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Irony in Mark Twain’s Short Stories

In David Lodge’s chapter on irony, he describes it as “a literary device that says the opposite of what you mean, or inviting an interpretation different from the surface meaning of your words.” (Lodge 179). When a “reader is made aware of a disparity between the facts of a situation and the characters’ understanding of it is called dramatic irony” (Lodge 179). There is no difference in language whether a statement is ironic or not, but it is recognized as ironic in its interpretation. Lodge outlines different ways irony can be created; one way is when a character says the opposite of what the character actually does. There is also verbal irony, otherwise known as sarcasm when a character says something but does not literally mean it. The reader is privileged with knowledge not known by the characters, which makes irony effective. This notion makes the reader aware of a situation in a story, while the characters in the story are oblivious to the ironic elements of their problems. This is evident in many of Mark Twain’s short stories as they are filled with ironic notions that contradict the norm.

Mark Twain’s use of irony is seen in his short story, “A True Story, Word For Word As I Heard It.” Twain introduces a narrator who comes from an upper class, white origin, and shows the ironic nature of the story by asking his African American servant “Aunt Rachel” why she never had any troubles in her life. By asking “Aunt Rachel, how is it that you’ve lived sixty years and never had any trouble?” the narrator sounds ironic, how a privileged man asks an African American women why she never had any troubles in her life. The ironic notion that the privileged man has had more troubles and problems in his life than an African American woman portrays the ignorance of the upper class towards the troubles of others. The oppressor is so ignorant that he believes a woman who has been a slave her whole life has never experienced any trouble. This notion of dramatic irony is used to define the white mans’ ignorance during that time period.

In “The story of the good little boy who did not prosper”, there are many ironic points. It is known that when people do good things, good things happen to them. However it is ironic how no matter what good thing Jacob does, he always finds himself getting the short end of the stick, “Jacob ran to help him up and receive his blessing, the blind man did not give him any blessing at all, but whacked him over the head with his stick”. Jacob always wanted to be in one of the church books that teach kids to be good but did not want to die or disappear at the end as the heroes from the church books always do. The irony in this is that he never got to be in a church book, but he ended up dying, “as for young Jacob Blivens, he never got a chance to make his last dying speech after all his trouble fixing it up, unless he made it to the birds“. There is also irony in this story since the bad children always got away with their antics, as opposed to Jacob; who always found himself in trouble or getting hurt. The biggest point of irony is in the fact that the narrator is aware of the boys’ stupidity. He says, “He always obeys his parents no matter how absurd and unreasonable their demands were”, this shows that the narrator is aware of that there is something wrong with this child. It also brings up this idea that although ideally, this is how all people should act according to church stories, in reality, any person that is that good has to have something wrong with them.

“The story of the bad little boy” is also filled with irony that targets a specific group of people, while also being an ironic story in it of itself. In church tales the bad boy is often reprimanded and punished for doing bad things, however, this boy never got in trouble and never got hurt, “Once he climbed up in Farmer Acorn’s apple-tree to steal apples, and the limb didn’t break, and he didn’t fall and break his arm, and get torn by the farmer’s great dog“. The mother in the story did the exact opposite of what a regular mother would do as she did not care what happened to him and spanked him to sleep.In the end, it is ironic how the boy grew up to become successful through cheating and killing his family when these types of actions are what do the exact opposite. The narrator focuses more on the actions of Jim as a child and less on the bad he has done as an adult, and the prioritization of the wrong bad deeds represent how our society is today.

The Diaries of Adam and Eve are filled with underlying irony, as they are both originally religious stories, yet they take place in Buffalo, New York. The fact that religious themes and God are not mentioned once in the diaries is ironic as they are two religious figures. There is also irony as Twain generalizes man as simplistic and merely observant through the lens of Adam. This is contrasted in the entries of Eve, which are analytical and descriptive. The irony in Eve’s descriptions is the fact that she speaks as though she has had many life experiences, but was only born a day before these entries. The purpose of the real stories is to show the sin of man yet that is not mentioned or prioritized in the diaries. The irony in this is that the actual point of the story (according to religion) is inconsequential and not even mentioned in the story. Adam and Eve are portrayed as confused yet well-meaning people who would rather be together on Earth, than in the Garden of Eden apart.

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