Irony and Humor in French Literature Delphine Thesis

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Irony and Humor in French Literature

Delphine Perret's analysis of irony and humor is apparently well-founded and well-supported by famous literature. Due to obvious differences in the French and English notions of irony, Perret explored irony by returning to its roots. Starting "at square one" with definitions of "irony" from notable dictionaries, Perret then traces irony through historical eras and developments with the aid of such great thinkers as Socrates and Aristotle. Her exhaustive analysis results in clearly defined types of irony/humor, basic elements of the phenomenon and dimensions that are or should be present in that form of writing. The intelligence of Perret's examination is illustrated in two famous French plays of the 19th and 20th Century: "Ubu Roi" and "The Bald Soprano." Though written by different playwrights in different centuries, both plays fully support Perret's analysis and findings regarding irony/humor.


a. Perret's Applicable Points

Delphine Perret's "Irony" (Perret), which analyzes irony and humor, reaches conclusions about irony's elements and dimensions that are apparently well-founded and well-supported by famous plays. Perret's work explores several historical manifestations of irony, depending on the historical period in which they are found. Perret stresses the key identifiers of the French concept of irony, stating that it focuses on a "verbal situation" in which the speaker uses an urbane and acidic stance toward the subject, creating an intelligent, mocking and somewhat malicious circumstance (Perret 33). Noting the difference between popular French notions of irony and popular English notions of irony, Perret then explores several dictionary-based and historically-based "definitions" of irony.

First, Perret speaks of irony as "a mode of signification by means of contraries" (Perret 33). Here, meaning is to be implied by "inversion" or understanding the antithesis of the literal meaning of the words. An example of this type of irony is a compliment that both the speaker and the hearer understand to be an insult. Secondly, Perret speaks of irony as "dissimilation" or the contrast between what is expected and what actually happens (Perret 33-4). A corollary of this is the use of humor in which the speaker/doer obviously means the opposite of what he says or does (Perret 34). Third, Perret speaks of irony as a mode of interrogation (from the Greek eirein, "to interrogate") (Perret 37), involving the ironist's "feigning of ignorance in an argument" (Perret 34), such as in the argumentative style of Socrates. This is from the Greek eiron, "to speak." Here, the ironist, who is really naive or pretending to be naive, is juxtaposed by a braggart and/or creator of difficulty, resulting in the braggart/creator of difficulty being revealed as the truly naive and/or stupid one (Perret 35). This was later explained by Aristotle as "excess by default" which reveals the ironist and the subject to be exactly the opposite of what they appear. This type of irony requires a "complicity" between the ironist and the audience. Perret then draws similarities between this type of irony and the irony of French authors and audiences of the 17th Century, who had shared language, culture and values and therefore would all "get" the irony of whatever was said or written, at the expense of the naif -- the foolish target within the group or enemy target outside the group (Perret 38). In 18th Century Europe, this type of irony developed into a romantic irony, a veiled and seemingly courteous form in which the speaker/subject plays all the parts and realizes that in himself there is a bizarre world obscured by his own arrogance. This type of irony resulted in an internal voice of truthfulness and sincerity that one had to serve and direct at the world (Perret 39-40). In 19th Century irony, this concept changed so that the mockery was directed at the self, extinguishing or acknowledging the speaker's lack of reason and individuality, and the ironist becomes the great, external realit (y)(ies) of fate, destiny, Life (Perret 40). By the 20th Century, the ironist has "lost the battle" and, knowing that he lacks individuality and reason, realizes he is defined by babble occurring outside him, within him and by him. Perret explains this type of irony as "self-parody in order to demonstrate the enormous farce of a civilization that has disclosed its impotence, truly" (Perret 40).

