial of it. Of the’ two evils defined, he preferred irony because it was unostentatious. For Demosthenes and Theophrastus the eiron was an even less respectable liar: he understated his own powers specifically for the purpose of escaping responsibility.

Although in the Ethics Aristotle (ibid.) had mentioned "affected humbugs" whose "mock humility seems to be really boastfulness," a sentence that implied the full structure of irony as a lie meant to reveal the truth, it was in the rhetorical tradition that this structure came to explicit definition. Here the field of observation was narrow, limited to the brief figure of speech. As that, irony seemed ethically less censurable, and in the Rhetoric Aristotle spoke of it as a "gentlemanly" sort of jest. The full pattern was formulated by the fourth century B.C. Rhetoric to Alexander: irony is blame through praise and praise through blame. This definition, by shifting attention from the logical content of an ironic statement to the implied diametrically opposed value judgments, opened the way to the later, sometimes misleading formula that irony is saying the "contrary" of what one means. Also, two aspects of irony were implied by this definition: "to blame by praise" is satiric irony; "to praise by blame is comic irony, for undesirable characteristics attributed to a sympathetic victim draw the audience’s attention to his real virtues. Ariston pointed out that Socrates’ way of exalting his opponent while depreciating himself exemplified the full pattern.

In the early eighteenth century, the omnipresence of French and English satiric literature brought the idea of irony, so called, out of the classroom into the intellectual marketplace; during the intervening twenty centuries it lived in, or on the edge of, rhetorical theory, the two chief fountains of which were Cicero and Quintilian. In Cicero Socratic irony first became a completely admirable thing, which he distinguished into an isolated figure of speech and a pervasive habit of discourse. Generally speaking, these were the limits of the field during the following centuries. Quintilian, however, said that "a man’s whole life may be colored with irony, as was the case with Socrates, who. . . assumed the role of an ignorant man lost in wonder at the wisdom of others" (Institutio ix. 2. 44-53). For Quintilian this manner was an indication and expression of goodness that was "mild" and "ingratiating."

In the early eighteenth century the third earl of Shaftesbury (d. 1713) also described a "soft irony" "spread alike through a whole character and life." Such irony was more than an indication of goodness: it was the expression of the perfect way of life to which Shaftesbury aspired. Ethically, irony here reversed the position it had held in the Aristotelian school, but Shaftesbury was seeing irony in a modern way, from the subjective angle of the individual soul rather than from Aristotle’s objective social angle, with the result that Shaftesbury’s emphasis fell on the mental attitude of which the ironic manner was only the external expression. The manner Shaftesbury described kept the degree of opposition between praise and blame very slight, avoiding satiric virulence or comic buffoonery: it was a fusion of modest self-abnegation, gentle gravity, and an apparent tolerance of all things behind which hid reservations about all things. The reservations were there because for the Neo-Platonic Shaftesbury the only important reality was the spirit within, which must tolerate but not be disturbed by the "immediate changes and incessant eternal conversions, revolutions of the world." He himself might often be the only audience aware of his irony and the world might find him puzzling, but he lived "disinterested and unconcerned," accommodating all appearances to his own mind and setting "everything in its due light." (See Knox, pp. 47-53, for a full discussion of Shaftesbury’s conception.) Socrates was interpreted in this modern way: he had been "a perfect character; yet . . . veiled, and in a cloud . . . chiefly by reason of a certain exquisite and refined raillery which belonged to his manner, and by virtue of which he could treat the highest subjects, and those of commonest capacity . . . together, . . . both the heroic and the simple, the tragic and the comic" (Characteristics [1714], I, 194-95). The critical norm of this subtly satiric attitude toward the world was the absolute value contained in the ironist’s own mind; all other values were limited and relative to one another.

Apart from Socrates, the rhetoricians thought of irony, in Quintilian’s terms, as either "trope," a brief figure of speech embedded in a straightforward context, or "schema," an entire speech or case presented in language and a tone of voice that conflict with the true situation. Understatement, which in Aristotle had been limited to self-depreciation, spread out to include any statement whose apparent meaning falls some degree short of the reality, e.g., to say of a muscular warrior, with comic irony, that he has "a reasonably good arm." At first called litotes or meiosis, such understatement came to be called irony, at least by the end of the sixteenth century. The comic irony of praise through blame, which had also originated in Socratic self-depreciation, remained a minor figure of speech until the early eighteenth century, when in England, at least, Swift, Pope, and their friends recognized it as a delightful mode in which to write letters and converse.

