Heavy Lifting

by Belle Waring on May 29, 2004

A recent post on our blog about whether any of the situations in the Alanis Morrisette Song “Ironic” were, in fact, ironic, has garnered unexpected interest. I looked at the lyrics more carefully, and I think perhaps half could be said to qualify in an extended sense, that is, they seem like dramatic irony. So: “rain on your wedding day” is unquestionably not ironic, it’s just somewhat unfortunate. But I’ll give her “death-row pardon two minutes late”, I guess, if we accept a certain notion of irony I outline below.

Adam Kotsko contends, in comments, that there are no ironic situations. Bryan counters with dramatic irony. I remember learning about dramatic irony as a young lass, and the paradigmatic example is, as Bryan noted, Oedipus’ railing at Tiresias in the opening of Oedipus Rex about how he’s going to get the regicide who is responsible for the terrible miasma afflicting Thebes, when in fact he himself is responsible.

But now that I think about it, the concept seems a little underspecified. Is it that Oedipus’ words are (dramatically) ironic, because they mean something different that what he intends by them? He places a terrible curse on person x, and turns out to be person x. Or is it rather that the whole situation is ironic, such that if it were performed as a ballet, but the same facts were stipulated to be true in the ballet, it would be dramatic irony? If we accept the latter formulation, then we can think that there are dramatically ironic situations in real life, just when something happens which, if it happened in a play, would be ironic.

But even on this account it’s not clear what the criteria are. It’s obviously ironic that Darth Vader is Luke’s father (because this is just the Oedipus situation in sci-fi drag). Is it ironic when Romeo kills himself because Juliet is dead, even though she is actually alive? Not really, I don’t think. But maybe it’s some sort of tragic irony? It seems sufficiently parallel to the Oedipus case that by rights it ought to be ironic. Obviously inversion or reversal plays a role in this account, some sort of precise upending of expectations. Or perhaps a kind of negative lottery, in which a bad thing happens against huge odds. So, although it’s not ironic if it rains on your wedding day in Oregon, perhaps it could be ironic if it rained on a wedding which took place at a Berber encampment in the Sahara, or at Ayers Rock (where I was once rained on while I camped.)

But lots of things which confound expectations aren’t remotely ironic; say I am invited to a wedding between Jack and Jill, and I expect that they are a heterosexual couple, but it turns out they are lesbians, and “Jack” is short for “Jaqueline”. This is not ironic, it’s just mildly surprising. And the song “Ironic” contains something which fulfills the negative lottery criterion, but doesn’t really seem very ironic to me, just dumb: “It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife.” What are the odds that one of those 10,000 spoons wouldn’t be a knife! (John thinks this is ironic, however. I can see it if I squint a little.)

How’s this one: you are (you believe) alone in the desert, without another soul around for 100 miles, and you fire a gun in the air. The bullet traces a fatal parabola and lands in the head of someone who was sitting behind a rock, killing her. Ironic, or not? Is it ironic to be hoist on your own petard, to set a trap for someone else which you then fall into, as in every action movie ever, when the bad guy looks in terror at the ticking clock of his own bomb, moments before he is blown to bits? Would it be ironic if it turned out that a given action taken to fight terrorism ended up causing more people to become terrorists than it killed or imprisoned as terrorists, so that the situation were a net loss? Was it ironic that I had used the blog post title “Isn’t It Ironic” just a day or so before to blog about extreme ironing, or just coincidental? Have at it, you ironical types.



Kieran Healy 05.29.04 at 7:29 am

Alanis gets a lot of stick for that song.

“It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife.”

How far removed is this from “A horse, a horse — my kingdom for a horse”? Is Richard III’s situation at that point ironic? If so, would vigorously objecting to the spoons case then be ironic as well?


adaplant 05.29.04 at 8:15 am

The title “Ironic” is meant to be ironic, meaning it isn’t.



rilkefan 05.29.04 at 8:27 am

In Modern English Usage, Fowler gives a fairly simple definition:

Irony is a form of utterance that postulates a double audience, consisting of one party that hearing shall hear and shall not understand, and another party that, when more is meant than meets the ear, is aware, both of that “more” and of the outsider’s incomprehension.

He goes on to list three main categories of irony: Socratic irony (Socrates pretends ignorance to manipulate the dogmatists and to amuse his followers), dramatic irony (the point being that Sophocles’s audience knew the story already), and irony of fate (the idea being that most people ignorantly expect an orderly or a cooperative natural world but we the clued in don’t). He says it’s important not to apply “irony of fate” to every “trivial oddity” – which rules out the wedding day example in my book. And Richard’s situation isn’t ironic in my view – if we knew that a horse would cause the kingdom’s downfall it might be, but as is it’s just tragic.

Anyway, this article is largely based, but also expands, on Fowler.


bryan 05.29.04 at 9:12 am

I don’t think rain on the wedding day could be seen as ironic, even in a dramatic context, because the rain would most probably mean the same thing to the audience and the characters in the drama.

