December 10, 2012
The Use of Irony to Prove a Point
A common thread throughout all of the essays we have read so far this semester is that the author’s all come from marginalized and stereotyped groups. Sherman Alexie, author of “Superman and Me,” is a Native American, Frederick Douglass, author of “How I learned to read and write,” was a slave turned Freeman, and Andrew Sullivan, author of “Why the M-Word Matters to Me,” is a homosexual. These three writers used irony, defined as the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning, extensively to prove a point and debase stereotypes about their groups.
First, Sherman Alexie showed that just because the cards were stacked against his people, it didn’t make them any less capable of intelligence. In his essay, “Superman and Me,” Alexie brings up the fact that despite being a “little Indian boy [teaching] himself to read at an early age and [advancing] quickly,” (29) he is not thought of as a prodigy. Rather “he is an Indian boy living on the reservation and is simply an oddity” (29). Instead of being proud he describes how he grows into a man who must speak in the third person about his childhood in order to sound more “modest” (29). In regards to his Native American peers in general, they were “expected to be stupid,” and would often fulfill these expectations in school despite “[subverting] them on the outside” (29). These children were assumed to be stupid and unable to learn despite knowing “a few dozen powwow songs” (29) and being able to “tell complicated stories and jokes at the dinner table” (30). Of course, the great irony in all of this is Alexie’s arrogance. He even admits to his arrogance while stating clearly that he “is smart” (30). It is ironic that despite having grown up in an environment that encourage failure, he refused and became a role model for the younger Native Americans who would look at him “with bright eyes and arrogant wonder” (30). He uses arrogance as way to bring attention to the fact that these children have the world stacked against them. However, he shows by example that they are not bound by inherent stupidity.
Next, Frederick Douglass showed us with his essay, “How I Learned to Read and Write,” that despite being born a slave, he and his people were just as human, and sometimes more so, as any white person. He begins by showing us the devolution of his mistress from “a kind and tender-hearted woman” to a woman with a heart of “stone” (87). It is ironic here that he describes himself as “mere chattel” (87), while it is she herself that is acting like an animal with “tiger-like fierceness” (87). Douglass continues by describing what he describes as a “curse rather than a blessing” (89). Ironically, he feels this way because he learned to read. Becoming educated brought about the “very discontent which [his master] had predicted would follow [his] learning to read” (89). Despite being considered sub-human by whites, because of his ability to now read and think critically he now “wished [himself] a beast” (89). His knowledge tormented him with an awareness of his situation. Even though he was obviously quite smart, since he was a slave he was still considered an animal. He shows how equal he is to his white contemporaries by tricking them into teaching him to write. Ironically, he outsmarts them. He does this by playing stupid and acting as though he doesn’t “understand them” (91). Douglass played on the white’s sense of superiority by claiming “[he] could write as well as [the white boys]” (91). This would cause them to prove their superiority and at the same time give him a free writing lesson. It was in this way that he shows the irony of an “animal” being as smart and human, sometimes more so, as the slaveholders.
Finally, Andrew Sullivan’s article “Why the M-Word Matters to Me” is used to show the irony in the arguments against gay marriage. He starts in his first paragraph describing how in his family the most important thing in the world is “family and the love you had for one another” (paragraph 1, lines 7-8). He continues towards the end of his article stating that the gay marriage debate “isn’t about gay marriage. It’s about marriage. It’s about family. It’s about love” (paragraph 5, lines 2-3). He is a gay man stating that his desire for marriage is because of family values, a slap in the face to those who are against gay marriage on the grounds that it goes against family values. Sullivan goes on to say that these “family values are not options for a happy and stable life. They are necessities” (paragraph 5, lines 6-7).
In conclusion, all three of these writers masterfully use irony to prove a point about their respective stereotypes. They take their stereotypes and tear them apart by showing the absurdity of the other side’s claims. Alexie shows arrogance where he is expected to play dumb. Frederick Douglass showed us that despite being “property,” he is very much a human being. Finally Sullivan illustrated to us the importance of family values even within a group that is not thought to value any themselves.
McQuade, Robert A., ed. The Writer’s Presence: A Pool of Readings.
Boston: Bedford, 2012. Print.
Alexie, Sherman. “The Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me.” McQuade 27-30.
Douglass, Frederick. “Learning to Read and Write.” McQuade 86-91.
Sullivan, Andrew. “Why The M Word Matters To Me.” Time. Time Inc,
8 Feb. 2004. Web. 10 Oct. 2012
"IronyAbout Our Definitions: All Forms of a Word (noun, Verb, Etc.) Are Now Displayed on One Page." Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2012.