The lexical emotive means and stylistic devices

Examples of Irony in Literature

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Examples of Irony in Literature

Irony is a very effective literary device. Here are some examples of irony and how it adds to the significance of well-known literary works:

Example 1: The Necklace (Guy de Maupassant)

“You say that you bought a necklace of diamonds to replace mine?”

“Yes. You never noticed it, then! They were very like.”

And she smiled with a joy which was proud and naïve at once.

Mme. Forestier, strongly moved, took her two hands.

“Oh, my poor Mathilde! Why, my necklace was paste. It was worth at most five hundred francs!”

In his short story, de Maupassant utilizes situational irony to reveal an unexpected outcome for the main character Mathilde who borrowed what she believed to be a diamond necklace from her friend Mme. Forestier to wear to a ball. Due to vanity and carelessness, Mathilde loses the necklace. Rather than confess this loss to her friend, Mathilde and her husband replace the necklace with another and thereby incur a debt that takes them ten years of labor to repay.

In a chance meeting, Mathilde learns from her friend that the original necklace was fake. This outcome is ironic in the sense that Mathilde has become the opposite of the woman she wished to be and Mme. Forestier is in possession of a real diamond necklace rather than a false one. This ending may cause the reader to reflect on the story’s central themes, including pride, authenticity, and the price of vanity.

Example 2: Not Waving but Drowning (Stevie Smith)

Nobody heard him, the dead man,

But still he lay moaning:

I was much further out than you thought

And not waving but drowning.

This stanza reflects Smith’s many uses of dramatic irony in her poem. The reader is aware that the “dead” man is actually still alive, though “nobody” hears him. In addition, the reader has the understanding and knowledge that the man in the poem was not waving as those who saw him believed him to be. Instead, the man was signalling for help because he was drowning.

The dramatic irony in this poem is significant on many levels. The reader is fully informed as to the situation of the dead man, yet is powerless to influence the people around him to understand the situation. Therefore, this irony reflects the poem’s portrayal of the consequences of miscommunication and misunderstanding among people.

Example 3: A Modest Proposal (Jonathan Swift)

A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.

Swift makes use of verbal irony in his essay in which he advocates eating children as a means of solving the issue of famine and poverty. Of course, Swift does not literally mean what he is saying. Instead, his verbal irony is used to showcase the dire situation faced by those who are impoverished and their limited resources or solutions. In addition, this irony is meant as a call to action among those who are not suffering from hunger and poverty to act in a charitable way towards those less fortunate.

As is known, the word is, of all language units, the most sensitive to change; its meaning gradually develops and as a result of this development new meanings appear alongside the primary one. It is normal for almost every word to acquire derivative meanings; sometimes the primary meaning has to make way for quite a new meaning which ousts it completely.

In dealing with the problem of nonce-words and new meanings we have already stated the fact that in the development of language units we are constantly facing the opposing concepts of permanence and ephemerality. Some meanings are characterized by their permanence, others, like nonce-words and contextual meanings, are generally ephemeral, i.e. they appear in some contexts and vanish leaving no trace in the vocabulary of the language. Primary and the derivative meanings are char-



1 Preface to Critical Reading. N. Y., 1956, p. 270.


acterized by their relative stability and therefore are fixed in dictionaries, thus constituting the semantic structure of the word.

The problem of polysemy is one of the vexed questions of lexicology. It is sometimes impossible to draw a line of demarcation between a derivative meaning of a polysemantic word and a separate word, i.e. a word that has broken its semantic ties with the head word and has become a homonym to the word it was derived from.

Polysemy is a category of lexicology and as such belongs to language-as-a-system. In actual everyday speech polysemy vanishes unless it is deliberately retained for certain stylistic purposes. A context that does not seek to produce any particular stylistic effect generally materializes but one definite meaning.

However, when a word begins to manifest an interplay between the primary and one of the derivative meanings we are again confronted with an SD.

Let us analyse the following example from Sonnet 90 by Shakespearewhere the key-words are intentionally made to reveal two or more meanings.

"Then hate me if thou wilt, if ever now.

Now while the world is bent my deeds to cross."

The word 'hate' materializes several meanings in this context. The primary meaning of the word, according to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, is 'to hold in very strong dislike'. This basic meaning has brought to life some derivative meanings which, though having very much in common, still show some nuances, special shades of meaning which enrich the semantic structure of the word7. They are:

1) 'to detest';

2) 'to bear malice to';

3) the opposite of to love (which in itself is not so emotionally coloured as in the definition of the primary meaning: it almost amounts to being indifferent);

4) 'to feel a repulsive attitude'. Other dictionaries fix such senses as

5) 'to wish to shun' (Heritage Dictionary);

6) 'to feel aversion for' (Random House Dictionary);

7) 'to bear ill-will against'; 8) 'to desire evil to (persons)' (Wyld's Dictionary).

  1. Zeugma and pun

Zeugma is the use of a word in the same grammatical but different semantic relations to two adjacent words in the context, the semantic relations being, on the on hand, literal, and, on the other, tгаnsferred.

"Dora, plunging at once into privileged intimacy and into the middle of the room". (B. Shaw)

'To plunge' (into the middle of a room) materializes the meaning 'to rush into' or 'enter impetuously'. Here it is used in its concrete, primary, literal meaning; in 'to plunge into privileged intimacy' the word 'plunge' is used in its derivative meaning.

The same can be said of the use of the verbs 'stain' and 'lose' in the following lines from Pope's "The Rape of the Lock":

"...Whether the Nymph

Shall stain her Honour or her new Brocade

Or lose her Heart or necklace at a Ball."

This stylistic device is particularly favoured in English emotive prose and in poetry. The revival of the original meanings of words must be regarded as an essential quality of any work in the belles-lettres style. A good writer always keeps the chief meanings of words from fading away, provided the meanings are worth being kept fresh and vigorous.

Zeugma is a strong and effective device to maintain the purity of the primary meaning when the two meanings clash. By making the two meanings conspicuous in this particular way, each of them stands out clearly. The structure of zeugma may present variations from the patterns given above. Thus in the sentence:

"...And May's mother always stood on her gentilityand Dot's mother never stood on anything but her active little feet" (Dickens)

The word 'stood' is used twice. This structural variant of zeugma, though producing some slight difference in meaning, does not violate the principle of the stylistic device. It still makes the reader realize that the two meanings of the word 'stand' are simultaneously expressed, one primary and the other derivative.

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