I asked Belinda to contribute to this week’s discussion of Dorothy Parker’s short story, You Were Perfectly Fine, which I kicked off in yesterday’s blog post.
Dramatic Irony vs. Antithetical Discourse
by Belinda Nicoll
To what end do writers use humor and irony to develop tension, character, voice and plot? This question was posed by one of our instructors, Elissa Schappell, in the first semester of my Master of Fine Arts program at Queens University of Charlotte in 2010. Her instruction guided us to look at “how wit reveals truths, heightens perception of reality, and permits the ‘un-sayable’ to be said.” We were given a list of short stories to explore for our first assignment: an essay on literary craft. You Were Perfectly Fine by Dorothy Parker was one of them—in summary: ostensibly, a “pale young man” and “clear-eyed girl” are discussing the events of the night before; he has a hangover and can’t remember a thing, so she fills him in, and through their discordant dialogue the reader not only learns about his drinking problem but gains insight into their awkward relationship.
In reading the prescribed texts for Schappell’s workshop, the introduction of my craft response said this: I enjoyed discovering the power of humor and irony as techniques for creating multi-layered stories. It was interesting to see the different ways in which the writers had used the technique, some going for laugh-out-loud humor, others for witty characters or ironic plot twists. Obviously, some achieved the technique better than others.
About Parker’s story specifically, I said this: If handled with expertise, an author can reveal a story’s conclusion early without diminishing the tension and drama of the telling. Dorothy Parker does exactly that by creating an instant contradiction between the title of her story, You Were Perfectly Fine, and the protagonist’s obvious hangover, thus setting up the reader from the outset to expect the opposite of what the title claims. Through a mismatched conversation between the two characters, Parker holds the reader’s attention by untying the ironic knots one at a time, slowly and deliciously unfolding the man’s real dilemma: in his intoxicated condition, he’d asked the girl to marry him—the ultimate incompatible outcome of their awkward relationship.
Now, a year after my graduation, I’m asked to look at Parker’s story again to see what literary technique it demonstrates well. Although I’m still of the same opinion with respect to Parker’s masterful use of irony (the WHAT), I’m more able to discern her method (the HOW)—a kind of antithetical, as opposed to rational, discourse that highlights the disconnect between the characters who are clearly a mismatched couple.
Whereas dramatic irony is defined as a trope that involves incongruity between what is expected and what occurs, an antithesis refers to two contrasting meanings in close proximity to one another, usually two words or phrases within one sentence—a famous example: “When Neil Armstrong walked on the moon it might have been one small step for a man but it was one giant leap for mankind.” Clearly, Parker’s couple is out of sync; yet, listening to them is like watching a dance. The “pale young man” says, “Oh, dear, oh, dear, oh, dear. Oh.” The “clear-eyed girl” asks, “Not feeling so well today?” He responds, “Oh, I’m great.” As the story progresses, Parker deftly builds tension by dispensing their out-of-sync responses in quick succession. Using this antithetical discourse, Parker manages to turn her story into the proverbial Laurel and Hardy comedy—a great accomplishment considering satire is a literary form people all over the world can relate to.
The process, and result, of analyzing Parker’s text once more serves as a reminder that our discernment of literature is not stagnant; and as we evolve as readers, so we do as writers too.