Wayne C. Booth. A Rhetoric of Irony, (1974).

A Rhetoric of Irony. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974. 


According to Gregory Clark’s entry on Wayne Booth in Twentieth-Century Rhetorics and Rhetoricians, Booth’s writing “has been ‘about how we manage to get together, sometimes, in our efforts to reach a human truth, and why we so often fail to’” (Clark, 51). A confirmed pluralist, he is concerned with the function of literature for the formation of community, of conversation, and of agreement.

So why did Wayne Booth tackle the large, unwieldy and age-old topic of irony? Doesn’t irony in fact create a separation between those who get it, and those who don’t? Isn’t irony largely negative?

As a critic, Booth has likely been concerned with the way irony works in modern literature. After all, irony is present in much modern literature, and any career discussion of literature’s function should necessarily address it. Booth is also concerned with the characteristics of the ironic voices, and the mechanics of irony as different from metaphor, allegory and satire.

Booth’s work has also had an ethical project. For Booth, narratives are relationships between readers, authors and texts. He explores this idea further in The Company We Keep, noting that readers and authors engage in coduction, a continuing conversation in which we explore a text in terms of our experiences as readers and humans (and for Booth there is no difference). Irony is also a conversation, for Booth, and requires a lot of work on the part of readers to come to understand the author’s meaning.

In Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent, Booth is devoted to fighting the modern dogmas about knowledge and criticism. Irony and Booth’s theory of reconstruction fight against the dogmas. Not only does irony require openness and pluralistic thinking, it requires assent at many levels.

Booth’s preface to this work makes special mention of D.C. Muecke’s work Compass of Irony (PDF), published in 1969: “I wish that I could have read Mr. Muecke’s book before I wrote the first draft of mine; his help is evident everywhere in this final version, and I have again and again been tempted to say to my reader: go read Muecke and then we can carry on from there” (xiii). Muecke’s project is clear. He wants to define irony and describe irony in practice.

Muecke’s work provides us with a comprehensive laundry list of the ways irony exists, and the topics to which it is applied. Booth examines literature for irony and asks two important questions: “Is it ironic?” and “How do we know?” In literature, how do readers and authors achieve irony together?

Booth sees irony as intimacy, a way in which ironist and reader get together in a delicate dance of reconstruction of meaning. Booth’s work has always been concerned with the sharing of meaning and the creation of community. In A Rhetoric of Irony, he tries to illustrate that there are ways of knowing things – there is a kind of literary knowledge – and that ironic construction is a good example of the way in which this literary knowledge works. Irony brings substance to text rather than disintegrating them, and holds things together that may otherwise be destabilized.

Summary of the Text

Chapter 1: The Ways of Stable Irony

To begin, Booth describes the ways in which different readers can read irony differently.

How do we know what an author’s intentions are when he/she uses irony? Booth answers that there is such a thing as stable irony and gives us a set of reading tasks - these guide us to reconstruct the correct meaning of the irony

Four marks of stable irony:

  1. ironic statements are intended – not accidental or ironies of event
  2. covert – intended to be reconstructed, not overt (eg “It is ironic that…”)
  3. the reader is not invited to reconstruct further ironies
  4. irony is finite in application – the field of discourse is narrowly described, and not about “life in general” (6)

What makes irony different from all communication? Human statements are surrounded by nuances that are assumed to be understood by speaker and listener (8) but elaborate inferences are required in literature. Context is everything!

Four steps to reconstruction:

  1. Reader must reject the literal meaning – recognize a dissonance between what he reads and what he knows
  2. Reader must try out alternative interpretations – eg that guy must be crazy
  3. Reader makes a decision about the author’s knowledge or beliefs
  4. Reader chooses a new meaning based on his beliefs about the author

This process is communal: “The whole thing cannot work at all unless both parties to the exchange have confidence that they are moving together in identified patterns” (13). Booth even claims that real intimacy is impossible without irony (is he being ironic?) (15).

How do we know what comprises the correct interpretation?

Booth applies the Russell test to irony and concludes that we have to use our common sense – the irony we see can be argued for soundly (16).

Irony differs from other figures of speech because they do not require the 4 steps of interpretation.


