Posted: March 11th, 2021
With the elements style, tone, and irony, students are especially used to unconscious recognition, a kind of “know it when I see it” affair. However, the book breaks them down well and shows different ways in which to recognize and analyze these elements. Style is something we are highly attuned to. We all have our own personal clothing style, speaking style, and even academic style – we study differently, think about how classes should be differently, respond to different teaching methods differently, and have different expectations about what a class should be. Trust me, this is something I am well aware of. What we often don’t know is where these expectations and choices come from. It is especially difficult for us to question our own preferences when it comes to style, but it is also difficult to understand other people’s choices. The important thing to have when it comes to style is an open mind. It is helpful to give people the benefit of the doubt and open ourselves up to different styles. We should always be in a conversation with an author. Why has the author chose a specific style? Why has an author left so much out? Sometimes we get unsettled by having to answer questions about a work because they don’t answer them for us. However, if we understand an author’s choices as an aspect of style, we can go ahead and assume there is a plan there. All we are left with is what is there. So we break that down into categories and look for important comparisons and relationships among these component pieces that may give us a clue as to what it is an author had in mind. This will be especially important when we get to poetry. Poetry is in many ways the art of leaving out everything but the absolute essentials. It is meant to bring us out of our comfort zone and force us to have an experience that we may not be comfortable with. We are left on our own to build something and to examine something and especially to question something. This is an important skill in the academic world. It is a process of creation. It is less about achieving some kind of goal and more about having an experience. That can be unsettling for students who often want things to be black and white, right or wrong. However, if we push ourselves into uncertainty and become comfortable with not having a necessarily right or wrong answer but instead a strong analysis, we can work with style. We also have the tools that the book teaches us, the elements. By breaking things down into pieces and categorizing them, we can come to conclusions that were not readily apparent when we began a process of analysis, much like the drafting process. We must begin somewhere and allow the process to take us somewhere new. It is messy. It isn’t neat, but it is an experience that can change you and transform your thinking if you allow it to. What are some ways we can look at style to take it from just a group of preferences by an author to a distinct method that reflects the central idea? One thing we can look at is the diction. Why does the author make the choices with language that they do? Why do they use certain words and not others? The book shows some nice examples of this that you should read carefully. Other aspects of style that the book doesn’t necessarily cover are humor. To what degree does the author mean to be serious as opposed to comic? What exactly is humor? It is another one of those things that we know when we see it. We know when we have a reaction to it. However, humor often comes through to us through tone. Tone is another aspect of style that the book looks at and an element all of its own. It can be difficult to gather tone from words. We are used to hearing it in the sound of someone’s voice. We are stuck with putting it together with context alone when reading texts. This is a problem that we all are familiar with in the time in which we live because of text messages and emails. Sometimes we may drastically misinterpret someone’s tone and end up reacting to something that isn’t there. This can also be made difficult by the fact that people can pretend they weren’t using a particular tone and after they have pushed you into a certain reaction, they can gaslight you by suggesting you misread them. You can be glad that in the case of an author, they likely aren’t trying to trick you. Sometimes, however, authors do play a kind of a trick. They push you to make a conclusion that a lot of people make and then yank away the curtain in order to expose your biases. Sometimes, this trick is played on the characters. As the book points out, the characters in the story “The Story of an Hour” misinterpret the actions and statements of the character Mrs. Mallard because they hold patriarchal views and therefore don’t understand Mrs. Mallard. People have biases and a good way to expose them sometimes is through a switch in tone. This leads us to the final element in the chapter and the most difficult, Irony. Students have a really difficult time with irony, but they have that unconscious recognition of it that makes them comfortable speaking on it. However, many times they end up misreading the irony or finding it where it doesn’t exist. This is why I highly suggest that you take a close look at the categories of irony that the book lays out and to attempt to place any instance of irony that you analyze into the appropriate category. It will always fit into one. That doesn’t mean that it won’t be complex. Like I said, this process isn’t always clean and cut and dry. It may be situational irony from the character’s point of view but dramatic irony from the reader’s point of view or vice versa. Irony usually revolves around something being the opposite of someone’s expectations. Read the categories carefully and apply them to your understanding of irony. I use situational and verbal irony in my example below:
In her story “Lust,” Susan Minot weaves irony into irony, creating complex ironies that become dizzying to navigate. Towards the end, the first-person narrator, a young girl, is getting more and more exact about the nature of her sexual experiences. She starts out somewhat light in her descriptions and slowly becomes more and more heavy, which mimics her sexual history and the general feeling that she gets from sex. When describing one of the more heavy moments, she says “you don’t try to explain it, filled with the knowledge that it’s nothing after all, everything filling up and finally and absolutely with death” (287). The most obvious irony here is the situational irony for the character. She is having these sexual relationships in order to feel close to these boys. However, she ends up feeling alienated from them to the point that she feels alienated from herself and reality, so the action of sex becomes self-defeating. However, a deeper irony is the verbal irony by the author. Her narrator uses the word “death” to explain her emotional alienation. Since sex is literally for creating life, that it creates a kind of death for the character and that the author chooses this diction creates a subtle verbal irony.
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