Oh, the Irony!
By Fatima Ahmed
While doing research for a term paper last week, I discovered that there is no term for the opposite of dramatic irony. Just a reminder, dramatic irony is when the audience knows something that the characters do not. There is no word to describe when the characters know something and do not tell the audience. You see, this bothered me. It seems so obvious. Create a term for when the character doesn’t tell the audience something important, something they should know (to clarify, I’m talking about first person or certain third person narrators). Of course I’m not saying that a character has the obligation to divulge every single detail. However major components about themselves or their lives that weren’t told should have a term that we, as critical readers, can use to describe and refer to the lapses in information. I was so bewildered that there was no such term; I mean, it seemed simple enough… until it wasn’t.
Source: The Oatmeal (http://theoatmeal.com/comics/irony)
While thinking about this further I found myself answering questions like what does it mean to be a narrator or focalizing character? What are your obligations towards the reader? Is the narrator aware of the presence of the reader, or not? What sort of relationship exists between readers and narrators? That is to say, is there a bond of trust? Is withholding information a breach of this trust? I’m sure you can all think of narrators from your favourite books that you love, narrators that you related to or wanted to be. We all have our favourite books because we appreciate the knowledge we gain from them, the perspective we acquire, and the entire worlds we get to visit. We create certain bonds with characters. We create our own relationships and perspectives distinct from the narrator’s while reading. We start to form opinions and questions as we go through experiences with the characters. We get intrigued and repulsed at different aspects throughout the novel. We praise the author for such thorough writing and we celebrate the books which feel real. Here’s the thing: we know they’re not.
I’m quite aware that books are not true or real. Many works of fiction don’t even remotely parallel what we know to be the truth. Yet we are drawn and pleased because good fiction manages to create a truth in and of itself. Worlds and characters, stories and experiences, and so much more whose existence seems to logically and consistently be, at the very least, possible. Having said that, imagine how much power we give into the hands of the narrator. It’s like seeing and experiencing through a different body. We almost become a secondary brain, which gathers information and experiences it through this body in this other world and reach our own conclusions about it. Except that we really have no control over this body and how it functions. All our senses and all our information are completely dependent on this narrator to provide us with data that we need to take in. How scary is that? Having your senses and ability to function taken away and, instead, having to rely on someone else as a guide through this new and different world. It is a position of immense responsibility and the trust placed in such narrators is paramount.
That’s how fiction operates, this bond of trust which facilitates the relationship between both the reader and narrator, who become one, to move through a distinctly separate world. We share senses, minds and experiences with these strangers to the point of view where what they sense must be relied upon absolutely. How strange, then, would that moment be when you realized that this stranger which you relied on so heavily didn’t tell you a basic truth? What if you found out that this body had been a ghost the whole time? Or that this person was a woman when you thought it was a man? How would this impact all that you experienced and sensed? For me, it was bewildering. It felt like I had been betrayed, as if I had to go back and fix a mistake. Yes, I had to go back and reread. I had to re-experience because “what just happened?!” It made me want to go back and sift through all the experiences again. I wanted to try to pinpoint where I went wrong. I wanted to see where the trust was breached. I wanted to see, after finding out the shocking twist, how exactly all the experiences changed because now my perspective had been altered. “Ah, yes, I could see it now” and “How could I have been so stupid?” “I can’t believe they didn’t tell me!” and “Whoa, I get it now!” Yet there’s not opposite of dramatic irony. There’s no word for this.
PS: For anyone wondering, I’m writing on Genesis by Bernard Beckett for a Children’s Literature class. It’s a quick but mind-bending read for anyone who is interested!