I’m here today to talk about Alanis Morissette.
When I was in 8th grade, or maybe 9th, my English teacher was dedicated to teaching the class a list of “literary devices.” One of these devices was irony. I can’t remember what exactly her definition of the term was, but I’m pretty sure that it was close to how I would define sarcasm: the act of someone meaning the opposite of what they say. To test our understanding of this concept, my teacher gleefully gave the class copies of the lyrics to Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic,” which was not particularly new but still well known and beloved by us all. This process consisted of the reading going through the song, line by line, tasked with identifying which lines, if any were “truly” ironic.
Needless to say, this experience was a little traumatizing. I acknowledge that such tasks are particularly odious for me, since I have an incredibly difficult time identifying anything as “truly” anything, once I stop to think about it. (I once had a panic attack when a German university professor (!!) asked our poetics class to pick out the “real” poems from a list of impostors.) I take some solace, though, in the fact that I was not alone; I have spoken to both colleagues and students who underwent the same sort of gradgrindian torment. Many of them also felt disillusioned by this attack on a popular cultural touchstone, but still more disturbing is the fact that many of them now have warped ideas of what “ironic” actually means. So today I am going to recuperate “Ironic” from the hands of the misunderstanding scholastics and defend the song as truly, madly, deeply ironic.
Before getting into the meaning of irony and how it applies to “Ironic,” I’m going to post the song’s lyrics in full. Feel free to read through them once more, and hum along.
An old man turned ninety-eight
He won the lottery and died the next day
It’s a black fly in your Chardonnay
It’s a death row pardon two minutes too late
And isn’t it ironic… don’t you think
It’s like rain on your wedding day
It’s a free ride when you’ve already paid
It’s the good advice that you just didn’t take
Who would’ve thought… it figures
Mr. Play It Safe was afraid to fly
He packed his suitcase and kissed his kids goodbye
He waited his whole damn life to take that flight
And as the plane crashed down he thought
“Well isn’t this nice…”
And isn’t it ironic… don’t you think
A traffic jam when you’re already late
A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break
It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife
It’s meeting the man of my dreams
And then meeting his beautiful wife
And isn’t it ironic…don’t you think
A little too ironic…and, yeah, I really do think…
Life has a funny way of sneaking up on you
Life has a funny, funny way of helping you out
Helping you out
First, let’s get this out of the way: calling Alanis Morissette’s lyrics unironic is wrong. From “irony” in the Oxford English Dictionary:
3. A state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what was or might be expected; an outcome cruelly, humorously, or strangely at odds with assumptions or expectations.
This accurately and uncontroversially describes almost all of the song’s situations. For everyone I know, rain on one’s wedding day would indeed be cruelly, humorously, and strangely at odds with expectations. This sort of irony is usually called “situational irony,” and while I’m usually opposed to breaking irony apart into discrete kinds, the phrase works pretty well here to describe the many ironic examples that Alanis describes. Both that 98-year-old-man and Mr. Play-it-Safe possess fates that are truly ironic; they struggle to create a meaningful narrative in the face of a world that thwarts their intentions. The only moment in the song that doesn’t easily fit into this definition of irony is one of the last, with the “man of my dreams” and “his beautiful wife.” There is certainly a contrast there, but it doesn’t seem to be one of expectations; I’ll get to that later. In general, though, the song evokes the disparity of meaning that comes from the difference of expectation and actuality. Just because no one is being sarcastic doesn’t mean the song isn’t ironic.
But let’s not stop there. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that in writing this Alanis has a much deeper, more radical, and philosophical concept of irony. It seems to me that Ms. Morissette is remarkably well versed in the theories of irony from Erasmus to Paul de Man; if she hasn’t read their works herself, then she has certainly internalized much of the theory of irony not only as a trope but as a question of philosophy.
Take, for example: “It’s the good advice that you just didn’t take.” This is the vaguest line in the song, and it seems to pose a challenge to the ironist. Presumably the situational irony here is that the listener didn’t expect the advice to apply, whereas it did indeed. But why didn’t “you” take the advice? It’s possible that you thought the advice-giver was being ironic, and didn’t intend for you to heed the advice. Or you simply thought that the advice wasn’t “good” when it was; either way you don’t take it “seriously.” In fact that word, “seriously,” haunts the end of the lyric; the irony here is one of (mis)interpretation. Paul de Man addresses this difficulty of interpretation in his essay “The Concept of Irony” (not to be confused with Kierkegaard’s book of the same name): “what is at stake in irony is the possibility of understanding, the possibility of reading, the readability of texts, the possibility of deciding on A meaning or on a multiple set of meanings or on a controlled polysemy of meanings.” Doesn’t Alanis provide the perfect example of living in a world where we’re unsure of what to take seriously, and what not to? And who, really, would have thought it figures?
