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Irony in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2005 20 Seiten

Anglistik - Literatur


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. General definitions of the term irony
2.1. Verbal irony
2.2. Situational irony
2.2.1. Dramatic irony
2.2.2. Tragic Irony
2.2.3. Socratic irony
2.3. Structural irony
2.3.1. Cosmic irony
2.3.2. Romantic irony

3. Verbal irony in Oliver Twist
3.1. Situational Irony in Oliver Twist
3.1.1. The character of Mr. Bumble as an example of dramatic irony in Oliver Twist
3.1.2. The character of Nancy as an example of tragic irony in ‘Oliver Twist’
3.2. Non-applicable forms of irony in Oliver Twist

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

When first reading ‘Oliver Twist’ it is obvious to most attentive readers that Dickens uses irony. What also becomes clear is that he uses irony in a variety of forms. To grasp this variety it is hardly ever sufficient to use the classical definition of irony exclusively according to which “an ironical utterance is traditionally analyzed as literally saying one thing and figuratively meaning the opposite.”[1] In order to give the reader a more detailed idea of what irony is, the main part of this work will be divided into two sub-divisions. The first sub-division tries to give an answer to the question what irony is in general and how it can be sub-classified into more specific types of irony. The second sub-division is supposed to show the reader which of the formerly described types of irony can or cannot be applied to Oliver Twist and why they can be or cannot be applied. This should give the reader a better idea of why an utterance or a situation is perceived as ironic. The aim is not only to make the reader realise irony but also to make him able to say as to why this situation or that utterance can be seen as ironic. The conclusion will then show to what extent the definitions given in the first sub-division of the main part are useful to analyze irony in the novel. It is also supposed to answer the question why Dickens used irony and what he wanted to achieve using it.

The definition of irony and the sub-categorization into the different types of irony, which is the basis of the first sub-division of the main part, was mainly overtaken from The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms[2]. The main advantage of this definition is that it draws clear cut boundaries between the different types of irony and gives clear advice how to differentiate between them. Except for one chapter in the book by Patricia Plummer[3], there was no literature exclusively dealing with the different forms of irony in Oliver Twist specifically. The problem with Mrs. Plummer’s work is that she exclusively describes the ironic parts of Oliver Twist by means of rhetorical figures. Of course, this is a tenable approach but it did not really serve the purpose of a better understanding of irony in Oliver Twist, which is the aim of this work.

2. General definitions of the term irony

As a first approach to the term irony one needs to take into account several general definitions of irony. This should help the reader to get a basic idea of what irony is about. Without this basic knowledge it might prove difficult to realize subtle and sophisticated forms of irony.

Irony is a mode of discourse for conveying meanings different from - and usually opposite to - the professed or ostensible ones. There are several kinds of irony, though they fall into two major categories: situational and verbal. All irony, however, depends for its success on the exploitation of the distance between words or events and their CONTEXTS.[4]

What we learn from this first definition of irony is that irony is a way of saying or doing one thing in order to convey the opposite, or at least something different, of what one actually wants to say or do. Furthermore the definition says that there are basically two different types of irony, namely situational and verbal.

However, it seems fairly clear that most forms of irony involved the perception or awareness of a discrepancy or incongruity between words and their meaning, or between actions and their results, or between appearance and reality. (…) The two basic kinds of irony are verbal and irony of situation (…).[5]

This second definition goes a bit further than the first by saying that there might also be a discrepancy between appearance and reality. It also differentiates between verbal and situational irony.

A contradiction or incongruity between appearance or expectation and reality. (…) A discrepancy may exist between what someone says and what he or she actually means, between what someone expects to happen and what really does happen, or between what appears to be true and what actually is true. (…) Several types of irony exist, all of which may be classified under one of three broad headings: verbal irony, situational irony and structural irony.[6]

The last definition quoted is very much the same as the other two. But it comprises one special and important element. Unlike the other two it does not subdivide irony into two major categories but into three. Besides verbal and situational irony it establishes a third category: structural irony.

Taking the above definitions into account, it quickly becomes clear that the simplest definitions of irony that come to mind when first thinking about a definition of irony at all are somewhat insufficient. Irony has been defined “as ‘saying the contrary of what one means’, as ‘saying one thing but meaning another’, as ‘praising in order to blame or blaming in order to

praise’, and as ‘mocking and scoffing’”[7]. This simple or ‘common’ definition just quoted can be seen as a shorter and more imprecise version of the definitions given at the beginning of this chapter. But even those definitions lack the precision to clearly distinguish irony from other closely related phenomena. What is meant by that will be shown in the following.

If one wanted to summarize all the definitions given above, one might get a sentence like this: “The basic feature of every irony is a contrast between a reality and an appearance”[8] If this is taken for granted it becomes clear that any kind of deception, i.e. lies, hypocrisy etc., could then also be classified as irony because, as in irony, there is a discrepancy between appearance and reality, too. But as deception is not commonly thought of as irony, it becomes clear from this that irony must have at least one constituent part distinguishing it from deception. With deception the intention is to conceal the real meaning or reality. With irony it is the intention of the speaker (the ironist) that the real meaning of his words or actions is somehow revealed.[9] This very feature is another characteristic of irony because “irony is commonly employed as a ‘wink’ that the listener or reader is expected to notice so that he or she may be ‘in on the secret’. An irony that goes unnoticed, after all, fails to achieve its effect.”[10]

2.1. Verbal irony

Verbal irony is the first of the three major categories of irony which are going to be dealt with in this work. Verbal irony is also frequently referred to as rhetorical irony and it “is characterized by a discrepancy between what a speaker or writer says and what he or she believes to be true. More specifically, a speaker or writer using verbal irony will say the opposite of what he or she actually believes to be true.”[11] Comparing this definition with the ones cited before, one realises that this definition is actually more appropriate to define verbal irony than irony as such. Thus, it is only one part of the whole range of meaning that irony involves, which can be covered by means of this definition.