The abstract definition of irony as saying the "contrary" of what one means, the most popular formula from Cicero and Qruintilian on, led the rhetoricians and others occasionally to extend the opposition beyond praise and blame to logical contraries which might not involve praise or blame, such as praeteritio and negatio. Cicero had pointed out that some types of irony do not say "the exact reverse of what you mean" but only something "different." Allegory also says something "different" from what it means. Quintilian and later rhetoricians classified irony as a type of allegory, but Chambers’ Cyclopaedia (1778-88) narrowed allegory to exclude irony: "allegory imports a similitude between the thing spoken and intended; irony a contrariety between them."

However, the dominant conception of irony so-called was satiric blame through praise. The earliest recognized strategies, derived from Socrates, were direct praise of a victim for possessing good qualities he lacks, and self-depreciation meant to imply such praise. Quintilian pointed out that the real meaning became evident to an audience "either by the delivery, the character of the speaker or the nature of the subject" (Institutio viii. 6. 54-58). But he also remarked that irony as trope might state both praise and blame explicitly: e.g., "it is a fine thing to be a thief"—not, "it is a fine thing to be honest." He also illustrated ironic concession, which exposes a victim’s ideas by echoing them with mock approval, and ironic advice, which recommends that its victim continue to pursue those foolish or vicious courses he is already pursuing. The ironic defense was invented by Lucian.

Later rhetoricians recognized all these strategies as irony, and when in the late seventeenth century and the early eighteenth Boileau, Defoe, Swift, Pope, Voltaire, Fielding, and hosts of lesser pamphleteers and periodical writers used these strategies cheek by jowl the fallacious argument, the reductio ad absurdum, parody, burlesque, and the fictitious character, these other strategies also came to be called ironic. All burlesque involving people degraded them to some degree by caricature, but the author presented his characters with mock sympathy and approval, heightened in "high" burlesque by elevated language.

When such ironic strategies expanded into fictional narratives of some length—Swift’s A Tale of a Tub, Pope’s The Dunciad, Fielding’s Jonathan Wild and Joseph Andrews—mid-century critics for the first time defined the field of irony as the totality of an imaginative work of art. Now recognizing that irony could be a literary mode of major significance, they saw Cervantes as the central model, flanked by Swift, Lucian, Erasmus. Cervantes especially had shown how to maintain an ironic manner throughout a long narrative. R. O. Cambridge in the Preface to his Scribleriad (1752), expressed the common view: "the author should never be seen to laugh, but constantly wear that grave irony which Cervantes alone has inviolably preserved." Talking about his own mock-heroic poem, Cambridge continued:

To complete the design of mock-gravity, the author and editors are represented full as great enthusiasts as the hero; therefore, as all things are supposed to appear to them in the same light as they do to him, there are several things which they could not explain without laying aside their assumed character.. . . Then how shall it be known whether a burlesque writer means the thing he says or the contrary? This is only to be found by attention and a comparison of passages.

And Cambridge pointed out that all of his hero’s great expectations were "ironically given," "for of all of the many prophecies delivered to him, the only one fulfilled is that of his being reduced to a state of beggary in his pursuit of alchemy." Cambridge exhibits clearly how the rhetorical idea of satiric irony had been extended by the impact of fictional narrative. The mock sympathy with which ideas and opinions had been presented in ironic concession, advice, defense, and the like had become the grave presentation of character and action; the reality, which in many of the rhetorical ironies had been revealed by direct statement or burlesque exaggeration, in narrative was now revealed by the course of events: by dramatic irony.

