A Rhetoric of Irony

A Rhetoric of Irony



The Pequod Review:

Wayne Booth (1921-2005) was a wide-ranging literary critic, whose work spanned pedagogy, philosophy, ethics, and textual analysis. Booth remains most famous for his seminal book The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961), which explored the narrative styles of modern fiction, but his later work A Rhetoric of Irony remains an underrated masterpiece of literary criticism.

At its core, A Rhetoric of Irony explores how irony works. What factors cause the reader to perceive irony? What clues must be present to lead the reader to reject the literal meaning, and to consider the alternate (ironic) interpretation? What causes an attempt at irony to fall flat? Booth draws on specific examples to answer these questions, and to explore the subtle differences between various types of irony. Through it all, he has a deep appreciation for the functions of irony, and the ways it can add depth and substance to a text — and enhance the shared experience between writer and reader: 

The whole thing cannot work at all unless both parties to the exchange have confidence that they are moving together in identified patterns. The wonder of [irony] is not that it should go awry as often as it does, but that it should ever succeed. It is true that some stable ironies are in a sense obvious and not on the face of it wondrous at all. But looked at more closely, even the most simple-minded irony, when it succeeds, reveals in both participants a kind of meeting with other minds that contradicts a great deal that gets said about who we are and whether we can know each other.


Reading irony is in some ways like translating, like decoding, like deciphering, and like peering behind a mask.

Booth's generally illustrates his themes well, however some of his specific examples are dated and he does not explore more modern forms of irony/satire. But he is perceptive and insightful, and through it all he has a cheerful style. Literary criticism should always be this fun.