Have you ever read a book and thought the protagonist or narrator must be crazy? Chances are they were actually participating in structural irony, which you’ll get to learn all about and see some examples of in this lesson.
Definition of Structural Irony
Do you remember the 90’s movie Clueless? The protagonist, Cher, was what many of us might say is your typical spoiled rich girl who has a loose grip on reality when it comes to the people and events around her. As its title implies, Cher’s cluelessness is an integral part of how the plot unfolds. This is also a great example of structural irony, which occurs when individuals internal to a narrative express faulty perceptions of reality.When we refer to ‘internal individuals,’ we’re referencing that structural irony is typically facilitated by a naïve protagonist or narrator. It would be terribly difficult to tell a story without a main character or someone to actually tell it, so these individuals are internal and integral to a narrative’s structure.
When these people are confused or misguided in their observations of what’s really going on – but the author and readers are fully aware of the truth – structural irony happens. For instance, the obliviously naïve Cher must have it spelled out for her why her crush Christian doesn’t respond to her advances, while we the audience already know that he’s not interested in her gender at all.Structural irony is particularly prevalent in satire, a genre devoted to comically pointing out society’s faults. This genre and the use of irony in general were at their height during the Neoclassical Period – a literary era running between the 18th and early 19th centuries and based heavily on the practices of Greco-Roman literature.Since that period, prolific use of irony has dropped out of favor, so structural irony, which of course runs through an entire work, has become especially sparse.
Here are examples of structural irony from two of the masters of Neoclassical literature, which, though not all that modern, you still may recognize.
Examples of Structural Irony
The na;ve titular protagonist of this satire helps the French author Voltaire point out the many faults he finds in society. Although he comments on everything from operations of the state to prostitution, Voltaire’s primary preoccupation is the concept of philosophical optimism, or attempting to view everything through often absurdly understated terms.Since understatement is a great vehicle for irony, Voltaire uses Candide’s misguided faith in the philosopher Pangloss’ optimistic ideas to create a solid framework for structural irony. Take for instance the excerpt below, in which Pangloss (and accordingly, Candide) shrugs off an earthquake that has just destroyed three-quarters of Lisbon, Portugal – an event that we readers know should be taken much more seriously.’This concussion of the earth is no new thing,’ said Pangloss, ‘the city of Lima in South America experienced the same last year; the same cause, the same effects; there is certainly a train of sulphur all the way underground from Lima to Lisbon.
‘ ‘Nothing is more probable,’ said Candide. . .’
A Modest Proposal
Considering that what Jonathan Swift proposes in this satire is anything but ‘modest,’ the title itself begins to develop the structural irony facilitated by Swift’s naïve narrator.
One of his most notable works, Swift’s A Modest Proposal is narrated by an individual who wishes to correct the dire effects of widespread poverty and starvation in Ireland. How the narrator proposes this should happen is to treat the abundant Irish children as livestock, selecting a portion for breeding and (as we see in the excerpt) the rest for selling in meat markets.Of course, Swift (himself an Irishman) did not truly support this grizzly proposition, nor would any of his readers. However, the narrator’s nonchalant suggestions (understatement) are used by Swift to condemn the English for their policies regarding Ireland, while also mocking the Irish for their refusal to stand up for themselves.
‘I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.’
Structural irony occurs when individuals internal to a narrative express faulty perceptions of reality. The individuals who typically facilitate structural irony are either a naïve protagonist or narrator – people who are integral to a story’s structure.
Although the main character or the person telling the story may be clueless about their misconceptions, those misconceptions are abundantly clear to authors and their readers.Structural and other sorts of irony are highly prevalent in satire, a genre devoted to pointing out society’s faults. Satires such as Candide and A Modest Proposal were at their height during the Neoclassical Period of literature and are terrific examples of using understatement as a technique to demonstrate structural irony.
With dedicated effort, you could achieve these goals after viewing the lesson:
- Identify the importance of satire in structural irony
- Give examples of structural irony in certain satirical literature