“How’s this one: you are (you believe) alone in the desert, without another soul around for 100 miles, and you fire a gun in the air. The bullet traces a fatal parabola and lands in the head of someone who was sitting behind a rock, killing her. “
I would consider it ironic if you did so out of frustration that you were alone in the desert and could not find your way out, the other person knew the way out, and you did not find out that you had killed them.


bryan 05.29.04 at 9:16 am

I also consider that the Romeo situation is technically dramatically ironic, but is never experienced as such while viewing the play because irony seems to require some detachment from the events of the moment. Thus the drawing out of Tiresias’ speech I think, in order to fully develop the irony of the situation for the audience.

Of all Shakespearian plays I only really find Lear to be filled with irony.


Jack 05.29.04 at 9:21 am

Try bringing this up at popbitch.

Is it ironic that the most reliable example of irony on the web is American?


Kip Manley 05.29.04 at 3:29 pm

The audience is, of course, key: someone must know the known unknown (or sometimes, the unknown unknown) for it to be ironic.

The “irony of fate” requires erecting a fourth wall: if an audience were to have been watching this scene unfold, they would, indeed, have found it ironic. —Which is maybe why it’s so popular nowadays.


Dave 05.29.04 at 3:29 pm

Rain on your wedding day would be ironic if, say, you had moved the date from spring to summer, at great expense to yourself and inconvenience to your guests, in order to avoid bad weather.


Chaz 05.29.04 at 6:34 pm

“SPY” magazine covered this topic over 10 years ago. And they were much funnier.


john b 05.29.04 at 7:19 pm

The greatest irony is that the song confirmed most Brits’ belief that Americans don’t understand irony, despite being written and recorded by a Canadian…


Arthur D. Hlavaty 05.29.04 at 9:42 pm

How about “football star whose heroic sacrifice is supposed to silence all questions about our interventions was shot by his own troops”?


Keith 05.29.04 at 9:58 pm

How about “football star whose heroic sacrifice is supposed to silence all questions about our interventions was shot by his own troops”?

Posted by Arthur D. Hlavat

That goes beyond Socratic Irony into Platonic Irony, I think.


Keith M Ellis 05.29.04 at 11:39 pm

I was recently persuaded to desist in using my neologism, “alanironic”. I think we can agree, however, that whatever the hell she thinks “irony” is, it’s interesting and a word to describe it would be useful.

The “dissociation” line of discussion is interesting to me because I think it has cultural relevance. But I’m not convinced that true irony, no knives but ten-thousand spoons irony, and dissociated irony aren’t all distinct (though distantly related).


Andrew Cholakian 05.30.04 at 2:22 am

Hasn’t Alanis’ use of the word been in usage long / frequently enough for it to be added to the dictionary?


vivian 05.30.04 at 2:47 am

“…it’s interesting and a word to describe it would be useful.”
How about: annoying, frustrating, cussed? inconvenient or disastrous (depending on the consequences)? Unfortunate – literally if one takes fortune to be author the play to which life is analogous. Also consider ‘tragic’ or ‘foreshadowing’ and of course ‘poetic justice’

Sure, there is a family resemblance among the situations, but it’s worth distinguishing the different ways in which expectation and surprise interact. I’d like to save ‘ironic’ for cases where there are two intended audiences, one that gets a second meaning, and where the situation is somehow substantial enough to transcend mere sarcasm.


vivian 05.30.04 at 3:13 am

There’s a metaphysical element too: a rainy wedding might be ironic if Alanis were a pompous meteorologist, and some powerful being arranged for the rain precisely to demonstrate to the guests that she was wrong. There are the two audiences, one the butt of the joke, the other laughing. Leave out the god or demon, and it’s only schadenfreude (or an obnoxious cousin saying loudly “You picked a good day to get married, moron.”) Poor Alanis, if she’d only written her songs in a different time and place, she might have had a stronger claim; however, that still ain’t irony.


nick 05.30.04 at 4:42 am

‘Isn’t it a bummer?’ would have scanned perfectly. Why that wasn’t used, I do not know.


Dan the Man 05.30.04 at 6:49 am

`Isn’t it a bummer?’ would have scanned perfectly. Why that wasn’t used, I do not know.

Isn’t that ironic?
Don’t you think?


John 05.30.04 at 9:51 pm

Isn’t a free ride when you’ve already paid ironic? I’d say that it’s sort of situationally ironic.


