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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 said, “I’m here to put the commas into the True Truth about Manchuria,” and his boss smiled at us in a fatherly way.

I had long been hearing, in the English colony at Tokyo, that no Japanese can understand irony (whereas the Chinese, of course, use it all the time), but I had never seen the belief put to the test. Of course you could argue that this Japanese did understand the little attempt at face-saving, and treated it with the contempt it deserved; indeed, perhaps one can never be sure of a success in the basic situation, though a failure may have immediate bad consequences. But I was not misled by any respect for my dashing compatriot (who had only put himself further in the wrong), and I had been working closely with Japanese for the past two years, and I was watching the boss, who had an easy command of English—I am still confident that he accepted the remark as quite innocent. Anyhow, at that stage of my life, when I heard “irony” mentioned, this quite sharp situation, though unknown to Professor Booth and all his cohort of experts, was what everyone assumed it to be concerned with. It is the voice of the underdog.

My view would at least allow Professor Booth to reject some borderline cases which he seems to let in for charity. The man who waited through heavy rain all the morning for his day’s shooting, and then said, “Do you think it will rain?” was no doubt (as the patient analysis in the book implies) obeying a supposed duty of politeness; but an adequate critical comment would be, “Come off it.” The book ought to give some admitted examples of bad or failed irony, and explain what went wrong. But I grant there are many cases as slight as this in ordinary speech that do not feel bad at all; they treat an ideal politeness as the censor “C.” An “ironical tone” means that the speaker is finding politeness too much effort and will use any opportunity for irony that happens to arise.

Dramatic irony” has only a slender thread of connection with real irony; the author writes down something he knows to be untrue (in the story) for an actor to say, but the character (represented by the actor) is usually not speaking ironically. The history of the word perhaps helps to make us confused; we took it from classical Greek, and in the time of Socrates it meant “behaving with due modesty in the presence of a superior” (this explains the otherwise baffling quotations from Theophrastus, who flourished in the generation after Aristotle, on page 139). Of course, modest behavior was used by Socrates to ironical effect, and Plato seems to have designed more profound ironies in the structure of some of the Dialogues; but the change in the meaning of the word itself was mediated later through the phrase “Socratic irony.” Having such a notorious past, the poor word has found difficulty in settling down.

It is only misleading, I think, to say that Shakespeare intended irony in the sonnet beginning “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” He claims rather loudly to be telling the flat truth; why must we think he is doing something else? Professor Booth finds him engaged in a literary quarrel, jeering at other poets whose style, or rather whose metaphors, he finds “unreal” (p. 123). But a fuss of this kind would be unlike him (more like Donne, who did in effect revolt against the style of Spenser, but even he does not seem to have left any parodies); and Shakespeare goes on using these metaphors himself without worry, at any rate in plays. On the other hand, his feelings about this particular woman, as becomes almost gruesomely clear in later sonnets, are painfully mixed. He does not admire or respect her but has an unappeasable craving for her, and her fascination is not to be explained away as merely “physical.” So in this case the exalted language of love poetry would be unreal, though he will not deny that she is “rare.”

To suppose an irony is a distraction here, because the poet is struggling to make a plain report. On the other hand, the caption on a poster for a Relief Fund (p. 35), “Ignore the Hungry and they’ll go away” (we ought to be told what picture is illustrated), is a plain case of “implied quotation”—what they say, the bad people who won’t contribute; and there is no hint of unwilling obedience to a censor, so it is not irony. That is why it feels so flat—surely it would be very ineffective propaganda. The “Warning to Children” of Robert Graves is a metaphysical poem, giving the children a direct insight into the fascinating or horrifying mystery of the world; it is not even a dramatic irony, as there is no suggestion that the grownups understand the world any better than they. Professor Booth extracts an idea that “the ironic Truth” is amused as the children “walk into the eternal trap” (p. 257). The poem does not threaten, and I think this bogeyman insinuation comes up because Professor Booth feels that his own picture of the world has been made to seem inadequate.

His reactions to non-Christian religious implications in literature often feel to me strained. The poem “Hap” by Thomas Hardy (p. 237) is classed as a “stable irony,” and “everyone would call the poem ironic, I suppose.” Professor Booth used to feel that the poem was a case of “whimpering,” but does not now. But “Hap” is meant to tell a plain truth. Hardy says that he would prefer to believe in God, who must plainly be evil if actual, because then he could defy God, heroically; but he now realizes that all his bad luck has come to him by sheer chance, not as the work of an evil intelligence. The poet’s “assertion about the irony of existence” (says Professor Booth) is “as unquestioned (rhetorically speaking) as if he were preaching a non-ironic message on behalf of belief in Jehovah.” Thus the Professor insinuates, for well-brought-up students I suppose, that any expression of disbelief in Jehovah is always inherently ironic. And yet there is a lot of documentation to prove that Hardy really meant it.

This sonnet is very badly written, so badly that it cannot be admired at all, except for a kind of hammered-out sincerity. And I would agree that the feelings of Hardy were painfully mixed, so that he could not help continuing to hate God, and to blame God for all cases of bad luck, even after the relief of learning that God did not exist. When told that many readers thought he believed in his “Spirit Ironical,” a devil who arranges to trip us up, he was piteously eager to rebuff the accusation. By giving the characters in his novels such improbably bad luck, he explained, he was only warning the reader to prepare for bad luck, as lawyers and businessmen are expected to do. So the words of the sonnet are not ironical at all, and when Professor Booth read them as “whimpering” he was misled by a false expectation.

With Booth’s remarks about the introduction to Tom Jones (p. 179) we enter a more complex doctrinal field. Squire Allworthy, the introduction says, had lost his beloved wife about five years before the book begins:

This loss, however great, he bore like a man of sense and constancy, though it must be confessed he would often talk a little whimsically on this head; for he sometimes said he looked upon himself as still married, and considered his wife as only gone a little before him, a journey which he should most certainly, sooner or later, take after her; and that he had not the least doubt of meeting her again in a place where he should never part with her more—sentiments for which his sense was arraigned by one part of his neighbours, his religion by a second, and his sincerity by a third.

Calling this passage whimsical, says Professor Booth, is of course “a momentary pretense,” and the three sorts of neighbors are “the true butts of the irony”; his only question is how we know it—he explains that there is “a pattern of inconsistency throughout the passage.” He seems to assume that any decent man holds the belief described as whimsical—that Mom and Pop will meet in heaven is one of the bases of the nuclear marriage; and yet the book itself tells him that a third of the neighbors thought it irreligious. Donne in a sermon says that “we dispute” about whether we will meet those we love in heaven, and though I am ignorant of the dispute I can see arguments for the unpopular side. Aquinas says that the risen body will have full sexual equipment, but will never use it because the blessed are completely absorbed by the vision of God: evidently the vision is like being under a powerful drug, and the domestic pleasures have little chance if the passions have none. It was the opinion of Plato too that the love of a fellow creature is only a steppingstone to the love of God.

I agree that Fielding would find this a cold-hearted or mean-minded way to talk, but he had evidently met with it in some clergyman he respected, probably after the death of his own first wife. He is trying to submit to an authority, not covertly revolting against one. He would take a good deal from the state church, as he thinks the Nonconformists disloyal and low-class, but even if the official theologians are against these meetings in Heaven he feels he can stick to the belief, jovially admitting he is “whimsical”—and Allworthy can do it too. Maybe this was rather a boss shot, because none of the neighbors actually would call the belief irreligious, but Fielding was not an expert in such things. If you grasp his feeling here, you are prepared for the deep cases of “double irony” later in the book, as when Tom brings consternation upon Allworthy by forgiving Black George; Fielding is simply not sure himself how far a practical magistrate could allow himself to obey the precepts of Jesus. For most of the book he is confident, especially when he uses irony; but he is aware of extreme cases where he would feel doubtful.

