Fowler on Irony

In How Not To Write A Novel, we recommend readers take a look at Fowler’s Modern English Usage for a quick lesson in the use of irony, both the term and the device. Realizing now that not everybody has a copy of Fowler close at hand, as a service to our readers we reproduce here the entry on irony from the first edition of H. W. Fowler’s entertaining and instructive usage guide.

Irony is a form of utterance that postulates a double audience, consisting of one party that hearing shall hear & shall not understand, & another party that, when more is meant than meets the ear, is aware both of that more & of the outsiders’ incomprehension.  1. Socratic irony was a profession of ignorance. What Socrates represented as an ignorance & a weakness in himself was in fact a non-committal attitude towards any dogma, however accepted or imposing, that had not been carried back to & shown to be based upon first principles. The two parties in his audience were, first, the dogmatists moved by pity or contempt to enlighten this ignorance, &, secondly, those who knew their Socrates & set themselves to watch the familiar game in which learning should be turned inside out by simplicity.  2. The double audience is essential too to what is called dramatic irony, i.e. the irony of the Greek drama. That drama had the peculiarity of providing the double audience–one party in the secret & the other not–in a special manner. The facts of most Greek plays were not a matter for invention, but were part of every Athenian child’s store of legend; all the spectators, that is, were in the secret beforehand of what would happen. But the characters, Pentheus & Oedipus & the rest, were in the dark; one of them might utter words that to him & his companions on the stage were of trifling import, but to those who hearing could understand were pregnant with the coming doom. The surface meaning for the dramatis personae, & the underlying for the spectators; the dramatist working his effect by irony.  3. And the double audience for the irony of Fate? Nature persuades most of us that the course of events is within wide limits foreseeable, that things will follow their usual course, that violent outrage on our sense of the probable or reasonable need not be looked for; & these “most of us”  are the uncomprehending outsiders; the elect or inner circle with whom Fate shares her amusement at our consternation are the few to whom it is not an occasional maxim, but a living conviction, that what happens is the unexpected.

That is an attempt to link intelligibly together three special senses of the word irony, which in its more general sense may be defined as the use of words intended to convey one meaning to the uninitiated part of the audience & another to the initiated, the delight of it lying in the secret intimacy set up between the latter & the speaker; it should be added, however, that there are dealers in irony for whom the initiated circle is not of outside hearers, but is an alter ego dwelling in their own breasts.

For practical purposes a protest is needed against the application of “the irony of Fate”, or of “irony” as short for that, to every trivial oddity:–But the pleasant note changed to something almost bitter as he declared his fear that before them lay a “fight for everything we hold dear”– a sentence that the groundlings by a curious irony were the loudest in cheering (oddly enough)./ It would be an irony of fate, according to many members, if Mr Chamberlain were elected to succeed Mr Balfour, for it was his father who dealt the first blow at Mr Balfour’s ascendancy (interesting)./ “The irony of the thing” said the dairyman who now owns the business “lies in the fact that after I began to sell good wholesome butter in place of this adulterated mixture, my sales fell off 75 per cent.” (“It’s a rum thing that…” seems almost adequate).  The irony of fate is, in fact, to be classed now as a HACKNEYED PHRASE.

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