Sean 05.30.04 at 11:43 pm

Czeslaw Milosz called irony “the glory of slaves”. I would add to slaves many western europeans. Is there consolation in irony? Think how small that world must be. But have at it, irreverant ironists! As for Alanis Morissette, anyone get Bob Dylan’s “new” live cd from 1964?


john c. halasz 05.31.04 at 1:01 am

Since any action situation involves a framework of meaning, I don’t see why the notion of irony should be confined to the discursive level. However, I don’t know that there can exactly be criteria for irony, since irony is itself a subversion of criterial meaning. Clearly it involves an unthematized meta-level commentary on an “object-level” meaning or intention, in such a way as to bring out the surplus in signifying possibilities. It is related to but differs from straight negation, involving something like a simultaneous negation and reinscription of an affirmation. (Foucault’s phrase “non-affirmative affirmation” comes to mind here, though that always struck me as indicative of the impossibility of living purely ironically.) But I don’t think that the “audience” interpretation of irony would do. Irony clearly derives from the play of levels involved in the intrinsically communicative, interactive constitution of meaning, (which is why those with no sense of irony are to be distrusted), but its “knowingness” does not resolve back into knowing, which would be criterial, (so that, e.g., Oedipus’ fate would simply be deserved and there would be no mystery to it.) And under that interpretation, we would never just come upon or encounter irony in our solitude, let alone self-irony. Nor do I think irony is necessarily amusing, nor superior. (Consider the analogy with absurdity, which can either be amusing or horrifying.) It is perhaps because it lacks exact criteria that we seek criteria for irony, since we all want to dare to be hip.

When great Birnham Wood comes upon Dunsinane Hill (sp.?), due to entirely plausible “mechanical” causes, is the irony that the weird sisters’ “supernatural” oracle resolves naturalistically or is it that Macbeth credulously believes the oracle, but draws the inference that it signifies something naturally impossible? My intuition is that there is no irony there; it’s more like the swamp of proto-irony.


Noel Smith 05.31.04 at 3:09 am

The excerpt from Fowler’s Modern English Usage cited by rilkefan–that irony addresses the clued-in portion of a double audience–parallels Strauss’s claim that the philosophers wrote between the lines in order to conceal their wisdom from the many. Strauss saw such esotericism as part of a routine strategy of dissembling. Deception of the unwitting seems to be an aspect of irony as well.


EH 05.31.04 at 6:25 am

The Glenn Reynolds sentence in the previous post is ironic.


Tim 06.01.04 at 10:38 am

The comedian Ed Byrne used to do a whole routine on this song. One bit I remember was his take on “A traffic jam when you’re already late” – he points out that it would be ironic if you happened to be the town planner responsible for that particular bit of road. And were on your way to a meeting about relieving traffic conjestion.


Dee Lacey 06.01.04 at 5:16 pm

“a trope that involves incongruity between what is expected and what occurs” is what I got in the dictionary for the meaning of “irony” (one of the meanings – the one closest to the song’s usage).

Rain on a wedding day is ironic in the incongruity sense because of dramatic cliche. In dramatic cliche (typical Hollywood movies, etc) wedding days are sunny and funerals are rainy. The example of 10,000 spoons is another case: if you had 10,000 utensils, and need a knife, you’d expect about 1/3 to be knives. It may not be the best examples or most evocative sort of irony, but it’s in there.


Steve Cake 06.02.04 at 10:28 am

Sorry to be a stickler but this is a sticklerish topic to begin with: “dramatic irony”, as far as I have been taught, refers to a very specific dramatic setup (normally in the theatre) whereby the audience posseses knowledge that the protagonist does not have. For example, we might know that Road Runner has already eaten the seeds (check my erudite cultural references) but Wile E Coyote is ignorant of this fact. As we watch him put himself in danger through his ignorance, this is dramatic irony. I don’t think it means that the occurence is actually “ironic”, what is ironic is that we know but he dosn’t. That is where the irony, presumably, lies. The term “dramatic irony”, however, has been bandied and debased beyond this technical specificity.


Sebastian Holsclaw 06.02.04 at 8:35 pm

Most of the situations in the song fit the irony of fate idea.

Wins the lottery and dies the next day–the man is unusually lucky, but his luck is followed up immediately by his death. A well ordered, fair, cooperative and pro-human universe wouldn’t do that.

Man afraid of flying puts it off his whole life but when he finally flies is caught on a crashing plane. Crashing planes aren’t very common. His fear was mostly irrational. Yet the one plane he flys on ends up crashing. I don’t think ‘Isn’t it a bummer’ quite covers it.

Meeting the man of my dreams, and meeting his beautiful wife. Once again, a cooperative universe wouldn’t do that to you. This is reinforced by silly societal expectations. Meeting the man of your dreams is supposed to be a key moment. Realizing it can’t work out is an enormous let-down in that context. Notice the “beautiful” wife–suggesting either that the singer isn’t beautiful enough, or that there isn’t a chance to steal him away.

Why are there 10,000 spoons and 0 knives when you wanted a knife? Come on!

I’ll give you the wedding day isn’t ironic.

The fly in your wine, it depends on how poor you are and how special you thought the wine was….

Comments on this entry are closed.