  • in metaphor, we have to reconstruct meaning but we are not forced to make a decision about the author’s intent. What we reject is the form of the sentence – eg all the world is not actually a stage (23)
  • there are no incompatibilities to reconcile

Allegory and Fable

  • there are traps in irony and invitations in allegory
  • “A naïve reader who overlooks irony will totally misunderstand what is going on. A naïve reader who reads an allegory without taking conscious thought, refusing all invitations to reconstruct general meanings out of the literal surface, will in effect obtain an experience something like what the allegory intends” (25)


  • puns can be used either ironically or straight (Booth 26)
  • many puns do not contribute anything to the meaning of the sentence – eg “I yam what I yam”
  • puns which ask us to reconstruct meaning are more like irony

Stable Irony and Satire

  • important to Booth – irony must always have victims, but “the building of amiable communities is often far more important than the exclusion of naïve victims” (28)
  • the reader feels included because the author doesn’t have to spell out what he/she is saying
  • irony is directed to affirmative matters – creates a community of believers even as it excludes (28)
  • “irony is used in some satire, not in all; some irony is satiric, much is not” (29)

Booth sees the act of reading and understanding irony as an intimate act:

“Total strangers, we had just performed an intricate intellectual dance together, and we knew that we were somehow akin” (31). For Booth, irony brings reader and author together into a community of those who understand.

Chapter 2: Reconstructions and Judgments

“Reading irony is in some ways like translating, like decoding, like deciphering, and like peering behind a mask” (33).

Ironic reconstruction depends on unstated assumptions that readers and ironists share – there needs to be a common place for these two to meet. The concept of common locations leads to the image of two platforms at work in reconstruction – the reader is asked to move from one platform (“on which the speaker pretends to stand” (35) to another. But how do we know that the reader needs to move – in Booth’s terms, that the first platform is shaky? (35)

An ironic statement implies a set of beliefs, and we reject the statement because we reject the entire set of beliefs – the reader cannot believe that the author is that kind of person. Booth prefers to use the image of moving between two buildings, one more elevated than the other: “The movement is always toward an obscured point that is intended as wiser, wittier, more compassionate, subtler, truer, more moral, or at least less obviously vulnerable to further irony” (36). The two dwellings are seen for what they are and the reader accepts the invitation to leave one and choose another.

Advantages of Reconstruction (and Booth’s metaphor of two dwellings)

  • it reminds us of complexities – there is always an implied claim to superiority
  • dramatizes the distance between two points
  • there are many rejected propositions and many victims
  • explains that words require reconstruction – something implicit in their place that gives them away
  • reconstruction must be performed rather than said

Required Judgments

  • we must make judgments about the overt proposition and the stance of the author; we must also judge whether the reconstructed building works and whether the ironist is justified in forcing us to go to the new dwelling
  • all readers are invited to agree with whatever message they have discerned (41)
  • irony works to conceal its art – it “risks disaster more aggressively than any other device” (41)
  • the more ironies we discover in a work, the cleverer we think the author – and ourselves for detecting all of these ironies (this can lead to irony-hunting – (42)

Some Pleasures and Pitfalls of Irony

“Successful reading of irony depends on reserves of tact and experience and even wisdom that are likely at any moment to prove lacking in any of us, and yet irony offers special temptations to our weaknesses, especially our pride” (44)

Chapter 3: It is Ironic?

How can we avoid making the mistake that Booth makes with his deer-hunting student? (Booth relates a story about reading irony into a story where none was intended by the author).

Clues to Irony

Straightforward warning in the author’s own voice

  • in titles eg “Diary of a Worrier” (53)
  • in epigraphs
  • other direct clues, eg author denies being the narrator (Booth’s eg is Nabakov) (55)

* Booth notes that it is foolish to take these warnings at face value – they are only clues and can also be ironic!

Known error proclaimed

  • the speaker betrays ignorance that is incredible (57)
  • popular expressions presented incorrectly
  • historical facts are transposed or proclaimed
  • conventional judgment – author must judge the knowledge of the reader

Conflicts of facts within the work

  • either the author has been careless or is being ironic
  • classic presentation: plausible but false voice, then contradictions are introduced, then the correct voice is heard correcting the initial voice (64)

Clashes of style

  • like Muecke’s travesty and burlesque

Conflicts of Belief

  • we notice a conflict between the beliefs expressed and those we suspect the author to hold (73)
  • every reader will have the greatest difficulty detecting irony that mocks his own beliefs (81)

Chapter 4: Essays, Satire and Parody

Context is the key, and for Booth there are two kinds. First, there is the literary context – what we reconstruct as we read. Second, there is the historical context – in which the piece was written and printed and read.

“the first context is what we finally arrive at, in our total act of successful reading: it does not exist for us until the passage clicks into place as a kind of completed whole. The second exists before, during, and after this reading, available to be referred to as an aid in our reconstruction – and also available as a possible distraction from a sound reading.” (97)

The engagement between the author and reader depends on a world they never made, and also on 3 kinds of agreement:

  • common experience of the English language
  • common cultural experience
  • their common experience of literary genres

The writer must be aware of the group of people who will read the irony and not get it. Sometimes, as in the case of the Modest Proposal, all readers are supposed to get it after all being duped for awhile (109).

Readers must recognize that intention is important to the reading of irony:

Whatever the ups and downs of critical controversy, historical knowledge, including knowledge of genres, is thus often implied when reconstructing stable ironies: a reconstructing of implied authors and implied readers relies on inferences about intentions, and these often depend on our knowing facts from outside the poem. (133)

Chapter 5: Ironic Portraits

In longer works, “the reconstruction of messages or content seems to be for the sake of revising and completing a picture of the speaker or of an action in which he is involved” (137).

In an ironic portrait, we don’t stop at reconstituted segments that replace the whole message; we stop with “some kind of human character, situation or story that we have been led to see as superior” (141). Sometimes what is ironic is the contrast between what the speaker believes about himself and what we infer about him (147) – this inference depends on how our knowledge and experience relate to the implied author’s intentions (147).

Fiction and Drama

“It is important only to recognize the absolute split between works designed to be reconstructible on firm norms shared by authors and readers, and those other ‘ironic’ works that provide no platform for reconstruction. In one kind, all or most of the ironies are resolved into relatively secure moral or philosophical perceptions or truths; in the other, all truths are dissolved in an ironic mist.” (151)

Many short stories written since the 19th century have taken the form of extended monologues – readers must reconstruct the distances between the presented view of things and the author’s evaluation (151).

We have to decide whether or not we trust the narrator. Booth gives the Flannery O’Connor story as an example. In this story, we can see the inconsistencies in the character’s perceptions, but it is not so easy to see the realities. The story is the place we look for clues to reconstruct the world that contradicts with the character’s world.

Custom-Built Worlds

Many modern writers have “created clashes of character and secret value that are immeasurably more difficult to reconstruct” (Booth 169) This kind of story is especially vulnerable to the two pitfalls of irony–going too far and not going far enough–“Stable irony always depends on the sharing of norms with an implied but covert author and yet many modern authors, themselves not at all confused about at least some values, underlying their ironies, have encouraged the notion that sharing values doesn’t matter” (171).

Chapter 6: The Ironist’s Voice

We have to rely on our picture of the author (either implied or from experience) in order to reconstruct with confidence the meaning behind the irony. Readers begin to take interest in the ironic voice (176), in the tasks it assigns and the qualities it provides.

Irony is essentially “subtractive” for Booth (177), and when irony goes too far, when “it becomes a total irony that must discount itself” (178), it becomes nothing. In modern times, authors become better known for their use of irony than their uses of the metaphoric. In this chapter, Booth presents the voices of Fielding and EM Forster to illustrate how the ironist’s voice presents pervasive stable irony. Authors perform a kind of training on their readers to show them when to read the irony, and when to read the statements as they are – so that everything that is written does not become suspect.

We know when to stop by paying attention to the work – for it tells us to stop when continuing will destroy the other riches the work offers (190).

Chapter 7: Is There a Standard of Taste in Irony?

The ironist asks us to assume that his form of irony is worthy of our attention. We have to make judgments about irony – and for Booth there are four levels on which we evaluate irony.

There are more questions than just “is there irony here?” and “is the irony honest?” (197):

  • judging parts according to function
  • qualities as critical constraints
  • success at particular works
  • comparison of kinds

Booth notes that there are many things that can get in the way of our making judgments about irony – he calls them Five Crippling Handicaps (222):

  • ignorance
  • inability to pay attention
  • prejudice
  • lack of practice
  • emotional inadequacy

Part III: Instabilities

Chapter 8: Reconstructing the Unreconstructable: Local Instabilities

Booth describes some categories of irony using three variables:

  1. the degree of openness or disguise – irony can be covert or totally overt, ie “It is ironic that…”
  2. the degree of stability in the reconstruction – can the reader be confident that his/her work is done when he has understood the irony?
  3. the scope of the “truth revealed” – ranging from the local to the universal


Here the meaning of irony is hidden but “firm as a rock” when discovered by the reader (235).


These statements assert an irony that the speaker has observed and wants to share:
Booth describes this irony in a diagram that creates this statement:
Isn’t it ironic that things are….
When we thought they were, or wished they were, like this…
They are REALLY LIKE THIS (238)

Unstable Irony

There is irony that resists that firm interpretation – “leaving the possibility, and in infinite ironies, that since the universe (or at least the universe of discourse) is inherently absurd, all statements are subject to ironic undermining” (241).

Booth asserts that wherever there are intentions, “however obscure or unconventional”, there are invitations to interpret (245). In unstable-overt-local ironies, we know that something is being undermined but we don’t know where to stop in our interpretations. In unstable-covert-local irony, there is no firm place to stand but the author still insists on a meaning.


