Could anyone help me by explaining what “Structural Irony” means in a literary sense. I’m writing a term paper where this is one of the main concepts, and  I have not been able to find a...

Could anyone help me by explaining what “Structural Irony” means in a literary sense. I’m writing a term paper where this is one of the main concepts, and  I have not been able to find a full explanation of it. Best, Karin.

Expert Answers
katwood001 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The answer above is well said, so I am adding onto the information:

The easiest way to recognize structural irony is to look at the narrator.  Does the narrator know what he or she is talking about?  Is he or she credible in what is going on in the story?  Is he or she too naive or uneducated to understand what is happening around him or her?  

Let us start with the easy one first: Naive characters

Adult books that have children/tweens/teens as the narrator tend to employ structural irony. Because the narrator is seeing the situation from inexperienced eyes, he or she does not fully understand what is happening. As a reader, with more experience, we recognize certain events that are happening and recognize the lack of knowledge for what it is. To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn are good examples of structural irony. Many coming of age novels use structural irony, and the character grasps the situation as the book progresses.  

Structural irony is something that is difficult to recognize when you are young. Since, like the narrator, your experiences may not have given you the knowledge base to recognize naiveté, like the narrator, you may misjudge the situations in the book. Ironically, 90% of the banned book list contains Structural Irony.

Unreliable narrators:  

Books, which employ unreliable narrators, are more controversial; however, many of them have become classics. Unreliable narrators may be just lying to the audience, but they can also be lying to themselves. Examples of Structural Irony in literature are a very controversial list: Probably the best example is Lolita. Humbert is so convincing that he is the honest person in the story that Nabokov had to write an afterword to clear things up. Second on the list: Clockwork Orange. Alex is completely delusional, thus nothing he tells the reader can be trusted. The Great Gatsby is another excellent example of Structural Irony. Nick is completely in the dark about his mysterious neighbor. As he makes assumptions, correct and incorrect (mostly incorrect) so does the reader. To add to the problems with Nick's credibility, as a reader you are fighting through his moral dilemmas constantly in the book in order to figure out what is going on. The last on the list: Wuthering Heights.  In this book you have two narrators and neither one is credible. Nelly tends to exaggerate the situation, manipulate, and pretend innocence in her narrations; and Lockwood bases all of his narration off what he learns from Nelly. Because of this, Lockwood's narration is often a misinterpretation of the situation.   

literaturenerd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The technical definition of "structural irony"  (according to Hamilton's Essential Literary Terms) is "an implication of alternate or reversed meaning that pervades a work. A major technique for sustaining structural irony is the use of a naïve protagonist or unreliable narrator who continually interprets events and intentions in ways that the author signals are mistaken” (45).

One can understand why this term is confusing. Sometimes it is best to illustrate an idea in order to define it.

First, to summarize what Hamilton's definition states, structural irony is the use of a word or idea which possesses a double meaning. This double meaning is played upon in much of the text. It illustrates the naivety of the narrator in regards to his or her warped ideas about the world around him or her. The reader, on the other hand, understands the narrator to be unreliable.

An example of this is found in John Steinbeck's The Catcher in the Rye. Holden has a very twisted view of the world and "phonies." While Holden recognizes everyone as a phony, readers know that he is actually one.

Further Reading: