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Irony is a type of figure of speech often used by authors to draw attention and to send a message about certain situations or characters without being too obvious. Among the different types of ironies, situational irony is mostly used by the writer to show the contradiction between a person’s expectations and the outcome. This ironic contraction of expectations and reality creates a twist in the story that makes the reader more engaged and shows how sometimes people get stuck in situations they don’t want to be in. The situational irony in “Vanka”, “The Baby Party” and “Counterparts” keeps the reader hooked to the story as well as allows the reader to recognize the difference between expectations and reality.
In the story “Vanka”, Chekov uses the situational irony to highlight how an outcome of an action can be highly different from what one would expect. “Vanka” is a story about a nine-year-old orphan, Vanka Zhukov, who was sent as an apprentice to Alyahin, the shoemaker. On Christmas Eve, Vanka is writing a letter to his grandfather and asking him to come and save him from his current awful life. Vanka is a little boy, “who had been apprenticed to Alyahin, the shoemaker…” is also an orphan and is sent to Alyahin by his grandfather (307). His grandfather and Vanka himself must’ve expected his life to change as he was sent away to learn a trade in order to provide for himself; however, his situation is not how one would expect. Ironically, Vanka is leading a miserable and dreadful life, which we learn from his letter, “…an unhappy orphan, here everyone beats me, and I am so hungry, and I am so blue…” (309). From this, the reader can see how Vanka’s life in Moscow is an example of situational irony as he is leading a miserable life even though he was sent there to improve his life and to be independent.
Through Vanka’s letter, Chekov gives us more information about Vanka’s conditions and how he is being abused by Alyahin, in the letter Vanka mentions, “…the master pulled me out in the courtyard by the hair and gave me a hiding with a knee strap because I was rocking the baby in the cradle and happened to fall asleep” (308). Here we can see how Vanka is practically leading a life of slavery, he is doing house chores and is also a subject to Alyahin’s abuses. Not only that, Vanka has learned nothing about shoemaking and doesn’t have any boots, which the reader learns further in the letter: “…but I have no boots and I’m afraid of the frost” (308). Vanka’s situation is no better than a slave, even though he was sent to be an apprentice, he has learned nothing about shoemaking, and he doesn’t even have boots; even though he is living with a shoemaker. Vanka cannot escape his situation because of the lack of boots and even though he was sent to be an apprentice, he is living like a slave which makes Vanka’s situation very ironic. Chekov through these situational ironies brings out the difference between reality and expectation as well as highlighting the fact of how people get stuck in situations, they don’t want to be in. The reader can clearly see how the outcome of Vanka coming to Moscow is very different than what one would expect, and he is stuck in that situation as there is no way he can escape.
The situational irony works in a similar manner in the story of, “Counterparts” where Joyce shows us how things are not always how a person would expect them to be and sometimes human beings cannot escape from their situations no matter how much they hate it. “Counterparts” is a story about a copy clerk, Mr. Farrington who works in a law firm and he dislikes his job as well as his boss who keeps on verbally abusing him. He is an alcoholic and even pawns his watch to buy drinks instead of doing his job, at the end of the day, Farrington goes back home frustrated because of the humiliation he had to suffer in the bar and ends up taking out his frustration and anger on his own child by beating him up. Throughout the story, Farrington is seen to be always frustrated and angry, he is also irresponsible as he forgets to copy important documents and during work, he is not paying attention but instead, “…his mind wandered away to the glare and rattle of the public houses” (333), he is dreaming about pubs and drinking. Farrington clearly lacks all the qualities that are required in a copy clerk and he certainly hates his job, but he is still working there which is an example of situational irony. Nobody would expect Farrington to work in a law firm and be a copy clerk, yet he is still working there and endures all the verbal abuse from his boss because he needs the job. He is stuck in this situation because he has a wife and, “they had five children” (338). Farrington needs the job to provide for his family and for his alcohol, hence he cannot quit even though he lacks the requirements for the job and dislikes which makes his situation ironic.