In Cermany, during the last years of the eighteenth century and the first three decades of the nineteenth, the ironies of Cervantes and Socrates collided with transcendental philosophy, and irony entered its modern phase. Friedrich Schlegel’s oracular pronouncements (chiefly 1797-1800) led the way, but Friedrich’s brother A. W. Schlegel, who was clearer and whose lectures On Dramatic Art and Literature (1808) were widely translated, may have been more immediately influential. In any case, most of literary Germany was talking about irony in a new way. It became the central principle of an aesthetic in the Erwin (1815) and later writings of the philosopher K. W. F. Solger, and Hegel, who before Solger’s death was briefly his colleague, related irony to his own dialectical system. An admirer of Solger and student of Hegelianism, the expatriate Heine helped to make the new ironies familiar in France, and in England many of them appeared in an essay "On the Irony of Sophocles" (1833) by Bishop Connop Thirlwall, a student of German thought, and an acquaintance and translator of Ludwig Tieck. Irony finally became the subject of an academic thesis in Søren Kierkegaard’s Danish The Concept of Irony, with Constant Reference to Socrates (1841), which added little to the complex of meanings that had developed.

Prior to the later eighteenth century, irony had always been thought of as a weapon to be used in the service of absolute human values derived from reality. For the eighteenth century, speaking very generally, this value had been "reason," supposedly reflected in the structure of the universe. Shaftesbury had found a resting place in Neo-Platonism. The German theorists of the new irony, however, found themselves in a situation that has become familiar to the modern mind. On the one hand, there seemed to be considerable evidence that human values are only subjective and sharply opposed to an external world that is chaotic, inhumanly mechanistic, or ultimately unknowable, as in the Kantian epistemology that pervaded Schlegel’s Germany. On the other hand, they could not relinquish their faith that the values of the human spirit must be substantiated somewhere. No longer able to turn away from the immediate world to the certainty of a Platonic or Christian or Deistic absolute, they turned toward the flux of existence and human art, recognizing that no "limited thing" could offer a resting place, yet hoping that out of the complex interrelationships of a wide-ranging experience something might emerge.

It occurred to Friedrich Schlegel, as it had to Shaftesbury, that the best way for the mind to assert its freedom from "limited things" had been discovered by Socrates. Irony, which Schlegel sometimes called "Socratic irony," was "never-ending satire," "continual self-parody," by means of which the spirit "raises itself above all limited things," even over its "own art, virtue, or genius." On the other hand, it was in those very "things" that the spirit must now find itself. Consequently, in Schlegel the grave tolerance of Shaftesbury’s ironic attitude opened outward to become "instinctive," "in earnest," "naively open." Irony was now, paradoxically, an instrument of positive engagement at the same time that it was an instrument of detachment. Behind Schlegel’s new formula seem to have been Schiller’s play theory of art and an analogy with the theological idea of God as both immanent and transcendent, especially in Fichte’s post-Kantian, idealist version.

The new ironic attitude quickly caught on in both art and life. For Tieck, irony "saturates its work with love, yet sweeps rejoicing and unfettered over the whole" (Sedgewick, p. 16). In Shakespeare’s ironic attitude A. W. Schlegel found the same combination of creative absorption and "cool indifference," though its mood was disillusioned: Shakespeare had seen "human nature through and through" yet "soars freely above it." Goethe thought irony raises the mind "above happiness or unhappiness, good or evil, death or life" from which height we may view our own "faults and errors in a playful spirit"; even the scientist should view his own discoveries ironically, for they are only provisionally true.

The external manifestation of irony Friedrich Schlegel located in an endless "tension of opposites." Satiric and comic irony had of course exhibited a tension of opposites at just that moment when the apparent meaning begins to give way to the real meaning. For that moment both meanings are simultaneously before the eye in a precarious balance. Such irony, however, had theoretically always resolved this tension in favor of a real meaning. So, too, would the nihilistic and tragic irony to come. But Schlegel did not wish to resolve the tension in that direction. Nothing is absolute, everything is relative. So irony became "an incessant ... alternation of two contradictory thoughts," the contradictory thoughts usually being faith in some ideal human value on the one hand, and on the other, assent to a less ideal reality; the "subjective" versus the "objective." At times Schlegel conceived this tension as static, a fusion, as in some forms of verbal irony; more often he described it as a movement from one thought to another, as in dramatic irony. The ironic author at first appears to engage himself with one meaning—and in part really does so; he then appears to destroy that meaning by revealing and attaching himself to a contradictory meaning; this, too, however, he also destroys, either by returning to the first or moving on to a third, ad infinitum. Paradoxical irony’ is "self-creating alternation," "self-criticism surmounted." And since such irony does postulate appearances that are in part real, but only in part, Schlegel returned to the association of irony with allegory.

