Superficial. Fascinating word! For starters, its undulating sound intimating its Latin roots invariably creates a sharp contrast to the dominant monosyllabic thrust of most Anglo-Saxon words. (Yes, I love the interplay between the Germanic and Romance languages infusing the English language.) Much more intriguing is the two-pronged root meaning, since ‘superficial’ refers to ‘surface’ as well as ‘obvious’, which by extension means ‘not deep’. In contrast to the superficial meaning ‘surface’, the use of the pejorative second meaning is considerably more widespread. So, what is the impact when both meanings converge? Simply, that what we see is what we get? Or that appearances can be deceptive and consequently, we cannot judge a book by its cover? Or that we are missing the wood for the trees?
What about when the use of irony is deliberately interwoven into spotlighting superficiality as a social statement? Novels by Jane Austen flash immediately before me. Irony is a potent tool in any writer’s stylistic arsenal. To begin with, there are four types to exploit separately or in tandem, namely: verbal, narrative, situational and structural.
Verbal irony is saying something while meaning the opposite. It is invariably witty and often borders on sarcasm. ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” which opens Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is irresistible no matter its zillion citations. The barbs it darts are pitch-perfect as it sets both the satirical tone and the theme of the marriage market upon which the famous story of what it takes for the five Bennet sisters to marry during the Napoleonic wars in order to avoid poverty and humiliation. Witty sparring peppers most pages of this famous novel, whose spark and sparkle continue to delight two centuries after its first publication.
Narrative irony involves a twist in the tale. Once again, Pride and Prejudice illustrates a superb twist in the structure of the plot that occurs in the totally unexpected proposal of Darcy (superficially, the embodiment of pride) to Elizabeth (superficially, the embodiment of prejudice), immediately followed by her refusal and his lengthy letter of justification the next morning. That the letter explaining his actions, is quoted in full is placed right at the centre of the novel provides more than the turning point. For as we read along with Elizabeth, we realise that both of them are hounded by a mesh of pride and prejudice so that their relationship does not project a simple or neat clash. Furthermore, the impact on the reader is so strong that it demands a rereading of Darcy’s character in the earlier chapters and which inevitably colours whatever he does or does not do in the second half of the novel.
Incidentally, Austen had originally hit upon ‘First Impressions’ as the title of her novel but eventually chose the much more significant and subtle one so as to have the entire novel brim over with situational irony.
This occurs when incongruity appears between expectations of something to happen and what actually happens. Darcy’s proposal and his subsequent actions amply manifest this type of irony. Nor is he the only one to do so.
Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows something important the characters do not. Because of this understanding, the words of the characters take on a different meaning. This device stamps countless plays with Shakespeare making an art out of it, in the same way, he makes everything his own. Though its use is sparse, Pride and Prejudice also incorporates dramatic irony, particularly in the early getting-to-know character episodes.
The use of irony, however, also posits an acid test since there is no guarantee that an author’s intentions will be automatically understood. Authors and other creators know this but do not shy from taking risks. For humour can date or can be misunderstood and therefore falls flat. Perhaps one of the most dangerous waters they may find themselves in is the slur of pandering to their audience. The ones who nullify such an accusation are the ones who seem to give the audience what they want but who still have the last word because they have no intention of compromising their message. Rather than referring to Jane Austen or any other author, I’d like to comment on an uncanny ironic parody by sharing my comments on Francesco Gabbani’s song ‘Occindentalis Karma’ – one of the most infectious, upbeat Italian songs released over the past few years.
Oozing fizz from every pore, every note, it’s easy to gloss over the truly clever, sardonic jibes. No surprise that it enabled him to lift the trophy at the much-hyped Sanremo Festival in 2017 just a year after he won the newcomer’s section at the same festival and proceeded as Italy’s entry in the Eurovision Song Contest – the ultimate of superficial music on TV which quite frankly I cannot get myself to watch.