Chapter 9: Infinite Instabilities

Infinite ironies assert that the universe is absurd and that nothing will stand up under ironic examination (253). Booth’s example of Robert Graves’ poem notes that the surface meaning is the meaning of the poem (Booth’s italics) – yet underlying the poem is a truth that Graves is trying to reach. But many modern authors reject using such an overt declaration of irony – and Booth turns to Beckett for an example. While Beckett’s work is often portrayed as “empty” of meaning, Booth notes that critics and readers have a strong emotional response to it.

Booth finishes by writing a final note on evaluation:

  • “There can be no guidebook to tell us how much irony a work should contain; the artist himself will show us how much of it a work should contain and still succeed with us” (276).
  • “Though in one sense it remains true that each reader must decide for himself the level of irony he will tolerate, once again we must say that there are just not that many levels to go around; we join authors and other readers even in our most private choices” (276).

A Theory of “Meaning Construction”

Meaning (“getting it”) is not a gift bestowed from above or a golden nugget to be excavated. Meaning is a consistent process that is, arguably, in action at all times a social being is functional. In A Rhetoric of Irony, Booth examines the reader’s process of constructing meaning when confronted with irony. Booth pinpoints irony as the topoi of his argument, not only to explicate the mechanics of irony, but also to reveal the strenuous, active nature of reading. All forms of reading require effort, yet certain linguistic forms, like figurative meaning, require vigorous attention.

Booth maps the positions and perspectives – the dance or winding journey – that the reader performs when deciphering irony. If this all seems too speculative, Booth uses a practical exercise as an example of the meaning process. At the end of the preface in A Rhetoric of Irony, he forces the reader to make a series of decisions regarding authorial intent:

I should like to thank Leigh and Patricia Gibby, D.C. Muecke, George P. Elliott, Sheldon Sacks, Nancy Rabinowitz, Robert Marsh, Ted Cohen, C. Douglas Barnes, and Kary Wolfe for detailed criticism. My wife has contributed most of all, not only by criticizing each draft but by enduring life with an addicted ironist. These eleven careful readers accumulated among them 748 suggestions, an average of 11.57 each. All of their points have of course been incorporated, even though some were flatly contradictory. Whatever faults remain can be thus traced, by any diligent reader, to the intervention or oversight of someone without whose. [the abrupt-halt, faux-error is Booth's] (xiv)

[Note: This is a piece of stable irony as well as exemplum.]

The reader is challenged to end the preface in a satisfying manner, or not; yet, the decision must be made. With this example, Booth manages to lengthen a process that – through extensive education and training – normally takes a split second. Readers rarely stop and think: why or how a meaning, ironic or no, is reached. So why does Booth want us to comprehend the route we take to reach meaning, particularly in terms of irony? For Booth, we must understand how integral the act of interpreting irony is to our intersubjective relations and our sense of self. Meaning is a communal act based on assent: irony amplifies and, often, troubles this act.

Ethos, Pathos, Value and Irony: Booth’s Unique View

Booth’s study of irony echoes many other critical voices, most notably D.C. Muecke’s. However, what makes Booth’s view truly unique is his inclusion of ethics, emotions and subjectivity into rhetorical criticism. When Booth maps the process of producing meaning from irony, he includes value as an inherent part of the system: irony is about valuing one meaning over another. This view of human communication places Booth within a small group of theorists that includes Jacques Lacan, and Mikhail Bakhtin. To exemplify the importance of ethos and pathos to Booth’s work, I will compare Booth’s and Paul De Man’s figuration of rhetorical theory and irony.

De Man explores irony and allegory as related functions in “The Rhetoric of Temporality.” When De Man outlines his rhetorical methodology, he appears quite Boothean:

Since the advent, in the course of the nineteenth century, of a subjectivist critical vocabulary, the traditional forms of rhetoric have fallen into disrepute. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that this was only a temporary eclipse; recent developments in criticism reveal the possibility of a rhetoric that would no longer be normative or descriptive but that would more or less openly raise the question of the intentionality of rhetorical figures. (188)

De Man, however, quickly makes a critical turn that is “non-Boothean” in nature:

Such concerns are implicitly present in many works in which the term “mimesis,” “metaphor,” “allegory,” or “irony” play a prominent part. One of the main difficulties that hamper these investigations stems from the association of rhetorical terms with value judgments that blur distinctions and hide the real structures. (188)

In one sense, De Man is warning against the use of evaluative criticism in lieu of close textual analysis. De Man wants more than this, he is also asking for the removal of ethos and pathos from textual analysis in favour of pure logos. Ironically, De Man’s plea for a “valueless” critical practice creates the very universalizing, totalization of meaning he claims to avoid. De Man ends up claiming that irony is the great disrupter of temporality, when this is only one function of irony out of vast array of functions.