Two of Schlegel’s chief models for paradoxical irony in literature were Laurence Sterne, who could both love and laugh at the creations of his imagination, and Don Quixote, which Schlegel saw not simply as grave satire but as an unresolved tension between satire and genuine sympathy for the Don’s ideals: "a charming symmetry" produced by "rhythmical alternations between enthusiasm and irony." In such phrases as this the word irony retained its old force as satiric, but elsewhere it spilled over to include the "enthusiasm," a natural extension since the structure of enthusiastic commitment followed by satiric deflation paralleled on the surface the structure of satiric praise followed by blame. In this context as well, then, irony began to take on its paradoxical sense.

After the Schlegels had announced the new irony, Ludwig Tieck’s early plays came to be seen as examples of it. Setting out to satirize philistine prejudices, Tieck had adopted the strategies of burlesque satire, as old as Aristophanes, especially its destruction of a primary fictional illusion by the "reality" of author, actors, even audience stepping out of their normal roles to speak as themselves, attacking each other and commenting on the primary illusion itself, a device Tieck had also been impressed by in the authorial intrusions of Cervantes and Sterne. But Tieck became lost in endless relativity. A character in The World Turned Topsy-turvy remarks: "This is too crazy! See, friends, we sit here as spectators and see a play; in that play spectators are also sitting and seeing a play, and in that third play another play is going to be played by those third actors.. . . People often dream that sort of thing" (Die verkehrte Welt [1799], end of Act III; trans. Thompson, pp. 58-59).

Shakespeare too was an ironist on the new model, both Friedrich and A. W. Schlegel decided. To demonstrate this, it was necessary to find satiric elements in what most people had supposed to be a predominantly sympathetic presentation, as in Don Quixote enthusiasm had been found to counterbalance satire. Although A. W. Schlegel barred irony when "the proper tragic enters," which demands "the highest degree of seriousness," he found it everywhere else. In the results of Henry V’s marriage to the French princess, he saw dramatic irony that cast a satiric light on Henry’s ambitions. Incongnmous juxtapositions might be ironic: comic scenes were often "intentional parody of the serious part." In his depiction even of "noble minds" Shakespeare had revealed "self-deception" and hypocrisy. Such irony, A. W. Schlegel said, was a defense against "overcharged one-sidedness in matters of fancy and feeling." He assumed that all intelligent people were relativists: by constant ironic qualification Shakespeare "makes a sort of secret understanding with . . . the more intelligent of his readers or spectators; he shows them that he had previously seen and admitted the validity of their tacit objections" (Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature [1809-11], trans. John Black, rev. A. J. W. Morrison [1892], pp. 369-70).

Friedrich Schlegel thought that all good modern literature would be ironic. But if its irony was to be endlessly relative, where would the final values of a modern work lie? In literature, as in life, they would reside in the comprehensiveness of the author’s activity: a perfected work might be "limited at every point," but in its inclusion of all contradictions it would be "without limitation and inexhaustible." (For authoritative discussions of and references to F. Schlegel’s scattered pronouncements, see Immerwahr, Wellek, and Muecke.)

Hegel was not impressed. Rather unfairly, he saw the new irony of the Schlegels as entirely negative. In literature it produced "insipid" characters having "neither content nor defined position." In life itself, the Schlegelian ironist looked "down in his superior fashion on all other mortals," some of whom his ironic gravity actually deceived; he denied and destroyed all that was "noble, great, and excellent" in the interest of freedom for the self; yet, because his freedom prohibited positive action and led nowhere, he was beset by morbid feelings of emptiness and boredom. In fact, in opposing "self-will" to objective moral truth, "this type of subjectivism . . . is evil through and through and universally." (Capel’s translation of Kierkegaard, Part II, Introduction, n. 7, gives a full list of references to Hegel’s comments on irony.)

Actually, of course, the Schlegels’ irony had also an objective side, one that was less reassuring, however, than Hegel’s objective moral truth. Friedrich had found it "strikingly ironic" that der grosse Maschinist behind the chaos "finally discloses himself as a contemptible betrayer." In riot quite so disillusioned a way, this objective source of irony moved to the foreground in Solger’s aesthetic. In Solger’s view, the human artist created a beautiful work "just as the essence of God, in its non-actuality, reveals itself intact as the very core" of a human being. In both cases the idea inhabits a particular "thing." For Solger the situation was ironic, because, on the one hand, although the "thing" appeared to suggest the infinite, it was really only a thing, and on the other hand, although the "infinite" appeared to transcend the thing, it could not really do so—it must inhabit finite reality. Schlegel’s tension of opposites had become the "concrete universal," the ironic symbol of a universe which intimated meanings that could not be reached in an eternal form. But at least in the artistic symbol "all contradictions annihilate themselves": irony is a unifying structure.

"Without irony," then, "there is no art." Considering the tension of opposites as moving rather than static, Solger found that irony "begins with the contemplation of the world’s fate in the large": "we suffer when we see the most elevating and noble ideals dissipated through their necessary earthly existence." A. W. Schlegel had barred irony from the "proper tragic," but for Solger satiric and "tragic irony" were simply different aspects of the irony common to all art: in the first, false ideals were destroyed; in the second, admirable ones, and the audience is not detached: "we suffer." Although the dominant movement in both satiric and tragic irony was toward defeat, Solger saw an opposing comic movement arising out of destruction, as had Friedrich Schlegel in his "self-creating alteration." The very moment that breaks the brief union of idea and thing affirms both the value of the idea and the necessity of its embodiment. When Hamlet dies, Fortinbras must appear. (For discussions of and references to Solger’s statements about irony, see Wellek, Mueller, pp. 225-26, Sedgewick, p. 17, and Strohschneider-Kohrs.)

Solger’s version of irony Hegel accepted as a phase of his own famous dialectic, though it was only one phase: "that transition point which I call the infinite absolute negativity." For Hegel Socratic irony was negative dialectic. Socrates’ humble questioning had induced his interlocutor to state a definite proposition, from which Socrates then derived in one way or another "the direct opposite of what the proposition stated." In this conception, Socrates’ irony was not so much mocking praise as dramatic irony in which ideas played the roles characters and events play in fiction, "Socratic irony ..., like all dialectic, gives force to what is taken immediately, but only in order to allow the dissolution inherent in it to come to pass." Since in the Hegelian system dialectic was deified as historical process, Hegel spoke of the negative moment in dialectic as "the universal irony of the world" (Lectures on the History of Philosophy, trans. E. S. Haldane [1892], I, 400). And although he thought Solger’s use of the phrase "tragic irony" was arbitrary, he himself called Socrates’ "opposition of subjective reflection to morality as it exists" a "tragic irony," meaning, in Kierkegaard’s interpretation, "the irony of the world with Socrates."

It soon became commonplace to think of the field of irony as life itself, and of mankind as the victim of a cosmic author. Heine spoke casually of the irony of God, the world, nature, fate, and even chance. The red cheeks of the elderly A. W. Schlegel, a parody of youth, were a "healthy irony of nature"; the incongruous juxtaposition of a Gothic cathedral with modern buildings was ironic. An "ironic remark" might now be, not in itself mocking, but simply the straightforward observation of an ironic fact.

Bishop Connop Thirlwall, who believed in a just god, spelled out the two movements of irony, both in life and in Sophocles. In our personal lives we eagerly pursue objects which prove worthless; but we also dread changes which fulfill our "most ardent wishes." In history "the moment of highest prosperity . . . immediately precedes the most ruinous disaster"; but the destruction of Greece spread Greek culture through the Roman world, the destruction of Rome was followed by Christianity. In Oedipus the King there is "the contrast between the appearance of good and the reality of evil"; Oedipus at Colonus "reverses that irony," for Oedipus can here say, "Now, when all’s lost, I am a man indeed." Though he used only the term "tragic irony," Thirlwall, apparently following Solger, extended the conception of irony into both tragic and comic situations in which the detachment of irony was overcome by sympathy for the victim. But the satiric aspect did not totally disappear; it remained as a qualification of the dominant feeling. Clytemnestra’s "vindication of her own conduct . . . assumes a tone of self-mockery," but "when we remember that, while she is pleading, her doom is sealed, and that the hand which is about to execute it is already lifted above her head," the tone becomes "deeply tragical."

In his discussion of ambiguous language in Sophocles’ tragedies, Thirlwall apparently established the association of the term "Sophoclean irony" with dialogue that means one thing to the speaker, another to author and audience, whose view of the situation is wider and truer. This sort of thing had been recognized as a common form of irony in satiric narrative; Thirlwall simply extended the field to tragedy. He also pointed out a type of tragedy that contains an ironic dilemma, such as the conflict of Antigone and Creon, "in which good and evil are . . . inextricably blended on each side." The audience exhibits "a slight cast of irony in the grave, respectful attention impartially bestowed." But Thirlwall admitted that it was sometimes easier for God to preserve such an attitude than it was for humans. When "we review the mockery of fate, we can scarcely refrain from a melancholy smile" (Philological Museum, Cambridge [1832-33], II, 483-537).

Whether as the questing romantic ego, the progress of world history, or a just god of some sort, the theorists of paradoxical irony had found a hopeful movement which preserved the balance of triumph and defeat. This was seen either as a human satiric norm counterbalancing an inhuman one, or as a comic movement counterbalancing the tragic. But when even these faiths receded, as for some nineteenth- and twentieth-century minds they did, the comic movement came to seem entirely deceptive, and the norm of satire became reduced to Nothing. Human values are only illusions. One result of this loss of faith was increasing notice of tragic irony. The other was that the idea of irony as counterbalancing sympathy with detachment began to isolate from the complex of paradoxical irony what may be called nihilistic irony, that peculiar merging of the satiric and the tragic adumbrated in Thirlwall’s "melancholy smile."

This view of irony became prominent in Heine, who "is repelled by the cold stars, and sinks down . . . toward our little earth." God "is sometimes a greater satirist than Tieck." In the "humoristic irony" of Don Quixote the "insane dignity" of the Don is made ridictulous by "fate," yet that ridiculous fate shows us the "tragedy of our own nothingness." Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida "is neither comedy nor tragedy . . . there prevails in it an exultant bitterness, a world-mocking irony, such as we never met in the merriment of the comic muse. It is the tragic goddess who is very much more before us in this play, only that she here would fain be gay for once, and move to mirth. It is as if we saw Melpomene at a grisette ball, dancing the chahut, bold laughter on her pale lips and death in her heart." (See Wellek, Vol. III, for references to Heine’s comments on irony.)

As the nineteenth century wore on, the new ironies gradually moved to center stage. At the turn of the century Anatole France and Thomas Hardy especially were drawing the attention of a large audience to irony. By 1908 Alexander Blok could observe, "All the most lively and sensitive children of our century are stricken by a disease"—irony (quoted in Glicksberg, p. 3). In the 1920’s France’s "irony and pity" became a catch phrase. H. W. Fowler (1926) announced that "the irony of fate" was hackneyed, and I. A. Richards (1924) began that preoccupation with irony among English and American academic critics which has helped to make it a central idea in literary criticism throughout the world.

Tragic irony quickly established itself as an independent aspect of irony, and G. G. Sedgewick has asserted that it does not qualify the tragic feeling: "it heightens the sense of pity and terror." Paradoxical and nihilistic irony have had a harder time disentangling themselves from each other, much to the confusion of criticism. The balanced relativism of paradoxical irony is clearly the core of Kierkegaard’s "mastered irony," the "philosophical irony" of Renan and France, Henry James’s "full irony," the "objective irony" of Thomas Mann, Richards’ "balance of opposed impulses," William Empson’s "double irony," Cleanth Brooks’ "a very different conception of irony," and A. Zahareas’ analysis (1963) of irony in Camus as nihilism counterbalanced by a stubborn determination to go on (Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 5, 319-28).

