Literature students are often bewildered by literary terms, supposed to be a prerequisite to knowing literature and its various dimensions, in the early stages of their academic journey. Terms like form, literature, composition, juxtaposition, simile, metaphor, rhyme, irony, hyperbole, litotes, euphemism, and many more often complicate the chances of beginning studying English literature for many beginners in their academic courses. Though it is always an open case to grab a good copy of books on literary terms and study the basics before studying literature itself, however, it might become clumsily looking at every term specifically for many. And therefore, there are a few basic terms a student can look up, understand and immerse himself in the studies of literature thereafter. In this article, I will try to discuss irony in brief and then cosmic irony in a little detail. Read this to the end if you want to understand the basics and details of irony in literature.
The irony is generally considered to be a term describing a situation (in expression or in description with other elements) that is contrary to what is shown as a facade – opposite to what is apparent to the eyes. For example, a fat boy being called a fitness icon by someone or some adverse situation being appreciated as a game-changer opportunity. There are many types of irony found in literary works. However, only a few are regularly recognised, used and appreciated in literature. Cosmic, verbal, situational and dramatic ironies are the most popular and documented forms of irony found in literary works. Now, we will discuss situational irony in detail.
The cosmic irony, many critics believe, reigns supreme as it can captivate readers with its enigmatic nature and profound impact on the narrative. As an English literature student, I find myself irresistibly drawn to the depths of cosmic irony, which delves into the whimsical interplay between human aspirations and the whims of fate. Unlike other forms of irony, cosmic irony involves fate in a very emphatic way. In this article, I will try to explore the essence of cosmic irony and its significant role in literature and also provide enlightening examples that showcase its brilliance. First of all, let me begin with a detailed definition or explanation of Cosmic irony and its basic functions.
Unveiling the Essence of Cosmic Irony:
The cosmic irony, often referred to by critics and scholars of literature as the irony of fate or irony of destiny, unveils (almost) a cosmic joke played by the universe upon mortals. Probing in-depth, one might dig out that Cosmic Irony highlights the paradoxical relationship between human actions and the ruthless workings of fate. In cosmic irony, the inherent disparity between one’s intentions and the eventual outcomes they ultimately face becomes glaringly apparent. It is as though the universe displays its wry sense of humour, mocking the desires and aspirations of protagonists, disguised as individuals by clever authors, by orchestrating events that twist and subvert their expectations. It is, as though, the entire force of nature starts working against the wishes of men and women portrayed in various forms in the works of literature… Cosmic irony strikes its blow as a mere literary tool, but the impacts are so broad and gigantic that readers may feel pity for the involved characters.
Examples of Cosmic Irony in Literature:
1. The Tragic Hero’s Unforeseen Plight:
In William Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy, “Macbeth”, the titular character exhibits cosmic irony in its purest form. Macbeth, otherwise an ambitious and moral man, is power-hungry and that adds a tragic flaw to his character. Consequently, and as designed by the dramatist, driven by the prophecy of becoming king (by the witches who play a major role in the development of tragedy in Macbeth, he embarks on a treacherous path to fulfil his desires. However, as his ruthless actions begin to take shape, he is plagued by guilt and paranoia, ultimately leading to his downfall. Though it is Macbeth who has to undergo this process of realisation and guilt, it is the cosmic force beyond his power and pry that plays a major role in the downfall of Macbeth. The irony lies in the realisation that Macbeth’s relentless pursuit of power results in his own tragic demise, effectively mocking his aspirations. The universe seems to conspire against him, exposing the futility of his ambitions. The plight of Macbeth, for many critics and scholars of English literature, has been a classic example of cosmic irony in action.
2. The Illusory Quest for Freedom:
In the classic novel published in 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s legendary masterpiece, “The Scarlet Letter”, the protagonist, Hester Prynne, lives in a puritanical society that condemns her for committing adultery. Tried by Biblical standards, her fate, setting aside the cosmic irony angle for a while, is too pitiable for many readers to bear. As she strives to transcend the societal norms that confine her, Hester wears the emblematic scarlet letter “A” as a symbol of her sin. However, here, the force of cosmic irony works for the protagonist and her adventures in embracing her sins become a way to freedom… if you realise carefully, paradoxically, the public display of shame grants her inner freedom and strength that eludes the judgmental and contracted Puritan community. The cosmic irony, in this case, lies in Hester’s realisation. By embracing her identity as an outcast, she finds a sense of liberation, while the seemingly righteous society remains trapped within its rigid moral framework. So, from the examples above, we can comfortably guess that cosmic irony may work for or against the protagonist of the literary works.
3. Love’s Cruel Twist of Fate:
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, “The Great Gatsby”, the central (and titular) character, Jay Gatsby, embodies cosmic irony through his relentless pursuit of Daisy Buchanan, the woman he loves. Gatsby who is a self-made millionaire in the USA of the Jazz Age, invests years of his life accumulating wealth and hosting extravagant parties. Though his parties are often open for all, the singular goal of everything is winning Daisy’s love, gaining her attention and filling the void of his life. Nevertheless, despite his earnest endeavours, Daisy remains tethered to her husband, Tom Buchanan. Gatsby’s failure to gain attention of Daisy, despite all the money and pomp he showers now and then, inspires the trigger of cosmic irony in this great novel by Fitzgerald. Stating it in simple terms, Gatsby’s ultimate tragedy lies in the realisation that no matter how opulent his lifestyle becomes, he cannot escape the inescapable grip of fate. The cosmic irony lies in Gatsby’s insurmountable pursuit of an illusory love that slips through his fingers, highlighting the capricious nature of destiny. By doing so, the novelist has successfully achieved a glimpse of fate with words… enlightening the readers with a lesson that fate cannot be altered even with so much wealth and power.
Concluding the Discussion on Cosmic Irony:
Cosmic irony, among the many things that it represents in literature, stands as a testament to the immeasurable power of literature to delve into the intricacies of the human experience. It presents a profound deliberation on the contradictory relationship between human aspirations and the whims of fate. By skillfully employing cosmic irony, literary geniuses have illuminated the eternal struggle between human agency and the relentless forces that shape our lives. This form of irony, for many reasons, remains one of the greatest tools for authors who want to juxtapose the feeble humane force against the unstoppable agency of nature and the universe that govern over everything we can perceive and witness around us, almost rendering human beings as mere dots in the ocean.