Perret also notes that as irony has changed throughout the centuries, it has not always changed in the same ways. Within literature, irony can be based on language as an act ("the speech act theory") (Perret 40). This theory would speech/act irony into three parts: the locutionary, which is the meaning of the speech/act; the illocutionary, which is the conventional meaning of the speech/act; the perlocutionary, which is the effect/consequence of the speech/act (Perret 40-1).
Within this construct, irony requires one or more of several possible dimensions: it can be contrastive negation, a kind of qualification that contradicts what the hearer might otherwise think; suspensive negation, in which the speaker suspends/negates the otherwise binding meaning of his actions; interrogation, such as the seemingly innocent Socratic method; the imperative, in which the speaker/actor imposes modification of the statuses of the speaker, the hearer and whatever is being said or done; perspective in which the hearer can imagine the speaker/actor and whatever is being said/done in real context to understand their roles and ethical values (Perret 41-5). In sum, Perret turns the concept of irony over and over to examine historical and contextual meanings and developments of irony. Samples of Perret's types and dimensions of irony are found in Alfred Jarry's "Ubu Roi" and Eugene Ionesco's "The Bald Soprano," neither of which is the least bit enjoyable.

b. Ubu Roi

"Ubu Roi" premiered in Paris on December 11, 1896 (Jarry and Lantier VI). As indicated by the play's translator, Lantier, "Ubu Roi" is a lesson drawn from Jarry's own life, which he deemed "a sort of humorous and ironic epic" (Jarry and Lantier, Ubu Roi ix). Jarry espoused reacting to the universe's cruelty and stupidity by making your own life "a poem of incoherence and absurdity" (Jarry and Lantier, Ubu Roi ix). This attitude carried over to Jarry's first play, "Ubu Roi," beginning with the word "Pshitt" (Jarry and Connelly, The Ubu Plays 21) or "Shittr" (Jarry and Lantier, Ubu Roi 7), depending on the translation. If for no other reason, the play was notable as the first time the word "Shit" was intentionally used onstage (Dittmar and Entin 5). Described as "the rise and fall of a greedy, dim-witted, and obese regicidal murderer" (Hrbek 247) and now considered a "scatological romp" (Sanders 97), the play was roundly booed and cheered by the premiere audience.

The plot of "Ubu Roi" is duly absurd. Briefly, in Act I, Pere Ubu is the anti-hero of Jarry's anti-play. He is a somewhat pear-shaped, homely, ambitious, lying, vulgar, violent individual. He plots with his wife and Captain Bordure to kill Venceslas, the King of Poland, so that Ubu can become Poland's King. Ubu murders all of Bordure's men by having them taste a shit-covered toilet brush at a feast. Then Ubu makes his wife, Captain Bordure and others to "swear to kill the king good and proper" (Jarry and Connelly, The Ubu Plays 29). In Act II, Ubu kills Venceslas while the Queen and her son, Bougrelas, escape. Bougrelas' dead relatives appear, give a sword to Bougrelas and command him to attain vengeance. Meanwhile, newly-crowned Ubu throws gold to his subjects, prompting them to trample each other, and offers a gold prize for the winner of a race. Then, Ubu invites everyone to an orgy at his palace. In Act III, Ubu and his wife contemplate what they will do as the King and Queen of Poland and because Captain Bordure is no longer useful, Ubu throws him in the dungeon. Bordure escapes to Russia and becomes an ally of Czar Alexis. As King, Ubu kills all the nobles, magistrates, financiers and other government officials so he can take over their property, freely alter the law and control all the government's finances. Ubu then says he will collect the taxes himself. Bordure writes to Ubu saying that Bordure, Czar Alexis and Bougelras are going to invade Poland and depose Ubu. Ubu weeps from fear but his wife convinces him to go to war, which he does with a cardboard horsehead hanging from his neck. In Act IV, Ubu's wife, Mere Ubu, looks through the Polish Kings' crypt for treasure, finds it with their bones and carries out some of it, saying that she will return the next day for the rest of the treasure; however, someone from the crypt shouts, "Never, Mere Ubu!" (Jarry and Lantier, Ubu Roi 95). Mere Ubu is frightened and runs away with some of the treasure. She then fights Bougrelas in Warsaw, which Bougrelas wins, though Mere Ubu escapes. King Ubu fights the Czar in the Ukraine and after a shifting battle, Ubu loses and escapes with some of his men to a cave in Lithuania. Ubu and two soldiers are attacked….....

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