As an attitude toward life, paradoxical irony has been both praised and attacked. F. Paulhan (1909) argued at philosophical length that all moral values are relative and only the ironic attitude can give proportional weight to the demands of both society and the ego. Nietzsche thought the ironic attitude a sign of health (Beyond Good and Evil, 1886). The American Randolph Bourne (1913) believed that since the ironist does not absolutely reject any experience but is constantly contrasting and criticizing and moving on to new experiences, he has an "intense feeling of aliveness" and "the broad honest sympathy of democracy" (Atlantic Monthly, 111, 357-67). Attacks on this attitude have all resembled Hegel’s attack on Schlegelian ethics: there is no absolute commitment to anything. So H. Chantavoine (1897) and H. Chevalier (1932) attacked Anatole France, Wayne Booth (1961) the elusive morality of modem novelists, and Jean-Paul Sartre adopted the ironic attitude as a model for analyzing self-deception or mauvaise foi (L’étre et le néant, 1943).

The German romantics had tried to locate the unity and morality of paradoxical irony in its comprehensiveness, but, as J. C. Ransom (1941) observed, "opposites can never be said to be resolved or reconciled merely because they have been got into the same poem." Several American critics have attempted to solve this problem in a Hegelian way by seeing paradoxical irony not as the expression of absolute relativism, but as a dynamic learning process which produces tentative results. For Randolph Bourne irony was "the science of comparative experience" which "compares things not with an established standard but with each other": values "slowly emerge from the process." Cleanth Brooks, R. P. Warren, and Kenneth Burke have taken much the same position.

The quite different pattern of nihilistic irony has emerged elsewhere. In 1856 George Eliot commented on Heine’s "strain of irony that repels our sympathy. . . . Yet what strange, deep pathos is mingled with the audacity" (Westminster Review, n. s. 9, 1-33). The full pattern—a conception of reality as denying human values and the mingling of something like satiric detachment with something like tragic pathos—is evident in a number of Baudelaire’s uses of the word; in turn-of-the-century criticism of Laforgue’s irony by Arthur Symons, Remy de Gourmont, and James Huneker; in discussions of the "cosmic irony" of Hardy and Housman; in Georges Palante’s "metaphysical principle of irony"; in Irving Babbitt’s notion of "romantic irony," a term that F. Schlegel had used only in his Notebooks but which has been frequently used by German scholars since Rudolf Haym’s Romantische Schule (1870); in Morton Gurewitch’s "European romantic irony," which he traces through Byron, Heine, Grabbe, Büchner, Leopardi, Flaubert, and Baudelaire; and in notice of the irony of the Absurd, frequent since World War II.

Many critics have commented on the despair and self-pity which nihilistic irony both expresses and induces, even at its most detached extreme. Discussing Madame Bovary, Flaubert insisted on his absolute ironic detachment as author; nevertheless, he expected the realism of his method to produce in his audience some identification with the characters, and he himself recognized, as Kenneth Burke remarked, a "fundamental kinship with the enemy." Waiting for Godot was farcical vaudeville, yet Ward Hooker (1960) pointed out that the play’s "irony in a vacuum" had changed the "laughter of the audience ... to sickening doubt . . . which spreads from the addled minds of Vladimir and Estragon to engulf the audience" (Ken yon Review, 22, 436-54). Few moral critics have risen to praise nihilistic irony, many to attack it: it is absolute for negation and despair.

The various types of satiric irony have been exhaustively analyzed by twentieth-century critics. In "The New Irony: Sicknicks and Others" (1961) Benjamin De Mott described a satiric irony based on nihilism as a positive norm, in the sense that it supplies a reason not for defeat and despair hut for the ironist’s arrogantly superior, ironic attack on "all positive assertion." Comic irony has apparently received almost no attention as an independent aspect of irony, and the term itself has usually meant what is here called satiric irony. What little attention it has received has been as part of an overall complex of dramatic irony, which has been repeatedly analyzed in tragic drama by English and American critics following Thirlwall. Henry James drew attention to a novelistic form of dramatic irony: the difference between what an unreliable narrator or center of consciousness understands in what he tells or sees and what the author and audience understand.

In the field of verbal irony, the analytic niethods of rhetoric have been revived and intensified in the critical practice of William Empson, Cleanth Brooks, and their followers, now equipped with all the new ideas of irony as well as the old. Such criticism has found ironic incongruity in the minutest degree of difference between meanings. For Brooks, "every word in a good poem acknowledges to some degree the pressure of the context" and is therefore ironic. In France, Vladimir Jankélévitch (1936) had asserted much the same argument in terms of irony as allegory: all language, indeed, is more or less allegorical. R. S. Crane (1952) observed that in this sense even a mathematical equation is ironic.

In Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious (190.5), Freud, thinking of verbal irony as satiric, asserted that in the listener such irony produces "comic pleasure, probably by causing him to make preparations for contradiction, which are immediately found to be unnecessary." That is, the audience of satiric irony reacts as would the victim of comic irony. Thinking of irony as paradoxical, Richards, although not entirely satisfied with a "switchboard" psychology, located the satisfaction of the audience in a static "balance of opposed impulses." In regard to the author, Freud asserted that irony as saying the opposite of what one means parallels the dream, which "delights in representing a pair of opposites by means of one and the same composite image" or "changes an element from the dream-thoughts into its opposite." This notion seems to have been behind Norman Brown’s "law of irony" by which it could be shown that the "partially disclaimed thought is Swift’s own thought" (Life Against Death, 1959), and Norman Holland’s definition of irony as "a defense mechanism in which the ego turns the object of a drive into its opposite" (Dynamics of Literary Response, 1968).

Irony has continued to appear infields of observation outside literature. It has been analyzed in music and the visual arts, notably by Ortega y Gasset (1925), Jankélévitch, and Muecke. Goethe’s observation that the truths of science should be viewed ironically has reoccurred, and Heisenberg’s Principle of Indeterminacy has reinforced it for Muecke and Arthur Miller: it is "dialectical irony that the act of measurement itself changes the particle being measured" (Collected Plays, 1957). In the field of politics, the attitude of paradoxical irony has been recommended by Proudhon (Confessions d’un révolutionnaire, 1849), Palante (1906), Mann (1918), and Reinhold Niebuhr (1952): it frees the political activist from fanatical attachment to any one cause, thereby keeping the door to progress open. Both Niebuhr and Kenneth Burke have used paradoxical irony as a model for analyzing history. Niebuhr revived the Christian view of Thirlwall—God "resisteth the proud and giveth grace to the humble"; Burke took the Hegelian position that history is an ironic dialectic in which no cultural movement ever disappears—only the balance changes (Grammar of Motives, 1945).

The most important recent theory of irony is that of Northrop Frye, whose Anatomy of Criticism (1957) absorbed virtually all the available ideas of irony into a total structure of human thought and vision. Even here, however, satiric irony was not clearly distinguished from comic irony.


G. G. Sedgewick, Of Irony Especially in Drama; Toronto, 1948), contains an historically oriented review of the meanings of the word irony, including the Greek and the Latin. N. Knox, The Word "Irony" and Its Context, 1500-1755 (Durham, NC., 1961), deals with developments in England. R. Wellek, A History of Modern Criticism, 5 vols. (New Haven, 1955-), gives consistent attention to irony as a topic in European literary criticism, with full references. D. C. Muecke, The Compass of Irony (London, 1969), contains an excellent bibliography. Also: W. C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago, 1961); C. I. Glicksberg, The Ironic Vision in Modern Literature (The Hague, 1969), to be used with caution; R. Immerwahr, "The Subjectivity or Objectivity of Friedrich Schlegel’s Poetic Irony," Germanic Review, 26 (1951), 173-9; V. Jankélévitch, L’Ironie (Paris, 1936; rev. ed., 1950), a suggestive study; S. Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony, trans. L. M. Capel (New York, 1965); G. E. Mueller, "Solger’s Aesthetics—A Key to Hegel (Irony and Dialectic)," in Corona, ed. A. Schirokauer and W. Paulsen (Durham, N.C., 1941), pp. 2l2-27; I. Strohschneider-Kohrs, Die Romantische Ironie in Theorie und Gestaltung (Tübingen, 1960); A. R. Thompson, The Dry Mock: A Study of Irony in Drama (Berkeley, 1948); David Worcester, The Art of Satire (Cambridge, Mass., 1940).


[See also Allegory; Art and Play; Comic Sense; Rhetoric after Plato; Satire; Style; Tragic Sense.]

SOURCE: Knox, Norman D. "Irony", in Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas, ed. Philip P. Wiener (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973), Vol. II, pp. 626-634.

Irony in Philosophy, Romanticism, and Criticism: Selected Bibliography

Irony, Humor, & Cynicism Study Guide

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