If I may be so bold to ventriloquize Booth, he might ask De Man: “What made you decide on this meaning and not that? Why must irony be linked with a supernatural power to show truth and authenticity? Unlike De Man, Booth uses generalities carefully, and self-reflexively in order to avoid universalizing meaning. Booth’s generalities are usually found within “mind-maps” that are meant to guide us through a process, not drive us to a destination.

Booth’s “Mind Maps” for (Re)Constructing Ironic Meaning

Booth stays mainly within the realm of stable irony in his study. Stable irony is the author’s intentional use of irony. Booth discusses other kinds of irony – unstable, overt, covert, finite, infinite etc…- but stable irony is his main concern (seven chapters are spent on this topic). This is the form of irony that most closely connects with Booth’s over-arching project: how communities are formed through communication.

Booth’s first mind map concerns the author’s intention. When an author wants to a reader to recognize and then participate in irony, the author will leave signposts or markers that the reader must interpret. Booth describes four general marks of stable irony:

  • Intentional or deliberate: designed to have an effect on the reader.
  • Covert: “intended to be reconstructed with meaning different from those on the surface” (6).
  • Secure the meaning: this marker creates an agreement with the reader to halt the proliferation of meaning.
  • Local/finite meaning: stable ironies are not cosmic but set in a particular time and place (context).

By delineating these broad markers of stable irony, Booth is situating irony as an important function in the production of literary meaning, and, arguably, all meaning. When a reader recognizes these signposts, an assumed community of values is activated between reader, author and text. This set of complex contextual, linguistic and social functions are what Booth calls inferences. Booth argues that inferences thrive whenever meaning is enacted/created. He asks: if we are constantly using inferences to create meaning, how do inferences create irony?

In answer, Booth offers four steps of reconstruction that occur once the author’s signposts are recognized:

1. The reader is required to reject the literal meaning:

  • This is not based on a disagreement with what the author is saying, or on the arbitrary addition of meanings.
  • The rejection is based on an incongruity (between words or on a knowledge(s) brought into the mix)

2. The other meanings are “auditioned:”

  • When there is a denial of the literal meaning, a decision is made regarding the viability of other meanings.
  • Even a meaning based on the author’s sanity becomes a possibility, and will radically alter the deployment of meaning – however, this cannot come to pass unless steps 3 & 4 are enacted. These steps are not separate but intertwined.

3. The reader must decide how to judge the author based on knowledge of the author (i.e. the author’s belief systems). This a decision based on the author’s ethos, which is gathered from available information.

  • This step is paramount since it directly impacts the next step.

4. Once the reader decides that the author is not mad or stupid, and that an ironic meaning is actually intended, then a multitude of possible meanings needs to be sorted.

  • The meaning that most closely matches the beliefs the reader attributes to the author will be chosen.

The four steps of reconstruction provide a rudimentary outline of “a highly complex process that implies tearing down one habitat [of meaning] and building another in a different spot” (33). In the split second of recognition where one set of meanings is “destroyed” - there is displacement - and reconstruction begins. The old “house of meaning” is barely dismantled when the reader begins building another “house of meaning” to meet the demands of irony. Usually the ironic meaning is placed in a superior position above the rejected “literal” meaning. It is from this superior vantage point that the reader joins the author, and a host of readers, in the smug knowledge that they “got it.” A community is then created through the use of irony.

The Victim of Irony

Any meaningful discussion of irony must consider irony’s victim, and whether it is an essential component of irony for a victim to exist.

An analysis of some of the existing literature on the subject follows. In his Preface to a Rhetoric of Irony, Booth declares his indebtedness to D.C. Muecke (xiii), so Muecke is a good place to start.

D. C. Muecke, The Compass of Irony

Muecke explores many of the same themes and much of the same subject matter, as it relates to irony, that Booth does. Muecke does, however, explore the concept of irony’s victim in considerably more detail. “The typical victim of an ironic situation is essentially an innocent. Just as scepticism depends on belief-—we can only be sceptical of what someone believes, or might believe—so the irony of most ironic situations cannot exist without a complementary alazony. The alazon or victim is the person who blindly assumes that something is or is not the case, or confidently expects something to happen or not to happen; he does not even remotely suspect that things might not be as he supposes them to be, or might not turn out as he expects them to. This should not imply that that the victim is always so arrogantly confident or so wilfully blind that we feel he deserves what he gets. All that is necessary is the merest avoidable assumption on the part of the victim that he is not mistaken. For one of the odd things about irony is that it regards assumption as presumption and therefore innocence as guilt. Simple ignorance is safe from irony, but ignorance compounded with the least degree of confidence counts as intellectual hubris and is a punishable offence” (30).

The theme of ‘community’ runs throughout Booth’s works and is a dominant theme within A Rhetoric of Irony.

Muecke distinguishes between the object of irony and the victim of irony as follows:“The object of irony is what one is ironical about” (34).

Muecke uses Samuel Butler’s Erwhon to support his position: “As luck would have it, Providence was on my side.” The object of his irony was the doctrine of special Providence. “When Johnson wrote, ‘Bolingbroke was a holy man,’ Bolingbroke, though a person, was the object of his irony”. Muecke states that it would be a “blurring of distinctions to call him the victim of Johnson’s irony but it would not spoil one’s day” (34).“The object of irony may be a person (including the ironist himself), an attitude, a belief, a social custom or institution, a philisophical system, a religion, a whole civilization, or even life itself” (34).

“The victim of irony is the person whose ‘confident unawareness’ has directly involved him in an ironic situation” (34).

The “confident unawareness” of the three group members in relation to the t-shirts allowed them to be held out as victims of irony. Indeed, they were so confident that they were part of the community that is not irony’s victim that at no time did they find it unusual that all four shirts were not demonstrated prior to the presentation.

Back to the example of Johnson’s Bolingbroke: “If someone were to take Johnson’s remark about Bolingbroke seriously he would be a victim of irony. If Bolingbroke were discovered to be a holy man after all, Johnson would be a victim of irony. To the extent that Butler is presenting the hero of Erewhon not as being ironical but as being unconscious of the implicit contradictions in his statement, he is presenting him as the victim of irony” (34/35).

At this point, at least for this reader, the distinctions become somewhat blurred. Is Bolingbroke the victim or the object of irony? More to the point, if irony creates community, does it not require that the one community gets the irony and the other group doesn’t get the irony? It would seem, then, that those who do not get irony are, as a result, its victim.

According to Muecke, however, there are some instances of irony in which there appears to be neither a clear object nor a clear victim of irony. “Ezra Pound’s understatement, ‘Mutton cooked the week before last is, for the most part, unpalatable,’ can hardly be regarded as irony at the expense of the mutton, and there would be an air of desperation in the claim that there is always a hypothetical victim, the person who might conceivably take the statement seriously. Ezra Pound, of course, pretends to be speaking seriously, as all ironists do, and so might be called a pseudo-victim” (35).

I, on the other hand, might be considered a victim of Pound’s irony, as I simply don’t see the irony in the comment; victim or no.

Linda Hutchins writes in Irony’s Edge, that “irony always has a target; it sometimes also has what some want to call a victim” (p. 15).

Again, this is a fine distinction. The only difference between a target and a victim in my mind is when you miss the target… but the target was still your intended victim.

Muecke establishes different ways one may be a victim of irony


a) Those to whom one speaks ironically. Muecke here uses the example of Satan addressing the fallen angels in Book I of Paradise Lost.

b) Those of whom one speaks ironically. In this instance, Muecke uses an example from Northanger Abbey in a scene using Isabella Thorpe..


This is a large and varied class

a) Those unable to recognize they have been ironically addressed. Muecke uses an example from Pride and Prejudice and states: “When Mr. Bennett in Pride and Prejudicespeaks ironically his victims are frequently unaware of it.”

b) Those unable to recognize irony not directed against them. Here Muecke uses, collectively, the rest of the citizens in Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson to demonstrate those unable to recognize irony directed against themselves.

c) Those unable to recognize that they are victims of circumstance or intrigue. Literature is replete with examples of this victim, Othello and Oedipus two of the most notable.

d) Those unable to recognize that their own words betray them. Shakespeare is once again plundered for a fine example of this victim in Polonius.


Here Muecke goes to the realm of the imagination for a suitable example. “Imagine a man who has been deprived of all that makes life worth living until, at last, when he is ‘sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything’, he becomes by some unexpected chance wealthy enough to indulge in his every sense. But the only sense remaining him (we shall imagine) is a sense of irony.” This person will undoubtedly see himself as a victim of an ironic situation. (pp. 35-39)

Now we will move on to Booth’s own study.

“A great deal has been made of the inevitable presence of victims, real or imagined, in all stable irony. But for several reasons this is slightly misleading. It is true that irony often presents overt victims: and, ironically, Booth once again uses the same examples that Muecke does in his Compass of Irony: Johnson’s “Bolingbroke was a holy man”; Kierkegaard’s “the audacious pen-strokes of recent philosophic investigators.”

It is also true that even in the most amiable irony one can always imagine a victim by conjuring up a reader or listener so naïve as not to catch the joke; no doubt in some uses of irony the fun of feeling superior to such imagined victims is highly important. But we need no very extensive survey of ironic examples to discover—unless we are choosing the examples to dramatize the use of victims—that the building of amiable communities is often far more important than the exclusion of naïve victims. Often the predominant emotion when reading stable ironies is that of joining, of finding and communing with kindred spirits.” (pp27/28)

There is, however, in my mind, no fun in joining a community or group that everyone can or does belong to. The pleasure in the communities that irony creates is, for me, the fact that there’s a group of people that just don’t get it.

