The Voice of the Underdog

A Rhetoric of Irony

by Wayne C. Booth
University of Chicago Press, 292 pp., $12.50

This is a good book. It quotes a number of long examples, arguing from them in detail “how we manage to share ironies and why we often do not,” with mild discouragement for current follies on the subject; and the literary judgments (as apart from philosophical or historical ones) seem to me right every time. There is plenty of theoretical discussion, with a five-page bibliography, and nearly all the names there recur in the index to pages. I found it all the more extraordinary that what I had long thought “irony” to mean does not get mentioned at all.

The basic situation for the trope of irony, without which it would not have been invented, involves three people. There is a speaker, “A,” an understanding hearer, “B,” and a censor who can be outwitted, a stupid tyrant, “C.” A successful use of the pure form is not very frequent, because people in the position of “C” aren’t such fools as you think. However, it is even more satisfactory when “C,” though he knows what is going on, dare not complain—because the effect would be a ridiculous confession, or because the only available penalty would appear so excessive as to make him unpopular. (Pope’s Epistle to Augustus is an example; however stupid the King was, somebody would tell him the answer, so the pure form could not be achieved.)

Or the ironist may be taking a balanced view, trying to be friends with both sides, “B” and “C”; but even so one of them can be picked out as holding the more official or straight-faced belief, and the literal meaning will support that one. If this condition did not hold, there would be no impulse to use the form. I warmly agree with Professor Booth that the term “irony” gets applied much too loosely, so that it has become almost useless. His conception of “stable irony” is a good approach to what we need—he calls ironies “stable or fixed, in the sense that once a reconstruction of meaning has been made, the reader is not then invited to undermine it with further demolitions and reconstructions.” But “stable irony” is not nearly so easy to recognize as the basic situation.

This basic situation, although rare, is immediately striking, perhaps because our minds accept it as archetypal. I heard a case in Seoul in 1933, and (internally) sprang to attention, clicking my heels together. I had wanted to get close to the statues visible in the cloisters of a temple, but the gate was locked, so I went to the nearby government offices to ask for a key. I was shown to a door unobtrusively marked in English “Foreign Office.” Inside there were a rather shamefaced young Englishman and his elderly benign Japanese superior. This was when the Japanese were taking over Manchuria, the beginning of the end for the League of Nations and the Peace Settlement, and there was a good deal of diplomatic activity. The young man …

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