A more global question: what is “Ironic” really about, anyway? I turn to the bridge/outro: “Life has a funny way of sneaking up on you / Life has a funny, funny way of helping you out” What is she talking about here? How is life helping her out? It seems to me that this song, like so many songs on Jagged Little Pill, is describing the wistful emotional reflection that a Gen-Xer feels when distanced from her own life experience. Think Daria, think Reality Bites. It’s telling that the music video features three Alanises taking a road trip: Alanis sees herself from the outside. A friend once described this popular 1990s attitude as “the meaningfulness of meaninglessness.“ Come to think of it, that describes the poetry of T.S. Eliot pretty well too.
Or, put another way, Alanis is describing the affect of Kierkegaardian irony. From the philosopher’s book The Concept of Irony:
In irony, the subject is negatively free, since the actuality that is supposed to give the subject content is not there. He is free from the constraint in which the given actuality holds the subject, but he is negatively free and as such is suspended, because there is nothing that holds him. But this very freedom, this suspension, gives the ironist a certain enthusiasm, because he becomes intoxicated, so to speak, in the infinity of possibilities…
Does this quote not perfectly describe the emotional content of “Ironic”? The situations in the song simultaneously create a feeling of freedom and one of alienation; we are free to laugh at the irony of the world, but we are unable to experience its meaning unironically. I most strongly identify with this emotion (and song) when I’m hung over.
To conclude I want to return to the troubling final example in the song, the man of Alanis’s dreams and his beautiful wife. There is a yearning here, as well as its negation or deferral, but how is it ironic? Well, in his 1828 book The Philosophy of Life and of Language, Friedrich Schlegel connects irony and love:
True irony—for there also is a false one—is the irony of love. It arises out of the feeling of finiteness and one’s own limitation, and out of the apparent contradiction between this feeling and the idea of infinity which is involved in all true love.
I don’t even want to think about false irony, and to be honest I’m not 100% sure what this quote (or book) really means, but I can tell that Alanis knows. Elsewhere Schlegel describes irony as the effect of a ‘finite being striving to comprehend an infinite reality.’ This is the feeling that “Ironic” both describes and evokes when I try to interpret it.
Irony usually conveys a difference between how things seem to be and the reality. As a literary technique it is used when a certain outcome is revealed, but is not what readers were expecting or hoping for. Irony can be difficult to define; it's often subjective and depends on the audience's expectations.
Take the song "Ironic" by Alanis Morissette. There were many heated debates when it came out over whether the situations described in the song are actually ironic or just unfortunate incidents. And over the years there were more debates about whether the song really is ironic because it's called "Ironic" but nothing in the song is ironic. Confusing? Yes, that's irony.
While it is possible for one person to find something ironc that another person does not, there are several defined categories for irony that apply in life and in literature.
Categories of Irony
There are many ways to play with irony. This is great because it brings added layers and texture to a story. Irony is predominantly defined within three main categories: dramatic irony, situational irony, and verbal irony. Let's have some fun with each.
Dramatic irony is used when the audience knows more about what's going on than the characters. This creates suspense, or humor, as the audience waits to see if the characters will come to understand what's really happening. Dramatic irony heightens the audience's anticipation, hopes, or fears, but it can also be used for comedic effect.
Have you ever read a novel or watched a play or movie where the narrator was omniscient (knew what every character was thinking and feeling)? These are great setups for dramatic irony.
- A novel's heroine visits her favorite café every day from 11am to 1pm to work on her manuscript. Her brother's best friend knows this and is trying to find a way to ask her out on a date.The day he gets up the courage to go to the café she's not there. Where is she? The reader knows she's been taken ill, he does not. Now, a healthy dose of suspense is added to the plot.
- Let's take the same woman and her brother's best friend in a different, comedic direction. She still visits the café every day and her brother's best friend is still determined to tell her how he feels. In this instance, he wants to leave a love poem at her door. One day, thinking she'll be at the café, he goes to her apartment to slide his poem under her door, but we know she's running late and is still at home. Right when he bends down to push the piece of paper under her door, she flings it open in a hurry, steps out, and trips right over him!
- A woman thinks her boyfriend is about to break up with her. He hasn't been himself lately, acting distracted and distant. We know he bought her an engagement ring and is nervous she won't say yes. He calls her one afternoon and simply says, "I need to see you. Meet me at Columbus Square at six o'clock." She's sure he's going to break up with her. But when she arrives, he's set up a beautiful proposal with a string quartet, dozens of roses, and a huge sparkler of a diamond.
- In Macbeth by William Shakespeare, Macbeth appears to be loyal to Duncan, but he is actually plotting his murder. Duncan doesn't know Macbeth's plans, but the audience knows what is going to happen.
- George Orwell makes full use of dramatic irony in Animal Farm. Throughout the book the reader knows many crucial facts that the characters are not aware of. Such as the animals believing Boxer was sent to the hospital, when the reader knows the pigs sold him to the slaughter house and used the money to buy whiskey for themselves.