Furthermore, Farrington is seen to be addicted to drinking and even while working he is thinking about alcohol. He is so frustrated from his work that, “He felt that he must slake the thirst in his throat. He stood up from his desk and… passed out of the office” (332) to drink. Farrington is so needy for a drink that he goes as far as pawning his watch to get the money to drink in the pub. Farrington expects to have a good time as he mutters to himself, “…that they could all go to hell because he was going to have a good night of it” (335), however, things don’t turn out the way Farrington expects, he ends up having a bad time at the pub and instead of being happy, he gets more frustrated, even though he, “…pawned his watch, spent all his money; and he had not even got drunk” (338). He goes through so much and yet, instead of being satisfied, he is so angry that he ends up taking it out on his son which makes this an example of situational irony. Through this, Joyce is also showing the readers how things are not always how one would expect and how life sometimes puts us in situations that we cannot escape. Farrington cannot escape his job because he needs the money and even though he went as far as pawning his watch to have a good time, in the end, he is still angry and frustrated.
The story, “The Baby Party” also has examples of irony of the situation through which the author, Fitzgerald, has shown the reader how things sometimes turn out quite opposite to what a person plans and sometimes it is hard to escape such situations. The story is about a birthday party of a young boy, Billy Markey and how a small quarrel between little Ede and Billy ends up creating an even bigger fight between the grownups. John and Edith Andros are parents of a young girl, little Ede and they live in the suburbs next to the Markeys. Edith and Ede attend the birthday party of Billy Markey and as anyone would expect, the party started off nicely, everyone was having fun, “four baby girls and nine baby boys…were dancing to the music of a phonograph” (348). It was a birthday party of a child and of course, nobody would have expected anything to go wrong, however, things turn out very differently than what one would expect. Towards the end of the party, little Ede, “…had obtained the teddy-bear by pulling it forcibly…” (350) and this leads to a small fight where Billy tries to take back his possession, but little Ede pushes him. When Billy hits his head on the hard floor after falling, there is an unexpected argument between the mothers when Mrs. Markey says, “…there’s the door, get out– I never want to see you in our house again” (352). A birthday party, especially that of a child is a very happy affair and one would usually expect it to end peacefully and happily, however, it is different with Billy Markey’s party as it ends with the grownups fighting which makes it a great example of situational irony.
Moreover, Edith coming to the party even though she doesn’t like Mrs. Markey is also an ironic situation. Edith, “…considered her both snippy and common…” (349) and yet she decides to come to the party which was something quite unexpected. She could have just stayed at home but still; she comes to the party which makes it an example of irony of situation. They both are a family living in the suburbs and there are certain rules and ethics that they must follow, as good neighbors, they cannot avoid each other on events like this as it is considered rude. Edith, in a way, has no choice but to attend the party, she is stuck because of the social ethics even though she thinks low of Mrs. Markey and this makes her situation ironic. One would expect Edith to avoid going to the party, but Edith does the opposite of that and goes to the party with her daughter. Through these ironic situations, Fitzgerald has shown the reader how sometimes things take a very unexpected turn and they don’t always go as planned. He also highlights how social norms and ethics binds a person and pushes them in situations that they cannot escape, no matter how much they dislike it.
In these stories, the authors skillfully use the irony of situation to highlight the difference between expectations and reality as well as throwing light on the fact that people often get stuck in situations they don’t wish to be in or have no escape from. The irony of situation is a great way of telling the reader that things don’t always turns out as someone would expect and it is also a great tool to keep the reader engaged in the story.
- Chekhov, Anton. “Vanka.” Elements of literature: Essay, Fiction, Poetry, Drama, Film.Fourth edition. Edited by Robert Scholes, et al. Oxford UP, 1991. pp. 306-310.
- Fitzgerald, F. Scott. “The Baby Party.” Elements of literature: Essay, Fiction, Poetry, Drama, Film. Fourth edition. Edited by Robert Scholes, et al. Oxford UP, 1991. pp. 346-356.
- Joyce, James. “Counterparts.” Elements of literature: Essay, Fiction, Poetry, Drama, Film. Fourth edition. Edited by Robert Scholes, et al. Oxford UP, 1991. pp. 330-338.
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