Verbal Irony or Just an Angry Tom Wingfield?

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"...sarcasm, the taunting use of apparent approval or praise for actual disapproval or dispraise, is mistakenly used as synonymous with verbal irony."

-From Sharon Hamilton's Essential Literary Terms, p. 44

"'I'm going to opium dens, dens of vice and criminals' hangouts, Mother.  I've joined the Hogan Gang, I'm a hired assassin, I carry a tommy gun in a violin case!...They call me Killer, Killer Wingfield, I'm leading a double-life, a simple, honest warehouse worker by day, by night a dynamic czar of the underworld, Mother.'"

-Tennessee William's play The Glass Menagerie as quoted by Hamilton, p. 45


It was very clever of Hamilton to include this section that compared sarcasm and verbal irony.  I think that this is often a very difficult concept to be able to recognize.  I think that a great way to put it is that verbal irony is almost a contradiction, while sarcasm is more of a witty and disdainful remark.  I really liked Hamilton's example here that showed sarcasm.  If you have never read The Glass Menagerie, you really should.  I am not a big fan of American plays, but this is one of the best ones.  I really loved the character Tom, who is the one speaking in the above quote. 

The greatness of this example is more observable when one understands the context of the play. Tom is left to support his family through hard work and little pay at a factory job, when he really wants to be an adventerer and a poet.  His mother is the typical southern belle character, but she is forced to live on the small wages her son gets at his job.  Tom's sister is extremely introverted, so she offers little as a companion in the face of an oppressive mother.  It is no surprise that his temper and remarks are so biting and, well, sarcastic.  This example is obviously not verbal irony because there is no contradicition here.  It may seem as though he is contradicting himself (he is not actually any of these things he says he is); however he is actually just mad at his mom for questioning his one imaginative outlet when all he does at any other time is for his family, not for himself.


Great analysis, Erica. I have never read "The Glass Menagerie" but after reading your blog, I think I should.
I believe that the most difficult part of understanding sarcasm in a book is that we cannot hear it. When someone says something sarcastic in a play, it is generally easy to pick up on because you can hear the different inflections in the person's voice and see their body language. But in a book, it can be very hard to tell when a character is being sarcastic or serious. It is then the author's job to craft the scene very carefully so that we can find the sarcasm.

This blog is excellent. I really like how you tied the two together and also brought in "The Glass Menagerie," which seems like something we should read. Though I agree with what you said and some of what Lauren said, I have to disagree a little on her comment.

I use sarcasm everyday, more than I probably should and really I must admit that if "you're good at it" people cannot tell if you're serious or if you're being sarcastic. So though most of the time we can "hear the different inflections in the person's voice and see their body language," if someone has perfected it - you can't tell the difference and it could be just as hard as reading it can be.

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