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					Humor and Irony in Eudora Welty’s The Ponder Heart
By Jill Melancon

Overview

This lesson plan serves as an introductory lesson to The Ponder Heart by Eudora Welty. Students will
attempt to formulate a definition of humor, and discover how language is important to humor by writing
their own first-person account of something that has happened within their own family. This lesson is
suitable for students in grades 9-12 of average skill level.

Objectives

Student will:

    •    Demonstrate an understanding of humor in writing, specifically the use of irony (verbal,
         situational, and dramatic).
    •    Evaluate an event from his or her life that lends itself to a humorous retelling, and demonstrate an
         ability to express that humor in a written essay.
    •    Share their individual stories within groups, and then with the class as a whole.

Skills Attained

    •    Recognition of various types of irony used in writing, and the ability to apply irony to their own
         writing.
    •    Organization of thoughts regarding a specific event and expressing them in a humorous way
         through writing.
    •    Presentation skills by sharing stories with the class.

The Lesson

I. Anticipatory Set

The first part of this lesson involves a class discussion of the idea of humor. It may be helpful to begin
with the dictionary definition. Webster’s defines humor as “something that is or is designed to be comical
or amusing.” This definition is not very specific—but it does lend itself to a discussion of what your
students find humorous. What words are funny? What types of situations are funny? What
movies/television shows do they find funny? What makes them funny? A list can be made on the
chalkboard or overhead, then narrowed down by the class into the ideas they find best describe what humor
is.

II. The Lesson

A. Irony as an instrument of humor

1. The instructor can first provide definitions of verbal, situational, and dramatic irony (from Approaching
Poetry by Peter Schakel and Jack Ridl):

    a.   Verbal Irony: what is said is opposite of what is meant (“Lovely day out” when the weather is
         the opposite).
    b.   Situational Irony: an outcome that turns out to be very different from what was expected.
    c.   Dramatic Irony: the audience realizes implications of words or acts that the characters do not
         perceive. (72-73)

2. Next, the instructor along with the class can find examples of each type of irony in Eudora Welty’s The
Ponder Heart. For example, the book opens with a great example of verbal irony when Edna Earle says:
 “My Uncle Daniel’s just like your uncle, if you’ve got one—only he has one weakness. He loves society
and he gets carried away” (7).

She first tells us he has one weakness, then goes on to describe two. The rest of the novel is full of Uncle
Daniel’s many weaknesses, making this statement an even more ironic one as the story progresses.

A great example of situational irony occurs on pages 18-20. Grandpa is returning Uncle Daniel to the
asylum, but upon arrival, the employees assume that Uncle Daniel is bringing Grandpa to the asylum (since
Daniel is the better dressed of the two) and take him away instead. Cornell mentions one of the sadder
examples of situational irony in the story—that it is Uncle Daniel’s intense love of people that leads to his
ultimate loneliness and separation from them (217).

Finally, an example of dramatic irony is when Edna Earle complains of her Uncle’s inability to let
someone get a word in edgewise in a conversation—“The sight of a stranger was always meat and drink to
him. The stranger don’t have to open his mouth. Uncle Daniel is ready to do all the talking” (17)—when in
fact, it is Edna Earle who has a problem letting someone get a word in. She continues talking for an entire
novel to this poor stranger who has wandered into her hotel. She definitely does not see the irony in her
comments about Uncle Daniel, but the reader catches on right away.

3. After a discussion of examples from the novel, ask students for examples from other books, magazines,
movies, and television shows that they have seen in the past. You may also want to ask the students to
bring examples to class the next day to share with the class.

4. Once humor and irony have been discussed, the students will be asked to write in first person about an
event in their family that they believe falls under the class definition of “humor.” They will also be
required to use at least one of the three types of irony in their story. Encourage them to be as creative as
possible—stretching the truth if necessary to help their story to be even more outrageous. Once the writing
has been completed, break the class into groups and have them share their stories, choosing one in
particular that they find to be most funny from their group. These stories can be then shared with the class
and discussed using the guidelines for humor and irony—do the funniest stories fit their profile?

5. All of the individual stories could then be collected into a class book of “humorous tales” or on a class
website to be shared with their families and friends. It may also be interesting to have the students share
these stories with people outside the classroom to see what stories others find to be the funniest, and
compare their findings with those of the rest of the class.

This lesson should take about three to four days—the first day for discussion of terms and the beginning of
the writing process, the second day for sharing of “ironic” items and continuation of writing, and the third
and fourth days for sharing of stories.

Assessment

Essays can be graded with individual rubrics that include the points discussed in class describing
humor/irony, but the main idea here is for the students to have fun creating their stories! This lesson can
also serve as a starting point for the discussion of humor/irony in the film version—students can find
humorous lines and scenes in the film to share in class discussion.

List of Additional Resources

Cornell, Brenda G. “Ambiguous Necessity: A Study of The Ponder Heart.” Eudora
          Welty: Critical Essays. Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, ed. Jackson: UP of
         Mississippi, 1979.

Nissen, Axel. “Seeing Through Edna Earle: The Ponder Heart as Dramatic Monologue.”
         Southern Literary Journal. Vol 30, no 1, 73-87.
Schakel, Peter, and Jack Ridl. Approaching Poetry: Perspectives and Responses. New
         York: St. Martin’s, 1997.

Seaman, Gerda, and Ellen L. Walker. “’It’s All in a Way of Speaking’: A Discussion of
        The Ponder Heart.” Southern Literary Journal. Vol 23, no 2, 65-76.

Welty, Eudora. The Ponder Heart. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1953.

Online Resources

For definitions of the types of irony:

http://www.wwnorton.com/introlit - has a nice glossary of terms

For 'dramatic irony' specifically:

http://www.vcu.edu/artweb/playwriting/irony.html

For literary humor:

http://www.blueroses.com (an online literary humor magazine called The Blue Rose Bouquet--it features a
lot of great stories and poems that an instructor could use as examples of humor)

Jill Melancon teaches at Georgia State University, Atlanta, Georgia.