Literature allows people to experience and learn life’s lessons through text. One of the most commonly used literary devices is irony. Irony can be defined as the difference between appearance and reality, or when a reader expects or assumes one thing and the opposite is true. It allows an author to engage and surprise the audience, which often also teaches an important lesson. Two classic examples of irony through literature are Oedipus the King by Sophocles and The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin.
In the play Oedipus the King, Sophocles uses dramatic irony for the moral and political education of society. Dramatic irony depends on the audience’s knowledge of something that the character does not know. Throughout this play Oedipus is searching for his identity, the answers to his questions are visible to the audience the whole time, but not to Oedipus. The knowledge of his true fate also enables the audience to see his errors made from his blindness to the signs that foretell his demise.
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In the beginning of the first act, the citizens of Thebes are begging their king for his help to lift the plague that is attacking the city. Creon, Oedipus’ brother-in-law, comes with news from the Oracle that in order to cease the plague they must solve the murder of Laius, the king before Oedipus. Then summoned by the king Tiresias the blind prophet accuses Oedipus himself of the murders. Jocasta, the queen, tells him to ignore the prophecies. She then stated that once she was told that her son would kill Laius, which could never come true because they abandoned their child to die.
This news begins to haunt Oedipus, who was told by an oracle when he was a boy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. By the end of the play Oedipus learns the truth that he is in fact the son of Jocasta and Laius, and that he had killed his father and then married his mother. This shocking revelation leads to the suicide of Jocasta and Oedipus blinding himself for his inability to see his own destiny revealing itself. Verbal irony was also used commonly by Sophocles.
There are many instances of this in Oedipus when he makes comments about Laius’ murderer which foretells his own fate such as the statement, “So I will fight for him as if he were my father, stop at nothing, search the world to lay my hands on the man who shed his blood”, in which Oedipus is unaware that Laius is in fact his father. This type of irony is also demonstrated when Oedipus says, “for my own sake I’ll rid us of this corruption. Whoever killed the king may decide to kill me too, with the same violent hand- by avenging Laius I defend myself. Here it is ironic that Oedipus is worried that Laius’ killer may try to kill him too, when he is the murderer. The ironies of Oedipus also give a great deal of foreshadowing. When Oedipus curses the murderer of Laius since the audience already knows that he is the murderer it foretells his fate to come. Now my curse on the murderer. Whoever he is, a lone man unknown in his crime or one among many, let that man drag out his life in agony, step by painful step- I curse myself as well…if by any chance he proves to be an intimate of our house, here at hearth, with my full knowledge, my that curse I just called down on him strike me!
This curse that Oedipus says for the murderer shows the audience who already knows that the prophecies are correct that bad things are yet to come to Oedipus. The ultimate irony is the true tragedy of Oedipus. When he finally discovers his own identity, he discovers that he has been blind not to see what was right before him. This self-discovery in an ironic way also becomes his self-destruction. By the time that Oedipus begins to clearly see, his eyes cannot bear what they see and he cuts them out to stop the pain. Irony is present in all types of literature and can be used in different ways to direct the plot.
Irony is used in Oedipus the King to foreshadow the events to come and show the Oedipus’ blindness towards his own fate; yet in the short story The Story of an Hour another tale based upon irony it is used in a very different way. Chopin, a woman writer before the women’s rights movement, used her twist on irony to show the empowerment of women and clashes against what was the standard ideal for women’s role in society of that time period (Sophocles). The story begins with the introduction of Mrs. Mallard, a young woman with heart trouble.
Her sister Josephine and her husband’s friend Richards come to break the horrible news that her husband has just died in a train wreck. Mrs. Mallard in shock over the news cries in her sister Josephine’s arms then retires alone to her room. In her room she sat in a chair facing the open window holding back the sobs, when unexpectedly she is overcome by the intense feeling of freedom. For the first time she felt the joy of life and long years to come that would be hers and hers alone. Empowered by her new revelation she got up and walked downstairs with Josephine, when suddenly the door opens and in walks Mr.
Mallard oblivious to the news of the train wreck. With Josephine’s piercing cry of shock, Mrs. Mallard’s weak heart gave out. When the doctors came they pronounced her dead of heart disease- of the joy that kills. The irony in this story comes from the ideal role that women were to conform and the shock from Mrs. Mallard’s reaction that was completely against what was expected behavior of a woman, which was unheard of for this time. Women were thought to be inferior to men, and so when they got married a woman was to be subservient to their husband. The Story of an Hour hints at that Mrs.
Mallard’s husband- perhaps a typical husband of his day- dominated his wife. Even though she says that he had always looked upon her with love, he was the typical 19th century husband dominating her like she was his to control. The new found freedom from her male dominated life elated her and she finally felt like her life was her own. “There would be no powerful will bending her in that blind persistence with which men and women believe that they have the right to impose a private will upon a fellow creature. ” This freedom overcame her and she began whispering “Free!
Body and soul free! ” While gazing out the window she saw the beauty in the spring day and prayed that her life be long, she recalled that only yesterday she had thought with a shudder life might be long. When Mrs. Mallard saw her very undead husband walk through the door, all the freedom that she had thought she now had vanished and with it so did her life. To the doctors her extreme happiness that her beloved husband was still alive was what stopped her heart, but the readers know that it was her last breath of freedom that took her life.
Her death at the end when she sees that he is still alive is the decisive twist to the ironic tale (Chopin). Irony, that incongruity between what is expected and what actually occurs, is the technique used by writers to engage and surprise their audience as well as open them up to new ideas. Oedipus the King and The Story of an Hour are two completely different stories that use irony to develop the plot teach a lesson. This shows that irony transcends time and culture to be a universal theme.