Although it should by now have become clear what verbal irony is, one example should be given to illustrate what verbal or rhetorical irony is. One would clearly say someone is being ironic when he or she says to another person ‘What lovely weather’ although they are both caught in a downpour. As the person making the statement is caught in a downpour, there can hardly be any doubt that this person does not mean to get across the literal meaning of what he or she says. It is the extreme opposite of the statement that is meant to be conveyed.[12] However, there is an interesting point to be made here. Without any knowledge of the circumstances in which this statement is made, namely in a downpour, it would be hard, or maybe even impossible, to take a decision on whether this statement is meant to be ironic or not. Thus, the context in which an utterance is made seems to be of great importance when deciding whether a statement is meant to be ironic or not.[13]

So far it has become clear that verbal irony has two important traits. First, there has to be a disparity between what someone says and what he or she actually means. Second, the context of an utterance is important to realise whether someone is being ironic. To go one step further one should reconsider the example of the two people caught in the middle of a downpour. The following utterances are exchanged between them: “It seems to be raining” and “Did you remember to water the flowers?[14] No doubt, it is possible to see a discrepancy here between what the speaker says and what he actually means to say. But if one takes a closer look at the definition of verbal irony again, it is supposed to be specific to verbal irony to say one thing and actually mean the opposite. This is clearly not the case here. The opposite of the first utterance would be something like ‘It is not raining’ but this is not what the speaker wants to express. The speaker “expresses LESS than what he thinks” and the utterance “is odd because its truth is so patently obvious.”[15] It is hard to imagine what the opposite of the second example would or could be. But very much like the first example it is “irrelevant in the circumstances. The speaker is not interested in the answer.”[16]

In order to point out another phenomenon related to the examples given above, another example should be examined. In the circumstances described above one person says to the other: “I’m glad we didn’t bother to bring an umbrella.”[17] Again the speaker says one thing but means to say the opposite. But in this situation one could also imagine that this example is meant to echo a remark made earlier like ‘We don’t need to take an umbrella’. This is a case of “echoic mention. (…) The speaker mentions a proposition in such a way as to make clear that he rejects it as ludicrously false, inappropriate, or irrelevant.”[18]

Those three examples show that the definition of verbal irony quoted above, especially the specific part of it, does not take all kinds of verbal irony into account. And although one could argue that the three examples given above can be identified as irony because a discrepancy can be seen between what is said and what is meant to be conveyed, there remains a vague feeling that these special cases of irony described above cannot be clearly identified by means of the ‘simple’ definition of verbal irony quoted at the beginning of this chapter. In consequence one should add three aspects to the features by which verbal irony can be identified: firstly, someone using verbal irony may express less than he actually thinks and secondly, he may make an utterance obviously irrelevant in the circumstances. In addition to that one should keep in mind that “the maxim of truthfulness is in fact neither necessary nor sufficient for ironical interpretation (…) [because irony often refers] to the inappropriateness or irrelevance of an utterance rather than to the fact that it is false.”[19] It is, however, important to be especially precise about the definition of verbal irony in order to be able to recognise it because it “is the most common kind of irony.”[20]


[1] Sperber, Dan; Wilson, Deirdre. “Irony and the Use-Mention Distinction. “ In: Cole, Peter, ed. Radical Pragmatics. Town, 1981: Academic Press, p. 295. Quotes from this book will from now on be referred to as: Sperber/Wilson 1981, <page number>.

[2] Murfin, Ross; Ray, Supryia, M. Ray. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Boston et al., 22003 (11997): Bedford/St. Martin’s, pp. 220 - 228. Quotes from this book will from now on be referred to as: Murfin/Ray 2003, <page number>.

[3] Plummer, Patricia. Stil in Charles Dickens’ ‚Oliver Twist’. Formen – Funktionen – Kontexte. (Jenaer Studien

zur Anglistik und Amerikanistik. Bd. 7). Trier, 2004: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, pp. 51-85.

Quotes from this book will from now on be referred to as: Plummer 2004, <page number>.

[4] Lee, Brian. “Irony.“ In: Fowler, Roger, ed. A Dictionary of Modern Critical Terms. London et al., 1973: Routledge & Kegan, p. 101.

[5] Cuddon, John A. A Dictionary of Literary Terms. London, 21979 (11977): W & J Mackay, p. 338.

[6] Murfin/Ray 2003, pp.220-222.

[7] Muecke, Douglas, C. Irony and the Ironic. London et al. 21982 (11970): Methuen, p. 17. Quotes from this book will from now on be referred to as: Muecke 1982, <page number>.

[8] Chevalier, H. The ironic temper: Anatole France and his time. New York, 1932: Oxford University Press, p. 42.

[9] Muecke 1982, p. 35.

[10] Murfin/Ray 2003, p. 220.

[11] Ibid., p.222.

[12] Sperber/Wilson 1981, pp. 295-296.

[13] The first definition by Lee quoted at the beginning of chapter 2 stresses the important role of the context when dealing with irony.

[14] Sperber/Wilson 1981, p. 300.

[15] Ibid., p. 301.

[16] Ibid., p. 302.

[17] Ibid., p. 302.

[18] Ibid., p. 308.

[19] Ibid., p. 309.

[20] Murfin/Ray 2003, p. 222.


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Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule Aachen – Institut für Anglistik, Lehrstuhl 1
Irony Charles Dickens Oliver Twist




Titel: Irony in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist