Irony, in its essence, is the humor of contradiction. It is contradiction, in the sense that where we would expect events to lean on one way, events instead completely take the opposite direction. A crude example would be where a string of freak accidents occur at a factory where the manager is showing off to his potential clients that his company is “accident-free”. Irony is humorous because if one saw it with impartiality, one would find it funny. Having a car accident right after a road is “improved” to avoid further accidents, would be funny.
To study irony further, one could study an average person’s sense of humor. While as a child, he may delight in the curiosities of the environment, eventually he becomes adjusted to seeing it everyday, and eventually his enjoyment of it fades. Humor takes on a different characteristic for him. There is the slapstick comedy, where he finds the antics of the performers as funny and absurd, and there is the situational comedy, where he finds funny ordinary people falling to ridiculous situations. The common thread to this humor is that it attacks at something.
Whether it is to ridicule a person behaving out of the social norm (as the slapstick), or to ridicule a person’s belief or principle that is generally viewed as absurd (the parody), the higher the degree of abuse at the object of humor, the funnier. Irony, then, is humorous in the sense that it attacks something, through its contradiction. As an impartial viewer, we may find funny things that we know to be true as envisioned by the ironic set-up, but which is obscured in the minds of those who are involved in the irony.
Humor moreover has intrinsic values it seeks to instill to its impartial witnesses, and consequently irony occurs as some way to inform the viewer of a cosmic lesson. We can delve in this further through the study of three stories, Tartuffe, The Princess of Cleves, and Nathan the Wise. There are several ironic situations that occur throughout the play Tartuffe. The story revolves around a household scandalized by having its head (the father) entertain and welcome as part of the family a man who openly and vocally shows his displeasure at what he deems as vices borne by the various members of the family and the house.
One of the first ironic situations occurs with the son, Damis, who hides in the room while Tartuffe has a private conversation with his mother, Elmire. His intention is to unmask Tartuffe to his father as a hypocrite and get him out of the house (Moliere, 39-46). When he finally sees evidence of the man’s scandalous behavior towards his mother and reveals it to his father, not only does his father not believe (owing to the hypocrite’s skillful use of words), but has Damis instead kicked out and even encourages Tartuffe to continue his scandalous behavior towards his wife, in order to spite his family (47-51).
The humor in the situation centered on how big a fool the father was to believe in Tartuffe’s virtue, and an even bigger fool not to see the truth when it is right in front of him. This is further stressed in the next ironic situation, where after Orgon (the father) finally realizes the extent of his friend’s deceit, he tries to tell his mother, who was also fooled by the hypocrite. For all his protestations she does not believe him until she sees it herself (Moliere, 68-71). The irony is that where he once ignored the loud protests of his family, likewise his mother does not believe him, even for his loud protests.
The final ironic twist, however, turns out for the good as the hypocrite Tartuffe, having been unmasked and set his plans for revenge, intrigues on the King and plans to have them all arrested, only to have him as the object of arrest, as the King was “wise” to his intrigues (77-80). The play has these alternating reversal of fortunes, and its ironic humor attacks two things: that blind faith without reason in open Virtue is folly, and that any malice masked in virtue never remains unpunished.
A more tragic tale of irony is that of the Princess of Cleves. Introduced to a court as Madam Chartres, she wins the affection of the Prince of Cleves, who endeavor to marry her despite the protests of his father; she falls, however for someone else, the Duke Nemours (Lafayette, 15-17). The story then centers around him trying to find the opportunity to confess his love, and she, now married, desperately tries to stave off his affections while suppressing hers.
We do not see the irony unfold until the very end: the Princess anguishes over her affection for the Duke throughout her marriage, but following the death of her husband suddenly she has a change of heart and is convinced that her husband was a far better man than the Duke (101-107). It is only after the husband dies and they finally have an opportunity to be together does she decide not to be with the Duke. The irony here attacks the notion that love borne from adulterous intention will eventually bear fruit.
It might have been attack towards the growing acceptance of the public towards the notion of infidelity, (almost every character is involved in an affair with someone else) and their giving it idealistic fervor. The Princess of Cleves, despite the best of her intentions, continued to bear her love to someone else, and pined for that other person, and consequently, in her husband’s death she realized her folly too late, and chose to suffer the rest of her life in that guilt. Nathan the Wise has such a complicated string of ironies, that one who skims through even the slightest of details would not appreciate the ironies that eventually occur.
Originally, the story of the Jewish merchant Nathan centered around the Muslim conqueror Saladin trying to fool him out of his money—and this tale has found itself in the pages of Boccaccio’s Decameron. Nathan answers so skillfully that ironically it was Saladin who was put to shame by his own question and humbled before the Jew (Lessing, 90-97). This story is, however, expanded by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, and this encounter between the Egyptian conqueror and the Jew becomes the main theme.
The tale then revolves around a Templar, who was pardoned by Saladin for the reason that he resembled the conqueror’s brother (Lessing, 36); the consequences of his rescue of a Jewish maiden (and subsequent encounter of the grateful surrogate father Nathan), and the intrigues of the Patriarch who would have him either kill Saladin or turn over Nathan, who he found had raised a Christian child to the Jewish faith (the same Jewess he rescued) (37-40). The irony, from an impartial point of view, might have been to some degree absurd.
The Templar, in almost the fashion of Oedipus, tries desperately to seek the truth, and unmask what he sees in his prejudice as malice committed by the Jew Nathan (Lessing, 109-127). And, also in the fashion of Oedipus, not only does he discover that the girl he was trying to save (and hope to marry) was his sister, but Saladin who he would have killed had he agreed to the Patriarch, was his uncle after all (165-172). The irony also hits Saladin, as his pardoning the Templar Conrad because he looked like his brother, redounds to the truth that Conrad was his brother’s son.
While the ironic twist might seem ridiculous to the trained eye, in the sense it fits to the lesson first imparted by Nathan to Saladin: that all men are equal before God, regardless of Faith. This is a happier chide at the Medieval sensibility of hostility between Faiths. Irony is humorous, because we find that the contradiction it creates makes sense. We might have felt our sensibilities offended when we saw that the Princess of Cleves did not end up with the Duke Nemours, but the cosmic twist was to show to us that infidelity was wrong.
We would have preferred that the Templar should have instead ended up marrying the Jewess, but the irony was there to impart the lesson that prejudice has, after all, no place in the world. We sometimes do not find ironic circumstances that funny, as if we lived the life of Duke Nemours or became as aghast as the Templar Conrad. But eventually, we will learn that the contradiction was to impart to us that our plans may go completely the other way, because they may not have been right in the first place. And, the wiser we become to this truth, the more we will realize that irony, though it might strike sad for us, has a reason.
The better we accept this, the more we will be prepared to just take a step back, take a view of the bigger picture, and laugh. WORKS CITED Lafayette, Madame de. The Princess of Cleves. New York: Project Gutenberg. 27 Sept. 2008 <http://www. gutenberg. org/files/467/467. txt>. Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim. Nathan the Wise. New York: Page, Curtis. Project Gutenberg. 01 Mar. 2003. <http://www. gutenberg. org/dirs/etext03/natws10. txt>. Moliere, Jean Baptiste. Tartuffe. New York: Project Gutenberg. 26 Oct. 2008. <http://www. gutenberg. org/files/2027/2027. txt>.