An entire short story by Flannery O’Connor is quoted (from p. 152), and said to be “extremely complex, not only in its ironic undercuttings but in its affirmations.” A widowed mother who claims proud memories of the old South is being escorted by bus to her reducing class by her fretful progressive son, Julian, who has just left college and is unemployed. On leaving the bus, she gives a penny to a small black boy who sat next to her and smiled at her, but his black mother throws it back and knocks her down. Julian helps her up and tells her she must learn to live in the modern world; she makes no answer and seems hardly to recognize him, but sets off to walk home. Then she has a stroke and falls down again; he runs for help, but the lights seem to be moving away ahead, and the story ends: “The tide of darkness seemed to sweep him back to her, postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow.” Professor Booth explains that the accident is a “gratuitous grace” for the young man, who till then was in mortal sin but through this moment of “honest nightmare” may become “genuine.” His “problematic redemption” is “presented in a…specifically Roman Catholic light,” thus giving one of the “religious ironies” usual in this author.

There seems no reason to doubt the explanation, but surely even a co-believer may doubt whether the moral follows from the story. The young man ought to advise his mother, and I do not see that any of his advice can be called wrong; nor is he to blame for any of the events which got her knocked down. But no doubt he will be blamed, for example by his aunt and grandfather; he has failed in an office of trust.

Now, the worst thing you can do to a young man prone to imagine himself wronged is give him a real injustice, food for the habit to grow upon. What Julian needs is an unexacting but obviously useful regular job, with human contacts, so that he no longer feels isolated; he is quite high-minded enough already. And, granting that God sent him a long course of suffering merely to do him good, was God quite indifferent to the effects on his mother? Surely, to call the procedure “grace” is on a par with calling the Furies “the Kindly Ones,” that is, an attempt to avert bad luck, not based on any real conviction that their actions are beneficent. In fact, this God is hard to distinguish from the Spirit Ironical of Thomas Hardy, which Professor Booth felt sure no one could believe in. The technical term “irony” does not give any help here.

The last chapter is about “infinite instabilities,” such as the belief that the whole universe is inherently absurd, and I take it that these are presumed to be expressed by irony. Professor Booth writes with an attractive admiration for the work of Samuel Beckett, while finding absurd almost everything that critics find to say in his praise. Beckett seems to express almost total negation, or at least to say that no writing has any value, and yet he does it “often with great comic power and always with poignancy” (p. 259), indeed with “a positively bouncy verve” (p. 264). He cannot be giving a courageously truthful picture of his own mental condition; he maintains “a productive and obviously exhilarating verbal life while cashing checks and resisting the debilitating effects of world fame” (p. 261).

It strikes me that all this, though generously meant, gives a rather debunking impression; and surely the meanings, so far as they are ironical, are something less than exalted. Efforts to express the mystery of the world have usually involved contradictions, but not all contradictions are ironies, and the homely grumbling of the underdog is bound to seem an odd instrument for so high a purpose. By this last chapter the book completes its trajectory, like a rocket; and yet almost at the cost of giving in to the opponents. Besides, when Beckett is writing well in the manner described I do not get the feeling of irony. I think that the definition of it needs to be narrowed.


The editors of The New York Review of Books first gave me a copy of this book for review. But they sent it to my address in London, whereas I am a Visiting Professor this year at Pennsylvania State University, and the book was a considerable time on the way. When it arrived I had already reviewed it for the Journal of General Education. But the editors of the JGE have kindly waived copyright to permit publication in both magazines, feeling that both have a claim.

The generalization or blurring of the idea of Irony, which is now almost established, allows a literary critic to reinterpret any standard author so as to fit his own ethos and opinions; the procedure seems to have no limit, other than what the readers will bear. (Apparently, it has been revived in recent times from some of the German Romantics of almost 200 years ago.) So I am pleased that my small protest can be given a double hearing.

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