Irony: The Double-Edged Sword

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From Essential Literary Terms by Sharon Hamilton:

“One of the most famous examples is Jonathon Swift’s bitter satire ‘A Modest Proposal,’ which purports to present a happy solution to the famine in the author’s native Ireland: using infants of the starving lower classes as a source of food.  At no point does the narrator abandon his pretense of cool rationality or complacency: the reaction of horror is left to the reader” (Hamilton 44).

I will never forget my first experience with Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”.  I was taking an English Literature class, and was the only 10th grader in the class.  My teacher handed out innocent-appearing photocopied pages and asked us to take the first couple minutes of class to read the handout.  Well, it ended up these harmless pages were full of fanatical ideas! 

I began reading remembering that it was by Jonathan Swift, who I knew was a famous author, notably for Gulliver’s Travels.  I read the pages with increasing confusion...it seemed to me that he was proposing cannibalism!  I glanced around at my classmates; they seemed as baffled as me.  Was this really by Jonathan Swift?  Was he seriously suggesting we should eat babies?! 

Luckily, my teacher explained to us that Swift was being ironic and in fact, he was not being serious.  However, my uncertainty of whether Swift truly meant his suggestion or not, is an example of the danger of using irony: “Thus, irony requires subtle reading comprehension and is always in danger of being misconstrued, and thereby of shocking or offending a naïve audience” (44).  I would hope that if I encountered such a satirical work again, I would know better than to believe it.  However, Hamilton brings up an important consideration for us, as writers.  We need to be careful when using irony.  While we may think it is obvious that we are not arguing in earnest, to a less experienced audience that may not be the case.  Irony can be a double-edged sword.  If not used carefully, it could cut us—just as it could cut those that we mock.       

6 Comments

Angela Palumbo said:

I never read “A Modest Proposal” myself, Greta but we did have a lengthy discussion at my lunch table about this. I have the same kinds of problems with sarcasm in my life as you speak of with irony. My mom and roommate (both of which I deeply love) sometimes do not understand that what I say is not always what I really mean. Now I admit that sometimes I say things that are so absurd they cannot be true in a serious tone because I want to see if I can make people take me seriously. It is really a fun little game to play. Anyway, I agree with you Greta. It is sometimes hard to see the how irony is applied. A great example of this is everyone’s favorite example of irony, “Ironic” by Atlantis Morissette. The ironic thing about that song is that very few of the occurrences of that song are actually ironic. An example of the lines, “An old man turned ninety-eight/ He won the lottery and died the next day.” How ironic is it really that a 98-year-old man died? Not very Atlantis. Or maybe the fact that the song about irony that really isn’t ironic is actually what is ironic about it. Wow, my brain hurts. I am going to take a nap now.

Angelica Guzzo said:

I had a similar experience when I first read "A Modest Proposal". I read it in 11th grade. My classmates and I were freaked out by it, but like your tescher, mine explained that thats not it and we were reading it literaly. I also agree that we should take cation when using irony. What we think is undersatndable, others may not.

Erica Gearhart said:

I have never read Swift's "A Modest Proposal," but I do know that I was reading this section somewhat absentmindedly (ironically because I thought I know the definition of irony already), and I thought at first that this section was true. I thought, "Is this man was actually proposing cannibalism?" Obviously I discovered the truth as I read on; however it reminded me that no matter how experienced we think we are at finding literary devices, we still can use more practice. Greta, I love the part about the "double-edged sword."

Ally Hall said:

Greta, I remember reading this for the first time, and I think it was in my freshman honors world history class. But whenever I did first read it, I had the exact same reaction as you did. I was like, "who in their right mind would propose cannibalism as a good way to get rid of the Irish?" But obviously we all realized the truth after talking about it and reading more into it. But I definitely agree, irony can be dangerous.
After all, the most ironic thing about the song "ironic" is that nothing is actually ironic. haha

Stephanie Wytovich said:

Ah. A modest proposal. I will never, ever, forget when I read this. People in my class were actually throwing their papers on the groud refusing to read it because this is where they drew the line. You would think after reading Oedipus with all the incest, that this would be nothing! But nevertheless, this satircal peice really does use the element of irony to its greatest level. The fact that he chose such a serious issue to poke fun of shows the power of his piece. He was so serious, that he chose irony to portray a sarcastic tone. It like he was saying, "Hell we're all out of options so why don't we just eat the children!"

haha. I have to admit it. I'm a fan

Greta Carroll said:

I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one who didn't understand "A Modest Proposal" the first time through!

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