Use of Irony in The Waste Land.

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       Irony is a literary technique in which words, characters or situations express contradictory or complementary impulses, attitudes as a means of indicating detachment from a subject or emotion. Irony is not merely confined to a figure of a speech in which the words express a meaning that is often the direct opposite of the intended meaning. The extreme form of irony may take the form of sarcasm, ridicule or mockery in which harsh words or comments express the paradoxical nature of reality or the contrast between an ideal condition and an actual condition, or between what existed in the past and what obtains or happens in the present. Irony may be discovered in the organization or structure of the materials or ideas or feelings expressed in a piece of literature.

      Distortion of values: Eliot pinpoints the distortion of values in the modern age through ironic contrast. The banks of the river Thames were once full of nymphs, their sports and songs, but now they are full of young girls for having a good time with their lovers. Mrs. Porter waits for Sweeney. There is an ironic comment on the attitude to sex and female chastity. In the past, the loss of virginity led to suicide. Goldsmith's heroine in The Vicar of Wakefield contemplates death after her seduction. In the modern age, sexual enjoyment by unmarried girls is regarded as a routine relaxation. The typist-girl after having sex with an agent's clerk automatically stretches her hand to play a gramophone record, as if nothing had happened (line. 256). The past and the present are brought together and the contrast is suggested by implication rather than elaboration.

      Parallelism: Eliot's irony is inherent in the very structure of the poem. The parallelism between the past and the present is brought out either by contrast or by comparison. When the world of the past is placed side by side with the present, the difference between the two becomes obvious. The three wastelands - Biblical, King Fisher's, King Oedipus's - have points of similarity and points of dissimilarity with the modern wasteland. The irony lies in the very method of recalling the past and the conditions of the world of today. Different periods of history are telescoped right from the pre-historic times, through Egyptian and Greek civilizations to Renaissance and down to our twentieth century.

      Irony is also evident in the use of literary quotations and allusions from the works of Ovid. Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Webster, Middleton and many French and German writers. They throw light on the spiritual barrenness and boredom of modern life through contrast with the life in those ages.

      Irony through characters: Characters reveal the irony of the modern man. Madame Sosostris is a modern representative of the ancient fortune-teller. Her pack of cards is a parody of the Tarot pack of cards which was used in ancient Egypt for foretelling the rise and fall of the water in the river Nile. The lady in A Game of Chess is a modern Cleopatra fond of morbid sex, her nerves tense with worries. The typist-girl who enjoys sex as she would drink a coke is the modern version of Philomela; the nightingale's pathetic song is now regarded as an invitation to sex, the war-torn Europe is Dante's Hell. All these contrasts emphasize vulgarity, degradation and barrenness of modern life. In fact, irony is inter-woven with the body and texture of the poem, because Eliot's ultimate purpose is to transform the modern word and make it denizens switch to a system of values and moral reformation which may bring peace and salvation both to the individual and the world at large.

University Questions also can be answered...

1. Give a detailed sketch of irony used by Eliot in The Waste Land.

2. Discuss Eliot's use of irony with special emphasis on The Waste Land.

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