Dramatic irony has a nice place in both comedy and tragedy. As readers wait to see when the main character will "catch on", suspense is building and the pages are turning. For more examples, take a look at Dramatic Irony Examples.
This type of irony occurs when something happens that is completely different from what was expected. Usually, these instances incorporate some type of contradiction and a certain level of shock.
- An ambulance driver speeds to the scene of a road accident. The victim isn't badly hurt until the ambulance driver whips around a corner and runs over the victim's legs, not realizing she'd crawled to the center of the road.
- The whole story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum is a case of situational irony. Dorothy and her friends are in search of external forces to help them get what they need, but discover that they each had what they needed the whole time. Dorothy learns that the shoes she was wearing can get her home. Scarecrow discovers he was smart all along. The Tinman finally learns that he has a good heart. The cowardly Lion turns out to be extremely courageous.
- The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin tells the tale of a wife who learned her husband was dead. She felt a sense of freedom, thinking about her new life out from under his thumb. Suddenly, the husband returns (he never was dead) and she dies of shock.
- A man has been working hard all his life, saving a portion of every paycheck for retirement. Upon retirement he plans to move to the Virgin Islands, sit back and relax. On the morning of this retirement party, he dies of a sudden, massive heart attack.
- A man buys a gun to protect his home, but during a break-in the intruder wrestles the gun from him and shoots him.
For more examples, check out Examples of Situational Irony.
This type of irony comes to play when a speaker says one thing, but means another.
That sounds a lot like sarcasm, doesn't it? Let's say we were reading about a character who was afraid of heights. One day, her boyfriend surprises her with two tickets for a hot air balloon ride. She replies with, "Wow, I can't wait!" Would you think that's verbal irony or sarcasm? It's actually verbal irony. This form of irony occurs when a character says one thing, but means another. Sarcasm comes into play when a witty attack or somewhat derogatory statement is made.
Here are two examples of verbal irony and two examples of sarcasm:
- A writer is working on his manuscript, and it's a comedy. The days have been fraught with rain and clouds, bringing down his mood and hampering his ability to craft witty scenes. As he opens his blinds one morning, he sees the dark clouds outside again and says, "Great. Another rainy day. How wonderful.”
- A woman has a Saint Bernard with a massive drooling problem. She tries to keep him off the sofa, but he loves pretending he's a lap dog. One night, he trots over to her and places a gigantic paw on her lap. He's looking at her with those sad brown eyes. “All right," she says. "You know how I just love dog drool on my sofa.”
- In the episode of Friends where the friends go to London for Ross and Emily’s wedding, Chandler says, "I'm so glad we're having this rehearsal dinner. You know, I so rarely get to practice my meals before I eat them."
- A snobbish woman - who perceives moonstone to be a poor man's gemstone - is given a pair of moonstone earrings by her fiancé. When she opens the box, she says, "Thank you, honey. I just love moonstones. They're so... simple."
The first two examples are verbal irony, the second two are sarcasm. Did you spot the difference? Sarcasm is meaner, more derogatory or condescending. For more, see Examples of Verbal Irony.
Socratic Irony and Cosmic Irony
Dramatic, verbal and situational irony are considered the three main types of irony in literature and drama but there are other types of irony found in everyday life.
Socratic irony is most often found in the world of academia; it is related to the Socratic Teaching Method. This method encourages students to present opposing views while the teacher feigns ignorance. This way, students learn to reason and deduce on their own, independent from the opinions of their teacher. Outside of academia, Socratic irony may be thought of as "playing the fool," simulating ignorance in order to reveal another person's ignorance or flaws.
- Sacha Baron Cohen's satirical characters, such as Ali G and Borat, acted stupid to highlight the ignorance and stupidity of those they talked to.
- Your parents pretend not to know you dented the car, and ask a series of seemingly innocent questions that eventually lead to your confession.
Cosmic irony can be attributed to some sort of misfortune. This form of irony is the result of fate or chance and the outcomes are not a result of the characters' actions. So it can seem as if an outside force has a hand in the situation.
- in Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbevilles, despite being innocent, the main character loses everything, including her life, in tragic circumstances beyond her control. The novel ends with, "Justice was done, and the President of the Immortals (in the Aeschylean phrase) had ended his sport with Tess."
- We all know the story of the Titanic. It was said that not even God could sink that ship. It was built with watertight compartments designed to keep it afloat even when taking on water. Devastatingly, the ship struck an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage.
Keep the Audience Guessing
Outside tragic nonfictional irony of events like the sinking of the Titanic, isn't irony a wonderful literary tool? No one wants to be predictable, and irony is anything but that. Whether it's dramatic irony, where readers are waiting for the other shoe to drop; situational irony, where everyone involved is shocked; or verbal irony, where words don't line up with true intentions, irony is a fantastic way to send a curveball straight down centerfield. Don't be afraid to keep your readers guessing. They'll be more prone to take additional journeys with you in your future tales of tragedy, comedy, and love.