This is supported by Hutchins in Irony’s Edge wherein she asks: “But who are the participants in this social act called irony?” The party line says that there is an intending ironist and her/his intended audiences—the one that gets and the one that doesn’t get the irony. She goes on to note that

irony explicitly sets up (and exists within) a relationship between ironist and audiences (the one being intentionally addressed, the one that actually makes the irony happen, and the one being excluded) that is political in nature, in the sense that even while provoking laughter, irony invokes notions of hierarchy and subordination, judgement and perhaps even moral superiority. (17)

But Hutchins ultimately takes on Booth. Hutchins does not see irony so much as creating community, but that discursive communities already exist that make irony possible. There is a shared sense of language and community that permits certain pre-existing discursive communities to share a sense of irony. (17)

I may have not been the only unwitting victim of Booth’s irony when reading A Rhetoric of Irony. There is a fair bit of irony running through his text that, due to his scholarship and prolific reading, can pass unnoticed. In his footnote on page 138 Booth states: “As every schoolboy knows, the standard work on the concept of the eiron in Greek literature is Otto Ribeck’s “Uber denBegriff des… Greek word.” As a Masters student with some grounding in classical literature, I was first a little abashed at not knowing this apparent obvious fact. I decided, however, to soothe my ego with the conclusion that he was being ironic.

Irony as Community Builder

Even irony that does imply victims, as in all ironic satire, is often much more clearly directed to more affirmative matters. And every irony inevitably builds a community of believers even as it excludes. The cry “Hail king of the Jews,” an example cited by Thomas Hobbes, was intended initially to satirize Christ’s followers who had claimed him as king; presumably the chief pleasure for the shouting mob was the thought of the victims, including Christ himself. But what of Mark as he overtly reports the irony ironically in his account of the crucifixion?

It is true that Mark may in part intend an irony against the original ironists, but surely his chief point is to build, through ironic pathos, a sense of brotherly cohesion among those who see the essential truth in his account of the man-God who, though really king of the Jews, was reduced to this miserable mockery. Pp 28/29

And there is a curious further point about this community of those who grasp any irony: it is often a larger community, with fewer outsiders, than would have been built by non-ironic statement.

…it seems clear that Mark’s irony builds a larger community of readers than any possible literal statement of his beliefs could have done.

Ironic reconstructions depend on an appeal to assumptions, often unstated, that ironists and readers share (33). This again, creates a sense of community.

There is always… an implied claim to superiority of total vision in the final view of those who see the irony and thus a potential look downward on those who dwell in error (37).

What is up for some ironists will of course be down for others; when ironists pretend, as they sometimes do, to invite us downward, it is downward only on their victim’s scale but still upward on the ironist’s own (38).

Booth quotes James T. Boulton who wrote:

To write ironically with success a writer needs to be alert to two audiences: those who will recognize the ironic intention and enjoy the joke, and those who are the object of the satire and are deceived by it. This implies that the ironist has ranged himself with those of his readers who share his superior values, intelligence and literary sensiblity; together they look down on the benighted mob. Community of the “in” versus the community of the “out”… the out being the victims (105).

Sometimes everyone’s a victim of Irony:

Booth notes with respect to Swift’s A Modest Proposal, in consideration of the method in which Swift constructs the essay, that every reader has… to some degree been duped” (109).

In the case of A Modest Proposal there is debate as to whether Swift’s victims are primarily the absentee English landlords or the Irish who collaborate with them (115)… there is, however, no debate as to whether or not there are victims.

This can happen when intelligent readers venture with too much confidence into unfamiliar ground. They have too much distance from the subject or a lack of familiarity with the genre…. Me with Booth… unforgivable lapse…

Copy text

Booth lists five “crippling handicaps” which will lead a person to be a victim of irony:

1. Ignorance

2. Inability To Pay Attention

  • Dumb down
  • Because we are inundated with information, it is easy enough to be unprepared for a piece of irony when you encounter it, just due to lack of alertness.

3. Prejudice

  • This is what I. A. Richards calls “doctrinal adhesions.” When a particular piece of writing violates your norms, you may be a victim of your own prejudices and be unable to detect irony…. the student of Booth’s that I like to call the Deer Hunter

4. Lack of Practice

  • This is simply being the victim of inexperience. The more we are exposed to ironic works, the more easily we will detect them when we encounter them.

5. Emotional Inadequacy

  • Being either overly sentimental or too “cold” or remote will hamper a person’s ability to detect irony (222-229).

And now a word from Northrop Frye.Booth makes the point that neither the implied author (regardless of whatever victimized masks he may have assumed in the work) nor the true implied reader are ever the victims of irony (233).

Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Fye

Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism is a collection of essays which, in his own words, is “a trial or incomplete attempt, on the possibility of a synoptic view of the scope, theory, principles, and techniques of literary criticism.” (3). The text is divided into four main sections (not including the “Polemical Introduction” and “Tentative Conclusion”):

  1. Historical Criticism: Theory of Modes;
  2. Ethical Criticism: Theory of Symbols;
  3. Archetypal Criticism: Theory of Myths; and
  4. Rhetorical Criticism: Theory of Genres.

This portion of the consideration of victim’s irony relies primarily on Frye’s Theory of Myths, specifically on the section related to "The Mythos of Winter: Irony and Satire."

Frye goes back to the writing of Aristotle to demonstrate that if the main character in a piece of fiction is inferior in power or intelligence to ourselves, so that we have the sense of looking down on a scene of bondage, frustration or absurdity, the hero belongs to the ironic mode. This is still true when a reader feels that he is or might be in the same situation, as the situation is being judged by the norms of a greater freedom. You can see as early as Aristotle how the sense of the ironic and victimization are closely linked, and they create a sense of community (216-217).

He adds that tragedy in the central or high-mimetic sense, is the fiction of the fall of a leader (he has to fall because that is the only way in which a leader can be isolated from his society), mingles the heroic with the ironic.

In tragic irony, irony isolates from the tragic situation the sense of arbitrariness, of the victim’s having been unlucky, selected at random or by lot, and no more deserving of what happens to him than anyone else would be.

Thus the figure of a typical or random victim begins to crystallize in domestic tragedy as it deepens in ironic tone. We may call this typical victim the pharmakos or scapegoat.

The pharmakos is neither innocent nor guilty. He is innocent in the sense that what happens to him is far greater than anything he has done provokes; he is guilty in the sense that he is a member of a guilty society, or living in a world where such injustices are an inescapable part of existence.

In ironic comedy we begin to see that art has also a lower limit in actual life. This is the condition of savagery, the world in which comedy consists of inflicting pain on a helpless victim, and tragedy in enduring it. Ironic comedy brings us to the figure of the scapegoat ritual and the nightmare dream.

Frye writes that

Cultivated people go to a melodrama to hiss the villain with an air of condescenscion: they are making a point of the fact that they cannot take his villainy seriously. We have here a type of irony which exactly corresponds to that of two other major arts of the ironic age, advertising and propaganda. These arts pretend to address themselves seriously to a subliminal audience of cretins, an audience that may not even exist, but which is assumed to be simple enough to accept at their face value the statements made about the purity of a soap or a government’s motives. The rest of us, realizing that irony never says precisely what it means, take these arts ironically, or, at least, regard them as a kind of ironic game (220-239).

While there is no universal agreement that there is always a victim of irony, there does seem to be general agreement that irony creates community. Community implies exclusion: If everyone belongs, can it still be considered a community? This in itself does not indicate that there needs to be a victim, but I would argue that the nature of irony, and the communities it creates, requires a community of victims.


The act of enclosing Wayne Booth’s thought in a neatly packaged conclusion is like trying to close Pandora’s box: it is simply not going to happen. Booth opens the literary equivalent to Pandora’s box in A Rhetoric of Irony. Unlike Pandora’s box, Irony is not the source of all man’s woes, but irony can cause frustration and consternation that only Boothian hope can cure. Boothian hope involves trying to sort out life’s riddles, not solve them. Hope in Booth’s terms involves placing value on how to live effectively with each other. The act of building effective relationships is fuelled through stories. Narrative, of all kinds, is how we create the interstitial tissue that binds the body politic together. Irony is one essential ingredient in the formation of this fleshy connection. This is a much more philosophically and epistemologically based conception of irony than most “scholars of irony” have previously attempted. For Booth, irony causes the most consternation when scholars try to pigeonhole irony into a narrow definition. Booth urges us to see beyond static definitions and enter into the kinetic act of interpretation.

Booth’s hermeneutical inquiry into irony opens a world of interpretive possibility by showing us how ironic meaning functions. When we view the schematics of irony, then we are able to process irony more responsibly and, hopefully, more often. In other words, Booth helps us to “get it” and to interpret “it” within a larger reading community.

Of course, there are people who will not get it – this is perhaps the one section of the text that offers prescriptions for the “irony-impaired.” Booth not only displays irony’s place in the topography of human communication, but also offers suggestions (not solutions) on how to repair the intellectual intercourse we engage in: an intercourse that, all too often, is barren and fruitless.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland, “The Death of the Author,” in Image-Music-Text: Roland Barthes Essays. Translated by Stephen Heath. London: Fontana 1977, 142-148.